Byline by M J Akbar: Queue and Collect
A Common Man’s Budget has some remarkable characteristics. To begin with, it is not very common. The Common Man should consider himself extremely lucky if he gets a budget allotted to him once in the natural life of an elected government. He should thank his fortune, rather than crib, even if this budget turns up only in an election year, the only time that the Common Man gets any attention from a government.
A Common Man’s Budget is the only budget over which there is no secrecy. Everyone knows everything about it much in advance. The budget will be presented in Parliament at the end of February, but news agencies are already filing stories about lower taxes and correspondents are dropping heavy hints about concessions to farmers. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has told a public meeting at Rae Bareli that this year the nation will get a Common Man’s Budget, but she is hardly the only politician who is knowledgeable. The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, the slightly garrulous Rajasekhar Reddy, has speculated that he would like every farmer to get a handsome loan: perhaps he got it the other way around. Leaders across the UPA spectrum have begun to demand that farmers should get waivers on their loans, and the Congress has trundled truckloads of farmers from neighbouring states to call on Mrs Sonia Gandhi in Delhi.
With so much political preparation, finance minister P. Chidambaram would be very foolish not to announce such a gift when he stands up to present an account of his accounts in Parliament on the last day of February. One of the reasons that brought this government to power was rural anger over farmers’ suicides. For four budgets, the finance minister has done a whole deal of nothing about farmers. Now that elections are back on the horizon, naturally he must remember they exist. Par for the political course. It only needs to be pointed out that when you claim that a particular budget is going to be for the much-valued Common Man, it is implicit admission that previous budgets were not quite for him.
The World Bankers who infest the government believe that the best economic policies are those that lead to indirect benefits for the Common Man; they are Trickledowners who are convinced that economic policy must be oriented to the objective of overall growth, from whence benefits will eventually trickle down to the famous Common Man. Alas, this Common Man expects a far faster rate of delivery than Trickledowners can offer. In a dictatorship this would not have been much of a problem, but a democracy has this inconvenient problem called elections. Voting takes place on the Day of the Common Man. Some governments have convinced themselves that the voter can be persuaded by last-minute lollipops.
For a journalist, the best thing about a Common Man’s Budget is that you can review it before it has been revealed, largely because there will be no great revelations. This is probably going to be a "Queue and Collect" budget.
The government will but naturally seek to cover all bases as it steps into election mode. The timetable has been disclosed from what might be described as supplementary sources. The American senators, including John Kerry, Jo Biden and Chuck Hagel, who dropped in on Dr Manmohan Singh on their way back home from Pakistan, offered a major clue. They extended the deadline for the completion of the Indo-US nuclear deal to July. The threat of death has been variable. Last year, American and Indian government voices suggested that if the whole process were not complete before January, all would be over. January came and the deadline was stretched to March. The Senators would apparently be too busy electing a new President of the United States to find time for a bilateral deal. Three Democrat Senators, Kerry, Biden and Hagel, have now extended the time limit to July. The elasticity is one measure of bipartisan American keenness.
If you think about it, there is no reason why the deal cannot go through even with a new President in office, because all three potential Presidents, John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are members of the present Senate. In other words, they are all committed to the deal and have signed on it with their vote. All are agreed in principle. A new President in Washington might want to alter a detail, but so might a new Prime Minister in Delhi.
However, it is perfectly understandable that Dr Manmohan Singh would want to do the deal on his watch, for personal as well as political reasons. He has pushed the agreement with a passion uncharacteristic of his personality. The Congress wants to sell this deal to the voter as the panacea that will bring electricity to every village, and would have already done so if those awful, China-loving Communists had not sabotaged it.
The Senate needs three months to pass legislation, so, working backwards, Dr Singh might need to sign the deal sometime in April. The Left objects, and Dr Singh can offer a thin smile, which he is good at, and happily recommend a general election in October. This would merge with Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, states in which the BJP is in power. The Congress can, therefore, expect to gain from an anti-incumbency depression, hoping that the carryover effect of regional anger will translate into more seats for the party at the national level.
There is an additional, and more crucial, reason for an early election. Food prices have risen sharply across the world, and India cannot be isolated from this pattern. The markets and bazaars are already telling us this much. The inflation rate, like a good statistic, hides far more than it reveals. The price of basic food items has risen far more than the average of all prices might suggest. If this year’s crop is less than bountiful, the pressure on prices will be unmanageable. Nothing hurts a voter more than a kick in the stomach. An aching stomach takes its revenge through the ballot box. The longer the government waits for an election, the worse it will probably be for the principal ruling party, the Congress.
The Common Man is getting a budget; does the Common Man have a face? Actually, yes. That brilliant Times of India cartoonist, R.K. Laxman, has given us the emblematic face of the Common Man. I chanced upon a Laxman original of Mahatma Gandhi in a friend’s office, and it struck me that Laxman’s Common Man, who has appeared for decades on the front page of the Times, is a variation of Gandhi. Gandhi redefined India and Indian nationalism, took it away from the grasp of elites and handed it over to the Common Man for safekeeping. Six decades after his death, the Common Man is getting one budget out of five. I suppose the Common Man should be grateful for small mercies.