Budget as a Means of Purchasing Votes? - P J James

10 February 2019

Since its ascendancy to power in 2014 with just 31 percent of the polled votes in the context of disunity among the opposition parties, the corporate-saffron Modi regime has been systematically manipulating or undermining the parliamentary institutions, constitutional offices and all administrative bodies in conformity with its sinister Hindutva design. Of course, a party or conglomeration of parties that gobbles up less than one-third of polled votes capturing power itself is a manifestation of the fundamental weakness of the parliamentary-electoral system that India still pursues. And what Modi did during the last five years was making the parliament as a mere spectator and surpassing or distancing himself from it with regard to strategic policy decisions.  In the meanwhile, the saffron fascists in consonance with their ultra-rightist orientation of entrusting economic power with corporate-market forces had already abolished the Planning Commission and made the entire budgetary process a mockery as most of the key economic questions and policy decisions are resolved outside the budget.

And coming to its last ‘budget’ presented on February 1, 2019, the Modi regime has once again displayed its total disregard of the so called parliamentary traditions and scruples. For, it has been an established practice since 1961 that every budget shall be preceded by an Economic Survey to be presented to parliament. This Economic Survey prepared on the basis of official statistics collected by the government’s own agencies particularly constituted for collection and analysis of data is indispensable for parliament and people to know about the real “state of the economy” and, above all, the budget shall be quoting such reliable ‘figures’ for properly estimating  its revenue and expenditures. However, for the first time in Indian budget history, the Modi regime has violated this precedent of presenting the Economic Survey as a prelude to the budget. The reason is obvious. Such statistical information coming through the Economic Survey would have exposed the last five years’ of frightening economic disruption that has created by the Modi regime. In fact the BJP government has been trying its level best to deliver a series of doctored data by manipulating National Sample Survey and Central Statistical organisations and unable to withstand the pressures, several leading members of these agencies were compelled to resign from their posts. Obviously, this was the context that prompted the Modi regime to abandon the practice of presenting Economic Survey on the eve of the budget.

Another aspect is with regard to the content of the budget document itself.  According to established parliamentary conventions, when the term of the incumbent government is coming to a close and the country is going for a general election, it is the usual practice on the part of the outgoing government to refrain from making any policy announcements. In that case, instead of a full-fledged one, the budget document shall be nothing more than an “annual financial statement” or “vote on account” or utmost an “interim budget”. It will be the immediate task of the newly elected government to convene the budget session of the parliament and present the full-fledged budget with policy announcements at the earliest. But true to its fascistic orientation of disrespecting and discrediting even bourgeois parliamentary institutions and norms, the Modi regime in the guise of an interim budget has overstepped its mandate (which is for presenting five full budgets only)) and manipulated the occasion for presenting the sixth full budget with a series of policy announcements including the outlining of a “vision statement” for the next ten years. In the process, Piyush Goyal who now acts as finance minister, in his rhetoric spanning 100 minutes utilized the opportunity to convert the budget presentation into an election speech based on manipulated data and  bogus claims with a whole set of freebies, giveaways, tax concessions, money transfer schemes and other populist programs, each being addressed to specific vote-banks.

Before coming to an exposition of the bundle of promises in Goyal’s speech, the financial sources of which have not at all earmarked and hence its liability shall be on the coming government, it would be in order to have a glance at the poll promises upon which Modi sought votes in 2014.  The most infamous of all was his commitment of bringing back Indian black money from foreign tax havens and putting Rs. 15 lakh in to the account of each Indian citizen. To this day not even a rupee has been deposited in this manner. On the other hand, black money and corruption have assumed a multi-dimensional growth under Modi. While Modi regime has suppressed domestic data on corruption and black money, international agencies have come up with their studies as to how India under Modi has become a “flourishing example of crony capitalism” and how it became the most corrupt country in Asia. Again according foreign studies, Modi regime has granted all opportunities to the leading Indian corporate giants to loot the public sector banks in the guise NPAs such that the first ten corporate looters led by Ambani, Adani, Essar and so on are responsible for more than 90 percent of the Rs. 15 lakh crore worth of NPAs created in India. Demonetisation itself was a cunning move that facilitated the most corrupt corporate-saffron black money holders to whiten their black money. According to latest available RBI report, while it had printed only Rs. 14.11 lakh crore demonetised notes, it really got back Rs. 15.28 lakh crore worth of them! On the other hand, Modi government’s affidavit submitted to Supreme Court had claimed that around Rs. 3-4 lakh crores of demonetised notes being black money would not be returned to RBI. Hence if the claims both RBI and Modi regime are taken in their face value, then around Rs. 5 lakh crore worth black money might have been whitened through demonetisation.

Another poll promise of Modi was regarding the creation of 2 crore jobs per annum. But under Modi what occurred has been a total disruption of the productive and employment-oriented sectors of the economy. Not only no new jobs were created, but according to the 2018 statistics, the country is actually losing more than 1 crore jobs per annum. Even the logo of the much trumpeted “Make in India” was designed abroad and the unhindered entry of foreign capital in to the economy and concomitant growth of crony capitalism has led to an unparalleled joblessness. Demonetisation that denied cash transactions that form the life-blood for the informal sectors where 93 percent of the workforce depends for sustenance was a mortal blow for the unemployed millions.  Further GST that put the tax burden on the unorganised sectors also resulted in massive job loss. Modi has not taken any step to fill the 24 lakh vacant posts in the central government sector so far. Decreasing the price of petrol to Rs. 40 per litre, reversing the depreciation of rupee, ban on FDI in retail, etc. were similar election promises of Modi; but what happened was the opposite. It was under his five year-rule that the number of peasant suicides crossed all previous records. Thus goes the list, and by this time Modi has proved an expert in the art of making election stunts.

The upshot of the argument is that it will be difficult for Modi regime to fool the people again. All the populist announcements in the budget speech by Piyush Goyal solely aiming at appeasing vote banks are the last resort of a desperate Modi who is sure that there is little chance of his return to power. The only gamble for him is to hoodwink the people once again. Therefore, the budget, breaking all previous records in terms of populism, has attempted a “cash-for-votes” program to please a range of vote-banks, most important being farmers, unorganised workers and middle classes.

The most populist among them is a farmer distress relief program known as Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi covering 12 crore small and marginal farmers who own up to 5 acres of land. It is an insult to the peasants of this country that the Modi regime which was consistently ignoring them for the last five years has suddenly woken up and started shedding crocodile tears for their plight.  As laid down in the budget, the farmer who comes under this scheme shall get an annual money transfer of Rs. 6000 (Rs. 500 per month). If implemented, for a peasant family of five, this would mean just Rs. 3.30 per day. Ironically, as a result of Modi’s ultra-rightist and pro-corporate policies, the wealth of just 9 billionaires with Ambani in the forefront is swelling at the rate of Rs. 2200 crore a day, and the total wealth of 119 Indian billionaires has crossed Rs. 28 lakh crore in 2018!  While large sections of the peasantry are landless, those with meagre possessions are deprived of credit, and the prices of all agricultural inputs and outputs are determined by corporate speculators. Fund allocations for agriculture and rural development remain in paper only. With reduction in fund allocation to MGNREGA, the peasants displaced through agricultural corporatisation are migrating to urban slums in search of sustenance, and for them Rs. 3.30 per day is nothing but an eye-wash. Even non-BJP state governments like Telengana and Odisha have announced more attractive cash-transfer programs for farmers.

The pension scheme, namely, Pradhan Mantri Sharam-Yogi Maandha addressed to informal or unorganised workers envisaging social security for 10 crore among them is the second in the series of dole-outs.   According to this scheme, an unorganised worker who carry on remitting Rs. 100 per month as premium shall get Rs. 3000 as pension if she/he is lucky enough to live beyond the age of 60. Today more than 93 percent (around 45 crores) of the Indian workforce is depending on the informal/unorganised sector which is totally outside the social security net including pension. During its five-year term, the Modi government has done nothing to deal with the pitiable situation of this largest section of Indian society. On the other hand, demonetisation and GST designed at the behest of corporate centres have devastated the unorganised altogether. How can a casual worker in India regularly remit Rs. 100 per month for 30 years or more until he/she reaches is itself a serious question. No analysis is needed on the part of well-meaning people to easily comprehend the cunningness behind this announcement targeted at informal workers.

The income tax rebate proposing a gain of Rs. 12500 for those whose annual income is up to Rs. 5 lakhs is definitely intended to gather urban middle class votes. However, so long as the tax slabs remain unchanged, this rebate is going to be enthusing only a minor section who has extra income to invest in tax-saving schemes of the government. Therefore, the extent to which this measure can pacify those middle class voters who have been hit hard by such assaults as demonetisation, fuel price rise and GST is uncertain.

In the same vein, several giveaways are showered on marginal and weaker sections without any financial backing. Allocations for SCs & STs, MGNREGA, national Education Mission, Integrated Child Development Scheme, Mission or Protection and Empowerment for Women, Ayushman Bharat, etc., the liability of implementation of which will be on the shoulders of the coming government  are done in a high-sounding way, though the real value of such expenditures are coming down. But in a context in which the Modi regime has become infamous for hiding or withholding economic data, it will be difficult for the people to believe what the regime has proposed. And if we take the Consumer Confidence Survey released by RBI in September 2018 in to consideration, the electorate is totally dissatisfied with the Modi regime.

Coming to the resource mobilisation front on the other, no new efforts are there to tax the superrich and the billionaires who control the entire reins of the economy. While the number of billionaires and wealth accumulation by them are galloping, there is no move in the direction of reinstating the wealth tax which the BJP government had abolished in 2015, and no initiative is there to bring the spectacular speculative gains gobbled up by the top one percent of financial elite who controls 73 percent of the additional wealth created in India under the Modi regime. Consequently, direct tax collection as a proportion of total collection is steeply going down. Under the new GST regime, (GST-evasion by leading corporate businesses who control the market for goods and services is also resulting in loss in revenue collection through this route also) there has been a further shift of the tax burden to the shoulders of broad masses of toiling people. While the direct-indirect tax (burden of the latter is borne by common people) ratio in India is 35:65, the reverse is the case with other countries in general. According to conventional bourgeois economic theory, increasing wealth concentration is a favourable condition for taxing the rich more intensively and improving the tax-GDP ratio which for India, despite very unequal, is one of the lowest in the world. With the existing nominal corporation tax rate of 25 percent (the effective rate while taking the exemptions in to account will come to around 15-16 % only), the tax burden on the upper richest section is one of the lowest in the world, even much below that of the leading capitalist countries. Modi-bhakts and saffron intellectuals who become ecstatic about the dole-outs to the poor are conveniently silent over this grave inequity in the budget. 

Thus, in view of the impending Lok Sabha elections, the Modi government which during the past five years has been ignoring or side-lining the vast majority of the poor voters and shamelessly serving the most corrupt corporate class, is suddenly bending back to appease the voters through several allurements throwing to winds the so called solemn principles of bourgeois budget. Needless to say that this attempt at winning election with a populist budget is an insult to the political consciousness of the people. Vast majority of the people are suffering from lack of food, shelter, livelihood, essential services such as drinking water, education, health facilities, and other basic amenities indispensable for a decent life. Modi’s last budget has treated all of them as if they are last-minute deliverables, while over the years he has been destroying the foundations of the economy by facilitating the corporate plunderers, both Indian and foreign, to loot the workers and country’s resources under the camouflage of “make in India”, “start-up India”, “skill India”, etc. While his doctored statistics claim about the biggest GDP growth rates for India, it is a fact of life that people are not experiencing it. As a manifestation, unemployment rate is the highest in 45 years, that is, since the 1970s and agriculture growth has become negative.  Around 60 percent of the GDP growth that Modi claims comes from the money-spinning service or tertiary sector, even as agriculture (where almost 50 percent of the Indians still cling on for sustenance) and industry are displaying deterioration. And the money-spinning, speculative service sector, on the other hand, provides employment only to less than 10 percent of the population. Nothing substantial is done towards creation of gainful employment to the unemployed whose number is now reaching 20 crores-much larger than the total population of many European countries taken together. Modi has cleverly excluded the issue of unemployment and corruption from his election stunt this time.

No amount of populism can resolve the basic malady confronting the economy which require a fundamental restructuring of the whole socio-economic structure. Modi regime or a different government led by another ruling class combine cannot resolve this question. The only alternative is a sustainable development paradigm led by the politically organised people capable of demolishing neoliberal-corporatisation altogether.  

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Kabeer Katlat

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.