In less than two weeks from now, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will present her and this government’s first Union budget. Keeping with the practice it initiated in its preceding tenure, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has been crowdsourcing inputs—this is over and above the routine meetings it conducts with groups of economists and industry lobby groups.
This time Sitharaman made an additional plea on the social media platform Twitter, drawing a burst of suggestions from a section of the Twitterati . This supplemented the crowdsourcing campaign that was already underway on the Union government portal. The window for individual submissions closed on 20 June. Beginning in 2016, the previous NDA government had begun to crowdsource ideas for the budget (To be sure even the Aam Aadmi Party, which governs Delhi, had adopted a similar strategy by crowdsourcing its poll manifesto). It is worth recalling that some of the suggestions posted on the Union government portal actually found their way into the Union budget, including the idea of a price stabilization fund for pulses, which in the past has been subject to volatility, making sections of the populace a stakeholder in what has otherwise been a largely reclusive and dense annual exercise.
This new tweak to budget-making comes at a time when the Union budget itself has undergone a massive makeover. The first decision to rework tradition was undertaken by the NDA government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when it decided to advance the presentation of the budget to 11am instead of 5pm in the evening. The second big change was when the NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi advanced the budget date from the traditional 28 February to 1 February. The idea behind this change was to enable more time for government spending programmes, which otherwise would have to await the annual parliamentary nod in May, once the budget presentation, debate and voting on the spending is concluded. With the monsoon kicking in by June, a lot of public works spending would get deferred and the effective time period in the fiscal year would shrink correspondingly.
The adoption of the goods and services tax (GST), which incorporated the idea of one nation, one tax, structurally transformed the budget. More than a third of the Finance Bill, which contains the amendment to tax rates and processes, was now brought under the purview of the GST Council, the apex decision-making body chaired by the finance minister.
This has consequently put the focus on the spending side of the Union budget, coinciding with an unprecedented expansion in the ranks of the middle class—who are normally the most vociferous—that has triggered a churn in Indian society. A perusal of the suggestions posted on mygov.in portal shows several citizens seeking a greater outlay for education, rainwater harvesting, and the universalization of healthcare, all of which affect their material health.
It is interesting that these priorities converge with the electoral messaging of the NDA in the just concluded general elections. Throughout the campaign it showcased the government’s offerings of cooking gas, electricity, housing and toilets, which it claimed impacted about 220 million families. Ground level reporting suggests that many of these beneficiaries turned out to vote the Modi regime back to power.
In the final analysis it is clear that, like with everything else, over time even the making of the Union budget is witnessing a transformation. It is in several ways symptomatic of the replacement of the traditional power elite following the elevation of the BJP as the principal pole of Indian politics. Now all eyes on Sitharaman’s budget.
Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.