My Budget Biography

Me? A fan of Manmohan Singh? How dare I? I must confess that such a skeleton did exist in my past though it’s long since I have exorcised the ghost. Let me explain! I can already feel those familiar filmy flashback circles going around my head, of course with the appropriate BGMS invoking nostalgia, and lo, we just went back 22 years in a jiffy to 1991 June/July. To the Budget, to be precise.

That was the time when two very unlikely characters took over the political and economic fate of the country in their untested hands. Within the next few years PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh had so transformed the country that the pre-nineties economy seemed like pre-history. To refresh, when MSingh presented that budget, India had just sold its gold and was staring down the dark depths of default and bankruptcy. The duo used the budget as levers to lift the country out of both economic and psychological depression. Whatever the hindsight wisdom through the prism of the present, they truly saved the day then.

As a ‘feeling-good’ member of the emerging middle class and a budding chartered accountant with stars in the eyes, I, like many a youth, got an extra zing to our enthu from those budgets. The stock market held our thrall as that was the main stadium in which the budget games were played and watched. Or so it seemed even after a series of scams rocked the satanic bourses. I remember hanging on to MSingh’s every word of the budget speeches, in all professional zeal, just as we did to MS … Dhoni’s sixes last Sunday. The tax provisions, that I find so taxing to even look at today, were my favourites.

Of course, the thrills started chilling out in time, with budgets becoming just another ritual. Dream budgets and nightmares felt alike. It also coincided with my metamorphosis into a mediaman whence I was supposed to criticise, not clap. Inherent academic ‘acumen’ gave way to the calls of a different profession wherein flippancy and flair counted. The eye for detail got blinded by the pressure of the day, with headlines, deadlines and of course, policy lines leading the way. I almost qualified as a primetime expert all set to parade and pass off ignorance as insight. Still I miss those days when the fineprint mattered more than Print.

These changes carried their blessings too. The frenetic stock market activity, booms and busts alike, unleashed by the nineties’ liberalisation, came as a boon to News Today, our evening paper.Its daily BSE, NSE quotes were a rage every evening. Also, the budget presentation shed its Raj hangover of a 5 PM schedule and became a 11 AM affair, offering the eveninger the advantage of the now famous ‘Breaking-news’ even then, ahead of the next morning’s papers. In his time, my father TRR could report the budget only the next evening, but still made up the handicap with such juicy headlines as ‘Tears for many, cheers for some’, ‘Surcharge discharged’, ‘Pan-masala is now Tax masala’ etc, a novelty then. Of course, 24/7 TV and web have made budget reportage redundant for all newspapers and to themselves now, but it was great while it lasted.

But looking beyond an individual’s self-centric time line and also the media build up around them, budgets have lost their primacy in the economic scheme. For one, changes are effected and happen right through the year, not just through budgets alone. Also, with a huge black economy that overflows our borders to lands beyond, tax provisions still impact only the ‘unfortunate’ ones within the official net. And with high-brow experts, vested political interests and chosen corporate clubs dictating policy and then directing the ensuing debates, the budget has been rendered an exclusive elite affair. The aam aadmi, agriculturist and the small businessmen, who actually make the nation and economy, are rarely spotted on this high-profile radar. While budget info is littered all around, people at large remain knowledge-immune.

To this ‘rest of India’, while the FM’s budget may be low down on the charts, budgeting however is tops. In an ATM-to-mouth existence what with inflation raging, the line between luxury and need melting and expenses always rising to meet and jump across incomes, the brush with the personal budget is a constant affair, unlike an FM’s annual rite. In fact, as he grapples with fiscal deficit, he can learn a lesson or two from the harassed man on the street, the housewife, the hawker etc, all of whom are experts at handling budgets that never budge, only bulge and then burst. Or even from a student who adeptly manages a pre-paid mobile on a precarious 50 paise-balance with just SMSs and missed calls!

And I repeat, I have outgrown the MSingh-fancy alluded to at the start. I hope no one holds it against me now!

e-mail the writer at [email protected]

Jawahar T R