The circus that is the Indian Budget

Last Updated: Fri, Mar 01, 2013 06:11 hrs

In a multimedia feature called "The making of India's Budget" on the Business Standard website, former finance minister Yashwant Sinha makes the point that this annual exercise touches every aspect and every department of the Government of India in some way or the other. He could have included the media in that statement. The day-long saturation coverage by every TV channel, accompanied by high-pitched pre-Budget advertising, has become par for the course. So much so that it is hard to remember a time when Budget coverage wasn't such a big deal, except for the financial dailies.

The result of this hyperactivity is often comical in an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of way. First, there's the finance minister's speech, mercifully read out at 11 a m these days instead of 5 pm, thanks to a sensible change introduced by Mr Sinha when he was finance minister in 2001. The event follows a predictable pattern. Just before the finance minister of the day stands up to deliver the Budget speech, the Opposition benches set up a storm over some tangential issue or the other; the Speaker implores them, with varying degrees of severity, to stop. Somnath Chatterjee was particularly good at calling the House to order in his stentorian, lawyerly manner; Meira Kumar's plaintive baby voice, so different from the magnificent baritone of her father, Jagjivan Ram, takes time to make itself heard above the melee.

The speech eventually gets under way. Halfway through Part A, those who aren't brain-dead from the mind-numbing recitation of numbers - allocations in lakhs of crores on various "good-to-have" items of expenditure from sanitation to women and children's welfare, for instance - can enjoy some mild entertainment. By then the Doordarshan cameramen are pretty fed up with focusing on the finance minister, so their wandering lens captures our elected representatives sleeping, cleaning their ears, digging their noses, gossiping et al. Those who are dozing will be woken by occasional loyal desk-thumping from the Treasury benches when politically correct proposals are announced. Initiatives for farmers, women and the poor are all worthy of such applause, even though everyone knows none of this will make a mite of difference to their plight.

At some point, someone from the Opposition benches will make a joke. If he's so inclined, the finance minister may do so too. Or he may quote from Gandhi, Tagore, Rajiv Gandhi and/or his favourite poet (even Congressmen hesitate to quote Indira Gandhi in Parliament given her blatant 21-month subversion of democracy). So far, no finance minister has proved a riveting orator, possibly because of the deathless prose in which the Budget is couched.

Eventually, he utters those magic words, "Now I turn to Part B of my speech" and everyone wakes up. Finally, we're down to the real business as far as the vast majority of Budget watchers are concerned: taxes. Groans, squeals and shouts follow depending on the nature of the imposts and reliefs. And then, it's over - after about two hours (Jaswant Singh managed to speak for longer) with or without an end quote from Gandhi, Tagore, Rajiv Gandhi and/or said favourite poet.

Then there's the aftermath. The finance minister and his team appear on different channels and say the same thing over and over again, no matter how hard the interviewers try to orient their questions to some modicum of originality. Then there are the hordes of industrialists and analysts to contend with. Despite a population of over one billion, India has a tiny number of experts and economists who can discourse on the complexities of the Budget coherently and articulately. Earlier, they merely had to expound knowledgeably and with appropriate gravitas. Nowadays, in a nod to India's demographic bias, they are obliged to answer, as politely as possible, silly questions from college and school kids. This small subset of economic glitterati also rotates dizzyingly through different TV studios throughout the day and night and many of them reappear as mugshots accompanying opinion pieces in the newspapers the next day.

The newer element to this mix is the publicity industry. Sensing a unique opportunity to promote their clients, the activities of the public relations industry pre-, during and post-Budget have burgeoned exponentially with the expansion in media coverage. If the media had to persuade people to comment before, the situation is quite the reverse today. CEOs and senior executives demand coverage from the PR teams during the one time they are confident viewership and readership are high. So, "authored articles" by CEOs are on offer, pre-Budget and post-Budget, as are quick comments with or without a photo.

Overkill? Perhaps, especially when you realise that in economies far bigger than India's, annual Budgets are almost unnoticed. But the broader message is a depressing one: that more than two decades after economic liberalisation, the government continues to play such a massive role in the economy and industry that the Budget has become a big-bang revenue-earning exercise for the media.

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