My flight got delayed. I found it difficult to get my laptop connected to the net—as a result I failed to give my promised piece on Budget FY17 to my editor on time. While I apologise to him, I am not that upset. I think it has turned out for the best. Instead of instant noodles passing off as insight, I now have the opportunity to present a slowly seasoned dish, which despite my intellectual limitations, may actually pass off as genuinely insightful.
The first thing is that we we have all been tempted off and on, in fits of Keynesian naivety, to believe that blowing the fiscal target may be a risk worth taking. Luckily for us, our finance minister did not succumb to the temptation. I have lived in Latin America and have been witness to the follies of fiscal profligacy. Latin American elites have always felt that they could borrow and inflate their way out of self-created problems of poor productivity and bad economic incentives. They have frequently reneged on debts. The net result has been that despite decent human capital and enormous natural resources, they have failed to make it. Lets not forget that in the early part of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world and considered the next USA. The Porteños elite must be held responsible for the spectacular failure of that beautiful and alluring country. With their faults, which are many, our elites have behaved responsibly. Chandrashekhar, Yashwant Sinha, PV Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh, S Venkitaramanan and C Rangarajan were willing to pledge the nation’s gold. But we did not default. If they had defaulted (as many clever American academic economists encouraged them to), we would have had three decades of negative growth, growing poverty and political disintegration. Jaitley is squarely in the intellectual tradition of responsible management. We may fudge a bit; we may struggle to meet or miss a target by a decimal point; but our hearts and heads are in the right place. Fiscal adventurism will lead to leaping inflation and eventually to low growth. By sticking to his fiscal targets, Jaitley has emphatically demonstrated faith in Indian economic growth based on sound factors, not just for the next few years, but for decades to come.
The second thing is the attempt to increase taxes on the rich. We must not forget that these are very modest increases. There is no TT Krishnamachari attempt to destroy individual or entrepreneurial initiative. It is a call to pay up a little more at a time when there is a worldwide ferment on this issue. By taking up these tax initiatives, finance minister Arun Jaitley has cut off at the proverbial pass, any silly, wealth-destroying carping from socialists. I believe this is a smart move. Frankly, if the rules for doing business actually get easier each day, the rich should be more than happy to pay up a tad more on their dividend incomes. The real taxes that the rich face in India are the hidden taxes imposed by procedural delays, legal confusions and transaction costs needed to lubricate the system. The focus must be on reductions in these hidden taxes and not on churlish protests on dividend taxes. By this one move, if nothing else, Jaitley has eliminated the possibility of inane and banal speeches by our leftists MPs that the budget is pro-rich. Elimination of boring speeches should be seen as a worthy end in itself. One has a a feeling that avoiding a simple procedure of repealing the disastrous retrospective amendment was a political decision. This move might have cost the support not just of the obstructive Congress Party, but also of other temporary political friends. Too bad. But that this a given in the world of democratic politics. A salutary lesson for future finance ministers. Do not try extra-clever attempts at squeezing revenues. The country will get stuck with the consequences for years to come.
I was struck by the finance minister’s almost personal, emotional concern with the fact that gargantuan medical costs so easily convert a middle class family into a poor one and a poor family into a destitute one. In contemporary times, it is simply too cruel and callous to ask people to travel hundreds of miles, lose their wages (possibly the biggest cost) to access medical facilities which modern technology has made available. Adopting an attitude of karmic passivity is immoral. The intent is above all morally exceptional. Now, lets just hope that we implement the proposed programmes with a minimum modicum of efficiency. As a country, we are not always inefficient. We have eliminated leprosy and polio. We might just pull this one off, too.
Giving the Aadhaar initiative a proper statutory basis is an overdue move. The Manmohan Singh government slipped it in by a sleight of hand, probably getting worried by the opposition of the poverty-lovers at the erstwhile NAC. I have had my own reservations from a libertarian perspective, but have, on balance, been supportive given the fact that it is pregnant with major technological gains and the fact that it might actually break the strangulating power of the intermediate bureaucracies of India and allow for direct contact between the hapless citizen and the imposing sovereign state. Sleights of hand are always dangerous. They can be reversed or sabotaged. A proper statutory basis after extensive and intensive parliamentary discussions (am I being too hopeful?) is the correct way to go. Proper safeguards covering citizen choice, individual privacy and limitation of the rights of the state can and should be embedded in the architecture of the legislation. If we are willing to put up with driver’s licenses and PAN cards, we just must learn to accept the intrusions of the Aadhaar. We can and we must try to make sure that it does not end up as a Stalinist nightmare. Lets all get ready to make our submissions—hopefully constructive ones—when the draft legislation is put up in the public domain. It is interesting to note that despite the raucous political rhetoric in our republic, the present government has actually embraced initiatives like insurance FDI, the Bangladesh Treaty and now Aadhaar in a khullam khulla way. The contrast with Latin American elite behaviour again stands out. Aadhaar, combined with inclusive banking and direct benefits transfer, may end up becoming one of Indian democracy’s sui generis achievements, much like introducing adult franchise in an illiterate country in 1952.
On tax administration, one would have liked more sweeping changes. The important thing to note is that for the first time in our history, there is an official acknowledgement that discretionary powers to the lower and middle bureaucracy is the real problem. The rest are mere symptomatic defects. An attempt has started to deal with this dismal problem. One can expect many attempts at push-back and sabotage as the small print of the rules are written. It is important for the finance minister to stay the course and to make sure that our tax-collectors end up as neutral implementers of clear and simple laws, not as whimsical and tyrannical vultures that the Krishnamacharis of the world trained them into becoming. Well begun is half done. Let us fervently hope that this effort gets fully carried out.
I close with a passing reference to something close to my heart and my personal pocket book. The clear support for affordable housing in the budget demonstrates that finally we have embraced the view that it is not the destiny of urban Indians to live in overcrowded, insanitary, leaky and soul-destroying homes. Our emerging middle class should have the right and the opportunity to address this core aspect of their lives—something that is so central to their well-being, pride and sense of having arrived. Since in my business interests, I am a beneficiary of these moves, it would be inappropriate to write a panegyric on this subject.
Budget FY17, with a little bit of luck—despite ominous global headwinds—might get us brisk—and, more importantly, sustained—growth. The probability of good outcomes has most certainly gone up.
The author is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur