Arun Jaitley presented his third Budget at a time when India as an argument was overwhelming, though not consistently enlightening. In the arena were all kinds of freedom junkies, ranging from adolescent revolutionaries learning their first steps of class struggle from the leafy make believe of JNU to the Dirty Harrys of kinetic nationalism, from the last conscience keepers of the wretched India where ‘fascism’ lurks behind the veneer of India First to the easily offended and permanently persecuted apostles of Mahabharat. The loudest and the most alarmist set the terms, and India was reduced to a series of ideas as small and remote as the minds of its newly armed interlocutors. I wish it were a war of ideas. It was a clash of closed minds, of dead certainties, independent of the anxieties and aspirations of an India that lay orphaned outside the fantasy of the combatants. We needed a passage to reality. Then came Jaitley’s social realism.
Does it sound strange that I use ‘social realism’ to describe a Budget, as if it is a piece of art? The studied, unhurried prose of the Budget, as it comes in the midst of the breathless malarkey in the name of an India that exists only in the delirium of the combatants, brings us back to earth—and to reason and realism. Jaitley could have internalised the zeitgeist of the street and given us a populist’s panacea. He could have yielded to the temptations of realpolitik and ended up as a desperate-to-please spendthrift. Or he could have, to earn unanimous endorsements from boardrooms, eased the tax regime further for a freer marketplace. Instead, he balanced idealism with pragmatism. He realised that the social reality of India was too complex to be left entirely to the theorists of capitalism or to the ideologues of socialism. This Budget, in its own cautious, understated way, redefines the role of the state in a globalised society that is not necessarily an equal society, and where resentment powers the politics of those who have been left behind.
The state that pervades Jaitley’s text is not one of Nehruvian vintage. It is not the one that looms over the market with a red flag, regulating and punishing. I would say it is more Gandhian than Marxist in its approach to rural India. The Budget acknowledges the transformative power of rural connectivity. This is Jaitley’s mild rebuttal of the familiar argument that the uses of capitalism are not only for the rich, that they lift the poor too. I will not deny the merits of this argument, and I certainly do not believe that what is written in the redundant books of ideology is the salvation of the poor. The Indian reality does not allow straitjackets. It may be one of the most stable global economies, but it has not yet recovered from its past experiences in the mismanagement of freedom. The scars of the formative years have not healed. India is more unequal a society than developed states. The state still needs to reach out where the market does not. It is not socialism. It is a matter of the state smoothening the rough edges of the countryside for an easy passage of capitalism.
This idea of the state in the service of a market economy coincides with the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Budget presented by Dr Manmohan Singh. That was a definitive repudiation of the socialist state, and it was all the more audacious as it came from a Congress regime, though headed for the first time by someone with a less lofty surname. Narasimha Rao dared, won the argument, and saved India from the socialist remoteness of Third Worldism. Twenty-five years on, India, in spite of its perfunctory allegiance to anachronisms such as NAM and the prevalence of anti-Americanism amongst our peanut socialists, has discarded the excess baggage of ideology—and is more receptive to ideas. In that sense, Jaitley, without any headline-hungry hyperbole, has come out with a Budget that renews the argument of 1991, in a language that is compassionate and inclusive. Capitalist India has not evolved enough to downsize the state beyond a point. It takes a great deal of common sense to realise this, and in politics, it is common sense that defines conservatism.
The Right usually wins the economic argument and loses the cultural one. In India now, the cultural Right, much like its Leftist counterpart, does not argue. It imposes, decrees, and demands. The economic Right wants to see Modi as an Asian edition of Reagan, and I would say that the idea of a deliverer with grand gestures is irresistible, especially for those who were swayed by the raging ‘liberator’ on the stump. He needs a steadier stage to play out that kind of history-grabbing heroism. Jaitley’s Budget is a decisive step towards building one. Has he seized the future? Read on.