Support for further economic reforms in the context of India's globalisation will be mustered more easily if the deprived sections are assured of some safety net, says M K Venu FINANCE minister P Chidambaram's fifth budget stumped the chattering classes, mostly with incomes of well over Rs 10 lakh a year. The Rs 10-lakh income threshold is relevant because there are less than 300,000 people in India showing a taxable income of Rs 10 lakh and above. But they exercise disproportionate influence on policy. There are many more in the above income category, who do not pay taxes and probably have even greater influence on public policy! The budget also stumped economists, who are also part of the chattering classes. Initially they did not know what to make of a budget that seemed to give everything to everybody. The budget certainly did not lend itself to instant analysis on television channels where many economic pundits were sitting. In the first flush, one economist simply said he was overwhelmed, and didn't know how the numbers would work after so much goodies were handed out by the finance minister. "I am overwhelmed', is what he kept saying. The impatient TV anchor, obviously looking for a one liner, kept pressing, 'Is it good or bad?'. The only reply was,' I am overwhelmed.' It didn't take long for everyone to realise that it is not necessary for numbers to strictly add up in politics. In certain situations, sentiment and psychology can subsume numbers that don't add up. Which is why politics is often described as the art of the possible. While economics parades as an exact science, there are times when economists get lost in their linear frameworks and miss the wood for the trees. Further, what really stunned the chattering classes was someone like Dr Manmohan Singh or P Chidambaram could come up with such a massive loan waiver package. They associated such acts with politicians like the late Devi Lal, Charan Singh or among contemporaries, Prakash Singh Badal and M Karunanidhi. How could Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram do this, was the main question on their lips. However, at the end of the day the budget seemed to have got overwhelming support, if one went by how the vernacular press treated the finance minister's announcements. Politically, it is one of the sharpest statements one has come across in the past decade and a half. Chidambaram's dream budget in 1997 too had a mesmeric impact on the people but this one covers a much wider terrain in its inclusiveness, whatever critics may carp about. It took a while for the immensity of the political statement to sink into the BJP leaders. Initially some leaders tried to attack the Rs 60,000 loan waiver as irresponsible. Later, possibly after deeper consultations within the BJP leadership, it was decided to tone down the attack. The politics of it was visible even in Parliament when Chidambaram said only kulak landlords will oppose loan waivers for small farmers holding up to two hectares of land. The invocation of kulak landlords has an interesting dimension. Politically, it is significant that the Congress is attempting to wean the poorest among the backward caste, scheduled castes and minorities away from regional parties that have established themselves over the years. This would easily rank as among the most audacious attempts by the Congress to upset the present political arithmetic of various strong regional parties. If viewed in this perspective, it becomes easy to understand why considerations such as fiscal profligacy and misplaced budget assumptions do not stand a chance. In any case, of late, a feeling had developed in non-urban India that the country was reaping the riches of globalisation, in terms of mounting forex reserves, high corporate profits, and government revenues doubling in three years. IN SUCH a situation it becomes difficult to convince the other India that fiscal belt tightening is the way to go. Besides, this would be most hypocritical as even anecdotal evidence would suggest that the bulk of the growing government subsidies today are consumed by the urban middle class. Just take the Rs 71,000-crore energy subsidy. Over 80% of it must be going to the urban middle class. The finance minister has also been careful in not going overboard while opening the purse strings. He has kept enough head-room in his fiscal deficit target to ensure that some discipline remains. For instance, he has budgeted fiscal deficit at 2.5% of GDP, when he could have kept a target of 3% as per the FRBM timeline. He can technically spend extra about 0.5% of GDP or Rs 20,000 crore, without violating the FRBM Act. In fact, the expenditure on loan waiver in the first year could be no more than Rs 20,000 crore. Operationally, the waiver of Rs 60,000 crore will occur over three years. More interestingly, much of the write-offs will happen among loans which are already sitting as non-performing assets (NPAs) in banks. So the bank books will get cleaned up to that extent. In lieu of the write-offs, the banks could receive government bonds which they could liquidate in the market or sell to the Reserve Bank of India. True, this may constitute another offbalance sheet borrowing by the government. Even after taking some of the off-balance sheet items, heavens won't fall if the fiscal deficit moves up to 4% of GDP. What is the great sanctity to the 3% figure, one fails to understand. Both oil and food subsidies today are being enjoyed across the board by urban and rural India, and these subsidies have helped to keep food prices under control. It is difficult to imagine the political class surviving if the price of wheat in India were to track international trend. Global wheat prices have doubled in the past year. The price of other mass consumption items such as edible oil too has been maintained at lower than international price. Bad economics, but good for collective survival. So current circumstances in the global economy are exceptional and the budget has done well to admit that there are off-balance sheet subsidies whose value is growing by the day on account of rising global prices. Finally, support for further economic reforms in the context of India's globalisation will be mustered more easily if the deprived sections are assured of some safety net. The benefit of all this will eventually accrue to the growing aspirational middle class. This perspective must not be lost sight of. After all, it is in the interest of the emerging bourgeoisie to keep the present system alive and ticking.