Now that the Union Budget 2011-2012 has been announced, it is now time to focus attention to what shape the State Budget for the same year, which will be presented soon, would look like. Drawing up the state budget for obvious reasons should be considerably easier. For one, it is much less grand and ambitious. For another, many of the factors that would determine the shape of government’s policies for the coming year are known, and equally many of the objectives the government would seek to achieve are predictable. But within the ceiling predetermined by circumstance and the limited nature of the canvas, there are plenty that can be done and our leaders should ensure are done, which is why there is a need to create an informed discursive atmosphere aimed at clearly demarcating what are the consensual voice of the people on what they want, as well as critical assessments by the enlightened sections of the society, in particular the state intelligentsia, of these voices as well as how these can be addressed rationally through government policies.
The practice in the past has been to bring out a document which in its essence is nothing much more than a balance sheet of state government’s projected account for the coming year, with little indication of how this document can be even vaguely seen as a vision statement which not only spells out what is in store for the coming year but also opens up windows and doors to the future beyond just the following year. Just to give an indication of a very obvious example of what is meant by this let us consider the idea of the “Look East Policy” at the national level. This idea, it will be recalled, was floated sometime in the early 1990s and has lived on till this day, generating debates on what shape the policy should take, the good it can do as well as the bad that can result out of it. In the inability of the government to do this for all these years, the fault is also very much with the intelligentsia which has consistently failed in setting the public agenda for the government to pick up from. In fact, they have also been miserably failing in generating any public interest in the budget document. This has incrementally distanced the budget exercise from the public and continually reinforced the sense of it being alien and abstract, decipherable only by its pundits. Nothing can be more harmful than this.
By contrast consider the intense media discussions on the Union Budget in the run up to the day of its presentation in the Parliament on February 28 and then the equally intense post-mortem analysis after the document and its entire content was made public. Although the actually budget document would not have quoted any of these discussions directly, there is no gainsaying that much of the substance of these discussion would have had direct and indirect influences on the final shape of the document. In any case, the architects of the budget papers would have had a ready reference of public opinion and aspiration, as well as critics’ assessment of the economy and the remedial measures they preferred to fall back on. This is the atmosphere which has always been missing in the case of the budget preparation process in Manipur. Those who write it would on one hand have had little to refer back to in assessing public opinion and aspiration, and on the other be under little pressure that they would fail to impress the critics as there seems to be none.
So here we are on the eve of another state budget presentation, with the discursive spaces in the media still blank on the issue. If there has been anything as visible public opinion on the governance issue, it is defined by what may be called the dreary pull of mediocrity, making people to come out open only in matters such as salary hikes, service perks etc. Middle class Manipur has come to be trapped in a pathetic predicament whereby popular imagination cannot overcome extremely limiting and myopic outlooks that sees little beyond narrow self interests. The belief in a larger common good of society, not necessarily by abandoning self-interest, but by distinguishing between mere self-interest and enlightened self-interest, has it seems waned. This is depressing for no other reason than that it is a recipe for the ultimate total decay. This is another reason why an active and enlightened intelligentsia is all the more vital. This is one of Manipur’s biggest challenges today.