The discussions and dissections of the Union Budget tabled in the Parliament by the Union finance minister, Arun Jaitley, have only begun. As expected, while the Opposition has called it rich in rhetoric but poor in substance, the Ruling party and supporters are hailing it as landmark and historic. Neutral analyses as usual are for the moment drown in the din, but they are not altogether unheard. By and large, this budget is praised across the board for its return to the masses and equally for what has been described as an end of the government’s romance with industrialists. No more tax holidays for the latter, but plenty for the former in terms of employment guarantees and livelihood insurances, so much so that there were commentators unable to resist the temptation to recall and liken this new mind of the government to the old slogan of its predecessor, “Garibi Hatao”. Indeed, there were well known observers who noted how the present government is also tending more and more towards a centrist position, abdicating its stated rightist position, in the process making its policies now not so different from those of the Congress that is has been so vociferously the critic of. If on economic grounds the boundary between the BJP and the Congress is thinning progressively, what still differentiates them now is their socio-religious outlook and ideology. The battle ground, it seems has shifted from one of an economic vision of India, to notions of what should constitute Indian nationalism or identity. While there can be little to alter the face of exact sciences, the contest it seems is also on how social and political education imparted in the country’s colleges and universities should be about.
There were however deafening silences in Jaitley’s budget today. Noted economist, John Dreze for instance pointed that the word child, women, midday meal scheme, ICDS, rural health infrastructure, and we must add to the list the Northeast or the Look/Act East policy, did not find a mention at all in the budget speech. This is surprising for these concerns have never been side-lined in any past budget speeches. Are these misses ominous of things ahead? The possible portents of the misses are quite obvious, but for us in the Northeast, the silence on Northeast issues should be a matter of concern. In fact most NE State governments were already very worried of things ahead in the face of the Union government’s new policy of discontinuing the special category status given to the region. More than anything else, it is a dreaded fund crunch which is predicted to impact these states sooner than later. Manipur, and indeed all other NE states have had this experience before on the eve of the implementation of the 13th Finance Commission recommendations, when the government became bankrupt, unable to pay its employees for six months and more at a time. Probably what lies ahead would not be as bad, but it does seem much of the developmental responsibilities that were in the hands of these states now would pass on to the Union under its many Central schemes. As it is, a great deal of the responsibility for rural infrastructure development is already in the hands of the security forces under the Central government’s military civic programmes. Could there be more governmental responsibilities wrested out of the state government’s hands in the future? It is difficult not to ask at this juncture, as to whether this is the beginning of another phase of deliberate dwarfing of state governments in the NE?
These are speculations only, but necessary cautions for all who value the virtues of federalism, and ones which should be especially worrisome for those of us in the NE region. But even presuming these are false alerts, there were also other cautions raised by experts which should have some relevance even in states like Manipur. This Union government laid great emphasis on uplifting the plight of the country’s farmers. Admirable though this objective is, among the concerns flagged was, how far would the Union be able to push its agricultural vision to all the states, considering agriculture is in the “concurrent list” of the Constitution. Take for instance land reforms which may become necessary to implement these schemes. Would the Union be able to do this? Whatever may be said, there can be no argument that this budget has provoked meaningful intervention proving its richness. The question is, can anything similar be said of the State Budget presented only a week ahead? Unlikely. Manipur state budgets have been always in the nature of dole distribution amongst government departments, and never about a composite vision for the state’s future.