As Nirmala Sitharaman readies to present her first budget as finance minister under Modi 2.0—a budget in which the Prime Minister’s imprint will be as significant as it was in the past five years—she will be up against a simple challenge: how to restore the confidence of India Inc, which has been dented by five years of a relentless pursuit of greater tax compliance and black money.

The real collateral damage under Modi 1.0 was a loss of trust between government and business. If, in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era, this trust ended up in extreme forms of crony capitalism, under Modi 1.0, the pendulum swung to the other extreme of distrust and suspicion. Business went into shock as Modi 1.0 was nothing like the Modi they saw in Gujarat; the Gujarat model of the head of government being readily accessible to businessmen ended in May 2014.

This needs to be reversed. Even if Modi wants to maintain an arm’s length relationship with India Inc for political reasons, there is no reason why Sitharaman cannot be the go-to person for business. If Budget 2019-20 can send this message loud and clear, it would have done its job, for one cannot expect much else from it.

For several reasons, budget 2019-20, or rather the second instalment of it (the first came in the interim budget of February), faces constraints that make it near impossible for Sitharaman to play sugar mama to business. First, there is the inbuilt fiscal constraint, with several unpaid bills of fiscal 2018-19 falling due now, including unpaid food subsidy payments to Food Corporation of India. So, there is no scope for dramatic tax or spending flourishes.

Second, with the goods and services tax council taking decisions on indirect tax rates, the only thing this budget can do on revenue relates to customs duties. And duties on petro-products, which can anyway be changed at any point in the year and outside budgets. Third, big spending moves were made in the interim budget (PM Kisan Samman, tax sops for the middle class, housing, et al), and so what Sitharaman is left with is only the balance of the budget. Fourth, the big theme for 2019-20, fixing banks and non-bank finance companies, falls squarely outside the budget, except for the interest costs that come with recapitalizing them.

The big things to watch out for, thus, relate not to the usual interest areas of individual and corporate taxpayers, but outlays and spending plans, and the projected trends in revenues and deficits. And since the financial sector is still in need of ministrations, we need to check for (1) what the finance minister says about the Bimal Jalan committee on the transfer of excess reserves from the Reserve Bank of India to the government, (2) changes in disinvestment targets and (3) expectations from the 5G spectrum auction. As things stand, the 5G auctions are not going to provide any dramatic improvement in capital or revenue inflows since there are only three bidders for spectrum, and one of them (Vodafone Idea) is still struggling with its finances. The government will have to moderate its expectations and possibly lower its base prices to get decent bids.

In a sense, thus, there is no reason to expect miracles from Sitharaman. What we can put our antennas up for are signals of change in the Prime Minister’s basic approach to various things economic, which will surely get reflected in Sitharaman’s speech.

The first thing to check for is any statement on the privatization of Air India and five airports, and the speed with which these would get done. The second thing is to check whether more banks would be consolidated and/or sold. So far, Modi has shown no inclination to privatize banks, and if any change is indicated in this area, it would be a welcome change. A third thing to watch out for is the increase in infrastructure spending, and the new investments planned in railways and roads. The sums—hundreds of thousands of crores—being talked about for infrastructure spending in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto are mere paper numbers, unless there is clarity on how these amounts are to be raised.

And last, one should look for further incentivization of jobs. The reduction in Employees’ State Insurance contributions announced this month is a step in the right direction, and one can expect more cuts or subventions for new job creation. Some sops for taking on more women employees to reverse the slide in female labour participation rates over the last decade or more can well be imagined. In the 2017-18 and 2018-19 budgets, major incentives for job creation—subventions for social security payments and extension of fixed-time labour contracts—were announced. It would be useful if Sitharaman can tell us whether these incentives have begun working on the ground.

Sitharaman’s budget will be notable not for new initiatives, but for what she has to say on the big challenges facing the economy. One thing she can do, which business will appreciate, is to deliver a resounding vote of confidence in India Inc, which has been feeling rather low and unloved by the Modi government. The distrust between government and business has to end. Can Sitharaman at least signal that?

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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