The annual budget is typically an exercise in balancing competing interests. Corporate houses expect tax concessions, while the welfare goals of a poor country like India demand increased social sector allocations. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman attempted a delicate balancing act as she presented her maiden (also the first by a full-time woman finance minister) budget worth ₹27.86 trillion. No budget speech, however, is complete without eruptions in Parliament over some proposal or the other.
This time, the decibel levels stayed unusually low. The treasury benches seemed conspicuously unenthused by the budget proposals, though cheers did greet the finance minister’s proposals to develop 17 iconic sites to attract foreign tourists, and evolve a dispute resolution scheme to unlock ₹3.75 trillion stuck in tax litigation from the pre-GST era. The announcement of a new series of coins of Re 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 that the visually challenged could easily identify, and its decision not to subject funds raised by start-ups to tax scrutiny, also appeared to warm the hearts of our lawmakers. The opposition benches, despite their depleted numbers, also managed to make some noise. Sitharaman’s proposal to increase excise and cess by Re 1 per litre on petrol and diesel, for example, drew a loud howl of protest from them. Her proposal to levy an additional income tax cess on the wealthy, those earning over ₹2 crore per year, evoked only a muted response from parliamentarians.
The lack of excitement in Parliament was mirrored by the BSE Sensex, which steadily lost vigour as the budget speech progressed. The stock market barometer, which had risen more than 100 points past 40,000 ahead of the budget, reversed gains to close nearly 400 points lower.