As Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman gears up to present the Union Budget on February 1, 2024, the air is thick with anticipation. With the general elections looming, this budget is not just a financial statement but a political document, with promises and projections. However, a retrospective glance at the past budgetary announcements, especially those preceding elections, urges us to approach these promises with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The BJP government's budget speeches have been marred by a glaring dissonance between grandiose announcements and their actual fruition. The 2018-19 Union Budget is a case in point, where the Bengaluru Suburban Railway project was heralded with much fanfare, promising an infusion of Rs 17,000 crore. The timing, ahead of the Karnataka general state elections, seemed more than coincidental. Yet, the project became ensnared in bureaucratic red tape, with the Union government later backpedaling to a mere 20% contribution, leaving the state to grapple with the financial burden.
Fast forward to 2023, and the pattern repeats with the Upper Bhadra project in Karnataka. A budgetary allocation of Rs 5,300 crore was brandished like a political trump card during the elections, yet not a single paisa has materialised to date. Similarly, the 2021-22 budget's pledge of Rs 1.3 lakh crore for National Highways in Tamil Nadu, made in the run-up to the state Assembly elections, has yielded negligible progress.
These instances are not mere aberrations but symptomatic of a broader trend where flagship programs like Smart City Projects, Make in India, and Digital India languish far from their projected outcomes. The discrepancy between the promises and their delivery underscores a troubling penchant for headline-grabbing announcements that lack substantive follow-through.
The root of this issue lies in the government's predilection for crafting budget speeches that are more about optics than impact. The language employed often conveys an immediate and comprehensive commitment of funds, glossing over the nuanced reality of phased allocations and project timelines. This creates inflated expectations, only to be deflated by the slow grind of execution and fiscal conservatism.
The revelations by NITI Aayog's CEO, Subrahmanyam, shed light on a troubling aspect of the government's fiscal policy that contributes to the grandiosity of budget announcements. Subrahmanyam's exposure of the government's reliance on off-budget borrowing introduces a concerning dimension to this grandiosity. This financial strategy, which effectively keeps significant debts off the official books, masks the true state of the government's finances, allowing for the presentation of a more palatable fiscal image. Such practices not only cloud the transparency of government spending but also pose a risk to future financial stability, as they commit the government to substantial repayments without clear accountability. The Comptroller and Auditor General's 2022 report underscores this issue, uncovering over Rs 1.69 lakh crore in undisclosed borrowings by government entities, highlighting a systemic obfuscation of fiscal liabilities. This deliberate financial opacity serves to support the facade of fiscal health, enabling the continuation of grand budgetary pronouncements that may not fully materialise, thus undermining the integrity of the budgetary process and eroding public trust in governmental fiscal management.
In light of these revelations, the upcoming budget presentation demands a more critical audience. It is imperative to look beyond the bombast of budget speeches and evaluate the government's fiscal commitments through the lens of actual allocations and expenditures. The electorate must question the feasibility and sincerity of these promises, holding the government accountable for the chasm between its words and actions.
As we stand at the cusp of another electoral cycle, it is crucial to remember that a budget is not just a ledger of numbers but a reflection of a government's priorities and values. The consistent pattern of unfulfilled promises and fiscal sleight of hand erodes public trust and dilutes the sanctity of the budgetary process.
The call of the hour is for a paradigm shift towards a more accountable and transparent fiscal policy, one that prioritises the long-term welfare of the citizenry over short-term political gains. It is time for the government to align its budgetary rhetoric with tangible outcomes, ensuring that the promises made from the parliamentary podium translate into meaningful change on the ground. Only then can the budget regain its stature as a credible blueprint for the nation's progress, rather than a pre-election playbook of unkept promises.
As we parse through the upcoming budget, let us remain vigilant, questioning, and, above all, hopeful that the discourse shifts from grandstanding to genuine governance. For in the chasm between promise and practice lies the true test of a government's commitment to its people.
Yashas C is a public policy professional working as a Consultant for the Chief Minister of Karnataka's Office.