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The founding ideas of inmathi.com are based on these questions: What is news? Who are newsmakers? We can’t claim to know the exact answers to these questions but there are certain roundabout warnings on what should not become news that inmathi.com holds important.

A robust critique of what dominates news media has been offered by a right-wing thinker, Daniel Boorstin, in the United States. While news can be said to be reports of events and happenings, Boorstin asked whether these events were naturally occurring or if they were staged to create a certain effect. During Boorstin’s time there was no digital media. He found that what dominated newspaper pages and television screens were reports of events that had been carefully staged. A whole retinue of professionals staged these events and fed news to journalists. So, the entire media landscape was this gigantic stage of carefully scripted dramas by powerful people and organizations, he said. He called them pseudo-events. Pseudo events don’t really happen but are made to happen. So, what we see and hear on news media is often not really the truth but a certain version of the truth put out by big organizations—a certain spin, if you will.

The Union Budget in India is one such massive pseudo event. It is staged and gets wide pre, during and post publicity. News media goes into a tizzy a week before the actual event.

But the budget speech and the Budget are two different things. While the Budget deals with the actual numbers on income and expenditure, the speech is pure politics and a public relations (PR) exercise. The media laps it up and goes to town with every little announcement that the finance minister makes. For instance, this year, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said some Rs 20,000 crore would be raised through “innovative financing” and spent on building roads. The keyword is innovative financing. The government will likely not pay much from its own pocket.

US right-wing thinker Daniel Boorstin found that what dominated newspaper pages and television screens were reports of events that had been carefully staged. A whole retinue of professionals staged these events and fed news to journalists. So, the entire media landscape was this gigantic stage of carefully scripted dramas by powerful people and organizations, he said. He called them pseudo-events.

The government may, for instance, decide to stand guarantee for farm loans of Rs 1 lakh crore but the words in the Budget speech will not be so explicit. The finance minister will make it sound like some Rs 1 lakh crore is coming into agriculture. But the lending will have to be done by banks, and not the government. The government may guarantee the loans such that the banks will not face losses in the event of loan defaults. But there is a catch. Before the government can give the money to the banks, the defaulted loans will have to be declared as non-performing assets. This means that the loan sanctioning official has to have explained that he has done due diligence and yet the loan turned into an NPA. Most bank officials baulk at giving loans to farmers for this reason. The onus is on them. So, you see how what was touted to be a 1 lakh crore budget allocation for agriculture may not even materialize, or would only cover the extent of farm loans declared as NPAs. Likewise, most of the finance minister’s announcements in the budget speech are statements of intent, rather than actual commitment to spend money.

Moreover, the lack of any reduction or any other sort of concession to middle class taxpayers in income taxes made this year’s Budget a dud for many. In previous Budgets, small and big reductions and increases in indirect taxes would make big news. But that is gone now. GST has subsumed practically all the indirect taxes with a stable regime, making the budget speech less to do with the actual Budget itself.

Besides all the brand talk and PR such as Gati Shakti, Amrit Kaal and so on, there was one major commitment made in the budget speech to spend more. Nirmala Sitharaman said the outlay for capital expenditure would be increased sharply by more than 35% this year, from Rs 5.54 lakh crore in 2021-22 to Rs 7.5 lakh crore in 2022-23. She added this to the grants-in-aid going to state governments and said this was a big boost to capital expenditure and would form the basis for all the jobs the government has promised to produce for Amrit Kaal. Earlier in the speech, she talked about the Prime Minister’s vision of the transport sector being the engine for growth.

The where-the-rupee-goes chart in the Budget documents shows that nearly 90% of the expenditure goes to the following: interest payments, finance commission transfers to states, states’ share of taxes, defense, subsidies, pensions, central sector schemes and centrally sponsored schemes. These are practically fixed and have nothing to do with the Budget plans. The budget speech is almost entirely only about the remaining 10%.

The budget documents put out by the government indicate that the roads and bridges department expenses are going up by some Rs 66,000 crore and railways expenses will be up by Rs 20,000 crore. These are the two major capital expenditure increases. Grants-in-aid to state governments will go up by Rs 1.18 lakh crore. The total budget expense is Rs 40 lakh crore, compared to which these increases are at best a fraction. These are not the massive capital expenditure plans that governments elsewhere have rolled out to pull pandemic-hit economies out of distress. The US, for instance, has a $1.8 trillion stimulus. The total US budget is around $6 trillion. Not all of the stimulus will be direct spending by government but the figures are indicative of how ambitiously those governments are intervening to boost the economy.

The where-the-rupee-goes chart in the Budget documents shows that nearly 90% of the expenditure goes to the following: interest payments, finance commission transfers to states, states’ share of taxes, defense, subsidies, pensions, central sector schemes and centrally sponsored schemes. These are practically fixed and have nothing to do with the Budget plans. The budget speech is almost entirely only about the remaining 10%.

Meanwhile, as the media was spun into the atmospherics of a pseudo event, the same raised some concerns for Tamil Nadu. The BJP has a certain ideology of a united, centralized and strong India. It’s a nationalist party and doesn’t think there can be multiple views on what India is and how diverse she should be. And the Modi government seems to continue to believe that having won the national elections twice, it has the mandate to proceed with its style, unmindful of state sentiments. The stream of Hindi words used to describe schemes and the government’s take on where the nation is and where it is taking the nation, although done only for branding purposes, serves to further the disconnect Tamils may feel with the central government and the BJP. Amrit Kaal? Appadina? Being from Tamil Nadu, Nirmala Sitharam would know why Tamils would be peeved.


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