If you were expecting bold reforms in the maiden Budget speech of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, after the Narendra Modi-led NDA came back to power with an even greater majority, you are bound to be disappointed. The boldest step the newly appointed Finance Minister took was to completely avoid any statement on allocations in her more than two hours long Budget speech. The only allocation she mentioned in her entire speech was the Rs 70,000 crore for public sector bank recapitalisation. Beyond that, she pointed out that all numbers were in the Budget papers and could be looked up. And at the end of her speech, she mentioned that she was aiming for a 3.3 per cent fiscal deficit target for the year.
Beyond that, the Budget did not try to announce any big steps. Not in agriculture. Not in terms of helping improve exports. Not even in terms of improving savings rate or giving incentives to the private sector to invest more. Not in steps for direct tax reforms. Not in steps to boost consumption. Not even in new ideas about creating more jobs.
Despite the list of achievements of Modi 1.0 that Sitharaman talked about, and the new targets she laid out - in terms of piped water to rural households, a common power grid etc - there was actually no tough decision or new idea that the Finance Minister announced.
In agriculture, apart from the direct income transfer (PM Kisan) allocation, there was no new idea presented. There was a mention of many new Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) - as many as 10,000 of them - being set up. But FPOs have had limited success so far, and how they will help in doubling farmer incomes is still uncertain.
More importantly, there seemed an acknowledgement that the government has run out of ideas about how to push growth. The original thought of spending heavily on infrastructure, in the hopes that government spending will continue to hold up the GDP growth, continues. The talk of reducing corporate tax to 25 per cent is marred by incrementalism. Sitharaman is right when she says that over 99 per cent of companies are covered by the reduced tax. What she forgets to mention is that bigger companies are driving big investments and job creation - as the Economic Survey points out - and they are not covered by this tax reduction.
There was practically no mention of jobs to be created. And the fact that the government needed to make up for direct tax and GST shortfalls was seen in two major steps - one, excise and cess increase for petrol and diesel and two, the assumption that the RBI will give some money to the government.
Even FDI steps were not bold - the government followed the time-honoured incrementalism that is being seen over the past 15 years. And, as far as public sector disinvestment is concerned, the sub-text was that the government was not happy giving up control. Whatever disinvestment would happen would be within the confines of the government retaining control.
And while the speech mentioned development of real estate lying with government organisations and public sector, it was a throwaway mention rather than a well-thought out announcement.
The first Modi government had an excuse - though it had great majority in the Lok Sabha, it needed to move softly because it had inherited a weak economy and it needed to learn real problems with each sector. The new government has no such excuse. It had a full five years to understand what needs to be done - and if it continues thinking that more of the same will help it get high growth, it is deluding itself. As it knows, the best time to take hard and long-term reforms is always in the first-year of the term. But unless major policy announcements come in later, it seems that the government has not really spent time thinking of how it could solve the old problems of the economy.