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Three days to B-day

A K Bhattacharya | February 25, 2003

With three days to go before Jaswant Singh presents his first Budget, if you happen to meet any secretary in other central ministries, the discussion invariably centres on what the finance minister has in store.

The secrecy around the Budget-making exercise makes any and everybody an expert on the finance minister's mind.

Senior bureaucrats not working in the finance ministry respond to queries on Budget-related issues in three different ways.

One, some of them confess complete ignorance about what is going on. Quiz them on the fate of the various proposals their ministries have sent to North Block and there will be no response.

There are others who are a little more forthcoming and might hint that they know some of their proposals have been turned down.

And then, there are those who will thump the table and list out the new initiatives that the finance minister might announce.

None of them are spot-on. But a close study of the three types of responses will give you a broad idea of what the finance minister might be considering.

You might not be able to scoop the Budget, but you will be able to intelligently speculate what the Budget may have in store of for all of us on February 28.

So, going by what bureaucrats are saying, Jaswant Singh's first Budget may well be a grand political exercise to promote the BJP and its cause -- that is, to keep the middle class happy.

The widening fiscal deficit and burgeoning subsidies may not worry this finance minister. The two are related. Cutting subsidies will hit the BJP's constituency hard. But failure to reduce them will increase the fiscal deficit.

The finance ministry has also been credited with the view that if developed countries continue to offer their farmers huge subsidies, why should Indian farmers or the middle class be made to pay more for their fertilisers, kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas.

So expect the twin problems of subsidies and deficits to remain largely unaddressed.

Jaswant Singh raised a lot of expectations about tax reforms after he entrusted his advisor, Vijay L Kelkar, to come out with recommendations on changes in direct and indirect taxes.

But Singh is going to use the political opposition to those Kelkar recommendations from agriculturists and the middle class to fine-tune his proposals accordingly.

So tax reforms will be introduced so long as they mean lower taxes and easier tax administration.

The introduction of value-added tax is expected to be a big announcement. But there are many hitches that are yet to be cleared before its introduction.

The Budget will also offer fresh incentives for the tourism, textiles and pharmaceutical industries.

The N K Singh Committee on textiles had suggested several fiscal measures to sharpen the competitive edge of India's textiles industry. It is likely that these will be accepted as a package.

There will also be special tax incentives for Indian companies to encourage tourism and promote the country as a more attractive destination for foreign tourists. Investment in tourism-related infrastructure may also qualify for tax rebates.

A key feature of the Budget could be the removal of the current ceilings on foreign investment in different industries, as suggested by several official committees.

A group of ministers has already thrashed out the proposals and the cabinet may give its approval before Jaswant Singh announces the government's decision in his Budget.

And, of course, more amendments in the Companies Act will be introduced to simplify rules for small and unlisted companies.

Jaswant Singh is quite insistent that his speech should not take more than an hour to read out.

His TV interviews the same day should be over by six in the evening, which should allow him to take a well-deserved rest after the hectic schedule he has been having in the run-up to the Budget.

Singh's Budget will face two unusual challenges. A day after he presents the Budget, there is an India-Pakistan match. The cricket-crazy nation will probably spend more time and energy discussing that match than the Budget.

Also, the results of the assembly elections in four states will start pouring in from Friday afternoon, within hours of his Budget.

Will Jaswant Singh's Budget rise above these events and still be remembered?

Run-up to the Budget 2003



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