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Budget? No time for miracles

June 22, 2004

The least a reformist finance minister can expect is a stable government. P Chidambaram hopes the United Progressive Alliance will last its full term so that he can go beyond merely fulfilling the promises outlined in the Common Minimum Programme.

In his earlier stint as finance minister, Chidambaram could hardly implement his agenda, with the government tripping within months of his Budget.

He presented his debut Budget on July 22, 1996, under the prime ministership of H D Deve Gowda. He had just about six months that fiscal. And after he presented his dream Budget of February 1, 1997, the government fell even before it could be passed.

This time around, the situation is similar to July 1996. He also has the CMP providing him the broad framework for the regular 2004-05 Budget.

Given Chidambaram's capabilities and grasp of issues, he will try his best to exceed expectations. It will be wise, though, for the market to expect little and be overwhelmed later.

As North Block officials point out, Chidambaram has had little time to act and till date, he has only called for information on wide-ranging taxation issues, from the offficers of the Central Board of Direct Taxes and Central Board of Excise and Customs.

Given the compelling public investment needs as made out in the CMP, his focus will definitely be on raising resources. He is keen that investment, both public and private, takes place.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has already made it clear that he did not mind a slight dent in the fiscal deficit if public investment was for productive purposes.

But it must be borne in mind that when Chidambaram rises to present the Budget on July 8, one quarter of the fiscal will be already over.

It will be end-July before the Budget is passed by both the houses of Parliament. Effectively then, his agenda would be only for the remaining eight months of 2004-05. So, it will be unrealistic to expect magic from Chidambaram.

In the interim Budget, the government has already fixed the gross budgetary support (GBS) for the fiscal at Rs 1,35,000 crore (Rs 1,3500 billion).

The GBS allocation is unlikely to witness any major changes, except for realignment in expenditure among ministries. Health, education and agriculture seem to be the government's focus and more funds are likely to be set apart for these sectors.

The stock market is another area that no finance minister can afford to ignore. Chidambaram is expected to take measures that will keep the bourses in good humour.

There are several demands: of doing away with dividend tax; cutting short term and long term capital gains; and tax breaks for mutual funds, amongst others. He is likely to take a close look at each of these proposals and their impact on the Centre's revenues.

Investment being his one-point focus, Chidambaram will do everything possible to attract funds and to cut red-tape. If finance ministry officials are to be believed, he is already of the belief that the Foreign Investment Promotion Board serves hardly any purpose.

While it may not be possible to just scrap the board, Chidambaram will definitely re-define its role. At present, it is no more than an approval mechanism and, in his scheme of things, does not do much to promote investment.

An ace lawyer, Chidambaram meticulously goes through issues, and as insiders point out, is capable of writing out the entire Budget speech in as much time as is required to read it. Having dealt with cases relating to the Securitisation Act and even Enron, he has a good grasp of policy issues and knows the pitfalls and loopholes.

Chidambaram should not be judged on one Budget alone, as is generally the norm. More so, since this can be called a half-Budget, leaving little room for the new finance minister to usher in dramatic changes.

India Inc, the stock markets and economists would do better to give him at least two full Budgets before they pass a verdict.

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Sub: Budgets-A View Different

In India over the years budget to the common people means more taxes. The so called intellectuals justify imposition of more taxes by comparing the ...

Posted by vijay veer singh


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