Image: Jaitley: Getty Images; Obama: Reuters
As two American interns at the Forbes India office, we were tasked with analysing the Union Budget tabled by finance minister Arun Jaitley. During our time watching the 127-minute speech, we couldn’t help but think of our State of the Union (the US President’s address to a joint session of the Congress) back home.
Since the budget is not a big thing in the states, the State of the Union (SOTU) becomes the de-facto annual PR session for the policymakers in Washington. The entire nation tunes in as families finish the day’s chores and gather in front of the TV.
Similarly, in India, there was a palpable excitement about the Union Budget. The buzz began with Sadananda Gowda’s Railway Budget on Tuesday, followed by the release of the Economic Survey on Wednesday. It culminated with the unveiling of the Union Budget today. Everyone we talked to in Mumbai was keen to hear Jaitley present the budget. From the local chaiwallah to our colleagues here at Forbes India, everyone was eager to find out whether “acche din” was actually going to be a promise fulfilled or if it was just another exercise in futility.
Our taxi driver, for instance, said he wouldn’t be able to watch the budget presentation on TV, but would keep an ear out for the briefings on the local radio stations. At the Forbes India office, we were glued to our Twitter feeds, noticing the furore over the Rs 200 crore given to the Sardar Vallabhai Patel statue compared to the mere Rs 100 crore allocated for educating the “girl child”. In a country with a skewed gender ratio, we found that priorities were not in line with the demands.
We wanted to compare India’s Budget 2014 with President [Barack] Obama’s SOTU address in 2010 since it represented a watershed presentation for our President (more on that later); similarly, Jaitley’s speech was meant to chart a path very different from the previous UPA governments and one that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants the country to follow in the next five years.
We found three common threads in Jaitley’s speech: entrepreneurship, infrastructure and religion. The finance minister proposed allocating Rs 10,000 crore to encourage startups to create jobs and foster innovation; he proposed projects dedicated at developing infrastructure, particularly in the geopolitically significant Northeast region, and a laundry list of “Rs 100 crore” proposals dedicated to appeasing fellow politicians and their constituencies. He maintained the quintessential BJP ethos and its religious fervour. There were a few novel ideas as well, like e-visas and the “One Rank, One Pension” approach taken towards the armed forces. He seemed to talk to every core constituency, approaching this as an opportunity to recognise India’s diversity.
Coming close on the heels of the economic meltdown of 2008-09, Obama’s 2010 address focussed on economic recovery, unemployment, tax reforms, clean energy, education, and the healthcare reforms that would come to fruition four years later. He was not shy about chastising banks and celebrating teachers, recognising hardship in the face of the Great Recession and honouring the armed forces. His main appeal to the average listener was his nod towards the Recovery Act, his administration’s post-recession stimulus package. He was speaking to the Congress, so he directly addressed issues he wanted to change. Some new ideas included a small business tax credit, debt forgiveness for student loans, and monthly meetings across bipartisan leadership. And it seemed like after every other sentence, he received thunderous applause instead of the jeering we saw today.
What makes the American State of the Union so different from the Indian Budget Announcement? To put it simply, expectations. Americans turn on their TVs hoping for smart stories and smarter policies, words to bring them into a new year full of hope. The President addresses and inspires unity, while carefully selecting anecdotes that illustrate the pain and fortune facing American citizens. The Indian Budget is a grocery list, an outline with bullet points that follows the same format for every new scheme. Viewers probably wonder when they’ll hear something relevant to their lives. But they watch nonetheless.
However, these speeches are not as different as they might seem. Both Obama and Jaitley are forced to address inevitable and intimidating economic problems; they address the entire nation as if everyone is watching, and they both make sure to honour the armed forces. Finally, they’re both incredibly vague (like Jaitley’s promise of an “upgrade of the traditional arts”, and Obama’s eagerness to “help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate”).
In the end, they’re both speeches. It’s now up to the politicians to stick to their promises and the citizens to hold them to it.
(Azza Cohen seeks hidden stories, chases dreams and drinks a lot of chai. Paarth Shah is discovering India this summer, one train ride at a time)
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