Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Interim Budget 2024: Reimagining, one more time

The finance minister's speech was a vision statement for all-round long-term development, but did it adequately capture current realities?

Brian Carvalho
Published: Feb 1, 2024 05:28:00 PM IST
Updated: Feb 1, 2024 05:49:40 PM IST

(from left)  A view of the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link in Mumbai, India; A new house at Vari village, Maharashtra. Images: Shutterstock and Satish Bate/HT via Getty Images(from left) A view of the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link in Mumbai, India; A new house at Vari village, Maharashtra. Images: Shutterstock and Satish Bate/HT via Getty Images

Rewind to Interim Budgets of the past—and I’ve seen a few—and one of the most common phrases you’d encounter in coverage is ‘non-event’.

A peep into my mailbox post-lunch on February 1 suggests that such expressions mean less these days. A bevy of eager CEOs and founders, perhaps gently cajoled by their public relations minders, felt the need to wax as eloquently as possible on what could only be a humdrum occasion. In a similar vein, hacks like yours truly too consider the day incomplete without attempts to sound off on the 5,270-odd words speech by Finance Minister (FM) Nirmala Sitharaman. (The day won’t be quite over without partaking of the customary office Budget lunchbox, as well.)

That’s not to say the quotes wafting in aren’t to the point. This one that just hit the top of the mailbox, for instance, sums up the FM’s and the government’s vision—as well as what at least 25 others have said before him post 1 pm: “We commend the Interim Budget for its focus on unlocking India's growth potential and building a sustainable future. The 2024 Interim Budget unfolds a visionary roadmap for 'Viksit Bharat', with INR 11,11,111 crore, infrastructure allocation, constituting 3.4 percent of the GDP, is a game changer for sectors such as metals, logistics, and green energy. Initiatives like railway corridors, metro expansion, Vande Bharat trains, and new airports will bolster efficiency and create jobs.” That’s by Arun Misra, CEO, Hindustan Zinc Ltd.

As a colleague put it, when the Forbes India team was discussing Budget coverage, social media is adequate to weigh in on much of what the FM proposed and held forth on (not for too long, just 58 minutes). If you’re looking for a little more, don’t miss the Forbes India team’s comprehensive analysis, from the FM’s fiscal prudence to the record government capex proposal to those directed at empowering rural women.

So what do traditional armchair columnists do in such circumstances?

I am not sure if many resorted to this before, but I dug into the archives to peek into my previous Budget pieces. Here’s what I found in the year-ago commentary. Headline: Budget 2023: Create Jobs, Spur Demand, Win Votes. Strapline: Budget 2023 may be populist, but not because of personal tax rejigs or a social welfare focus.  

The script hasn’t changed much a year later, save that there are no personal tax changes this time around. The temptation to repurpose the 2023 piece, with small edits, was strong, but I settled to take out a couple of relevant lines: “Clearly, if governments want to be populist, one year is not going to cut it. Social wellbeing as well as economic growth via reforms and expenditure need to be over a drawn-out period, perhaps even beyond a single five-year term.”

The 2023 Union Budget, the last full one before the general elections of 2024, was expected to be in some quarters an ‘election budget’. It may have been, but here’s the thing: If being welfare- as well as growth-focussed are signs of populism, the BJP-led government has been pretty consistent with that vision right from the first term.

Consider, for instance, the 2015-16 Budget, when investment in infrastructure was proposed to go up by Rs70,000 crore over the previous year, and when the intent to establish a National Investment and Infrastructure Fund was announced. Digital India too was taking wings, with work commencing on the National Optical Fibre Network Programme of 7.5 lakh km to connect 2.5 lakh villages.  

Also read: Interim Budget 2024 has precious little on MSMEs

In tandem with physical and digital infrastructure creation, the intent was to boost social infrastructure too, with emphasis on agriculture, education, health, rural employment guarantee as well as rural infrastructure-creation. The key word here of course is ‘intent’, with allocations and their utilisation not always in sync.  

Yet, the vision has been consistent, and there is ample evidence in Interim Budget 2024, with infrastructure, manufacturing, research, innovation, skilling getting their due—along with social welfare initiatives like poverty alleviation, rural women and youth empowerment, rural housing and the farmer.  

If there is a caveat to this stable long-term blueprint, it’s that a vision without action is a dream being sold. Recent reports of an economic rural slowdown, triggered by high inflation and lower farm output, may be an indicator that the road ahead to prosperity for all is long and winding. Yet, the optimist may like to believe that the journey has well and truly begun. As a wise man said: A vision gets the dream started.