Modi's 'budget-like' speech made people anxious but failed to give clarity on key issues

The New Year’s Eve is not generally when one is paying attention to anything but partying. But in an unprecedented act, Prime Minister Narendra Modi elbowed his way into this vital annual celebration time of every Indian to address the nation.

That was a surprise because people wait for the President and the Prime Minister to address the nation on the eve of Republic Day or Independence Day. This is the first time ever since Independence that a President or a PM or any political leader chose New Year’s eve to steal public time and get them glued to TV screens.

What’s more important is that people waited for that vital half-hour of announcement with anxiety as the last time such an event took place – on 8 November 2016 – there was an upheaval, which will continue to have repercussions for a long, long time.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Getty Images

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Getty Images

The prime minister 's speech left no such tremors this time round. Instead, he lauded the citizens of the country for standing by the government’s decision to demonetise high-value notes on 8 November.

He said, “By standing by, people have proved how honesty can win over corruption. What people have endured for the sake of rooting out black money and corruption is exemplary.” He added that post-Diwali, people of India had proved that they were committed to rooting out suffocation caused by black money and corruption. He saluted the citizens for standing in long queues of ATMs and banks, only because they were willing to endure this hardship for the sake of a corruption-free India.

The rest of the announcement, however, sounded like a budget speech, delivered slightly before time — and not by the finance minister but by the PM himself. Considering that the Union Budget (on 1 February) is just about a month away, it was surprising that Modi chose the New Year’s eve to make these vital financial announcements.

People were looking forward to a good time as this year, the New Year's Eve and the New Year luckily fell on a weekend. But, by choosing the last day of the year, Modi occupied the mind space of millions of Indians, albeit with a discomfort.

Many including those who have appreciated the PM’s demonetisation move, surprisingly feel that Modi probably have been trying to get into the vacant space once occupied by the Left or the Left of Centre intellectual leaders.

“These intellectual leaders used to throw economic jargons with esoteric expressions to paint a gloomy picture of our economy or what should be done to make it rosy. Surprisingly, Modi seems to have decided to fill that vacant slot with soporific lectures on black economy—that too by choosing a wrong day,” said Saradindu Lahiri, a north Kolkata-based retired academician and a frequent visitor to Kolkata Coffee House adda.

The most important take-away from the ‘budget-like’ speech by the prime minister was his proposed changes in the realty sector. In a bid to woo the middle- and lower-income-class Indian the most, Modi announced interest rate rebates of 4 percent and 3 percent for housing loans up to Rs 9 lakh and Rs 12 lakh respectively under the PM Awas Yojana.

In the second component of the same announcement, he said that in the year 2017, the number of houses to be constructed by the government in villages would be increased.

He made vital announcements for the agriculture sector, for pregnant women as well as senior citizens, but it’s the timing of the speech and the announcements that open the national address to a scrutiny.

Was the speech aimed at pacifying the angry common Indians after the 30 December deadline for the easing up of hardships that they have had to endure since the 8 November demonetisation and the disappearance of a big chunk of cash from the market?

Would the PM have made such an announcement at this time of the year, had there been no demonetisation?

Umesh Verma, a senior citizen en route from Delhi to Chennai by train, called up his relatives to find out what the whole announcement was about. He was worried that there may be another announcement from the PM that would add up to the woes he was already enduring due to demonetisation.

"I was actually quite anxious for the entire evening as at my age, it is difficult for me to keep adjusting to such jerky decisions. I’m yet to recover from the hardships I faced while collecting my pension," he told this correspondent.

Ritesh Sakhuja, a 38-year-old banker, who has had an unprecedented experience of his professional life since 8 November, was happy that the prime minister had a good word to say for the exemplary professionalism shown by the banking sector since demonetisation was announced, but was worried about any fresh announcements coming up in the New Year.

“Prior to the PM’s national address, I was anxious about what more was coming our way. His demonetisation move was also good and badly needed for a country used to living under the shadow of corruption, but its implementation was faulty. I was worried if more such announcements were coming up," he said.

Though Modi’s announcements for the housing sector, agriculture sector, pregnant women and senior citizens saved it from being a complete New Year’s Eve spoiler, two vital questions have come up.

Could not have Modi waited for another month to make these budgetary announcements? Or the looming Assembly polls coming up in states made it urgent for him to appease the populace reeling under cashlessness for nearly two-months now?

And most importantly, why did he stop short of making any concrete announcement on the black money that gets routed to legitimacy through political parties and their activities? When he began talking about black money having a vital presence in the country’s politics, the audience expected him to announce another historical decision.

But Modi stopped at just that. He ended by saying that the political parties and politicians needed to have a debate on how to stop it and to introspect about how to make honesty the hallmark of politics.

For full coverage of Union Budget 2017 click here.

Updated Date: Jan 13, 2017 20:21 PM

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