The finance bill 2023 was passed amid a din in the Lok Sabha, without discussion, giving the government some 45 lakh crore rupees of our taxpayers’ money without a single question being raised or addressed. This was a crying shame for our parliamentary democracy and an indictment of the state to which our institutions have been reduced.The bill comes at an uncertain time for the economic revival of our country. The economy had been laid low by demonetisation, and then shattered by the pandemic and the resultant lockdown; it is now in turbulent waters thanks to global developments following the invasion of Ukraine.
The former star performers like tourism and service industries are devastated; the backbone of the economy—agriculture and MSMEs—are both in crisis. Inflation and price rise are hurting the aam aadmi severely, with even basic commodities needed for daily sustenance becoming prohibitively expensive for the economically vulnerable. And there is an alarming lack of jobs in our economy, particularly for our unemployed youth, whose futures are at the risk of being derailed. If despite all this, we are growing faster than other major economies, it offers scant consolation.
Both the Union budget and the finance bill reflect a government lacking the necessary vision to find solutions to these grave challenges. Three principal failures were evident in the tepid Union budget. The first is its disastrous assault on the rights-based approach to social justice and economic empowerment, which have been fatally undermined by cutting the budget for social welfare by nearly 20 per cent. The second failure is the complete lack of acknowledgement of the elephant in the room—the need to generate employment. At a time of record levels of joblessness and widespread distress, particularly in the rural economy, the government has slashed several schemes (including MGNREGA by 33 per cent) that have served as ventilators for distressed citizens after disasters like demonetisation, the botched implementation of GST and the mismanagement of the pandemic. And third is the glaring failure to offer concrete support or relief measures for the segments of the Indian economy that are hurting the most—our MSMEs, the tourism and services sector, the middle class, salaried professionals and the economically impoverished.
This trend of underperformance continues. The finance bill reflects three broad narratives: a falsification of reality through misleading announcements that substitute PR for substance, a concerted attempt to centralise power and ride roughshod over the careful balance of federalism at the expense of our states, and a series of misguided financial policy measures that will only hinder the Indian economy. The bill has also raised concerns among philanthropic organisations, whose good work could be actively restrained by new restrictive proposals to limit donations and sharing of grants between charities.
But there is a larger and more worrying trend that the nation is witnessing under this government—the use of financial policy-making and weaponisation of fiduciary institutions as tools for coercion and control. The Union government has deliberately used these instruments to handicap our states financially, but also to clamp down on political opponents of the government—practically anyone who is even remotely critical, whether think tanks, the media or even vocal citizens.
We have seen this take place at a dizzying frequency in a number of ways—the use of the income tax department to go after media houses that have not toed the line of the ruling dispensation; the cancellation or withholding of FCRA licenses of prominent think tanks (like Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research) or even philanthropic bodies (Missionaries of Charity) that have left many with an existential crisis; and the use of the Enforcement Directorate to stifle the voice of the opposition. Of the 121 political leaders probed by the ED since 2014, 115 (95 per cent) as of November 2022 belong to the opposition. Such tendencies not only shame India in the global community but are an affront to our democratic constitutional principles. Sadly, as with legislation, policy making and the appropriation of autonomous institutions, the finance bill, too, only confirms that India is now led by a government that is inclined towards coercion, control and an unprecedented centralisation of power.