It’s just a little over four hours since Palaniappan Chidambaram, 62, has presented his fifth consecutive Budget as the Finance Minister of the UPA government, and he’s already been through multiple press interviews, including a full-blown press conference.
There are more reporters and editors queued up outside his first-floor office at North Block in New Delhi, and Chidambaram is pressed for time. “Short questions will get sweet answers,” he says, but without a smile. It’s easy to see why Chidambaram is feeling a bit hassled today.
His 108-minute Budget speech earlier in the day hasn’t generated the sort of response—or even understanding—that he thinks is due to it.
The bellwether stock market index, Sensex (a rough and ready barometer of business sentiment) has dropped more than 245 points (it fell more than 500 points intraday, but recovered towards close), and industry is unhappy that it has been cold shouldered, minus a few concessions on the fringe benefit tax and dividend distribution tax.
But this year, Chidambaram didn’t really set out to write a Budget for corporate India.
His fifth consecutive Budget, which will be the last for this administration this time around, has been written with bigger political exigencies in mind: UPA and its allies have a general election to win next year, and that may be brought forward to later this year to cash in on the largesse the Budget has doled out to key constituencies, namely the farmers, who have been given Rs 60,000 crore in loan waivers, and the aam aadmi, who’s been showered with excise duty cuts to make his two-wheeler and small cars cheaper, and higher income exemptions to retain more rupees in his wallet. Will Budget 2008 win UPA and its partners popular votes?