In the shadow of the deficit

Finance minister must strike a balance between poll pressures and imperatives of reform

When Finance Minister P. Chidambaram stands up to present Budget 2013 later this week, he will have to walk a tightrope between a budget that makes investors optimistic about India and one that satisfies his party, especially those in the Congress who want welfare programmes and subsidies. In Chidambaram's earlier stint as finance minister, walking this tightrope was not as difficult as it is today because the economy was growing fast, the fiscal deficit was under control and the current account deficit was much smaller than it is today.

The forthcoming budget is expected to be the last one this government can present. Next year, there might be a vote on account, in view of the elections that will follow soon after. That makes this budget the last chance for the UPA to fulfil all the election promises it made. If Congress MPs feel that they are not going to win the next elections, the desperation to expand welfare programmes will only increase. This could involve a stepping up of expenditure, which the government can ill afford at the moment.

Introducing new programmes like the food security bill, or continuing old programmes and increasing expenditure on them, needs money. With a slowing economy, tax revenue growth is unlikely to be buoyant. Even if the finance minister tries to come up with proposals to tax the rich more, it is unlikely that he will raise much revenue from them. Further, even if he is able to introduce the GST, revenues might not go up in the first year. Infrastructure issues, compensation to states for Central sales tax cuts, and the costs of implementing the new system will mean that he cannot depend on higher tax revenues in the coming year.

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