26 October 2014

The Vote-Budget

Pic www.therepublicsquare.com
The JVP’s Sunil Handunnetti captured the Opposition’s sentiments with regard to Budget 2015 best.  He said ‘අද අය වැය දිනය නෙමෙයි...වඩා හොඳයි මේකට අල්ලස් දිනය කියල කිව්වා නම්’ (this is not Budget Day…it would be more appropriate to call it Bribe Day).  There was at once dismay (at the political impact of the budget) and acknowledgment that at least on the face of it the budget would resonate well with a wide cross section of the population. 

There’s something in it for everyone, this is clear.  No, it’s not that everyone got all the goodies in their respective wish-lists.  The President is not Santa Clause.  Santa Clause is pure fiction; the President has to deal with the real.  ‘The real’ is about what’s there to give.  It is about who gets how much of what.   Or at least, that’s what we are supposed to think.

It was bound to be a goodies-budget, a budget to please everyone.  Except the Opposition.  That’s a no-brainer when there’s a major election coming up.  It’s one of those benefits enjoyed by the incumbent.  Nothing illegal about it of course, but the fact remains that the budget was presented not just by the President (in his capacity as Minister of Finance) but a President who in all likelihood would be running for re-election a few months from now.   That’s to be expected from a politician and certainly from one who unarguably reads the political equation much better than anyone else around. 

This is why the budget pulled the propaganda rug from under the feet of the Opposition.  It bested by quite a margin the if-elected pledges that have been doing the rounds.  But that’s exactly where the problem lies.  Politicians are made of promises.  Pledges are easy.  The nutshell versions are full of promise because they deal with aggregate numbers and broad categories.  The devil is in the details.   This is where the Opposition has a responsibility.  They have to dig it all up and offer the people a more detailed picture of deliverability. 

If one were to check the nutshell versions of previous budgets and weigh the pledges against what actually materialized, one would be cynical of grand promises.  The difference this time is that the ‘doing’ has to get off the ground fast.  Delays and excuses would only help the Opposition. 

This is where the most neglected aspect of the budget comes into play – income.  A ‘spending budget’ warms everyone’s heart and this one is warmer than usual.  But one can’t spend that which one does not have.  You can’t plan expenditure if you don’t have a reasonable estimate of income.  Revenue cannot be conjured.  It’s basic logic.  If you don’t have as much money as you need, you have to borrow.  That’s debt.  The sweet thing about debt as far as the Government is concerned is that it belongs to the public.  The other sweet thing about debt is that it is a headache that hits later on.  Think of credit cards. You are essentially spending what you don’t have.  But you have to pay. Later.  With interest.  Pay-day is not a happy day, whichever way you think about it. 

But right now, as things stand and with elections coming up, if you want a one-line description of what it was all about, Joe Biden puts it best: ‘Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.’

Votes, folks. 

In the coming days we’ll have a budget vote on a vote-budget.  The Government has the numbers in Parliament.  The budget will fix the numbers outside.  


Thrishantha Nanayakkara said...

Clearly this budget is a fragmented attempt to appease key elements of the vote base than a vision to place Sri Lanka in a strategic position in the World. He kind of camouflaged this election oriented budget with few words about the "need" to become a key player in Asia. An example is to allocate more money to have more doctors and nurses to treat Kidney patients in the North Central province than allocating more money to investigate the root causes and to find solutions at the cause of the kidney problems. Likewise, a lot of other attempts were just to appease people at symptom level than at the cause level.

If the opposition expected anything different from President Rajapaksha, they must be the best fools. Now the challenge for the opposition is to stop being cry babies but to think sharply about how to get the people to think at a deeper level, and to convince them not to get carried away by short term comforts. For that they have to stop being dishonest first.