The day after the budget presentation by the finance minister, I had gone for a haircut, and my barber exclaimed excitedly,
“Sir, sona aur chandi ke daam gir gaye hai!”
(Sir, gold and silver prices have fallen!”)
“Aur lohe ka bhi.”
(“Of iron too.”)
Like Thakur in Sholay, I was tempted to respond with “Loha garam hai, Sohail, maar do hathoda.” (“The iron is hot, Sohail, strike the hammer.”)
But the moment passed. I paused, however, to reflect on Sohail’s words.
The pundits had all already passed judgement on the budget, in glowing terms mostly.
Of how it was growth-oriented. Of how the underwriting of increased infrastructure and health spending (especially) was being done by disinvestments and borrowings and not via increasing the tax burden on citizens. Of multi-pronged initiatives to boost the idea of an Atmanirbhar Bharat, a self-reliant India.
And I stopped to think that of all the things he could have commented on, Sohail thought to tell me about the falling prices of metals. He was your everyday barber at a haircutting saloon (not a hairstylist at a salon), unlikely to be trading in any of these metals, but his comment was based on his perception of his audience—me.
When I got back home, I told my 84-year-old father-in-law about how senior citizen pensioners over 75 years of age no longer had to file their income tax returns.
“Look,” he said, “it’s not like I don’t have to pay taxes deducted at source anymore. It’s just that I don’t have to file my tax returns. I’m not sure what the big deal about that is. But I’ll wait to understand this better from our CA.”
Here were two clues in my endeavour to go beyond the headlines, in what the budget actually means to regular people, I thought to myself.
Industry captains and analysts had spoken about what the budget meant for industry. Nationalistic voices had rah-rah-ed the fillip to self-reliance (I’ll return to this in just a minute).
But as wise social commentators before me have said before, politics doesn’t always translate into policy, and policy usually needs translators for the public to figure out what’s in it for them.
After all, isn’t that what we all want to know? What’s in it for me?
Sohail would probably like nothing better than more customers walking in a lot more frequently into his haircutting saloon, his scissors becoming blunter faster than ever so he could reap the benefits of falling iron prices.
And those customers—not quite people like me (I realise I have levels of privilege that Sohail’s usual customers probably don’t—including being able to voice my opinion here)—usually look for more money, to spend, to have in their bank accounts and investments, whether through a pay raise or a bonus. And a lot of people who may have been making do with less frequent haircuts and shaves from a barber because they didn’t have jobs would have been looking for signs in the budget that the long dawn was past, and the sun was finally going to shine on their job prospects.
On the face of it, many of the pundits’ reasons for rejoicing—increased infrastructure spending to benefit heavy industries, healthcare spending rises that would boost the pharma sector, increased FDI in the insurance sector, asset divestment to bring the government’s crown jewels within the private sector’s reach—signal neither the blunting of Sohail’s scissors nor sharpen the job / bonus prospects of his average customers.
But there is one headline where the twain look like they might. And that pertains to all the incentives to enhance the idea of Atmanirbhar Bharat. From phones to auto parts, lights and fixtures to white goods (such as ACs and refrigerators), an increase in import duties signals this move towards increased support for domestic manufacturing. Theoretically, that should lead to more jobs domestically, which, in turn, should lead eventually to more people with money to spend, more customers for Sohail.
But there is a but here, isn’t there?
Trumpism, most prominently and recently, alongside Brexit, marked one of the largest movements out of globalisation as capitalism’s guiding force. As an Economist article argued last week though, Biden’s signals of soft protectionism for a more self-reliant America might end up with the same mistakes, and potentially, the same lessons for India. As analysts have shown, there might actually be fewer jobs created by protectionism, accompanied by decreased competitiveness, increased costs passed on to consumers, non-access to global supply chains, and a definitive drop in innovation. But the drumbeat of nationalism—echoing across multiple nations—what of that, one might ask.
If nationalism made the best macroeconomics, I imagine globalisation would never have happened (how’s that for naivete?). But even if I were to assume for a moment that it could make good economic sense, the budget seems a little two-faced—opening up FDI and privatisation (in other words, selling of “nationalistic assets”) on one hand and boosting Atmanirbhar Bharat on the other.
As simplistic as my effort is to draw a direct line between industry-boosting policy initiatives and barber-boosting money-in-the-pocket outcomes, that’s what I’d like to see experts who are way smarter than me do: translate the budget into a what’s-in-it-for-me for folks like my retiree father-in-law, for haircut-and-job-seeking people, for Sohail.
As Sohail was finishing up my haircut (I was the only customer in the shop at that hour), his colleague, Mohit, was at a loose end. He fired up a desi version of Tinder (that’s what he called it) on his phone and ended up connecting with a girl who identified herself as being from Bareilly.
“What do you do?” the Bareilly girl asked Mohit, who was kind enough to do all this on speakerphone so I could eavesdrop.
“Main? Main puraane ko naya banata hoon, khoobsurat banata hoon,” he stated confidently. “Me? I make the old new, I make it beautiful.”
“Haiinnn?” went the girl from Bareilly. “I don’t understand.”
That’s when Mohit came down to earth.
“Arey, I work in a saloon, I’m a barber.”
I guess I’m just trying to be like that girl from Bareilly here, trying to cut to the chase on exactly what the budget means to you and me. And to Sohail and Mohit.
(Narayan Devanathan is CEO, dentsu Solutions, India. Opinions expressed are his own.)