On September 20, just as the sinking American economy promised pain for the rest of the world, Pranab Mukherjee had assured the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce and Industry that India need not press the panic button because of the American crisis — that he and his colleagues were there to manage it. He was even cockier when he presented the non-budget on February 16. He boasted about the higher-than-ever growth of the economy under the Congress, and surprisingly, the low fiscal deficit, though he must have known then that he was going to present two massive expenditure packages in the next four weeks to boost the election prospects of his government.
That self-assurance showed some wear and tear as time went by. As finance minister of the new government, Mr Mukherjee has sounded less assured than he was before the elections. He has dithered over the date of the budget. His party had once promised to present it within 45 days of the elections; it is just one of the promises he will not keep. He has talked of the major economic issues to be addressed and efforts to be made to insulate the economy from the world crisis. But his vagueness about specific issues and efforts seems to be genuine. The one thing he seemed to be intent upon in his press conference on May 27 was that his budget should echo his party’s inclusive growth crescendo. That may mean more populism in the budget. But this time, he has got another constituency besides farmers and workers crying to be included, namely, industrialists. They have been queuing up in the anteroom of his office asking to be rescued from the world. Amongst them are exporters of labour-intensive goods — textiles, jute goods, coir goods and handicrafts. India’s neighbours — China, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — have reduced their purchases from India. The engineering industry is complaining of import competition; projects involving competitive bidding have proved especially attractive to foreign bidders.
So this time, the finance minister would be torn between his sentimental inclinations and what he should rationally do to rescue the economy. On the one hand, he should begin to repair the enormous damage he did to the budget balance in the last days of his last government: raise revenue, and, even more important, restrain expenditure. On the other hand, populist habits die hard. On the one hand, he should come to the rescue of industry, which is in trouble. On the other hand, he is fond of his vote bank in the villages. On the one hand, he belongs to a party that once made itself famous with economic liberalization. On the other hand, there will be considerable pressure on him to impose and raise import duties. The choices are neither easy nor pleasant. But weathered politician that he is, Mr Mukherjee will no doubt work out which messy compromises will bring the greatest political mileage.