The budget bluff

Next week, when Finance Minister P Chidambaram gets up to present the Union Budget the nation will hold its collective breath for the next two-odd hours, listen to the speech in rapt attention holding on to every word and number and eventually emerge understanding fairly nothing.

Let us face it, nobody understands the budget. On second thoughts, nobody understands economics at all. When we say nobody, we particularly include the honchos in the RBI and the Finance Ministry. If they had any idea of what they were doing, the country’s economy would not be in the soup that it is always in.

But not knowing what the budget contains should not exactly hold you back from having an opinion or seventeen on it. We, if I may let you into a professional secret, professional journalists never take our complete lack of knowledge to be a shortcoming. One of the main principles of journalism, which makes us to be called an important pillar of democracy, is: If we are ignorant, those who have chosen to read us cannot be any better.

Ha. Ha Ha. We are just kidding. No, not really. Anyway, the reams and reams of ‘analysis’ you get to see in news publications the day after the budget are usually written in the general hope that nobody would be stupid enough to even attempt to understand economics, least of all from newspapers. If you happen to read any of those budget articles you will realise that they actually read like the Constitution if it were written by Chetan Bhagat.

So the question we will tackle today is: how to have opinions on the budget? Don’t be a moron and think who will ask me to talk on budget. Going by who all turn up in TV studios, the only set of people who have no hope of ever participating in TV discussions is the dead. And that makes it clear that the first requirement in the process to becoming an expert commenter on TV is, well, to stay alive.

But the thing is how to sound convincing and commanding like a financial whiz? In this your inspiration will have to be the venerable Nani Palkhivala, verily the nation’s Wren and Martin in understanding the grammar of budget. People used to queue up to listen to him explain the budget in easy to understand simple language. How did Palkhivala reach that exalted position? One, by the dint of his hard work.  Two, he was actually a lawyer.  Not that we are suggesting here anything, the point is you should also be not afraid to bluff.

But bluffing is just one aspect, what you bluff on is more important. For instance, you must not even attempt to say ‘I am deeply disappointed that the Finance Minister has not bothered to address my personal income tax burden’. One, that would be too truthful. Two, no budget expert speaks about things that are actually relevant to the common man. Budget analysers are those —- you better write this down — who are generally out of touch with reality.

Before you tackle the individual aspects of the budget, you must also try and grasp the overall impact of it and decide whether it is basically good or bad. This can be figured out by taking into account the key economic factor of which TV channel you are speaking on. This simple handy guide will help to put things in easy perspective.  1) Pro-govt channel: Praise the budget. 2) Anti-govt channel: Tear apart the budget. 3) NDTV: Praise Sonia.

(Pro-Tip: If for some reason you don’t know the allegiance of the news channel you are on, you are better off describing the budget as a — use a deep voice here — ‘curate’s egg’, which when faithfully translated means: ‘I don’t know what the heck is happening but I am using the two words because they sound so cool and intellectual’).

As we get ready to wind up, let us take the specific cases of two who have virtually made a career out of being budget experts: T N Ninan and Surjit Bhalla. When you listen to them expatiate on financial minutiae in clear and composed words, you will immediately go, ‘wow, that is interesting. I actually understand nothing of it’. But that is because you are no financial whiz. But looking at them, if you were to ask me what is that one thing that binds them together, that one redeeming feature, which they seem to share with many smart analysers across the world, I would, without hesitation, truthfully point out: ‘They both sport a French beard’.

Which is what clinched it for me that I am well qualified to write this article.