The major surprise coming out of India's 2014 Budget, delivered last week, was…well…that there were no surprises.
After the landslide victory of Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in May's General Election amid talk of new directions and national rebirth, many Indians had been expecting a Budget to match.
Instead, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley delivered a comprehensive and competent account of the nation's current financial standing; outlined the problems it faced, and produced a hard-headed vision of the way ahead. It wasn't quite the hangover after the party, but the Budget did provide a large dose of reality.
Having said that, the stock market was happy, the aspirational middle classes thought Jaitley's measures were quite reasonable while business and industry generally gave it the thumbs up.
So no fireworks, but a close reading of the Budget papers does reveal that most of the BJP's election promises are there, if only referred to briefly in Jaitley's speech to the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament).
What the Finance Minister did dwell on was "fiscal prudence". He spoke at length about the need for the country to live within its means in order to tackle the "challenging" situation left by the previous Congress-led Government.
He raised limits on foreign investment in the defence and insurance industries from 26 per cent to 49 per cent - a clear sign that India wants more foreign investment (as well as a stronger military) and set a fiscal deficit target of 4.1 per cent (down from the current 5.2 per cent).
He promised that a goods and services tax - something that has been talked about in India for years - would be finalised for a vote in the Lok Sabha by the end of the year. He foreshadowed a major assault on taxation loopholes and those who simply neglected to fulfil their tax obligations.
It was all good solid reasoning though the rhetoric was under-stated. Even so, many of the highlighted campaign promises were referred to: a major boost to education; a plan to build 100 'smart' cities and a massive infrastructure program - "this Government will build 23 kilometres of new highways ever day"- brought an enthusiastic reception from the Government benches.
So too was the BJP election pledge to provide electricity and sanitation to all homes by the end of the decade. However, Jaitley refused to dwell on these proposals, stressing his first task would be to restore the Indian economy to the vigorous health it once enjoyed - boosting growth from its present anaemic rate of 4.7 per cent and attacking inflation, which has averaged more than nine per cent over the past two years.
His speech was in contrast to that of Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda who presented his Railways Budget two days earlier. It is a measure of the importance Indians attach to the rail network that it gets its own separate Budget announcement.
Gowda foreshadowed a raft of measures, led by the announcement of the nation's first bullet train line between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. More trains on the current over-stretched network, a clean up of the nation's main stations and free Wi-Fi for travellers were the other main points.
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.