Govt/media/industry. It’s a closed, cosy club of technocrats.
One wanted to write a humorous piece. But watching the budget as theatre and performance, I realised the joke was on me. My disappointment with the budget stems not from the fact that it is a dismal science but that it is dismal theatre.
The presentation of the budget as a public self has changed. Three things in particular create a sense of concern. There is an absence of the political. The comments from trade unions, ideologists are missing. There is also the separation of the political and the economic. The budget is a technical affair and political economy, once a great general perspective, is treated as an embarrassment. Finally, there’s the disappearance of the housewife. The housewife was the great tuning fork and legitimator of the budget as a democratic exercise. Oddly, she is lost in the individuality of consumption.
Previously, the housewife was still the economist, an expert on the domestic economy. Yet the household disappears in the new public sphere, which sanitises ideology and valorises expertise. The person on the street is no longer ‘aam aadmi’. Aam aadmi has been strategically appropriated into an empty ideal type. R.K. Laxman’s common man and his wife look absentmindedly distant, wryly realising that the aam aadmi has dispensed with their everyday world. The aam aadmi is an empty set, the latest entrant into the abstract world of the Congress party.
The sense of buzz and anticipation the budget had was real. Gossip, rumour, speculation and hope were a part of general conversation. The budget had a sense of drama, rhetoric, debate, a wonderful fizz of protest. There was a sense of democracy, which extended to the debate. One sensed till then that analysing the budget was a part of citizenly competence. Today, the budget as anticipatory theatre is muted, a distant act from a distant universe of lobbyists.
The text is increasingly middle class. It is also restricted to a small cabal of experts, who all seem part of the same club, and seem reluctant to break the consensus. Government, media, or corporations seem cuddled up close to one another. It is not just that the incestuousness is facile. The preludes to the budget are even more farcical. One newspaper had a budget picnic, with three experts sitting in a car like vaudeville performers. There is an argument for the return of silent movies in economics. Slapstick without the text would be more bearable. The obscenity lies in the antiseptic bloodlessness of what is a ritual bloodletting. Camus’ statement, “Statistics don’t bleed”, is only partly true. They hide a haemorrhaging under the guise of abstract numbers.
One must recognise the strange spillover of the media playing shadow cabinet. The pomposity of the media is not even funny. They turn the evaluation of the budget into an incestuous act, going hysterical about the walkout. Discussions of the walkout seem the only reference to politics in the budget. The word political economy has become invisible in a club of technocrats offering 7.5 to 8.5 to the budget as if it has been auctioned to the highest bidder among lobbyists. The walkout may just represent the Opposition’s attempt to let in some fresh air into current economics. The language is so formulaic that one wonders where simple ideas like petrol hike, price rise have disappeared. The word aam aadmi is used as an afterthought, an empty formula, a substitute for the sense of the people, livelihoods that have disappeared.
One has to ask whether the budget as a sanitised table hides certain realities. Does livelihood mean the same as work? Does the informal economy have an official status? Or does the disappearance of certain groups in the stakeholder discussion game indicate that the budget has been hypothecated to a few lobbies? Once in Calcutta, I saw a tiny cobbler stall with a hoarding, ‘Hypothecated to Bank of India’. Is our budget and budget debates hypothecated to a few lobbies?
One wonders whether the budget is today part of democratic theatre. As one wag said, Shahrukh Khan and Karan Johar might have done a more humane and ironic job of emphasising the budget’s logic. The performative aspects of budgets are an early warning system about professional attitudes to everyday problems. If this budget is a sign, then the people of India should wake with their housewife budgets, budgets of informal economy, their own vision of their own world. Their silence will no longer do as budgets tell you little about the logic of ordinary lives and livelihoods.