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Breaking Down News: The Greatest Show

Like in a kung fu tournament, a lot of the budget action happens around the ring, not in, and this year, the unfortunate passing of E Ahamed sparked off a ringside match.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal |
February 4, 2017 12:33:18 am
budget, budget 201, union budget, economic survey, economic survey 2017, economic reforms, economic challenges, public sector, loan, loan defaulters, indian express news, india news, budget news, budget updates Illustration by C R Sasikumar

The most exciting game show on Indian television was on this week, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Prime Minister Narendra Modi playing the crowds to widen the BJP’s electoral base. Budget 2017 did not have much political content, generally carrying on from the last two exercises with commendable fiscal prudence. Well before the event, tax analyst Pratik Jain had correctly predicted that it would be “more like Dravid than Sehwag”.

But like in a kung fu tournament, a lot of the budget action happens around the ring, not in it. This year, the unfortunate passing of IUML MP E Ahamed the previous day sparked off a ringside match. The television studios were suddenly energised. The slow hours of the morning were suddenly hectic with speculation about whether the budget would be deferred, or delayed, or proceed with inhumanly implacable punctuality.

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The truth, as always, lay in the middle. But it was surprising to see the dead remembered with only a few seconds of silence in the House — that’s what we saw on TV, at least. A minute or two used to be good form, but we live in impatient times, and the time of Parliament is especially precious.

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Meanwhile, the off-Broadway show on TV ranged from real issues to the ridiculous. Can the government appear to be confrontational, repeatedly wondered Rajdeep Sardesai, without disrupting the budget session? Pramod Tiwari asked, “How the heavens will fall if the Budget is delayed by a day?” They would fall hard and fast, actually. The demand to defer the budget by a day was clearly unrealistic. People who play the markets prepare to take positions and hedge on budget day, for which they accumulate war chests. They had moved their schedule forward when the government took the extraordinary measure of advancing the exercise by a month. Now, introducing a delay could have ruffled the markets needlessly, throwing strategies slightly out of gear.

While Rajeev Gowda of the Congress protested that delays could be made up by Parliament working late, Bharatendra Singh of the BJP opposed the motion on the Indian Gate lawns because “there is no free lunch”. Agreed, the Parliament canteen is subsidised but not free, but what is the relevance? Speaking of mysterious statements, the chair of the Lok Sabha herself provided one: “I am not a doctor.” This was in response to Mallikarjun Kharge’s final request to defer the budget, in the course of which he had said that Ahamed was brought dead to hospital. Well, the chair is not the president either, during whose address the MP had a heart attack, and that is no more relevant.

The budget opining season usually persists for a fortnight, in which everyone who has ever seen a demand curve, even in the middle distance, gets to strut their stuff. But it had competition this week from Berkeley, a distant campus which rivets Indians, and which saw some of the biggest protests since the civil rights movement. Twitter was the preferred gateway to the action, since cellphone videos and pictures of the mayhem and vandalism hit the net long before TV crews reached the disputed site. RT appeared to be first off the blocks, with videos of arson and general mayhem in progress well before bigger channels could refocus from regular programming. They showed cars and ATMs being smashed, and a woman Trump supporter pepper-sprayed.

Antifa (anti-fascist) and ‘Bash the Fash’ campaigns have become very visible on the internet in recent weeks, preparing the ground for left-wing violence. Heightened political feelings appear to be infecting supporters of liberal values in the US. Berkeley’s students and academics know very well how to fight the system without rocks and incendiaries, and they could have kept to their core competency.

All the excitement was over a talk by British alt-right journalist and Breitbart News staffer Milo Yiannopoulos. This was a multiple provocation in a famously liberal university — the organisation is propagandist and the person was permanently banned from Twitter last year for inciting hatred against the familiar targets of fascists. Also, he was expected to speak against ‘sanctuary campuses’ which had sworn to shield students against crackdowns under immigration law. And finally, Steve Bannon, chief strategist and former campaign manager of President Trump, is former executive chair of Breitbart. Unambiguous friend and foe identification, in comparison with which the free speech issue may have seemed to be temporarily secondary.

In another era, the Berkeley riots would have been a watershed, to be commented upon for weeks. But it was diluted by leaks about Trump’s scary conversations with heads of state. Then it was overwritten at the National Prayer Breakfast by his tough talk about the necessity for tough talk internationally. And finally, Trump got into a scrap with former California governator Arnold Schwarzenegger over a TV programme which had media and the internet scrambling for the last tatters of their sense of reality.

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