It can be easy to overstate the importance of the national budget in relation to the country’s economy, or to be swayed by its ‘record’ numbers, the sense of occasion and pageantry around its presentation. In Bangladesh every year, for four weeks or so in June, it is all parliament practically talks about. It can all make out as if the entire economy’s blueprint is up for deliberation, and that it must be at least economically consequential to every citizen.
The truth of course is that the budget itself, i.e. the Finance Bill, even after it is passed by parliament is merely an authorization granted by the people through its representatives to an elected government, for specific financial outlays through its various departments. As a percentage of GDP, that only crossed 15 percent in 2016. This year (the 2019-20 fiscal, that starts July 1st) it is actually projected to come down a tick from last year to 18.1 percent from 18.3 percent of GDP. When it comes to achieving the 8.2 percent GDP growth target that it sets out, the role of the budget can at best be that of the handmaid. The hype that needs to be dispelled tends to be around the total outlay, that at Tk 5.2 trillion is indeed nominally the largest ever, but that is the case every year. To speak of it in terms of records is trivialising, if not deceiving. Countries like Bangladesh are hardly afforded the ideological space for different governments to leave their imprint on the bill such that their differences find any real expression - along the lines of say a progressive perspective that believes in ‘big government’ (and big budgets for large scale government-led initiatives) versus a more conservative philosophy that seeks to cut subsidies and balance the budget.
Investors and other stakeholders tend to be more interested in the policy decisions, coming together to signal an overall policy direction, that accompany the finance bill’s presentation. Typically they are contained in the finance minister’s budget speech, one of the most important dates in the economic calendar, or at least that is the medium through which they garner the greatest mileage in terms of public awareness. As in every year, any announcement regarding the whitening of black money was drawing the interest of punters this year too. An explanation of how the new VAT law would be implemented was also much-anticipated That’s why it was particularly unfortunate this year that poor health prevented the country’s new finance minister, A. H.M. Mustafa Kamal, from delivering the speech he meant to on Budget Day. After struggling through the preamble and dedication, and some essential procedural bits, he abdicated the responsibility of reading out the rest of the document, including the bits relating to each sector, in favour of the prime minister, who very sportingly took it on. Eventually it was decided to enter the speech as written into the record as the finance minister’s proposed budget. As far as ‘newness’ is concerned, this was probably it about this year’s budget.