Propriety versus populism? Please all versus constitutional mandate? That was the question on the morning of February 16 as media had once again built up the vote on account into a hot air balloon. An unseeming frenzy seems to take hold of media, particularly the financial press in this country, the moment a six letter word – Budget – is uttered. The ridiculousness of the situation in the run up to the Budget, or, in this case, a vote on account, borders on the bizarre. The financial media develops a lifeforce of its own, it creates ghosts and apparations where there are none.
A combination of inspired leaks, selective leaks and imaginary leaks clutter the financial media landscape. Some get it right, the majority get it completely wrong. This time round, everyone got it wrong. Arrows were being shot in the dark and not one found its tryst with the target. P Chidambaram did not help when he said that there was ‘no Constitutional bar against making announcements and pronouncements in the Interim Budget’. But someone on one of the TV channels got it right in one of the previews when he said that the Interim Budget would merely be a ‘statement of intent’. In the end, at best, the vote on account could only be described as an economic survey with a flourish. An exposition of the UPA’s five years in power. A damp squib.
But not for lack of trying on the part of the financial media. Sample some of the delights that were laid out in the smorgasbord for all to savour. The stock markets, too, began to reflect some of this irresponsible journalese. The market needed something to kickstart it, so it began its trek northwards as media painted a pretty picture. Raising income tax exemption to Rs 2 lakh from Rs 1.5 lakh on housing loans to boost the beleaguered housing sector, said BS and CNBC; excise duty cut in auto and steel, said ET and HT; to keep Rs 50,000 crore as unallocated ‘free’ money in the Budget to be used in case another stimulus was required in the next three months, said Indian Express; a gem from Financial Chronicle – securities transaction tax to be waived and finally income tax exemption to be raised to Rs 2 lakh, said BS and CNBC. Which begs an answer – what about news media’s propriety?
Forget it. The hot air balloon was pricked by Pranabda in a matter of minutes into his speech. I, too, was in a television studio and was groping for answers in the printed document. For I had to speak on it. Pranabda began positively by stating that five years ago people had voted for change. A change in the manner in which this country is run, a change in the national priorities and a change in the processes and focus of the government. Obviously mirroring the theme of change unleashed by Barack Obama in the US. He ended by appealing to the hoi polloi, “I have no doubt that when the time comes, our people will recognise the hand that made it all possible. The hand that alone can help our nation on the road to peace and prosperity.” Poor editors and journos, who had sweated blood to put together graphics and headlines in the run up to this gargantuan exercise, were left holding the baby and bathwater. Particularly guilty was The Times of India. On Monday morning they did a puff piece on page 1 – 25 years later, he is back – an ode to Pranab Mukherjee, with an additional half page devoted inside on UPA’s man for all seasons – Mr Fix It.
Forgetting that when it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it. And that was the edifice of Pranabda’s vote on account. On Budget day, TOI seemed to have lost it completely. Awakened rudely from its reverie by Zero Fizz - Best Served Cold, it even went to the extent of doing a double header – Why did Pranab present a flat Budget? Answering the question was Pranab himself – We had no mandate for anything more. But it was the side story that made up for the Budget fiasco. Looking for conspiracy theories, team TOI wrote – Congress scared of Pranab stealing the show. It went on to write that the Congress High Command was wary of Pranab stealing the thunder even as Dr Manmohan Singh convalesced. This angst from TOI seemed inappropriate. It was blase.
How can you blame your own ills on Pranabda? He never said he was doing a big bang budget exercise. The only clue that came forth was from Suresh Tendulkar, PM’s economic advisory council chairman, who said that tax reduction was a must to boost purchasing power. The acting Finance Minister acknowledged that in his speech. The attack was on the following lines – just as nothing prevents a night watchman from scoring a few runs, instead of merely holding the fort, nothing in the Constitution prohibits from the government doing more. What curious logic. Heh, but only the previous day, the Times praised Pranab to the skies. Consistency, bah!
In ET, Swami wrote – Yawn, the interim budget was the mother of all anti climaxes. Who pray is responsible for that? Did the government tom-tom that it would be unveiling big ticket measures in the vote on account? No, media and ET and others of its ilk presumed that this would happen. Stories were conjured out of thin air. Is Swami, one of the most respected financial and economic journalists, asking his staff how a story titled - More Tax Sops on Anvil to Fight Slowdown: Third Stimulus Plan likely in Interim Budget - made it to the lead of ET on February 11? Graphic accompanying the story broke it down into Direct and Indirect Taxes. Sector specific reduction in excise duty, excise duty cuts likely for auto component, automobile and cement sectors, faster refunds of service tax for the exporters, procedural simplifications that could provide some relief to industry, 100 per cent tax holiday for IT units under SEZ Act set up under their parent companies, IT companies like Infosys, Wipro and TCS will benefit from this move, extension of tax holiday for STPIs and EOUs, a hike in depreciation benefits for plant and machinery and commercial vehicles purchase and tax holiday for production of gas. Why are misleading your readers?
Guess what, they got it wrong on all counts. Any post mortems? Financial Chronicle’s report on STT being scrapped also was unfathomable. What was the basis of this concoction? One of the resident editors that I worked with some years ago is now heading FC and he was loathe to carrying speculative stories on the budget. His take was simple - nobody gets it right - then why did you run this story? Media now feeds off rumour and stories passed on by pressure groups. Industrial waste has been increasingly recycled into pink waste. As a business journalist, I too may have been guilty of doing this, but somewhere one needs to take a call and put an end to this bazaar of speculation. The odour of speculative stories is overpowering. Yawn, for ET’s reporting. And if you are arguing that it was an anti-climax and has zero fizz, then why devote reams of expensive newsprint to a non-event.
Finally, a word or two about the poor hapless telly channels. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they are sucked into the frenetic roulette of speculation. CNBC-TV18 ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds getting every single thing wrong. Breaking News is probably the most damning thing Indian telly land has created. It is an abomination. If 26/11 was a watershed in telly reporting, then the vote on account bellicosity was yet another sad benchmark for the print journos.
God save us when the real budget caravan rolls into town. Batten down your hatches, for you are going to be bombarded with speculative stories like never before.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.)
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