Why India's Union Budget represents a year long opportunity for pitching policy stories

For a business, especially an economy journalist, the Union Budget is the biggest story of the year. And India is actually one of the few countries globally where it is still part of a sustained news cycle.

As a business journalist with ABNi-DowJones TV channel, I had the privilege to cover two budgets, the 1996 and the 1997 budget, the latter also called the 'Dream Budget' where the then Finance Minister, P Chidambaram made a strong push for economic, especially tax liberalisation. 

The excitement in the newsroom ( sustained by plates of noodles!), the late evening rushing from Parliament to the newsroom in South Delhi with political reactions ( this was when Budgets were presented at 5 PM and continued well into the evening), the visits to CII and FICCI offices to catch bytes from a gaggle of CEOs all waiting to give budget reactions. It was an unforgettable learning experience. 

Budget, the story opportunity that keeps giving

For a PR professional the Union Budget is full of story opportunities, well beyond the business leader sectoral comments. Here are some of these opportunities that can be considered through 2020.

- The Budget with its deep component of policy announcements should be considered as a continuum along with the RBI's monetary policy announcements (slack and busy season), and the Economic Survey. This provides the best policy framework for short and long term policy indications and year-long opportunities for stories.

-The National Economic Editors' Conference is usually the fourth part of this framework when ministers update national economy editors on policy issues over two action-packed says. Strangely, enough I can find no reference to this annual fixture event after 2016! Nor can I find it listed in upcoming events on the Press Information Bureau (PIB) site, the host of the event. If the government doesn't hold this event this year it's a major departure from a well-established communication practice.

- A look at the newspaper ads from various industry groups that begin to appear ahead of the budget gives an excellent snapshot of what various sectors are facing long term. It's also a good way to check which media publications are in favour with the government. For the longest time in the 1990s, certain newspapers were preferred for stories and ads as their cutting went directly to ministries through PIB briefs. Of course many industry groups also formally release their expectations.

- One can expand the shelf life of the usual CEO reaction quote pitch rush, reporters receive thousands of these in the budget period and the discard ratio is high; by looking at industry-specific cycles and bringing out quotes combined with budget perspectives at that time.

- Human interest stories really thrive in the post-budget period. Television and digital publications are naturally inclined towards this, but even papers such as Times of India do a good job with the traditional anchor spread story. Times of India incidentally was the first English daily to introduce infographics to simplify budget numbers over a decade ago. 'The Quint' is another platform that does personal stories very nicely. 

Personally, I would love to see a well crafted Instagram campaign around the budget.

2 Story Cues from the Union Budget 2019

From advance stories about the government and its priorities, here are some stories that might provide pegs ahead, apart from the macroeconomic stories:

- The auto industry: Disruption by rideshare firms and high tax rates have led to one of auto's worst year with dropping sales. Add to this the government's declared priority of encouraging electric vehicles manufacturing means a very challenging year. Yet, this is one of the best job-creating sectors in India, offering plenty of positive cues for storytelling. Plus, many of the manufacturers such as Maruti Suzuki are exploring electric models.

- The banking system. This includes recapitalisation of state-owned banks, the performance of non-banking financial companies (NBFC) liquidity crisis after the crash of IL& FS. However, this is being seen prominently through the lens of the return of banking loan defaulters such as Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and Vijay Mallya for trial and the possible banning of auditors of IL & FS. 

2 Macro budget stories that should matter, but will not:

- Rationalisation of the labour policy. Industry bodies such as CII have pitched the finance minister for a more flexible firing policy. Currently, due to a 1947 law, any company with over 100 permanent employees has to seek government sanction for firing. This is an important story for the rationalisation of the labour regime.  However, this is a hot button topic that few politicians wants to touch.

- Job creation. With so much conflicting data on job creation, the true situation gets drowned in numbers. This topic is just waiting for a proper human interest focused storytelling to create interest, 

Paarul Chand is editor, PRmoment India

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