Budget 2021

The Union Budget’s political message

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s third budget has a clear political message: aimed at creating a “feel good” sense among farmers and the rural poor with an eye to the slew of state elections due soon, it is an attempt to change the perception that this is a pro-rich government.

In 2014, the BJP-led NDA government came to power accusing the previous Congress-led UPA regime of frittering away public money on subsidies for the poor, squandering natural resources and obstructing corporates from functioning. Monday’s budget — high on socialist rhetoric and filled with enhanced allocations for scheme such as the MGNREGA, a UPA flagship programme that the BJP had mocked at the time — would suggest that after two electoral defeats last year in Delhi and Bihar, the government would not like to take any chances.

This is also the BJP’s way of trying to woo what was always a Congress constituency — rural India.

But the fine print in the budget, opposition MPs were quick to point out, belies the promises made. For instance, the boast that the MGNREGA allocation this year — Rs 38,500 crores — is the highest ever is neither correct, as the Congress stressed (it was higher under the UPA in 2010-11) nor is the increase over the previous year significant in real terms.

There was also a sense that despite the apparent focus on the agricultural sector, the problem of rural distress has not been addressed, an issue on which the Janata Dal-United and the Congress appeared to be in agreement. Both parties were of the view that the positive signal that needed to be given by substantially increasing the Minimum Support Price for crops was not there. “The price signal should have been clear, “ former finance minister P, Chidambaram said, “one reason for the acute distress is that farmers are not getting a fair remunerative price.” The JD-U’s KC Tyagi recalled that the BJP, in its election manifesto had promised to hike the price to 50 per cent over the cost price.

Then political parties, such as the Trinamool Congress, expressed unhappiness at the way the funding for the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sarak Yojana. Instead of the Centre funding 100%, as it did till last year, it will now provide only 60%, with the States having to bear the remaining 40%. Is this cooperative federalism, asked the Trinamool’s Derek O’ Brien.

If references to the social sector, rural development, farmers peppered the Finance Minister’s budget speech, its focus on the social sector emphasised improving of skills, promoting entrepreneurship and creating employment while giving education and health much smaller play. Only Rs. 1000 crore has been put aside for higher education, while the move to privatising of education continues. The allocation for minority education has plummeted from Rs 375 crores last year to Rs. 120 crores this year.

“We need to think beyond ‘food security’ and give back to our farmers a sense of ‘income security’. Government will, therefore, reorient its interventions in the farm and non-farm sectors to double the income of the farmers by 2022,” Mr Jaitley said. But as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out this was an "impossible idea".

"I think it is an impossible dream and there is no inclination, no way of telling the country how it will be achieved because it implies a 14 per cent annual increase in the farm income in each of the five years," Dr Singh told NDTV.

But for the BJP, masters in communication, it is about creating an perception — that it stands with the poor, the vulnerable and farmers in distress. It clearly believes that the opposition’s attempts to pick holes in the budget will not work as its army of workers will fan out to spread the good word. If the middle class — particularly the salaried middle class — has got short shrift, the BJP clearly is not that concerned about this constituency as it feels that this will not move to the Congress at this moment. The coming months will demonstrate how far the BJP’s gameplan works.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 3:22:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/business/budget/The-Union-Budget%E2%80%99s-political-message/article14129853.ece

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