New Delhi: The last full Union budget presented by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government before the 2019 general election seeks to put to rest the criticism that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was not sensitive to farm distress and the marginalized sections of the population.
Presenting the budget, finance minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday announced a slew of populist measures and said the government was taking steps to build a “New India". The union budget prioritized issues and schemes related to women, farmers, youth, poor, and disadvantaged communities.
There are upcoming polls in three North-East states—Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. This year, the BJP and Congress will be in a direct contest in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
The government’s renewed focus on rural distress is interesting because the states under BJP rule, especially Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, have already announced farm loan waivers in their respective states.
The recent assembly election in Gujarat came was an eye-opener for the BJP as it bore the brunt of farmer angst and eventually won the election by making up the rural vote deficit in urban areas.
“The Prime Minister is not in for momentary populism. This budget has two items which have a huge social impact—50% over and above cost as far as the farmer is concerned and healthcare or Modicare. This is a part of the prime minister’s philosophy," Jaitley said in an interview with Doordarshan. “We all are worried about farmers and are working to double their income. We need to work on rural roads, toilets, electricity, health for the poor and work on giving the farmer a good price for the produce," he said, adding that it was an election budget.
In one of its biggest offerings, the government decided to set up a National Health Protection Scheme that aims to cover 100 million poor and vulnerable families and reach out to approximately 500 million beneficiaries, providing Rs5 lakh per family per year. Jaitley, in his budget speech, said this is the “world’s largest government funded healthcare programme".
The government will establish one medical college for every three parliamentary constituencies to provide better health facilities. The budget also aims to provide better livelihood and infrastructure for rural areas with an allocation of Rs14.34 trillion.
With an aim of doubling farmer income by 2022, the government has decided to increase the minimum support price of all kharif crops by one-and-a-half times and launch Operation Green with a fund of Rs500 crore to boost production of tomatoes, potatoes and onions.
“The union budget addresses the problem of rural distress and there is an attempt to fundamentally address the problem by building better infrastructure, hike in minimum support price (MSP), problems related to irrigation facilities. By strengthening the rural and marginalized sections, the government hopes that it will benefit the economy," said a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader on the budget.
The government also announced schemes relating to the poor and middle class, including increasing the outreach of the Ujjwala scheme to 80 million more women, Saubhagya to 40 million families and building 20 million more toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
“There is a growing opposition to this government over farmers and rural distress and it was visible during Gujarat elections and Mandsaur violence incident. The BJP has anticipated this criticism ahead of 2019 and has responded to it. The government has stated its intentions but whether it will have enough time to action it out, we will have to wait and watch," said Manisha Priyam, a New Delhi based political analyst. “This budget addresses popular problems but I do not think it is a populist budget. It simply states its priorities and addresses the critique around it," she added.