New Delhi: The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government tried to reclaim the popular narrative by focussing on India’s politically disenfranchised and socially marginalized sections in the budget presented on Monday.
Even though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the central pole of politics in India after wining the general elections of 2014, it has often been perceived to lack a support base in rural areas, especially in the farming community, and among scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). The government, in the last one year, has faced criticism for failing to provide adequate relief to rural residents reeling under the impact of two back-to-back droughts. The opposition also branded it anti-farmer for a bill that sought to make it easier for businesses to acquire agricultural land.
Budget 2016 tried to address those concerns.
“The budget is focussed on development of the agriculture sector, farmers, women and development of rural areas..," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, summing up the key takeaways from the budget. “Steps have been taken to double the income of farmers by 2022. Every village will have electrification by 2018 and it will change the life of the people," Modi said. He also cited a move to provide liquefied petroleum gas connections to rural households in the name of their women so that they are no longer exposed to smoke from wood- and coal-fired stoves.
Key budget proposals include: allocation of ₹ 500 crore for Stand Up India to promote entrepreneurship among scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and women; doubling the funding for the crop insurance scheme Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana from ₹ 2,589 crore in 2015-16 (budget estimate) to ₹ 5,500 crore for 2016-17; bumping up low-paid workers’ salary by 8.33%; allocating ₹ 38,500 crore for the rural jobs guarantee scheme; and allocating ₹ 2.87 trillion as grant-in-aid to gram panchayats and municipalities.
Senior leaders of the BJP-led NDA said the budget is significant because it gives the government time to meet popular expectations—the gap between the next two budgets and the 2019 general election would be too narrow.
Experts agreed. “This budget has a strong political message. The government wants to say that it is pro-poor and pro-rural," said Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and pro-vice chancellor of Jain University, Bengaluru. “The reason that they have made these announcements in this budget is because if these schemes start getting implemented now, it will take 18-24 months for the effects to be visible—exactly the time when the buildup for the next general elections will start," he added. “In a way, the government has walked a tight rope in this budget. They came in with a promise overload which is why they have tried to initiate some long-term fiscal stabilization measures in a mid-term budget. Politically, they cannot afford to not be very pleasant in the second half of their term."
In his speech on Monday, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley made repeated references to Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar, to whose memory he dedicated the Unified Agricultural Marketing E-Platform, to be launched on Ambedkar’s birthday on 14 April. Keeping other icons in mind, the government also announced ₹ 100 crore each for celebrating the birth centenary of Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay and the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh. The announcement is an attempt by the government to tap the aspirational quotient among the socially and economically marginalized communities. The aspirations of young India were one of the key factors that propelled the NDA to power in 2014. Seven states, including Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab, with sizeable Dalit populations, are set to go to polls in the next 15 months. A total of 266 seats are reserved for SCs and 38 for STs in the seven states.
According to Shastri, the NDA has also kept in mind next year’s state election in Uttar Pradesh, which is also a key farming state. The state sends 80 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, the most by any state. “Where do you spend this money; the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) used to spend ₹ 8-9,000 crore; this year you are going to spend ₹ 27,000 crore which is three times the amount, on irrigation, electrification, education in rural areas," Jaitley said in an interview with Lok Sabha TV while responding to a question on whether his third budget was a budget for “Bharat".
“You will have a crop insurance scheme which will convert into expenditure in rural areas because that is where it is needed as it is the most vulnerable part of your economy. Both political and economic considerations converge in that direction, to help that segment of the economy," he added.
Both the Congress and the Left Parties criticized the budget.
“Budget 2016 lacks both vision and conviction. A list of new promises without any account of the failure of tall promises made in the last two budgets," Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi wrote on the microblogging site Twitter.
Former finance minister P. Chidambaram called the budget a “wasted opportunity." A statement by the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said the budget had “no vision for growth and no vision for improving people’s interests."