The National Democratic Alliance sounded the poll bugle on Friday with finance minister Piyush Goyal focusing on farmers and socially and economically weaker sections, besides reaching out to the middle class, in his budget speech.
This comes in the wake of both the government and the Congress indulging in competitive populism with elections likely to be announced in less than a month. A few days ago, the Congress promised a nationwide farm loan waiver and minimum income guarantee if voted to power. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government on Friday went a step further to announce the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, providing income support of ₹6,000 to small and marginal farmers with immediate effect.
Goyal also reduced the tax burden on the middle class by announcing a tax rebate on income of up to ₹5 lakh for individual taxpayers, besides addressing the woes of the unorganized sector with a “mega pension" scheme for workers earning less than ₹15,000.
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“It is an election budget. The announcements suggest that there is an attempt to appease the middle class, especially the urban salaried class, which seems to be unhappy with the BJP. There have also been announcements for the farmers and unorganized workers," said Sanjay Kumar, director of New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Electorally, tax sops may not be too significant as only “6-7% of Indian voters are salaried" and the “16-17% of first-time voters" have nothing much to do with tax exemptions, he said.
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“The BJP may not lose anything from this, but the best that they may get is to hold on to its declining popularity among sections of the electorate. The announcements of the interim budget alone cannot help the BJP in its revival or bringing it on par with its 2014 prospects," Kumar said.
The budget is in line with the BJP’s social outreach strategy to expand its voter base by focusing on rural areas rather than being overly dependent on urban areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the interim budget was only a trailer. “More than 12 crore farmers, 3 crore middle class families and 30-40 crore workers in the unorganized sector will benefit from the budget. Poverty has been falling at a record rate due to the efforts of this government. This budget will boost the efforts of 130 crore citizens in realising the goal of a ‘New India’," Modi said.
The announcements come barely a month after the BJP lost Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan to the Congress, against the backdrop of rising rural distress, and is also struggling in certain urban pockets.
“The budget has pleased all sections of people as it has managed to touch every section. There is equal importance to people living in cities and villages. The message of the budget should be seen along with the recent announcement of providing 10% reservation for the general category. The government has sent a strong message to the people before the Lok Sabha polls," said a senior BJP leader, requesting anonymity.
Opposition parties, however, said the announcements were made with an eye on the general elections.
“It was not an interim budget. It was a full-fledged budget accompanied by an election campaign speech. The government has trampled on time-honoured conventions," former finance minister P. Chidambaram said on Friday afternoon, adding that it was “not a vote on account, but an account for votes".
Opposition leaders said the income support to farmers was too small and that they would raise the issue during the election campaign. Congress president Rahul Gandhi later said that “surgical strikes" will take the BJP by surprise in a few months.