In an election year, no free lunch

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presents the Interim Union Budget 2024 at the Lok Sabha of the Parliament House in New Delhi on Thursday.   (ANI)
Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presents the Interim Union Budget 2024 at the Lok Sabha of the Parliament House in New Delhi on Thursday. (ANI)

Summary

In her budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman emphasized the inclusive approach to development and growth, listing achievements such as housing, cooking gas, electricity, tap water, and bank accounts for all.

NEW DELHI: In a move that reflected the government’s confidence in its ability to do well in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman refrained from offering any sops or freebies in the interim budget. There was no change to individual tax rates, nor any increase in allocation for many popular schemes such as the PM Kisan Samman Yojana and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

On the contrary, her budget sought to speed up the pace of fiscal consolidation.

Sitharaman, however, was not about to miss the opportunity—a budget speech just weeks before elections—to list the achievements of the government. She started her 46-minute speech talking about “the profound positive transformation the economy has undergone in the last 10 years."

She highlighted the “all-round, all-pervasive and all-inclusive" approach to growth and development that has ensured housing, cooking gas, electricity, tap water and bank accounts for all.

The finance minister also spoke about the four “castes" that the government has focused on—the poor, women, youth and farmers. “The earlier approach of tackling poverty through entitlements had resulted in very modest outcomes," she said, adding that by empowering the poor, the Narendra Modi government has lifted 250 million people from multi-dimensional poverty. As much as 34 trillion had been given to the needy through direct benefit transfer, resulting in a saving of 2.7 trillion.

She reminded farmers, a crucial vote bank, that under the PM-Kisan Samman Yojana, 118 million small and marginal farmers have benefitted. About 40 million of them got crop insurance under the PM Fasal Bima Yojana. The youth, she said, were being empowered through a New Education Policy, Skill India Mission, establishment of many ITIs, IIMs, AIIMs and new universities. Over 430 million loans had been sanctioned to the youth for help with their entrepreneurial aspirations.

She saved the best for women, explaining how 300 million Mudra loans have been given to them and how female enrolment in higher education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses have risen sharply. Almost 70% of houses under the PM Awas Yojana in rural areas have been sanctioned to women either as a sole or joint owner.

The only time the finance minister mentioned the word “free" was on rooftop solarization and “muft bijli". Hopes of any freebies were dashed quickly when she explained that people can get as many as 300 units of electricity free of charge every month by installing rooftop solar panels. Her other promises included: a new scheme for middle class housing, more medical colleges, cervical vaccination for girls, extending insurance scheme to health workers, a fresh impetus to agri-processing and a new programme for dairy farmers.

“The impact of all-round development is discernible in all sectors. There is macro-economic stability, including in the external sector. Investments are robust. The economy is doing well," she said.

Opposition parties, however, were not enthused. “Not very much came out of it," said Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. There was a lot of rhetorical language and very little on concrete implementation, he added.

“I saw arrogance when they said they would present the budget in July. You cannot take any election for granted," Akali Dal’s Harismrat Kaur Badal said. “The finance minister took a long time to hail praises, but delivery was zero," said DMK MP Dayanidhi Maran.

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