Modi made his move with 'Interim' Budget; Opposition needs to highlight 'fine print' that makes it not so rosy

With the Budget, Narendra Modi has made a move and attempted to seize initiative with a series of financial statements and promises that go far beyond the convention in an election year.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay February 02, 2019 09:06:50 IST
Modi made his move with 'Interim' Budget; Opposition needs to highlight 'fine print' that makes it not so rosy
  • Modi's Interim Budget makes a series of financial statements and promises that go far beyond the convention in an election year

  • The BJP has displayed an eagerness to reconnect with the middle class by relaxing income tax rules

  • The Opposition has its work cut out for them, as Modi has already said this was 'just the trailer'

Over several months, as it became increasingly clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's bid for another term in office was faltering, there was speculation over what he would do to contest the elections on a national narrative and not get entrapped in an aggregate of state-level polls.

With the Budget — whether you call it interim or full depends on your political orientation — Modi has made a move and attempted to seize initiative with a series of financial statements and promises that go far beyond the convention in an election year.

Although the permissible extent of the announcements and new schemes that can be unveiled in an election year have not been spelled out formally in the nation's 'holy' books, propriety demanded that the incumbent restricts itself to securing a grant to keep running the existing schemes and pay salaries. The rest is left for the new government.

Predictably, the sweeps of Friday's exercise are being contested by the Opposition, rightly so, but with responses that have capacity to backfire. It was obvious that BJP members were under tremendous pressure, sensing that they are facing a huge challenge.

Modi made his move with Interim Budget Opposition needs to highlight fine print that makes it not so rosy

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

Till virtually the last quarter of Piyush Goyal's term, members of the ruling party were still awaiting an announcement that had the potential to be a game changer. Now, the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sammaan Nidhi scheme for farmers, under which small and marginal farmers will receive Rs 6,000 per year, has been announced, but it is being riven by doubts articulated by the Opposition — that it was too little, too late, especially when states were raining schemes and promises for farmers.

Finally, when Finance Minister Piyush Goyal announced modifications in income tax slabs, euphoria set in and triggered an unprecedented response from the treasury benches. The Lok Sabha turned into an election rally of sorts, where Goyal was the Speaker and BJP MPs, the audience in the grounds.

As the House reverberated with chants of "Modi, Modi", reminiscent of 2014, the process of reviving the Modi cult was kickstarted. We will know by mid-May whether this will enable the BJP to not just regain lost ground, but match its 2014 tally, if not go remotely close to its audacious 'Abki Baar, 400 ke Paar' objective.

The BJP displayed an eagerness to reconnect with the middle class after a significant section of this demographic group displayed disenchantment with Modi's repeated claims that his government was of the poor, while they believed all along this was a party primarily of the bania/trader class.

In his New Year's interview to a news agency, Modi had reached out to the middle classes by praising them: "The middle class is the only section in the society that bothers about the poorest section and wants maximum benefits to be given to such people. So as a country, it is not only our responsibility but our national duty to uplift the middle class."

By relaxing income tax rules, which, after reading the fine print, is not as rosy as Goyal described, Modi has fulfilled his "duty".

Additionally, Goyal has provided the BJP with a newly minted slogan, possibly after running it past the top brass. His three-words — 'Vikas - Ek Andolan' — has the advantage of dovetailing into the party's reasoning that this is still a government under works, that many of the schemes have a long way to go but are undoubtedly in the making. Instead of success in empirical terms, we will hear more of this in the course of the campaign, that the Modi government must be evaluated 'not for what it achieved, but for its intent', or niyat.

The Budget also mirrors Modi's penchant for shifting goalposts. This was most starkly evident after demonetisation, when the primary objective behind the move kept being modified after the initial declaration, that unearthing and liquidating black money was their goal. The Modi government has resorted to this tactic repeatedly.

This time, too, Goyal has set another target — 2030 and the 10 visions that will be priority sectors in the coming years, provided the BJP stays in power for consecutive terms till then. A careful scrutiny of each of these sectors and thrust areas shows that they have all been prioritised earlier, as well, albeit in varying degrees by different governments.

However, the notion that this government is always doing something new and that it is not willing to sit on its laurels has been refurbished. It is only by projecting another dream that the people can be made to forget what is bothering them — jobs and dwindling farm income. This is akin to parents who divert the attention of a child insisting on a chocolate or ice cream by promising to give something after they return home.

These tactics are standard and legitimate political moves, and tomes have been written on how people are made to believe in an illusion. Modi has made his move. and it is up to the Opposition to reach out to the people and explain that beneath these populist giveaways or handouts is the uncomfortable truth that corners have been cut for schemes that can take care of the historically underprivileged and those who live on the margins of society.

The Opposition has already begun publicising the 'fine print'. Although this exists in every Budget, be it ones presented by the BJP's or Congress, few make headlines the way Modi has done again. He was thumping the desk all along as Goyal spoke in a body language that reeked of confidence.

It will take a lot of hard work for the Opposition to neutralise the gains Modi made on 'Interim' Budget day. He has already said that this was just the trailer, and that the actual Budget would be presented after the BJP's victory in the elections. Modi and his team have made the best possible start to their election campaign, leveraging the incumbent's advantage before the Model Code of Conduct comes into force. But this still does not give the polls an element of certainty as the finish line is way ahead.

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