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Union Budget 2017-18: Behind Arun Jaitley’s rural push lies a very real political concern

Is Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget overtly populist, thus political?

It does not matter. After demonetisation — that disrupted the economy to some extent, the government was expected to come up with a please-all Budget. It also required to boost consumption to rev up growth in view of slack private investment, with special attention towards rural areas. Political or not, it was a matter of necessity of which Jaitley seems to have made a virtue.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stands outside his office at North Block holding the briefcase containing the Union Budget. PTI

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stands outside his office at North Block holding the briefcase containing the Union Budget. PTI

Is the BJP embarking on course-correction after realising that rural India could be slipping out of its hands? Perhaps.

Rural India spend is up 24 percent; allocation for Dalit upliftment up by 35 percent; massive fund of Rs 3.9 lakh crore on infrastructure; promise to pull 10 million people out of poverty; electrification of all villages by May 2018; assurance to drought-proof villages and other such announcements — the Budget makes its rural focus clear. The finance minister upped allocation to MNREGA to Rs 48,700 crore. Interestingly, this is a scheme of the UPA that the BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, once loved to make fun of.

Of course, there are crucial elections ahead in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab — states where the farming community is critical to the overall economy. Jaitley and other leaders could not have been unmindful of the fact that the Budget had to send out the right message among the electorate. Demonetisation and the general dismal agricultural scene have the voters in a sore mood. In both states, the BJP is not comfortably placed. In the absence of scope to make big bang announcements directly aimed at them — the election code of conduct is in place — it needed a push from the Union Budget. Jaitley has provided his party a talking point through his Budget. In that sense, it can be called 'political'. However, aren’t all Budgets liable to be interpreted as political?

The BJP will also be wary of the fact that it is increasingly being identified with urban India and its aspirations. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been highlighting this through his relentless ‘suit-boot’ jibes at Modi. The party’s insistence on cashless transactions while basic bread and butter issues in rural areas call for urgent attention is incongruous. It has not helped that the job scenario, which was already dismal during the UPA days, has not improved a bit, neither has the state of farming in general. The Jats, who voted for the BJP heavily in 2014, have shown signs of disenchantment with the party of late. Elsewhere, agrarian communities are getting restless.

The BJP needed to change the growing perception that it was indifferent to rural India. The Budget was the opportunity to do that. This explains partly the emphasis on non-urban areas this time. The earlier Budgets tried to do this too but the effort was half-hearted. Even the affiliates of the RSS associated with farmers and rural economy have made their displeasure over this clear several times. With slightly more than two years of the tenure of the government left, the pressure is greater. The issue could be a good handle for the Opposition.

The challenge for the government is to deliver on the promises it has made. Being populist is not such a bad idea if the government is sincere about its words.

Updated Date: Feb 01, 2017 16:32 PM

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