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Gujarat Effect: Renewed Effort to Woo Rural India, Dalit Population

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By Sidharth Mishra

Despite Finance Minister Arun Jaitley claiming during his one hour and fifty minutes long Budget speech on Thursday that its contents were bereft of any political considerations, the annual financial document 2018-19 is all about politics.

The present BJP leadership, symbolised largely by the triumvirate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, cannot do a thing without considering its political fallout. The annual financial statement 2018-19 can be best described as the political statement of the Narendra Modi government on its performance of the past four years.

The first forty-five minutes of the long Budget speech was devoted to the pro-poor measures which the government has initiated in the last four years and in saying its ‘budget of consolidation’, Jaitley meant that the government was now looking for electoral returns on the investments in the public policies made by it.

The political underpinning of the statement can best understood in the ‘pro-poor’ and ‘pro-rural’ content of the Budget. The Prime Minister and his close colleague the Finance Minister understand that they can retain foothold on the Raisina Hill only if the rural and the poor population of the country decide to have them again.

 The results from the bypolls in Rajasthan, where BJP lost the two Lok Sabha seats – Alwar and Ajmer, which went to polls, at least show that the rural votes are not amused by Modinomics. The Gujarat assembly poll results, and before that the Uttar Pradesh civic poll results, too abundantly made it clear to BJP leadership that rural India was not really seeing Modi’s India as ‘Shining India’.

With four states having big agrarian populations — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka —scheduled to hold elections this year, the farmers needed to be wooed aggressively.Two years of drought have cut into profits, and despite normal Monsoon last year, the incomes fell further. To offset this discontent, Finance Minister Jaitley announced a slew of initiatives for rural India ranging from assured and improved MSPs to creating village-level agriculture produce markets.

According to the provisions, MSP of crops shall be increased to 1.5 times that of the production cost. To subsidise removal of crop residue to tackle problem of pollution due to burning of crop residue, is move to tackle both pollution and add value to agriculture.

Govt also proposes to set-up fishery & aquaculture infrastructure fund; and also set up animal husbandry infrastructure fund with a total corpus of Rs. 10,000 crore. The political message in giving subsidies to promote the leather and footwear industry also cannot be lost.

The number of sub-castes within the Dalit community, which is involved in the leather trade from skinning the animal corpse to processing it and making leather handicrafts have been at the receiving end of the politics of cow vigilantism if not by the BJP cadres by their cultural ensembles. Their anger at such politics was visible in the way they voted against the BJP in the Gujarat polls. Thus the Budget provides for making the renewed attempt to woo the Dalits. And for the tribal population are the ‘Eklavya School’, an attempt at consolidating the politics of identity, especially among the Hindu tribal population.

The less time spent by the Finance Minister in course of his speech on urban issues like the taxes and related matters especially those to do with trade and commerce again indicate the influence of the Gujarat poll results. Despite scepticism, the urban areas voted overwhelmingly for the BJP and ensured face-saving victory in the assembly polls. 

To a non-economic person like your reporter, the Budget may look to have nothing extra-ordinary for the middle-class or the urban population. But then again a political person like Jaitley backed by equally political Prime Minister cannot be tabling a policy without an eye on the electoral harvest. While the benefits of the healthcare schemes and standard deductions could benefit the middle-aged parents and senior citizen grandparents, the Finance Minister went an extra-mile to stress how the government was committed to free governance of corruption.

To the credit of the Narendra Modi government, their four years in power has been free of any charges of corruption and they understand the need to drive this point home with the younger generation, whose support they need in large numbers to retain power in 2019. The focus on technology among other things is also targeted at them. The number of young voters in India is getting greater with each poll.

But then it’s not the first ‘pro-rural’ Budget which Jaitley has presented. He went ‘farming’ right from 2015 which has given BJP a good harvest in political terms, winning one state assembly polls after another. Will the ‘consolidating’ Budget give them a favourable ‘consolidated’ result in Lok Sabha polls, very likely, at least that’s what the BJP leadership believes.

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