If an interim budget by an interim Finance Minister could by itself win elections, no better candidate could be imagined than Budget 2019 — a pre-Holi gift hamper of sops and subsidies mixed with a heady dash of ideology. Fittingly, Piyush Goyal broke from the usual text of dry facts and figures to thank taxpayers for contributing to nation-building a la Mann ki Baat. What followed was an extended thank-you note to the middle class — tax rebate on annual income up to Rs 5 lakh, no tax on gross income up to Rs 6.5 lakh, standard deduction raised to Rs 50,000 from Rs 40,000, TDS threshold on rental income pushed to Rs 2.4 lakh from Rs 1.8 lakh.
The Modi government, on its home stretch, had clearly taken an unabashed turn towards soft welfare economics. ‘Ease of doing business’, the catchphrase of 2014, was giving way to ‘ease of living’ on poll-eve. It was no surprise to see the treasury benches burst into a rapturous ‘Modi Modi’ chant, reminiscent of the choreographed hysteria of 2014.
“This is just a trailer,” the PM quipped. It was both a defiant response to the opposition slight that the convention of interim budgets not dishing out tax sops had been broken, and a hint that more of this ‘socialism’ was in store, if the BJP is voted back to power.
The Budget had “elections” written all over it, with the political content not even sought to be hidden. BJP MPs even floated an upbeat slogan right after the presentation, ‘Ab ki baar Modi Sarkar, 400 paar’. (Next time, Modi will be back with over 400 seats).
Poonam Mahajan, the young BJP MP from Mumbai North Central, beamed: “My voters should be happy — middle class, kisan, jawan, unorganised sector, even Gau mata — there’s something for everyone. It’s a budget compatible with our party’s ideology.” She reflected the gung-ho mood in the BJP, with minister after minister offering bullish quotes. But a salutary tweet from Ram Vilas Paswan apart, the NDA allies seemed a bit circumspect. Quoting a Hindi poem, K C Tyagi of JD-U said: “What’s the point of a rain when the crop has dried.” A cryptic reference to the ‘historic’ Rs 6,000 direct money transfer per year to farming families with landholding below five acres.
Sompal Singh Shastri, former agriculture and water resources minister, was more cutting in his analysis, calling the sop “neither here nor there’’. Citing the 16 European nations which run similar DBT for farmers, he said, “Farmers get an average of 2,993 Euros (roughly 2.20 lakh) annually for just being in farming...” That’s the level of subsidy.
The opposition, particularly Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi, was scathing. Breaking down the Rs 6,000 bonanza to a pittance of Rs 3.33 per day, Rahul called it an ‘insult’ to marginal farmers. He predicted ‘surgical strikes’ from the voters.
Farmers’ organizations, too, remained critical. Rakesh Tikait, Bharat Kisan Union chief, almost echoed JD-U’s Tyagi, saying, “It’s far too little and far too late.” Yogendra Yadav, who fashions his fledgling Swaraj Abhiyan party around farmers’ issue, called it a “cruel joke”.
Accusations of ‘jumlanomics’ aside, this was a budget where the corporates were virtually a forgotten component, instead the labour force, particularly of the unorganised sector, got attention: street vendors, rickshaw-pullers and nomadic communities.