In a striking coincidence, the politics of the day hung over Budget 2018, literally and in spirit. The very soul of the document — marked focus on rural India, the farm sector, healthcare for the masses, long takes on the much-neglected MSMEs — was an unmistakable response to rural distress. Almost as if the government knew which way the farmers of Rajasthan had voted, although those results were coming as Arun Jaitley spoke in the Lok Sabha.
“I’m not surprised. Farmers are angry. We don’t get fair prices for our crop. This has been the situation for two years,” was how a turbaned farmhand reacted to the bypoll results. Accordingly, the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha seats and the Mandalgarh Assembly seat were picked up by the Congress.
Early trends from Rajasthan were pouring in even as the finance minister read out his lengthy speech, covering exactly the same ground that the Opposition had been scouring to corner the government: better MSPs, collapsing MSMEs, subsidised healthcare.
Surprisingly — or perhaps not — all the big-picture schemes and projects the FM announced in his budget had a culmination period that stretched up to 2022. It was as if he was sure 2019 was a done deal, and therefore here he was planning long-term. Whatever else it was, Budget 2018-19 neither had the optics nor the appearance of the last Budget of an outgoing government.
Within the pages of this year’s tome though, there was more politics than economics. Little wonder Akali Dal MP Naresh Gujral, who till the other day was sounding rather disgruntled about the BJP ignoring its old allies, hugged the FM and said “Ab toh election jeet hi liya’’. It’s another matter that Congress chief Rahul Gandhi was not convinced: “Thankfully, it’s their last budget.”
But Jaitley seemed intent on taking the sting out of the standard opposition critique, going populist with his ambitions: MSP 50 per cent higher than the cost of production, universal health scheme for the poor and lower middle class, in addition to cooking gas cylinders, toilets, electricity and banking facilities, rural housing, MSMEs...all addressing the stagnant or broken dreams of India’s masses.
It’s another matter that the opposition said the implementation blueprint was missing and the allocation was too little. For in rhetorical terms the Modi government seems to have taken a gamble by turning the opposition harangue back on it, taking a pro-poor, anti-middle class stance, even taxing stock market earnings beyond the nominal range of `1 lakh per year.
The author is Political Editor, TNIE