Karnataka: Aligning budget with Congress’ LS polls strategy

Taking such an aggressive and confrontational stance in the state budget is a rarity in Karnataka.
Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah arriving to present Budget at Vidhanasoudha in Bengaluru on Friday.
Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah arriving to present Budget at Vidhanasoudha in Bengaluru on Friday.Photo | Nagaraja Gadekal

One look at the cover page of Siddaramaiah’s budget copy gives a clear impression that it was meant to be a political statement as much as a financial plan for the coming fiscal.

With the image of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution and stripes of yellow and red — the colours of the Karnataka flag — stretching below it on the cover page, the budget appeared to be ripe with political symbolism.

Social welfare schemes continued to be the focal point of Siddaramaiah’s budget. There was also a push for infrastructure development, which had taken a backseat in the first year of his second tenure as Chief Minister. Despite the five guarantee schemes taking a lion’s share of Rs 52,000 crore, limiting his manoeuvrabliity, the CM appeared to have tried his best to strike a fine balance between social services and development, although it meant an increase in borrowings. The total budget outlay was Rs 3.71 lakh crore.

The budget gave the impression that it was not just an exercise to present the financial statement and the roadmap for the next year with the CM trying to set the tone for the Congress’ Lok Sabha elections campaign.

Although the state government is justified in demanding Karnataka’s share of taxes and the Central grants, the budget speech, at times, sounded more stinging than an election campaign address.

“Our UPA government during its tenure at Centre had taken up people-centric schemes and legislation to provide food security, healthcare, education, employment, and housing to bring justice to the poor. However, the anti-people decisions of the (BJP-ruled) Central government for the last 10 years have led to alarming developments such as widening inequality, the concentration of wealth in fewer hands, and crony capitalism,” the CM stated in his budget speech. He accused the Centre of abdicating its responsibility, and went on to say that guarantee schemes were the result of feedback obtained during the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Taking such an aggressive and confrontational stance in the state budget is a rarity in Karnataka. Siddaramaiah’s political diatribe in the budget against the Union Government appeared to be in tune with his party’s efforts to set a narrative against the Union Government and the BJP. Even in the post-budget press conference, the CM and Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar were at their combative best when they launched a tirade against the Centre.

Since the Lok Sabha polls will be mostly centred around Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government’s performance, Congress leaders in the state have been trying to drive home the point that the Centre is biased against Karnataka in devolution of taxes. They took the fight to the national capital and are using every available platform, including the state budget, to amplify their argument. However, the BJP has countered the government’s claims stating that the state got more grants under the NDA government in the last 10 years compared to that of the UPA rule from 2004 to 2014.

In the run-up to the assembly polls last year, the Congress effectively built a narrative around a “40% commission” charge against the then BJP government in the state and persuaded the voters with five guarantee schemes. This time around, it seems to be working hard to set a narrative against the Centre, even as it builds on the gains made by implementing the guarantee schemes.

Though he presented a revenue deficit budget, Siddaramaiah increased the budgetary allocation for welfare programmes to Rs 1,20,373 crore. Even during his first tenure as the CM, from 2013-18, Siddaramaiah had implemented several welfare programmes. This time, the emphasis on welfare programmes gels well with the party’s election strategy.

Apart from trying to brand the Centre as being unfair to Karnataka and emphasising its welfare programmes that put money directly in the hands of beneficiaries, many infrastructure projects in Bengaluru too seem to be aligned with the Congress’s political strategy to end BJP’s dominance in the IT City.

Deputy Chief Minister Shivakumar is also the Bengaluru Development Minister and has managed to get a good number of infrastructure works included in the budget. His leadership will be put to the test in the city where BJP currently holds three of the four Lok Sabha seats (Bengaluru Rural is held by Congress MP DK Suresh).

By the time work on any of the infrastructure projects announced in the budget can start, the Lok Sabha elections would have been announced. In any case, immediately after the ongoing budget session of the state legislature ends on Friday, focus will completely shift to the Lok Sabha polls.

Notwithstanding the political developments, the government should ensure that infrastructure works do not remain only on paper. Ambitious projects like tunnel roads in Bengaluru need to be taken forward without compromising on safety aspects and addressing the concerns expressed by experts over its feasibility.

Political radar

Ramu Patil

Senior Associate Editor


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