Electoral ploy

Print edition : April 01, 2016

Agricultural labourers on their way to work in Erode district of Tamil Nadu. Photo: Shaju John

The “pro-farmer, pro-rural tilt” of the Union Budget is aimed at enhancing popular support for the BJP and its NDA allies in an election year. Left parties and the farming community feel the tall promises are meant to deceive and disappoint rural India.

Chunav ke liye ek aur jumla (one more sleight of hand for elections). Harpal Singh, a farmer belonging to Khedi village in Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh, was absolutely convinced when he made this assessment of Union Budget 2016-17. When it was pointed out that even political parties, including those in the opposition, and financial observers had adopted a calibrated position and would not reject Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget so completely, the farmer responded that he was speaking from experience.

Other Jat farmers and some agricultural workers belonging to other communities whom this correspondent met concurred with Harpal Singh’s views. “We have been watching the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and the National Democratic Alliance [NDA] government led by it for the past two years. All that they have done, both in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and in these 21 months of governance, is to make tall promises only to deceive and disappoint. Of course, we fell for the promises and the rhetoric in 2014, but not any more. We do not have a great understanding of the larger economics to specifically address the proposals made in the Budget, particularly its new plans to uplift the agricultural sector and the rural economy. But we understand political track record very well and that does not inspire confidence in this exercise. Assembly elections are scheduled in five States in 2016 and in 2017; crucial States such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab will be holding elections. Against this background, what we see is yet another attempt at hoodwinking the people with a new set of tall promises and so-called shift in emphasis and priorities.” Harpal Singh elaborated his understanding of the politics of the Budget to loud cheers from his associates. Evidently, the political purport of Budget 2016-17 as also the interpretations based on it have percolated wide and deep at the grass-roots level.

Notwithstanding the scepticism that has permeated rural north India, BJP and other NDA leaders are confident that Jaitley’s 2016-17 Budget will help rebuild mass support for the party and the ruling coalition significantly. Seshadri Chari, BJP leader and former editor of Organiser, articulated this expectation, underlining that there was a notable shift in emphasis and priorities. “This year’s Budget has addressed many sectors that were left out in the past two years. The outlays for agriculture, with a special focus on irrigation, are concrete. There is no doubt that the Budget will benefit a lot of people.”

Dr Lakshmikant Bajpayee, the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh president and a Member of the Legislative Assembly, told Frontline that it was natural that the Budget, characterised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “pro-village, pro-poor and pro-farmer”, would enhance popular and electoral support. “That is something that is bound to happen when the Budget makes qualitative changes in the lives of people in rural India and people are benefited by the allocations.” Bajpayee said the NDA government’s and the BJP’s approach was based on realism and that was why Jaitley was able to chart a new path.

The entire focus of the BJP’s propaganda for the Budget is on this so-called realistic approach and the changes in the government’s orientation it reflects. The party apparatus across India has repeatedly referred to Jaitley’s own formulation on this. Speaking to journalists after the presentation of the Budget, he said: “Left-of-centre is a definition that the media gets stuck in. The Budget is for the reality of India. Rural India is in distress and agriculture needs attention. In such harsh realities, the first right of investment is that of social, rural, infrastructure and agriculture sectors.” The unique suggestion in negation employed by the Finance Minister, that there is a “Left-of-centre” tilt in the Budget, is being interpreted and highlighted by sections of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) as a clear pointer to the government’s understanding the politico-economic reality of India as reflected in the Bihar Assembly elections and making amends on the basis of that understanding. The allocations for agriculture (Rs.35,984 crore), rural development (Rs.87,765 crore) and infrastructure (Rs.2.21 lakh crore) are also highlighted as part of this political thrust. It is also presented that the first three pillars of the nine-pillar programme that is being advanced as per the Budget’s proposals are focussed on people’s welfare with a special emphasis on the rural sector. The first three listed pillars are agriculture and farmers’ welfare with the stated objective of doubling farmer income in five years, enhancement of programmes to increase rural employment and infrastructure, and social sector initiatives to cover all under welfare and health services.

Campaign points for the BJP

A couple of RSS and SJM activists from Lucknow pointed out that the primary reality accepted by the Modi government, particularly the Finance Ministry, was that rural India was in great distress following two successive failed monsoons. In this context, they said the fact that Jaitley suggested incentives to increase foreign direct investment (FDI) only in agro-based industries was in keeping with the Budget’s main focus on agriculture and revival of the rural economy. Clearly, all these are bound to be campaign points for the BJP, the NDA and sections of the larger Sangh Parivar throughout the election season in 2016 and 2017. Significantly, elections to the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab Assemblies will most probably take place before the next budget. The Congress, the main opposition to the BJP at the national level, seems to have accepted the self-professed new focus and emphasis as reflected in the Budget at face value. Its principal line of argument is that the BJP and the NDA have been forced to bring about these changes on account of the critical campaign against the government and its economic policies undertaken by the party, particularly by its vice-president Rahul Gandhi, in the past two years.

In his assessment of the Budget, Congress leader and former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram observed in an article: “The government has finally acknowledged that farmers are part of India, that the farm sector faces acute distress, and that farmers need a helping hand.... Farmers had taken note of the BJP’s failure to keep its election promise of offering a Minimum Support Price (MSP) of cost + 50 per cent. I had pointed out that the increases in MSP in 2015-16 were paltry. Members of Parliament were aghast when Prime Minister Modi declared his contempt for MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] that, according to him, was ‘a monument to the failure of the Congress governments’. Critics warned the government that the allocation to MGNREGA was inadequate. Surveys show that farm wages have risen only marginally in 2015-16 adding to the distress.... While the Prime Minister spoke often, and eloquently, on FDI, Make in India, and ease of doing business, he paid scant attention to the agriculture sector, leaving it, presumably, to the Minister of Agriculture. The latter, however, was neither seen nor heard and, after nearly 21 months in office, remains largely unknown.... As a result, the label of ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ [a phrase often used by Rahul Gandhi] stuck, and something had to be done. I suspect that is how the idea of a ‘pro-farmer, pro-rural India budget’ was born. Whatever be the motivation, I welcome the government’s move to address the problems of the agricultural sector.” Chidambaram concluded by stating that farmers must demand that the government present a concrete plan to achieve the stated goal of doubling their income and that otherwise it will become another “chunavi jumla”.

Other opposition political forces, including the Left, have been more forceful in critically exposing the overall orientation of the Budget as well as its specific proposals. Responding to the budget, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said: “Notwithstanding claims of increases on certain heads of expenditure, there is a parallel slashing on other heads. In agriculture, the main increase, which the Budget shows, is by way of transfer to banks and insurance companies that has no real benefit to farmers. Despite tall claims of a big push in infrastructure, capital expenditure in 2015-16 was lower than budgeted and is proposed to be kept at almost the same level in 2016-17—implying a reduction in real terms and as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) from 1.8 to 1.6 per cent. Both food and fertilizer subsidies have been cut by Rs.5,000 and Rs.2,000 crore respectively.... The lofty claim of highest ever allocation for MGNREGA is patently false because it was higher in 2010-11. Maintaining 2010-11 levels in real terms would have required an expenditure of over Rs.65,000 crore in 2016-17. What is even more shocking is a concealment of the fact that in 2015-16, despite it being a drought year and the promise of doubling the number of days of work from 100 to 200, the actual level of expenditure was so low as to generate only an average of 38 days of work.”

Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav told Frontline that Jaitley’s exercise was essentially jugglery with terminology and figures, signifying no real change in terms of larger economic policies or thrust. However, sections of the BJP that are close to business and industry bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) expressed concern that the Budget, in many ways, denoted that both the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister were succumbing to electoral compulsions and drifting away from the path of real reforms. Although the CII and FICCI have officially welcomed the Budget, these sections of the BJP pointed out that the thinking expressed by them also had great traction within these bodies. They expressed the view that this would have a negative impact on the international image that Modi had built up over the past two years. Another nuanced opinion among this section is that Modi and his team needed to win the elections if they had to push the reform process further over the next three years. “So, one needs to see this as one step backward to go two steps forward in the medium and long term,” said a BJP leader from West Bengal, considered close to several big business houses.

Interestingly, early responses to the Budget from rural north India, the main section of the population targeted by it, indicate that it is perceived as a tactical ploy advanced by the Modi-Jaitley duo in association with BJP president Amit Shah.

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