Presenting the Union Budget on Thursday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley used the word farmer 22 times, and agriculture 15 times. Then there were other phrases and schemes in his Budget speech such as MSME (Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises), universal health programme, and jobs.
By the end of the first half of his speech, there was little doubt where the Budget was heading – many, including Opposition leaders, found the first half nothing short of a political address BJP MPs, meanwhile, hope it would would help the party disarm the Opposition and project itself as poor-friendly in the run-up to crucial Assembly elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan this year, and the big battle – the General Election – scheduled in 2019.
Woken up by the relatively tight fight in Gujarat, largely due to the ire of farmers in the state, as many BJP leaders read it, the party projected the Budget as pro-farmer and pro-poor.
Claiming that the Budget gives “new wings to aspirations of the poor, the farmers and the middle class”, party president Amit Shah put it in perspective: “The ‘New India Budget’ will truly empower all sections of the society to attain prosperity. The record allocation to the rural sector and agriculture will lead to unprecedented rural development and agricultural growth. Consistent focus on rural development and agriculture has been a hallmark of our government.”
Recalling that the party’s tally had come down at its own bastion, a party leader said they had to learn lessons from the Gujarat lesson.
“This Budget had to prop up the party’s rural-friendly face ahead of the elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, as well as 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” the leader said. In Gujarat, disillusioned farmers had reminded BJP leaders about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of minimum support price (MSP) that would cover production cost plus 50 per cent. The poll-bound Madhya Pradesh also experienced violent farmers’ agitation for procurement and higher MSP for farm produces.
“The BJP could not afford ignoring the anger among farmers (any longer),” a senior party leader pointed out. Assuring that the Modi government is committed to welfare of farmers, Jaitley reiterated that the emphasis is on “generating higher incomes” for farmers.
He said, “We consider agriculture as an enterprise and want to help farmers produce more from the same land parcel at lesser cost, and simultaneously realise higher prices for their produce. Our emphasis is also on generating productive and gainful on-farm and non-farm employment for farmers and landless families.”
For Karnataka, set for polls in the next three months, Jaitley announced a suburban network of approximately 160 km at an estimated cost of Rs 17,000 crore for Bengaluru metropolis.
With the government facing severe criticism for its failure in generating employment, against Modi’s promise before 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Jaitley zoomed in on employment generation. While he spoke about tax exemption for job-generating sectors, the emphasis on MSME sector and the move to reduce corporate tax rate are being projected by the BJP as steps to boost entrepreneurship and job creation.
“It’s the first time that customs duty has been increased to protect the domestic market,” a government official said.Party sources said the announcement of the new flagship programme, the National Health Protection Scheme, to cover more than 10 crore poor and vulnerable families by providing coverage up to Rs 5 lakh per family per year for secondary and tertiary care hospitalisation, could be the most talked-about scheme during the election campaign.
“It is like any social security scheme. You have paid 0.1 per cent and providing health protection to 40 per cent. It will eventually become a Universal Health Coverage,” he said.