If there was any doubt about what Prime Minister Narendra Modi thinks is his government's biggest selling point, then the 2018 Budget speech ought to put it to rest, for good.
It's not “good governance” or some-such coinage that Modi mints with unfailing regularity. Thursday's contribution to this ever-growing collection was “ease of living”, but more on that later. Rather, it is the persona and image of Modi himself.
The Budget made it clear that the government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Modi himself view his image and the resonance it has with voters as the one make-or-break factor in how the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) performance will be assessed ahead of the 2019 general election.
This was on ample display during the Budget speech on February 1 as the government announced the “world's largest government-funded healthcare programme”, to cover 10 crore poor families and touch a total of 50 crore individuals. Named the National Health Protection Scheme, it aims to provide a cover of Rs 5 lakh annually to each poor family for secondary and tertiary care hospitalisation. Jaitley also informed the Lok Sabha that this “maybe expanded” in time to become the Universal Health Coverage scheme, touching all segments of the population.
For those wondering how all of this is tantamount to Modi being the leitmotif of Budget 2018 and all other major policy initiatives of the government, look not at the fine print of the Finance Bill but rather at the overarching narrative that Modi has built since the NDA took office in June 2014.
The government's biggest programmes whether the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) or policy interventions such as demonetisation have borne an indelible Modi imprint. Both demonetisation and GST implementation were far from successful at the level of policy-making and economic governance. But policy compunctions appear to have done little to deter Modi from making them signature government programmes. In short, the question of funding, or even how India's creaking public health system will bear the burden of the new health protection policy do not figure among the plots and sub-plots that go into making the Modi mythology.
Modi and the making of India's most 'popular' leader
What many who raise questions, such as the lack of funding, miss is that the intended beneficiaries of these programmes were not being sold health insurance cover alone. That may or may not materialise for them; the immediate take-away from the Budget announcement is Modi himself.
What Modi is selling to voters is not a scheme – such as the farm loan waiver of the former Congress-led coalition government – but himself and his reassuring presence at the helm of the Indian government. Think about the sentiment that a campaign line such as the phrase “Modiji hai na” evokes.
Modi has carefully, and even masterfully, built this image over the last four years. Many of those opposed to him have described his method of functioing as a recourse to “jumlanomics” or empty sloganeering. They miss the nub of the issue: Modi is not selling the thing itself, but the person behind the move.
When Modi announced demonetisation in November 2016, it was India's most historic, anti-black money measure meant to check decades of corruption and misuse of the system by establishment fat-cats and rich businessmen who hoarded unaccounted-for wealth. When he rolled out GST in July 2017, his finance minister invoked Jawaharlal Nehru's Independence Day announcement of a tryst with destiny. When Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar described Modi as a “neech aadmi” (a mean-spirited man), it was nothing less than an insult directed at the all the poor people of India.
Many of those opposed to him have described his method of functioning as a recourse to “jumlanomics” or empty sloganeering. They miss the nub of the issue: Modi is not selling the thing itself, but the person behind the move
Budget 2018 is Modi in a box, to be unwrapped for the people at the start of the 2019 election campaign. Until then, he will tantalise them not with Congress-style populism of the loan waiver variety, but something he thinks is far more potent – his own story told over and over in different formulations. The BJP election machinery, steered by his close aide and BJP president, Amit Shah, will then work to convert this story into votes for the BJP.
As the FM noted during his speech, this is a government that has made it possible for the “hawai-chappal” wearing common man to travel by a “hawai jahaaj” or airplane. This announcement was preceded by Jaitley rattling off a list of measures ranging from the Ujjawala Yojana (free gas connections) and Saubhagya Yojana (rural and urban electrification) to online ticketing and passport paperwork and registration of companies in a day to establish that the government was focussed on the “ease of living”, rather than just the “ease of business” index.
From the time he has assumed office, Modi's political and economic decision making has remained hostage to the Modi mythology – the art and science of keeping the Modi image alive, refreshed and watered. Budget 2018 is the renewed promise of the Modi story for the 2019 general election.