Budget 2018 ought to have been Budget 2014

While Jaitley has craftily packaged dreams and aspirations for the masses, the annual exercise comes off as rhetoric ahead of the 2019 general election

Hours after a celestial delight, when Blue moon, Super moon and Blood moon coincided for the first time since 1866, Arun Jaitley presented his fifth budget. Thursday's budget may well be the last one for this government. Unless, of course, the Election Commission allows the finance minister to go ahead with a sixth one in February 2019, three months before the scheduled national election. But then, the election may just be held earlier, if wished by prime minister Narendra Modi.

Like the triple-moon, Budget 2018 is a rare phenomenon. It reminded experts of former finance minister P Chidambaram’s ‘Dream Budget’ in 1997. Like his predecessor from the Congress, Jaitley carefully packaged dreams and aspirations for the masses. It was something that he could have done in 2014 when he presented his first budget. He should have, for Budget 2018’s philosophical underpinnings can help build a ‘New India’ that Modi has promised for years.

Two serious sentences and two semi-jocular ones that Jaitley uttered during his speech provide the four foundations of the government’s future objectives. The first two seem to diverge from the past, and the other two are a continuity of what has happened in the past 44 months. In a curious turn, Budget 2018 junks the Modi/Gujarat model of development. In an expected way, it conforms to it.

Here’s the first sentence: “To give focussed attention and to achieve our vision of an inclusive society, the Government has identified 115 aspirational districts....” The aim of this ‘experiment’ is to enable the districts to become “model of development”. Does it mean that the ‘model’ of development that the government pursued so far was wrong? Has the Modi/Gujarat model failed? Did it take the Modi-Jaitley duo nearly four years to realise this?

In a quick ‘Budget’ take, a political commentator asked another relevant question. “What took Jaitley so long?” The piece argued, “If he wanted to set up 115 aspirational districts featuring new models of development, he could have done so in his first budget and, by this time, the results of these experiments would have been evident.” To be fair to Jaitley, the situation was vastly different when the BJP triumphed to power.

In 2014, Modi was sold on the Gujarat model. He wanted to prove his critics wrong. His detractors maintained that Modi’s model could not be replicated across the country. Gujarat was not India. The realities of the nation were different from that of the state. So, the prime minister took several decisions that he had implemented as the Gujarat chief minister, and imposed them on all the states. Sadly, it didn’t work as successfully.

Now for the second sentence that highlights the immediate motive behind Budget 2018: “As my proposals outlined indicate, focus of the Government next year will be on providing maximum livelihood opportunities in the rural areas by spending more on livelihood, agriculture and allied activities and construction of rural infrastructure.” This overriding emphasis on the rural, poor, farmers and women is commendable.

But this could have been the priority from Day 1. Coming as it does now, it sounds like election rhetoric. Budget 2018 becomes an electoral budget to woo rural votes in 2019. After Gujarat, BJP’s president and Modi’s Man Friday, Amit Shah, was unhappy about the political costs of Jaitley’s economics. The former felt that enough had not been done for farmers, and he was aware of the politics of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes.

Unviable returns have angered the farmers in the recent past. Thanks to gluts and rock-bottom prices (50 paise to Re 1 per kg), farmers dumped their produce of tomatoes, onions and potatoes on the roads. The impact was witnessed in the Gujarat results, where the Congress won more seats than the BJP in semi-urban and rural constituencies.

The finance minister was trying to sell dreams and achievable aspirations to the poor – they too could travel on flights and get electricity 24x7

So, this budget aims to improve the returns on agriculture, initially through the Minimum Support Prices (MSP), which will be at least 50% higher than the cost for all the crops. There are a slew of other measures to increase farm incomes in a bid to double them by 2022. In addition, the budgeted agriculture credit for farmers in 2018-19 has gone up by 10 per cent.

A part of Modi’s magic is the prime minister’s ability to weave dreams, and package them as achievable aspirations. Jaitley’s other two sentences from the speech aim to do this. As he spoke about the regional air connectivity scheme, he said, “Sarkaar ki iss pehal se hawai chappal pehan ne waale nagrik bhi hawai jahaaz mein yatra kar rahe hain (Because of this initiative of the government, even people wearing rubber slippers are travelling by airplane).”

The fourth sentence wasn’t a part of the official speech. As he lauded the government’s scheme to provide electricity to 40 million poor households, he talked about “our (urban residents’) anxiety and restlessness even with one hour power cut”. And he added in an extempore fashion that we instantly think about how we will watch TV, charge our mobiles and use laptops.

In both the cases, the finance minister was trying to sell dreams and achievable aspirations to the poor – they too could travel on flights and get electricity 24x7. However, as many commentators have concluded, the time to sell and package is over. It’s time to deliver – fast.

(The author is an independent journalist and is working on a book on post-Independence economic policies)

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