Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget May Give Poll Mode Feel, But It Sends the Right Signals
The pre-electoral ‘gareeb-gaon-kisan’ rhetoric has been carried forward in the continuing focus on rural sector schemes such as income support for farmers, roads, housing, agri-industry, skill development, Swachh Bharat and e-connectivity.
File photo of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has presented a politically correct ‘bijli-sadak-paani-makaan’ Budget. In terms of achieving growth targets, it is more a vision statement than a blueprint, but politically, it sends all the right signals: a commitment to the poor (antodaya), women and youth, in tandem with ‘reform, perform and transform’.
The pre-electoral ‘gareeb-gaon-kisan’ rhetoric has been carried forward in the continuing focus on rural sector schemes such as income support for farmers, roads, housing, agri-industry, skill development, Swachh Bharat and e-connectivity. The ‘nudge’ approach of top-down schemes is obviously believed to have been effective.
The big takeaway from the Budget is that in terms of job creation, the thrust will be on entrepreneurship and self-employment. Hence, the boost to skill development, training, ‘Stand-up India’ and start-ups. Interestingly, there is a mention of developing future skills, in areas such as robotics, automation and artificial intelligence. The proposal for creation of skilled labour for export, which had been mooted in the previous government, will now receive a boost.
‘Make-in-India’ is obviously not going the way it was anticipated; hence, the idea of creating mega-manufacturing and aviation hubs, aggressively wooing foreign direct investment, tariff protection for local manufacturing and instituting local sourcing norms in single-brand retail.
Overall, in terms of the agricultural sector, there is a palpable thrust on existing schemes which are expected to deliver on the promise of doubling farm incomes, but minimal innovation. The fine hand of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was detectable in the reference to zero-budget farming and the proposed 10,000 farmer-producer organisations (to facilitate farmer entrepreneurship).
While the hoped-for marketing reforms did not materialise, the government anticipates the e-NAM (national agriculture market), which has so far been a non-starter, will eventually come to fruition and allow farmers ‘ease of doing business’.
The National Warehousing Grid is a much-needed initiative from the agriculture marketing point of view, but state governments will have to get on board and so far, they have been reluctant even to recast the agricultural produce market committees.
The ‘har ghar jal’ mission again sounds like a political slogan, but may suffer in implementation. On the one hand, it crystallises the shift of focus in recent decades from big irrigation to local water management, which is very welcome. On the other, it promises ‘nal se jal’ to each household, which may well compromise water conservation efforts. Drought-proofing did not come in for a special mention, presumably because it will be part of the overall water security campaign.
‘Ease of living’ is a political message in itself. Alleviating harassment by income tax officials, allowing Aadhaar-PAN interchangeability, facilitating filing of returns and offering tax benefits to homebuyers is bound to resonate positively with tax-payers.
By and large, they will be relieved that their burden, contrary to rumour, did not increase. Socialist instincts will be satsified with a surcharge on the super-rich and capitalist instincts by tax breaks for corporate entities with a turnover up to Rs 400 crore.
The allocations for health and education were disappointing, despite a Rs 400-crore infusion into institutes of excellence. Strangely, the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme which is expected to not only cover 50 crore Indians but generate millions of jobs, did not figure.
The special outreach to women was expected, given their enthusiastic electoral participation. The boost to self-help groups, with a Rs 5,000 overdraft limit, interest subvention and easy loans will go down well with rural women.
The electorate will be suitably impressed with the proposed Rs 100 lakh crore investment in infrastructure, the recapitalisation of banks and the fillip to NBFCs, the concept of national transport, gas and power grids and the boost to green technologies, all of which give the impression that the government is very much on top of things. How the government will spin its ambitious disinvestment target remains to be seen.
The mention of soft power in terms of yoga, artisanship and tourism and positioning India as a higher education hub are all appealing, because they resonate with the nationalistic fervour of recent months.
Interestingly, the FM made it a point to refer to Swami Vivekananda, Mahatama Gandhi and Chanakya, as her predecessors have done, but also Basaveshwara, the revered 12th Century spiritual leader from south India. Overall, one might be pardoned for thinking that the new government, despite having won a thumping victory in Lok Sabha 2019, is still in election mode.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)
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