If Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s maiden budget sounded so close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto of the just gone-by Lok Sabha polls, it was not a coincidence.
The focus on ‘Gramin Bharat’ (rural India) was an outcome of a very politically-conscious decision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi does not want to lose the sight of poor voters in villages and cities whose transformation alone can perk up demand and consumption.
In 2014-15, the government’s attention was totally riveted on the tough land acquisition bill. What was once believed as a panacea for faster growth, turned out to be millstone around the Modi government’s neck until it was shelved. The PM vowed not to repeat this mistake.
Even at the risk of disappointing many who expected stimulus to boost the dull economy, Modi got Sitharaman to stick to what she described as “five-year plan with a 10-year-vision.”
There was no grand ticket announcements when compared to the Interim Budget presented by Piyush Goel because Modi thought the decisions already announced had to be rolled out.
Modi also wanted Sitharaman to show that his government is confident of overcoming the present ills of the economy without resorting to any ineffective stimulus dosage. Sitharaman’s countenance reflected Modi’s political determination to weather the current economic situation, no matter what it takes.
A big takeaway was that, despite a massive mandate for a second term, Modi’s vision is very much wedded to ‘antodaya and gram, gramin and kisan’ as the central point of all his government’s plans. He remains a cautious political leader and won’t be deluded by headline seeking desires and would rather want the economy to heal on its own.
The BJP’s manifesto or ‘Sankalp Patra’, was the blueprint that Sitharaman and her team relied upon to form the Budget. The manifesto, along with 75 targets was rather very specific on “do-ables” as India celebrates 75 years of Independence in 2022-2023.
If it was ease-of-doing business for the private sector, then for individuals it had to be ease of living. Therefore, announcing the idea of going back to basics, Sitharaman said zero budget farming needed to be replicated to double farmers’ income by 2022.
Also, reflecting the BJP manifesto, she termed fishing and fishermen as an important part of the allied agriculture, and announced the establishment of a robust fisheries management scheme. She said the focus sectors were honey, bamboo and khadi clusters outlining the potential of the agro-rural economy.
These priorities flow straight from the BJP manifesto, which could not be relegated to another time.
Modi believes that huge public spending will surely open up employment opportunities in those areas.
Whether it is enhancing role of women in economy, providing water, electricity or waste management for every rural household by 2024, housing for all by 2022 or laying of 125,000 km rural roads, Sitharaman wished to convey Modi’s big thanks to the voters who handed him a second mandate.
Of course, there are a slew of measures to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) to boost growth by having relaxing caps on foreign investment in sectors such as aviation, media, animation and insurance as well as ease local sourcing norms in the single-brand retail sector. Not many think that they are enough.
Sitharaman broke with the tradition of carrying a suitcase to Parliament. Instead, she held a ‘Bhahi khata’ wrapped in an auspicious red cloth that symbolised not just departure from old ways but also Modi’s determination to implement his promises — in his own way and time.Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.