New Delhi: Union Minister for Finance Arun Jaitley interacts with the media on the volatility of the  share market in New Delhi on Friday. PTI Photo by Vijay Kumar Joshi (PTI2_12_2016_000048B)
New Delhi: Union Minister for Finance Arun Jaitley interacts with the media on the volatility of the share market in New Delhi on Friday. PTI Photo by Vijay Kumar Joshi (PTI2_12_2016_000048B)

The fingerprints of the RSS are all over the Arun Jaitley Budget 3.0, one aspect that economic pundits may have overlooked. And guess what? That just might be a good thing. On matters economic, the brothers in saffron are more left than right, a moderating influence on the free market impulses of NDA (just at the red brigade was on UPA I). The result is a centrist budget, which cheers as much as it annoys.

THE plan to give Aadhaar statutory status dovetails with the alphabet soup of schemes already underway – the spectacularly successful Jan Dhan Yojana, the Pradhan Mantri Beema Yojana and the Atal Pension Yojana. Direct delivery of benefits, whether it’s subsidised food or fertilisers or insurance, becomes easy and voila, you have a functioning social security net.

The BJP, when in power, tends to dismiss the RSS economic approach as rather antediluvian and prefers, instead, to be guided by the World Bank school of punditry. So how did the RSS input find its way into the Budget? The Bihar-shaped bruise on a certain chappan inch ki chhaathi may have something to do with it. Let’s rewind to December 28, 2015. At a BJP-RSS summit on the state of the republic, the right-eous brothers tell Narendra-bhai that the aam aadmi now views achhe din as a joke and the NDA’s approval ratings are in free fall.

They present a wish list, prominent features being a revival of MNREGA and crop insurance. Having spent the entire previous year moaning over their own government’s apathy vis-à-vis the farm sector, they wanted a turnaround. The PM and BJP chief Amit Shah, all too aware of steadily eroding public goodwill and the resulting unrest in their own ranks, saw the good sense in taking a political, if not quite populist, approach. The stock market, after all, does not win elections.

The result was that the RSS got at least some of what it wanted. A massive mission to increase storage infrastructure; a boost to pulses and farm income through minimum support price increases; compost fertilisers to be marketed by fertiliser companies in order to decrease consumption of chemical inputs; Rs 36,000 crore for farmers’ welfare as well as interest subvention of Rs 15,000 crore on farm loans; irrigation cover for 8.65 lakh acres in three years; Rs 27,000 crore for rural roads, Rs 38,000 for MNREGA with a focus on reviving water conservation and rural infrastructure; an E-market for farmers; Rs 9,000 crore for swachch bharat; Rs 5,500 crore for crop insurance cover; a boost to the agricultural extension.

Then there’s the Rs 500 crore fund to facilitate dalit entrepreneurship (to be shared with STs and women).  This dovetails neatly with the RSS samajik samrastha or social harmony programme. The more talked-about feature of this campaign has been the community meals, but the most effective one has been funding dalit entrepreneurs. This effort has now been institutionalised through the budget.

Lastly, there’s the plan to give Aadhaar statutory status. This dovetails with the alphabet soup of schemes already underway – the spectacularly successful Jan Dhan Yojana, the Pradhan Mantri Beema Yojana and the Atal Pension Yojana. Direct delivery of benefits, whether it’s subsidised food or fertilisers or insurance, becomes easy and voila, you have a functioning social security net.

It is clear that the NDA is now in campaign mode and the FM – or the PMO – had an eye on the slew of assembly elections coming up when drafting the budget. But you cannot keep all of the people happy all of the time. So, while entrepreneurs may celebrate the focus on small and medium enterprises, salaried employees are complaining about taxes biting into their pension funds and new cesses nipping away at the household budget. The biggest disappointment by far may be the absence of reforms in the banking sector, staggering under the burden of bad loans and the Public Distribution System, riddled with leakages and inefficiencies.

The question is whether the goodies for the farm sector are too little, too late – at least in terms of electoral impact. Drought over half the country, coupled with fall in the global markets for some commodities, has hit farmers hard. Fertiliser shortages, stagnant MSPs and short-sighted policies curtailing crop bonuses did nothing to endear the Modi government to farmers. The agrarian distress was reflected in the spiralling cases of farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra.

This is not to argue that all potential policy conflicts on the farm sector between government and RSS have been settled. The threat of FDI in retail and commercial cultivation of Genetically Modified – GM – crops looms large. A showdown on GM in particular, is inevitable in the not-too distant future.

Of the five assembly elections this year, the BJP has a big stake in Assam and a minor one in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Puduchery. But the really big challenges – Punjab, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh (as well as Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur) – are coming up next year. By which time, the party doubtless hopes the seeds of budget ’17 will have sprouted and borne electoral fruit.

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