If global investment funds and correspondents of the Western media were to judge the Interim Budget of 2019 presented by Piyush Goyal last Friday, they would unquestionably have honed in on a big government: the failure to adhere to the fiscal deficit target set in last year’s Budget. It was unquestionably a failure.
The fiscal deficit rose from 3.3 per cent of the GDP to 3.4 per cent, and it was a significant 0.3 per cent higher than what Arun Jaitley had committed the government to. However, it is quite unlikely that too much will be made of this monetary slippage that Goyal sought to explain with reference to domestic political imperatives. The reason is two-fold.
First, most of the analysts and much of the Khan Market media—an expression that is fast replacing the earlier emphasis on Sir Edwin Lutyens—were convinced that the embarrassment of the purported unemployment figures by the NSSO was powerful enough to knock Narendra Modi out of the electoral contest altogether.
The sneer on the face of Congress MP Kapil Sibal as he mocked “pakodanomics” told the whole story of elite disdain for the government that had dared undertake demonetisation in defiance of the entire punditry. The foreign media is by and large hostile to the Narendra Modi government because it doesn’t understand beef politics and because it doesn’t know anyone in the BJP who have cosmopolitan tastes. Consequently, it too delighted in the fact that Modi was finally imploding.
They approached the Interim Budget as an exercise inirrelevancy. Secondly, the ecosystem around the old and dispossessed Establishment also believed that the first knockout punch had been delivered by Rahul Gandhi. The Congress President, or so we have been told by some emerging courtiers, had been so inspired by the works of two Nobel Prize winners in economics that he actually got these people to design a scheme of Minimum Basic Income that was unveiled with the familiar rolling of sleeves by the Boy Wonder in Chhattisgarh. The idea was not so much to introduce the Congress Party to European and American Left-liberal thinking but to simply upstage Modi with the claim that the PM was stealing an idea from the party that has the divine right to rule.
I don’t know if people habitually accustomed to purloining data thought of this bright idea, but it was based on the erroneous assumption that Modi wouldn’t have the elbow room to introduce any new scheme in an Interim Budget. That would have given Rahul the copyright over the idea. Indeed, the day after the Congress President’s Eureka moment in Chhattisgarh, the propaganda sheets of the Congress were celebrating the fact that the 2019 election was being fought on an agenda set by the Congress.
In hindsight, the foiled plans of the Congress and the Old Establishment may have come to nought, but they are important indications to show that in 2019, Modi is up against those for whom winning is a matter of sheer survival. With the government extraditing ‘wanted’ Indians from their bolt holes in the Gulf and sending shivers down the spines of those who had forgotten the distinction between public and private money, the oust Modi campaign has become a matter of urgency.
The election outcome won’t be known until the middle of May but through a series of well aimed blows, the Congress was hoping to reduce Modi to being the head of a lame duck government. That in turn would have meant that weather-sensitive members of the bureaucracy would have ensured that all pending investigations and other governance initiatives would have been successfully subverted.
Politically, the importance of the Interim Budget is that a form of Rural Income Support scheme for small and marginal farmers has been put into immediate operation. By voting day, almost all the beneficiaries would have received two instalments of the Rs 6,000 per annum committed by the Prime Minister’s Kisan Samman Nidhi. Moreover, since the entire sum is being bankrolled by the Centre, neither Mamata Banerjee nor a Congress Chief Minister will be in any position to prevent its distribution.
\Unlike the tax sops for the middle classes that must await endorsement by a new Parliament, the Kisan Samman Nidhi is effective from December 1, 2018. This modest payment won’t resolve the larger agricultural crisis, but read with other welfare initiatives on health and pensions, it will further bolster Modi’s pro-poor and anti-corrupt credentials.
The Budget hasn’t won Modi the 2019 election. There is still a long and hard fight ahead of the BJP. It has, however, helped the party to address the concerns of two social groups that were feeling a little estranged politically. However, far more important, the Budget has sent out clear signals that not only is Modi in the fight but that he intends to be in a winning position by April. The message down the line will be quite electrifying.
The chattering classes may have been surprised to hear the BJP benches in the Lok Sabha break into chants of “Modi, Modi” to celebrate the “josh” behind the Interim Budget. What they need to consider is the electrifying impact of Modi on others far less inhibited than sedate MPs. For a brief period between December 2018 and January 2019, Modi gave the appearance of being a little shaky. After the Budget, he is back with a bang. Till 11am last Friday, the Opposition was convinced the Modi era was over. Now, they must mull over the implications of an opponent who revels in adversity.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.