Weeks before the Lok Sabha elections, finance minister P Chidambaram reached out to a wide swathe of voters —youth, minorities, Dalits, tribals, women, farmers and the middle class — who had formed the core support base of the Congress-led UPA in the 2004 and 2009 general elections.
The interim budget had something for each of the target groups — cheaper cars and two-wheelers for the middle class, cheaper mobile phones for everyone, a venture capital fund for Dalits, higher allocations for skill development and a fund to woo the youth and women, respectively, and higher allocations for minorities.
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He also reached out to the poor by setting aside Rs. 1.15 lakh crore for food subsidy “keeping in mind the government’s commitment to the National Food Security Act”, courted students by relaxing educational loan terms further and wooed farmers by increasing the amount banks need to lend farmers from Rs. 7 lakh crore this year to Rs. 8 lakh crore in 2014-15.
These measures come at a time when the Congress is struggling to reclaim its decade-old aam aadmi plank, which has been effectively appropriated by Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. AAP is just the latest fire Congress has to fight; it is struggling to cope with a BJP surge led by Narendra Modi, and opinion polls are predicting it will end up with a bloody nose in elections set to kick off in April.
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Chidambaram attacked both BJP and AAP with quotes from Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen that “neither populism nor majoritarianism nor individualism is an alternative way of governance”.And, underscoring the influence the Congress vice-president wields over the UPA’s decision-making, the finance minister granted the demand of retired servicemen for one rank, one pension three days after Rahul Gandhi had thrown his weight behind the idea.
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In case there was any doubt that this was an election year budget, Chidambaram used the occasion to showcase the UPA’s achievements, repeating the words "10 years ago" 12 times to stress how much better the economy had performed under his government compared with the BJP-led NDA, which ruled between 1998 and 2004.
Chidambaram also tried to appease industry -- which appears to be squarely behind Modi -- by offering excise duty cuts and reaffirming his commitment to growth.
“The people of India will entrust the responsibility to a hand that will hold the ‘sceptre swayed with equity’,” the minister concluded, an oblique reference to the Congress’s election symbol.