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Union Budget 2018: ‘Vikas purush’ Narendra Modi set to be ‘man of the poor’

The political message of the last full Union Budget before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is that from a ‘vikas purush’ in 2014, Narendra Modi will now go back as the ‘gareebon ka neta’.

india Updated: Feb 02, 2018 08:19 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Budget 2018,Union Budget 2018,Arun Jaitley speech
Prime Minister Narendra Modi listens as finance minister Arun Jaitley presents the Union Budget in Parliament on Thursday.(PTI)

During his budget speech, finance minister Arun Jaitley mentioned how the political leadership of the country had seen ‘gareebi’ (poverty). This was not a leadership for which poverty was a ‘case-study’; they were the case-study themselves.

In that passing reference, lies the clue to understanding the political message of the last full Union Budget before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In 2014, Modi went across India and projected himself as a ‘vikas purush’, the development man. Next time, as Jaitley’s speech made clear, Modi will go back as the ‘Gareebon Ka Neta’ (messiah of the poor).

5-point welfare message

The shift in image is not sudden. It can, in fact, be traced back to Rahul Gandhi’s ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ barb at Modi in 2015 and the defeat in the Bihar elections. Ever since then, Modi has consciously sought to distance himself from big business and emphasise his government’s focus on the poor. Indian demographics remain such that a party which is seen as favouring the elite — and only the elite — cannot win.

There is another compulsion. The government, as senior ministers privately admit, knows well that it will not be able to generate the jobs it had promised — and young India aspires for — by 2019. The fact that absence of jobs is coupled with rising rural and agrarian distress has made it a politically dangerous moment.

The budget reveals that the Modi government’s political response to this situation is welfare to ensure ‘ease of living’. The welfare mix — and political messaging for 2019 — will have five components.

One, the government will continue to proudly proclaim Ujjwala, the distribution of gas cylinders to women, as a key measure which has changed the way people in rural India live. Two, Jaitley mentioned Saubhagya, the promise of electrifying poor households.

Three, the government believes that toilet construction under Swachh Bharat has helped create a votebank of women. The budget mentioned this will continue.

Four, there is a strong push for both rural and affordable urban housing. And finally, recognising how an illness can devastate a poor family and is often the difference between a reasonable life and poverty, the government has brought health to the political centre-stage. Take it together. And you know the government’s poll card for 2019: cylinders, power, toilets, housing and health.

Multi-class gamble

In its focus on the poor, the middle class supporters of the BJP have begun asking: What about us? The budget does not cut taxes. It imposes an additional cess to pay for education and health. It makes television and mobiles more expensive. It imposes capital gains tax for those who invest in markets.

The middle class vote may not be as enthused about the party, but the BJP believes it will still prefer Modi to Rahul Gandhi. Party strategists point out that recent elections show that urban pockets firmly remain with them.

This approach also stems from Modi’s own beliefs. In a significant speech in March 2017, the PM first spoke of the capacity of the poor.

“I can see their power. If the poor get educated, he will give results. If he gets to work, he will do more for the country.” He then recognised the responsibility of the middle class.

“They have to pay taxes... They have to conform to norms of society. They have to bear the maximum economic load...” Modi then linked the two.

This element of Modi’s philosophy has guided the budget. To the middle class, the government is saying: Bear with us, do your bit for society... To the poor, it is saying: We are with you. Whether the formula works, and multi-class alliance stays together, will be tested in 2019.

First Published: Feb 02, 2018 08:17 IST