An election Budget
Make no mistake: Regardless of what pundits tell you, this is an election Budget prepared skillfully not just with a view to the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, due in 2014, but also to the more immediate elections in seven states this year. For sure, there was none of the grand flourishes that have been the hallmark of a major Chidambaram Budget (think the Dream Budget of 1997 and the mammoth Rs.65,000 crore farm loan waiver announced in the 2008 Budget). But that was the red herring. Take a second look at the proposals: The feeling is unmistakable. Mr Chidambaram has been advised by party managers to prepare a Budget keeping elections in mind.
In a speech remarkably well-worded for an official document there was enough that was directed at specific electoral groups. Take the rural electorate: There is a near 50 per cent hike in the allocation for the Ministry of Rural Development. Alongside that is the thrust on Direct Benefit Transfer, Mr Rahul Gandhi's political "game-changer", with a commitment to an all-India rollout. Why should anybody have an objection to the concept of "Apka Paisa Apke Haath", Mr Chidambaram pointedly asked. Certainly not the poorest of the poor.
In fact, the Finance Minister identified three groups deserving special attention: women, the youth and the poor. On the back foot after its shoddy and shameful handling of the December protests against the Delhi gang-rape, the Government went into an overdrive to make up for its perceived lapses and leaden-footedness. The speed with which the Justice Verma Committee came up with its recommendations on reforms in criminal law relating to women's issues was matched by the alacrity with which the Government framed and promulgated the ordnance to implement the suggestions. Mr Chidambaram's Budget proposals make it abundantly clear the Government is inclined to drive home its pro-women stance and send a direct message to the women of the country that it cares. The proposals relating to the setting up of the Nirbhaya Fund for Women's Safety on the one hand and, on the other, a public sector bank for-the-women, by-the-women and of-the-women, were big ticket statements of its intent.
Similarly, Mr Chidambaram made it very clear that the Government is reaching out to the youth. The allocations on skill development and job creation are nothing if not that. The youth of the subcontinent is in a state of ferment. Witness the Shahbagh movement in Dhaka and think of what we have seen in our own national capital in the last two years-from the Anna movement to the anti-rape protests. The conclusion reached by the UPA is unexceptionable: the youth of the country deserve attention and there is no better way to do so than address their need to find gainful employment. But for that, they have to be first made job-ready. The thrust on skill development is a step in that direction. These are moves that also address the aspirations of the burgeoning lower middle class.
Aside of everything else that the Budget holds for the less privileged sections of society, there are two gratuitous moves that are clearly designed to tell the poor that the government is with them and not with the rich and the powerful: The IT cess on the super-rich and the hike in the surcharge on corporate tax. In copybook style, the Finance Minister, who was an ace corporate lawyer in another avatar, has taken the wind out of the sails of the Left. Who will now accuse the UPA of being in cahoots with Big Capital?
More about Vivek SenguptaPublic affairs analyst Vivek Sengupta is Founder and Chief Executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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