Gambling On Rural India

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Is the BJP government trying to do things differently? There was no mention of the defence budget in the finance minister’s address although the numbers are already known. Military spending is up to Rs.2.58,000 lakh crore from 2.46,000 lakh crore. Pensions are also up to Rs. 82,000 crore because of One Rank One Pension.BY SURYA GANGADHARAN

Veterans scribes on the budget beat tell me this has happened before, although not recently. Exactly why is not clear. Perhaps, the government has not quite covered itself with glory in the handling of the OROP demand of ex-servicemen; perhaps it is the slow pace of procurement and Manohar Parrikar’s sense that the re-worked Defence Policy Procedures be perfect, therefore the reason for its delay.

It could also be Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s need to keep the focus on the government’s very obvious efforts to win over vast sections of rural India, especially farmers. After successive drought years followed by scores of farmer suicides and losses in state elections, the BJP is waking up to the need to dilute its perceived pro-rich pro-industry image: result, the farmer is being wooed and embraced with money to be taken from taxes aimed at the rich.

The farmers are understandably skeptical. Many would prefer the government offer more remunerative prices for their produce rather than bank on doubling farmer incomes in five years. But with more than Rs.44,000 crore for farmer welfare, and another Rs.87,000 plus crore for rural development, there’s enough money out there to make a difference.

Still, Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley know it’s a gamble. All that money being thrown at them maybe too little, too late. Rural folk have long memories and may be in no mood to forgive especially after so many farmer households are minus the principle breadwinner.

But the decision to go “pro-poor” was a no brainer given slow growth, poor private sector investment and the decline of exports. Make in India is moving from mantra to mission mode but it is going to take time.

It explains Modi’s conversion to the benefits of MG-NREGA, flagship programme of the UPA which bore the obvious stamp of Sonia Gandhi. Modi had been critical of the programme, but he had also said he would not shut it down for the simple reason it was standing proof of the UPA’s ineptitude. The programme has been critiqued for poor planning and worse execution leading to “leakages” and corruption.

Modi intends to overcome its weaknesses through technology, ensuring needy farmers and rural folk benefit. How precisely that will happen will be seen in the days ahead. For now the signal has gone out, BJP cadres will fan out in the countryside to convey what Narendrabhai has done for farmers while the bureaucracy will (hopefully) work overtime to ensure impeccable delivery to rural India.

The pro-poor tilt comes at the right time when elections are scheduled for a slew of states. The BJP is banking heavily on doing well in Assam where it has tied up with the Asom Gana Parishad. West Bengal and Tamil Nadu will follow in due course but BJP does not have much appeal there.

Nevertheless, the party is looking long term. Speculation about Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s health has been around for some time and if the “Iron lady” goes, so does her party. The DMK could splinter once supremo Karunanidhi is no longer around. That leaves the field wide open and gives the BJP hope.

More than Rs.44,000 crore for farmer welfare, and another Rs.87,000 plus crore for rural development, there’s enough money out there to make a difference

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