The Congress-led UPA went through the annual budgeting ritual with what is likely to be its last full Budget before the next Lok Sabha elections. While the economic message from the Budget has been analysed threadbare by the experts, the political message has not received as much attention. This perhaps must be one of the first pre-election budgets betraying nervousness over one individual than compared to previous ones. In fact one wonders if nervousness over a single political personality had ever manifested in a Budget speech by any Finance Minister of India. In that P Chidambaram may have revealed much more than he lets on over the degree to which the Narendra Modi factor loomed over the politics of his Budget.
First we had the derisive dig right at the beginning of the Budget speech with an oblique reference to ‘Gujarat’ and its economic growth rate. Then we had the repeated references to the aspirations of youth and security for women — two key issues that have come to be identified with Narendra Modi’s agenda of development with good governance. The sops aimed at the neo middle-class were hard to miss from the Rs 2000 relief to an additional deduction on home loans. Lastly the missing catchphrase – the Finance Minister’s speech was strangely bereft of any references to the UPA’s ‘aam admi’. With the tepid allocation to food security, lowering of allocation towards NREGA, it would seem the UPA is gradually abandoning its faltering aam admi agenda even as worries mount over a disenchanted neo middle-class, women and young voters.
Little wonder that fear of Narendra Modi compelled Chidambaram to speak the language of aspirations over the populism of rights-based entitlements.
This however is not the key political message coming out of the Budget. Congress-watcher and columnist Pankaj Vora, writing in his blog in the Hindustan Times website ahead of the Budget speech, made some interesting remarks. The blog post titled ‘Is the budget designed for early Lok Sabha polls’ had this to say:
“The Grand Old Party cannot risk losing to BJP in these assembly elections in 2013 as it would jeopardise its chances totally in next year’s general elections. Therefore, it would make more sense to have the polls either before the assembly face off or alongside it. With these factors in the background, it is being speculated that the Union Budget will be designed to suit the middle classes”
Pankaj Vora, it seems, had revealed the playbook of the Congress ahead of the actual Budget speech. But Vora may have got one thing wrong. A more compelling factor for the Congress to consider an early poll later this year is not as much the fear of losses in states going to polls this year but the risk of losing leverage over Andhra Pradesh. A Lok Sabha poll next year as per the schedule would mean the Congress battling not just to secure its overall tally in Parliament but also battling for survival in the one State that has come to be its political mainstay sending in the largest number of MPs.
Realpolitik would suggest that the Congress would much rather use an earlier date for the Lok Sabha election as political leverage in Andhra Pradesh to isolate and coerce rebels into returning to its fold rather than wait till the YSRCP gets a taste of power in AP. It is unlikely that the YSR Congress’s YS Jagan will be let off anytime soon to steer his party’s campaign. With whispers doing the rounds on further financial scandals surrounding his immediate family, one must not be surprised if the YSRCP is further deprived of leadership while its retinue of MLAs and MPs are cornered and coerced back into the Congress fold in time for an early Lok Sabha election and months ahead of a State election, well before the YSRCP gets any closer to a real shot at power in Andhra Pradesh.
Hence this may very well be a Budget designed for an earlier date for the election, as Pankaj Vora puts it, but for a reason he doesn’t quite state explicitly.
There were three political questions that I was looking for answers in Chidambaram’s Budget presentation.
The first was on the timing of the next Lok Sabha election which has since been answered by Pankaj Vora and validated by the substance of Chidambraam’s Budget proposals.
The second was on how the UPA feels about its prospects as it prepares to face the electorate for a third term. The nervousness over Narendra Modi, the tepid allocations to the UPA’s big ticket spending programmes and the near absence of the ‘aam admi’ confirm what was suspected for many months now — the rise of the aspirational neo middle-class has made the UPA jittery over its third term prospects.
The third was on which battleground States the UPA will be concentrating its energies to either recover lost ground or break new ground. No wonder the Budget spelled out the States causing greatest worry to the UPA – Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Haryana, in the context of the next version of the PMGSY road-building programme.
The biggest surprise coming from the Budget however was the warmth with which the JDU in Bihar welcomed the UPA’s penultimate Budget. While Nitish Kumar limited his remarks to the promise on reconsidering the definition of ‘backwardness’ in the hope of securing a special status to Bihar, it was the remark on Twitter by his man Friday in Delhi that was more curious.
The strangely cryptic remark has one wondering if the ‘rekindling of hope’ was with reference to special status for Bihar or over hopes for a new political alignment.