If nothing else, we should see this as signs that the ruling party is taking reports of rural distress extremely seriously. This came on a day in which they were dealing with stunning reversals in Rajasthan -- a swing away from the BJP that is close to double digits in places. The rural focus of the speech, therefore, is politically natural.
Still, what the Finance Minister presented in Hindi vs English was interesting. The Hindi sections talked at length about schemes that were already successful, such as the free cooking gas scheme for rural women. Free electricity, more free gas, and so on were promised in Hindi. The government is clearly concerned about its weakening strength in the Hindi heartland; politically, it is a sign that the BJP no longer cares about expanding its footprint into the south and east where it is seen as a Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan party.
This Budget feels like a step much further back than expected. Every aspect of Indira Gandhi-era economics was on the agenda this time: Garibi Hatao; import substitution; protectionism; unstinted borrowing; questionable fiscal numbers; tax the rich; pages of tinkering with tax rates; dark warnings about chasing black money.
Let's talk about the one thing that we are supposed to feel good about -- Jaitley's belated attempt to live up to Modi's 2014 promise to deliver universal healthcare. Let's ask ourselves: is this going to happen? And if so, how? Firstly, it's hard to see where a vast expansion of health insurance to 40 per cent of the country is being financed in the Budget: there's no corresponding outlay; if correctly costed, this would cost tens of thousands of crores, probably hundreds of thousands of crores.
Nor has Jaitley kept his promise to the private sector. He promised four years ago that he would reduce corporate tax to 25 per cent. He expanded that in this Budget to a larger set of companies in terms of turnover. But frankly, most of the private sector, whether in terms of turnover or employment, is still not being given the benefits of a lower tax rate. Indian companies will continue to struggle to be competitive.
There may be excellent reasons for the government to reverse the long trend towards openness in India's economy. Some have argued it has led to de-industrialisation. But let us state openly then that this is what we are doing. To claim we are a beacon of openness and then work in the opposite direction leads to questions about the government's sincerity. In fact, the overall takeaway from this Budget is that it is an insincere Budget. We cannot be certain about the fiscal deficit, about the expenditure promises, about its impact on inflation, about our trade posture. In the long term, is insincerity good politics? We'll find out.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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