A chance gone by?


March 02, 2016

An Indian farmer irrigates his paddy field at Dhekiabari, on the outskirts of Guwahati in the northeastern state of Assam on Monday (AP)

The BJP government’s third budget has sought to dispel its image of being pro-rich and pro-urban.

It has spelt out a rural focus and proposed to boost agriculture. But will that serve the concerns of aspirational India? Or is it yet another wasted opportunity?

It takes close to two years for proposals made in a federal budget to make an impact at ground zero.

Given the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government was presenting its third budget on February 29, it was presumed that some concrete steps would be initiated to revive the economy. After all, the full import of the budgetary proposals would be realised and felt just in time for the next general elections, scheduled in 2019.

There were several other reasons why there was a heightened sense of expectation and all eyes were fixed on federal Finance Minister Arun Jaitely.

The foremost among them was the unmet needs of aspirational India, which no longer comprises the poor and the backward, but has grown to include several sections which have been left behind as the country has grown. The demands of these sections, which are growing with every passing day, have recently found expression in two major agitations. The first was the demand of the upper caste group of Patels in Gujarat seeking affirmative action.

The second such agitation was by the powerful community of Jats in Haryana last week which led to unprecedented violence, including the death of 19 persons.

There are several other similar demands coming from sections in states like Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Rajasthan. Most of these sections were once-powerful landed communities, whose social standing and economic well being stemmed from land and agriculture. With agriculture no longer being as lucrative as it was, the youth of these communities are now looking for jobs that do not seem to show up on the horizon.

Instead, they find that the so-called socially backward classes had moved up the economic value chain considerably on the strength of the reservation policy in education and employment. Fundamentally, the issues concerning these dominant communities were economic.

They had put their faith in the promises of a better future, particularly for the youth in terms of employment. They had believed in Modi’s model of development which promised to sort out all their problems. It is well known that this was also one of the factors that turned the tide in favour of the BJP during the last general elections, which brought the party to power with a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Parliament, something that this country had not seen in a very long time.

Which simply meant that they had the required numbers to push for change. Once in power, the ruling party did pretty much what the predecessor government did - tinkering with two consecutive budgets in the name of straightening out the mess left behind by the Congress-led UPA government.

It is in this context that the eyes were on the well known lawyer turned Finance Minister to turn the tide, so to speak, for the BJP while presenting his third budget. Jaitely has put out proposals that are focussed on the rural sector, giving a thrust to the agricultural sector, skill development and job creation with increased allocation for the rural employment programme and rural road development.

He has promised, in the next five years, to double the income of the farmer. However, he is yet to tell us how all this will be implemented, funded and more importantly, how this will address the needs of aspirational India.

The farmer is so burdened by debt that he can ill afford to wait for five years to double his pathetic income level. In any case, it is unlikely to mitigate his economic woes or address the challenges facing rural youth. In his effort to flaunt a pro-rural and pro-farmer stance, the finance minister has managed to make the urban middle classes feel a trifle cheated. While his budget had very little to offer the honest tax payer, the hoarders of black money were offered several shades of amnesty schemes to come clean.

Broadly speaking, the person who does not pay taxes and hoards money gets the benefit of keeping 55 per cent of the declared amount! Similar is the story of taxation on tobacco products, which remains lopsided.

Those who smoke cigarettes will have to pay 10 to 15 per cent more by way of taxes. But the poor man’s rolled tobacco leaf, called beedi, has been exempted from increased taxes. As a well known economist asks: Does the Finance Minister want the poor to die of cancer? Overall, the success of these budgetary proposals depend upon how they are implemented. The current government still has a long way to go and a lot more to prove.

What a job!

For the third consecutive week, issues emanating from sloganeering inside the JNU campus, allegedly by students, has continued to dominate the political and social discourse in India. The processions and counter demonstrations in support of nationalism that represents free thought versus thought control, have brought the debate into sharp focus and placed it on top of the nation’s agenda.

The social media has seen a war of words. Even those sections which were, hardly one and a half years ago, in awe of the persona of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seem to have reacted to this ‘assault on the sensibilities of the people’. Some defenders of the BJP have made it worse by likening the students to various kinds of undesirable elements. They have fallen over each other in trying to call the students different names.

A tweet sent by a brilliant actor turned defender of the BJP, Anupam Kher, spoke volumes of the thinking that exists in the ruling dispensation. Kher sent out a tweet that read: ‘When you do pest control in your homes, cockroaches, insects, spiders come out. The house gets cleaned. These days pest control is taking place in this country.’

If this does not make you think of those pages which you read in history or of the movies that showed what Hitler did to the Jews, what else would. Competition to Kher came from an unusual quarter. A member of the legislative assembly of Rajasthan, Gyandev Ahuja, spoke honestly when he said that he had got some details of the goings-on at JNU which he could not authenticate.

Yet, like some sections of the media did by putting out doctored video on airwaves, Ahuja went public with the details before television cameras. He made the astonishing charge that ‘in JNU you find 3,000 beer cans and bottles, 2,000 Indian liquor bottles, 10,000 cigarette butts, 4,000 beedis, 50,000 bone pieces, 2,000 wrappers of chips, 3,000 used condoms and 500 injections that help abortion’. Ahuja’s intention, from his party’s perspective, appeared to be noble.

He was only trying to point out to fellow countrymen that this was what anti-nationals did at the university, which in fact, is a den of vices. Of course, Ahuja became nationally popular with his staggering statistics and became the butt of many a smart comment. Someone jocularly quoted Chanakya, the man who wrote the political treatise, Arthashastra, to say: ‘If you are unhappy about your job then think of that BJP MLA whose job is to count condoms at JNU.’

But, the most stinging comment came from a young lady who punned on the BJP’s popular campaign point in the last elections: This time, it is Modi sarkar (government). Her tweet asked a simple question that could well be quoted by BJP’s opponents next elections. It asked: ‘So what are you trying to say… this time a government that counts condoms?’

Tailpiece

You have read in these columns about the Yoga guru whose wings have spread far and wide and how he has become a big threat to the multi-nationals in the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) business. Baba Ramdev, as he is popularly known, possibly has the largest yoga enthusiast following across the country.

From that base, his Patanjali Ayurved and its products have established a network that is huge and clearly making the rivals in the field run for their monies.

In the last week of January, Patanjali Ayurved launched an advertising blitz which made it the number one advertiser on television, beating some of the biggest brands like Cadbury’s, Parle, Horlicks, Pond’s and Fair and Lovely.

Baba Ramdev, however, has remained his old self. It is only during winter that he covers his top half with a saffron coloured cloth. Otherwise, he is normally bare chested with a saffron coloured cloth covering him waist downwards. Patanjali is now a R20bn-plus (RO113.5mn approx) empire selling ayurvedic products, biscuits, soaps and even noodles.

As someone said: You don’t always need half naked women to sell products. Half naked men are also equally effective!

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]