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Economics of politics

By Kuldip Nayar Feb 8 2018, 1:20 IST

It's understandable that this year's budget should have an eye on rural India, which constitutes some 70% of voters. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had no compunction in mixing politics with economics. In the past, whenever the budget was mixed with elections, political parties would protest against it.

Over the years, economics has got mixed with politics. And, unfortunately, there is no escape from this. The emphasis this budget is on bettering the lot of the rural poor. The drubbing the BJP got in the Rajasthan by-polls shows that. In all the three by-elections, including two for the Lok Sabha, the Congress won. Whether the party would continue to obtain the same results is yet to be seen, but the mood is pro-Congress.

A sort of pattern is emerging. Where the Congress is in power, the BJP has won and it is the other way round in the BJP-ruled states. The voters have no choice except choosing between the two parties. The third front is sought to be created, but it is confined to a few states. The front does not seem able to go across the country.

In fact, the third front is reduced to the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad, however limited in sway, in Bihar. The Congress, which is spread all over the country, has only one opponent: the BJP.

This is a strange phenomenon in a secular India, because the credentials of BJP are too well known. A 'soft' Hindutva has come to engulf the country. This looks odd in India where the Constitution describes the republic as 'secular' in its preamble. One may blame Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, for dividing the country into two nations. But the resistance from the people to such division was minimal.

Not long ago, when I discussed the subject with Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, he blamed Jinnah for Partition. He said that then British Prime Minister Clement Atlee was keen on having some sort of unity between India and Pakistan. Lord Mountbatten told me so when I met him many years after Independence.

He said he had invited Mahatma Gandhi first to have a look at the Partition formula. The Mahatma walked out of Mountbatten's room when he heard the word Partition. Jinnah welcomed it. When Mountbatten asked him if he would have some connection with India, he categorically said "no", adding "I don't trust them."

To envisage a budget for India is a difficult proposition. No party, except the Congress, has its presence in all the states. And the Congress itself is losing its hold in state after state. The BJP is slowly filling the vacuum, but on communal lines.

The tragedy is that Muslims have withdrawn, instead of confronting Hindutva. When I asked a top Muslim leader the reason for this, he said: "We want safety of our lives and property. We are not interested in fighting the Hindutva forces." Thus, the BJP is capturing the imagination of Hindu population.

Modi's masterstroke

In the circumstances, 'Modicare', which assures health insurance to 50 crore individuals with coverage of up to Rs 5 lakh per family per year appears to be a masterstroke. Describing the scheme as "the world's largest state-funded healthcare programme", Jaitley also announced some 24 new medical colleges in the districts. Together with the existing ones, these would ensure one medical college and hospital for every three parliamentary constituencies.

To make it a successful proposition, the Centre is expected to involve state-run hospitals in a big way for smooth takeoff of the scheme. This is the third major insurance programme of the NDA government after Prime Minister's Fasal Bima Yojna for farmers and the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojna. The crop insurance scheme launched by the government a couple of years ago has turned out to be a success, with business growing to around Rs 25,000 crore.

This means that Prime Minister Narendra Modi could win the next general election. It would be his personal victory and not that of the BJP. He has cast his spell over the Hindu voters. But some respite is on the horizon. The assembly election in Gujarat, Modi's stronghold, has shown that the BJP's strength is waning. The Congress increased its tally in the state, with the help of a few like-minded parties.

This must have come as a big jolt to the BJP, particularly to Modi and party president Amit Shah. They had taken Gujarat for granted. The Congress is jubilant because it has bearded the lion in its own den. Whether the party can keep the winning trend in the future is difficult to say, but the 'Maha Front' which Nitish Kumar is still trying to build with all non-BJP parties may challenge Modi at the Centre.

One drawback, however, is that Nitish Kumar is tactically siding with the BJP to save his government in Bihar. Lalu Yadav is still popular and draws support from even unexpected quarters. He has been imprisoned and lodged in Ranchi jail after he was found guilty in the fodder scam. Yet, he seems to command support from the voters, and Nitish is conscious of it.

Prime Minister Modi is not bothered about a fraction of his support going away because he stills commands influence over the voters. But the real picture will emerge only after the results of the many state elections this year. Whether Modi goes in for an early poll next year is in the realm of conjecture. At present any guess would be a shot in the dark.

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