A cash-for-votes Budget

An Interim Budget from an interim minister for a government on its last legs. This is what Piyush Goyal was expected to deliver. Instead, he produced a presumptuous, full-blown Budget, complete with a 10-year vision for the country. Come to think of it, for a party perennially in election mode, this was par for the course. Taking a page out of his leader Narendra Modi’s book, Goyal’s speech was a compendium of boasts about the government’s economic management and served to kickstart the election campaign. In fact, at one point, Parliament was rocked by shouts of ‘Modi! Modi!’ from sycophantic partymen as the self-congratulation reached a comical fever pitch. In a speech full of vacuous phrases like people’s ‘josh’ and ‘vikas ek jan andolan ban gaya hain’ and a ‘New India’ free of all problems by 2022, next to nothing was said about jobs, a topic that has left the BJP red-faced over the past few days after it suppressed the government statistician’s report that unemployment had touched a 45-year high under Modi.

If that was the style, what was the substance of the Budget? The two main highlights were the announcement of raising the income tax exemption ceiling to Rs 5 lakh and the Rs 6,000 a year dole to small and marginal farmers. While the former step may win the government some brownie points amongst the middle-class, it’s worth noting that it will negate the gains made under this very government in taxpayer numbers. The number of people filing I-T returns has risen from 3.79 crore to 6.85 crore in five years. If the new Rs 5 lakh ceiling takes out effectively three crore taxpayers, as the government says it will, we are back to a narrow tax base, purely because Modi wants to win an election. If the BJP loses the Lok Sabha polls, the new government will be saddled with this giveaway. The Rs 6,000 to small and marginal farmers is too little, too late. Was Rs 17 per day all that the government could come up with for the poor farmer?

As the ratings agency Moody’s noted, the Budget has many ways for the government to spend money, and none to increase its revenues. Modi has even gone on to say that the tax cuts and the cash for farmers is “only a trailer” for what’s to come after the LS polls. Whatever happened to the Modi who came to power in 2014 saying he would not give out doles and handouts and hurt the dignity of people, instead he would ensure that nobody extended their hand for a dole, that all had jobs, and achhe din? Now, it seems, faced with a difficult election and his own failure in creating jobs, Modi is no different from the run-of-the-mill politician of the ‘Socialist’ variety he so despises. That’s the message from this Budget.

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A cash-for-votes Budget

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