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In Budget 2018, Modi govt woos farmers, rural masses: Will it translate into votes?

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    New Delhi, Feb 1: We don't know whether it is good economics (let experts dwell upon it), but definitely good politics.

    As Union finance minister Arun Jaitley began his budget speech in Parliament on Thursday, things got pretty clear about the Narendra Modi government's economic agenda for 2018-2019.

    farmers

    More than economic agenda, it's political acumen that was at the heart of the Union budget 2018.

    As expected Jaitley went all out to woo farmers and rural masses in general who are miffed with the Modi government in the recent past. Eyeing the upcoming Assembly elections in eight states and all-important Lok Sabha elections 2019, Jaitley made the latest budget exercise all about agriculture, agriculture and agriculture (if we go by the initial speech of the FM).

    Of course rural masses, including women voters from the hinterlands found special mention in Jaitley's speech which was delivered in both Hindi and English. In fact, this is for the first time that any FM of the country delivered his speech in Hindi, since India got its independence in 1947.

    The decision to deliver his speech in Hindi is an obvious indication that Jaitley wanted to reach out to the aam aadmi, especially farmers and others in rural areas, for whom English is as foreign as Italian or Spanish for urban voters.

    Since this is the last full budget of the Modi government, Jaitley did not want to miss anything to win back the confidence of rural voters who of late have distanced itself from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

    The anger of the rural people was pretty apparent during the last year's Gujarat Assembly elections. In the home state of PM Modi, rural population mostly voted for the Congress.

    According to figures, the BJP fared well in urban and semi-urban areas but had a poor showing in rural regions, where the Congress emerged resurgent during the Gujarat elections.

    Out of 98 rural seats in Gujarat, the Congress won 55, while the BJP 38. If the Gujarat elections could be considered a yardstick to measure India's sentiments, then the Modi government needs to end the economic woes of the farmers and rural poor. Thus, Jaitley in the latest budget did best to 'pamper' rural and poor people.

    Within 10 minutes after he began his speech (which is still underway during the filing of this report), Jaitley uttered the word "farmers". The FM said the government is committed to the welfare of farmers.

    "We had sought to affect a paradigm shift. The PM had given a call to double farmer income by 2020. We consider agriculture as an enterprise and want them to produce more from same land parcels and earn well too."

    Some of the major farm sector-related announcements made by Jaitley include--minimum support price (MSP) of all crops shall be increased to at least 1.5 times that of the production cost, 470 APMCs have been connected to eNAM network, the rest to be connected by March 2018, Agri-Market Development Fund with a corpus of Rs 2,000 crore to be set up for developing agricultural markets, cluster-model approach to be adopted for agricultural production, allocation in Ministry of Food Processing is being doubled to boost food processing; specialised agro-processing and financial institutions to be promoted by government and Rs 500 crore for Operation Green.

    "The budget has a clear agriculture push as expected. A number of initiatives for agriculture and food processing have been announced. Policies like MSP being at 1.5 times the cost of produce need to be understood, to assess impact of inflation on agri commodities," Anil Rego, CEO and Founder, Right Horizons, was quoted as saying by Moneycontrol.

    In his speech, FM Jaitley stated that the government will work with the NITI Aayog to develop system of optimal farm price realisation and develop existing 22,000 gramin agri centres, GRAMS, to help farmers for direct sales of their produce.

    It is not just agriculture, but allied sectors like fishery and animal husbandry also got a lot of attention in the budget. The FM proposed to extend kisan credit card to fisheries and animal husbandry farmers and allocate Rs 10,000 crore for fisheries, aquaculture and animal husbandry funds.

    Jaitley outlined the measures that the government will undertake to fight the ever-growing hazards of pollution from crop burning and promotion of gas connection in houses using wood fire for cooking, among others.

    In this budget, the government will undertake ground water irrigation scheme under Krishi Sinchayi Yojana in regions where less than 30 per cent land gets assured irrigation currently. "Our focus will be to get more and more land under irrigation facilities," said Jaitley.

    "As expected the first half of the budget was for Bharat, kisan, women, senior citizens, rural areas--a pro-people's budget. As we move into the second half of the speech, we will move to India," said Manoj Nagpal, Moneycontrol Consulting Editor.

    "The focus of government seems to be rural India even in the case of infrastructure like roads. On the other hand, the government is trying to encourage private investments into infrastructure through innovative structures like InvITs and AIFs," Rego told Moneycontrol.

    The number of incentives given to agriculture and rural masses in the budget is a welcome change, say experts.

    "The BJP is known to be a pro-urban political party. Since 2014, after the Modi government came to power, the Centre hardly did anything to improve agriculture and end instability in the lives of the farmers who have committed suicides in various parts of the country in a record number.

    "It is good that the BJP government has realised its mistakes at the end of its term," said a Bengaluru-based financial analyst.

    However, many say that largesses given to the rural and farming sectors are a part of the BJP's election agenda.

    On Tuesday, farm activists accused the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of trying to cover up the agrarian crisis in the country. They alleged that the distress in the agriculture sector has been caused due to the "flawed policies and inaction" by the Centre.

    Leader of Swaraj India and activist Yogendra Yadav said that the BJP government is the most "anti-farmer government" the country has seen in its history.

    With all the incentives and proposals for agriculture in the budget, the BJP government is likely to atone for its mistakes of neglecting farmers and their plight for so long.

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