The economics of politics
It's understandable that this year's budget should have an eye on rural India which constitutes some 70 percent of voters. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had no compunction in mixing politics with economics. In the past whenever the budget was mixed with election, political parties would protest against such a practice.
Over the years, economics has gotten mixed with politics. And, unfortunately, there is no go from this. The emphasis of this is on bettering the lot of those living in villages, the rural poor. The drubbing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Rajasthan by-polls shows that. In all the three by-elections, including one for the Lok Sabha, the Congress has won. Whether the party would continue to draw the same results is yet to be seen. But the climate is pro-Congress.
A sort of pattern has come to emerge. Where the Congress is in power, the BJP has won and it is the other way around in the BJP-ruled states. The voters have no choice except choosing between the two parties. The third front has sought to be created but it is confined to some states alone. The front does not seem to go across the country.
In fact, the third front is reduced to the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Janata United of Nitish Kumar in Bihar and the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad, however limited in sway in the state. 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 uses the word "secular" in its preamble. One may blame Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, for dividing the country into two nations. But the resistance from the people was minimal.
Not long ago when I discussed the subject with Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, he blamed Jinnah for the partition. He said that the then Prime Minister Clement Richard Attlee was keen on having some sort of unity between India and Pakistan. Lord Mountbatten told me so when I met him after many years.
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 the partition when Mountbatten asked him if he would have some connection with India—he categorically said no, adding "I don't trust them." That ended the dream of a united India which Attlee wanted.
To envisage a budget for united 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 state after state. The BJP is slowly filling the vacuum, but on communal lines. Its pronounced tilt towards Hindutva means that the budget would have 80 percent of benefits for Hindus.
Under these circumstances, the '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" the finance minister also announced one medical college in every parliamentary constituency. It would mean the country would have approximately 180 medical colleges and as many hospitals available to them.
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 the prime minister's Fasal Bima Yojana for farmers and the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana. 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.
The tragedy is that Muslims have withdrawn instead of confronting Hindutva with all their force. When I asked a top Muslim leader the reason for such a move, he said: "We want safety of our lives and properties. We are not interested in fighting the Hindutva forces." Thus, the BJP is capturing the imagination of the Hindu population.
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, particularly in rural India. Some respite is on the horizon. The assembly election in Gujarat, Modi's stronghold, has shown lessening of BJP's strength because the Congress has increased its tally in the state, although with the help of a few like-minded parties.
This must have come as a big jolt to the BJP, particularly Prime Minister 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 trying to build with all non-BJP parties may challenge Modi at the centre.
One drawback, however, is that Nitish Kumar is siding with the BJP to save his government in the state after fissures began appearing in Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav and his own party. Of course, Lalu 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 yet bothered about a fraction of his support going away because he still commands influence over the voters. But the real picture would emerge only after the results of the state elections this year. Whether Modi goes for an early poll next year is in the realm of conjecture. At present any guess would be a shot in the dark.
Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.