After tri-state loss, BJP gets new talking points for Lok Sabha election campaign

Ravish Tiwari, Liz Mathew
Piyush Goyal presented the interim Budget 2019. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

With the Interim Budget proposals focusing on an estimated 12 crore small farmers, three crore middle class taxpayers, and about 10 crore workers in the unorganised sector, smiles returned to the faces of BJP MPs who had looked increasingly downcast after the party's defeat in the Hindi heartland states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan last December.

While the full tax rebate for inpidual annual income up to Rs 5 lakh is being seen as an attempt to woo the middle class ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the announcement of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN), offering flat cash transfer of Rs 6,000 in three equal instalments every year, seeks to address a lingering issue that the party thought had been overplayed by the Opposition.

"The Budget announcements are the icing on the cake for the BJP," said Dinesh Kashyap, a BJP MP from Chhattisgarh where the party's loss in the assembly election was attributed to the growing discontent among farmers.

"We had a number of developments in the infrastructure sector, for Dalits, for women. But the farmers were unhappy. The Budget has given new josh to the BJP and brought new enthusiasm for the cadre. We have also got a new weapon to beat the Opposition," Kashyap told The Indian Express.

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Ganesh Singh, senior party MP from Madhya Pradesh, echoed Kashyap: "Measures for farmers have already brought new energy… the impact has been immediate. Those farmers who were not getting any benefit of the MSPs announced or whose produces were not getting procured had complaints. Today's announcements have taken care of that." He said the BJP's election campaign will highlight these measures.

The decisions appear to be an acknowledgment of the distress in the farm sector, an issue raised by the Congress during the assembly elections but virtually dismissed by the ruling BJP. In fact, the BJP leadership did not give in to pressure from its Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh units to promise farm sector sops like loan waiver ahead of the state elections. The BJP lost power in all three states - Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

That farmers did not get remunerative price seems to have been acknowledged by the government. Though the Budget speech did not refer to the BJP's electoral setback in the three heartland states, Finance Minister Piyush Goyal cited "reduced" farm income over the last couple of years to announce flat cash transfer to poor farmers.

"Declining prices of agricultural commodities in the international market and fall in food inflation in India since 2017-18, relative to non-food sector, have however, reduced the returns from farming. Small and fragmented land holding on account of repeated pisions has also contributed in decline in the income of the farmer family," Goyal said.

A similar justification was offered by Goyal's predecessor Arun Jaitley. "Farmers' welfare cannot wait," Jaitley wrote in his blog after the Budget, acknowledging that "in view of the inadequacy of the procurement system in certain states, many farmers did not get the full benefit and had to sell their produce at softer prices".

With the announcement of Lok Sabha elections just weeks away, the interim Budget proposals do offer new talking points to party MPs and workers as they fan out across the country to counter political realignments against the BJP.

Speaking in Rajya Sabha last month on the 10 per cent quota for the economically weaker section in the general category, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had given an indication of measures to follow: "Cricket mein chhakka slog over mein lagta hai, jab match close hota hai tab lagta hai. Agar aapko isse pe pareshani hai, to yeh pehla chhakka nahi hai, aur chhakke aane wale hain (In cricket, sixes are hit in the slog overs when the match is coming to a close. If you have a problem with this, let me assure you more sixes are on the way)."

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BJP leaders present in Parliament House Friday suggested that announcements related to farmers and middle-class would add to their talking points of the 10 per cent quota and the government's readiness to release the land around the disputed Ayodhya site.

"Yeh Budget surgical strike hai. Agar Ram Mandir ka tadka lag jaye toh 300 kya, aur bhi aage chale jayenge (This Budget is a surgical strike. If the Ram temple comes through, the party will go beyond 300 seats)," a BJP MP told a colleague outside Goyal's office in Parliament.

A senior BJP leader said the Budget announcements would return the debate to vikas (development), an issue on which the party and Modi believe they have a clear edge. On emotive issues such as the Ram temple, he said the government's move to approach the Supreme Court seeking vacation of the stay on the land adjoining the disputed site had already pleased hardliners.

This leader claimed that pressure from the cadre and the RSS had forced the government to approach the Supreme Court. "So if the legal process is delayed or the government is not allowed to return the land to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, the government may look at a legislative intervention before the elections," he said.

He said if the land is returned to Nyas, it can undertake activities like fencing or construction of gates. "Any such initiative will be enough to keep the party's hardline support base together. Now that the party has the Budget announcements for farmers and the middle class to highlight the development aspect, it has to keep its vote base intact to ensure an honourable return to power," the leader said.