Honestly, even I didn’t expect our media to have the courage to break the mould and grant primacy to the spectacular loss of the ruling party in the three bypolls, one Assembly and two Lok Sabha seats, in Rajasthan, instead of the budget. Yes, traditionally one day in the annual news calendar is earmarked for the Union Finance Minister. FM must be the front and centre on this big day. Yet, when you consider that the budget barely touches the lives of a vast majority of people and, come to think of it, hardly impacts anything more than a quarter of the economic activity, the concession to tradition seems to be overdone.
Increasingly, most developed economies have made annual budgets redundant, a bare ritual, devoid of substantive changes, having injected greater stability, transparency and predictability in the entire gamut of economic policies. But we continue to treat the presentation of the annual balance-sheet of the nation as a huge event. Remember how till very recently the common man was supposed to pass or fail a budget, depending on whether there was a hike in the price of beedi-cigarettes, petrol, etc., while the salaried classes apparently were concerned only about income tax concessions.
Now, in the post-liberalisation period, the media has replaced the common man with the ubiquitous corporate honcho. He, sitting in the comfort of a TV studio, or in the chambers of a business association, evaluates the Finance Minister’s handiwork. And rare is a corporate boss who rates the budget anything less than eight on ten. The dream budget of an extraordinary glib Finance Minister, whose son now uses every trick to escape investigation in a fraction of the actual cases where he is said to have used his father’s influence to rake it in big, had toted up nearly ten on ten, regardless that it eventually turned out to be a nightmare.
Sorry, I digressed. The point is that regardless of the belated effort to shift the focus to address the rural distress, to offer sops to the senior citizens, to most courageously go in for a very welcome near-universal health scheme, the time-lag in actual delivery is bound to be such that we will have to reckon with eight Assembly elections and a full-blown general election without their actual impact on the voters. In other words, do not think the budget can neutralise the ill-winds blowing in the Hindi heartland as testified by the rude rebuff to Vasundhara Raje and the BJP, in that order. Indeed, despite the BJP pushing CPM and Congress to third and fourth places in the bypolls in West Bengal, the immediate effect will be to bolster the mission of Sitaram Yechuri, who fashions himself as a latter-day S.A. Dange, ready to sleep with the Congress, come what may.
Meanwhile, the only hope the BJP now has is for Narendra Modi to work his magic yet again. The anti-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and, above all, in Rajasthan, is so strong that only Modi can turn it around with his special connect with the voters. Maybe that explains why they are harping on simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, though even otherwise it is a sensible idea and needs must be explored further. Despite the desperation of the Congress managers to sell a Naya Rahul—the latest to join the he-is-a-bright-chap chorus being Shashi Tharoor, he of the IPL sweat equity fame—the disarray in the anti-BJP camp is such that it will be well-nigh impossible to present a united face, led by a general commanding the respect and obedience of all his troops. An opposition divided against itself can hardly compete with a party with a clear chain of command and whose rank and file is always battle-ready. Witness how they had to pull out an ailing Sonia Gandhi to chair the meeting of the Opposition leaders last week since they would not accept son, Rahul, to preside over it. Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee have already staked claim to lead the opposition, sans Sonia Gandhi.
Yet, even Modi will have to fire-fight within his own camp to undo the damage the fringe has done these past four years before he can take on the motley Opposition. Silence no longer is an option. Not, if the middle classes, hitherto the spine of the BJP base, stay enraged, put off by the ugliness of the so-called Hindutva votaries, and left angrier still by the budget. The so-called Hindutva lumpens should be firmly put down. We are not Pakistan where lawyers glorify a cold-blooded killer of a moderate Muslim whose only crime was that he sought redress for an innocent woman wrongly persecuted in the name of Islam. A majority of Hindus feel ashamed by the crude behaviour of the louts in the name of their faith. This lot must be held in check—and now.
To return to the Budget, well, its impact on electoral contests ahead will be marginal, if any. Therefore, the BJP will have to search for political remedies to arrest the sharp slide in its popularity. The Congress realised this in the recent Gujarat election, roping in three outsiders to bolster its cause. That is why in Karnataka, instead of going to the people on his record in office, marked by rampant corruption, the outgoing Chief Minster Siddaramaiah daily offers group-and-caste-specific sops, inciting the Lingayats to demand a minority status, releasing hardened criminals and terror suspects from prison, and presenting himself as a devout Hindu. If his leader can go about in Gujarat as a “janeudhari” Shiv Bhakt, there is nothing to stop Siddaramaiah from donning the saffron till the votes are cast. In other words, it all boils down to how best to hoodwink the voters.
And people are condemned to lurch from one party to another. The truth is that the Modi government has done reasonably well despite the huge economic mess inherited from the UPA. Yet, its seeming inability to control the fringe has lost it the goodwill of the middle class, which largely sets the agenda and the electoral mood of the nation. Happily, the disruptive effects of notebandi and GST behind us, the economy is looking up. But it is the ruling party’s messaging which still leaves much to be desired. In the social and cultural spheres, the BJP leadership needs to shed its reactionary image and embrace a progressive and all-inclusive attitude to regain acceptability of the chattering classes. To hope to return to power on sheer negativism might be difficult, especially in the states under it currently.
And you thought Karthi Chidambaram was offering Advantage Strategic Consultancy—yes, that being the name of his firm—matters concerning the ministry of his father? According to A. Raja, the judicially absolved 2-G scamster, it was P. Chidambaram’s son who fixed his meeting with Airtel promoter Sunil Mittal. The latter visited Raja in his official bungalow one night at 10.30 just when Raja was engaged in distributing fresh spectrum licences to at his sweet will. Neither Mittal nor Karthi has cared to deny the claim Raja made in an interview to a leading newspaper.