The Union Budget for 2016-17 has been questioned as being everything from a course correction, to a tactical move undertaken by a pragmatist, and even a conscious ideological shift to the left. Ironically, each of the questions that were posed featured prominently in the post-budget deliberations on television and print, despite none of them being primarily economic in nature. That these were the main talking points around the single most significant annual economic policy of the country is indicative of just how uninspiring the economic content of budget is: this budget is not the result of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s intent, but that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire.
But this revelation aside, each of these questions reflects a bitter truth—the Modi story that was integral to the political narrative of the 2014 elections is well and truly over, and has been so for quite some time. The death knell for this narrative rang well before the electoral rout in Bihar. This budget highlights the hollowness of Modi’s rhetoric, which was the primary tool with which he politically enticed the so-called “Great Indian Middle Class.” The budget’s emphasis on the social sector including strengthening schemes such the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA)—which were publicly criticised by Modi and his ministers just a year ago—and its rural development thrust demonstrates the current government’s hypocrisy. When political parties display such duality and accommodates diverse views, it underscores the belief that the party is essentially an ideological coalition. This is what the Congress used to be back when it was dubbed a “rainbow coalition” (with space for different ideologies ranging from Nehru’s left-of-centre posture to pronounced right-wing views of Rajendra Prasad and eventually the group that parted ways with Indira Gandhi in 1969), before it became a hegemony of a few. But when a political leader displays multiplicity of policy, the obvious conclusion is that they are donning a mask, or mukhauta, the word that has been Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) bugbear ever since it was first used for Atal Bihari Vajpayee almost two decades ago. The budget and Modi’s recent utterances on economic issues—the emphasis on the rural sector over structural reforms—show that on this matter, he has no primary position from where he will not budge. Instead, a different stance is adopted depending on political suitability.
In 1980, when the BJP was formed and Modi was still in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the founding leaders attempted to partially break free from the legacy of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the RSS’s political arm that had merged with other parties just three years to form the BJP’s predecessor, the Janata Party. The BJP wished to cast its net wider, to attract leaders from outside the RSS fold. This demarcation was achieved by terming the economic vision of the new party Gandhian Socialism. While what this title construed remained a mystery for the entire six years it existed before it was somewhat jettisoned after LK Advani assumed leadership of the party in 1986, it underscored that the new party could not abandon the fascination for Gandhian way of life as an ideal in India. Secondly, the use of socialism in its economic credo emphasised that the party accepted that, to have a future, there had to be some commitment to ameliorate the social and economic conditions of India’s poor.