'The BJP has everything to lose if it performs poorly in UP. It dreads a repeat of Bihar,' says Rajeev Sharma.
The Union Budget 2016-17 is essentially a political exercise. Every Budget is in some ways or the other. But this one is different.
It is different because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is preparing the Bharatiya Janata Party for assembly polls in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and West Bengal likely to be held in April-May.
While 2014 saw the rise and rise of Modi and the BJP, 2015 witnessed the duo's sharp decline, as evidenced in the BJP's drubbing in assembly polls in Delhi and Bihar.
Modi wants to re-enact the magic of 2014 this year and the polls in five states will be an important testing ground as well as an opportunity. Under the Modi-Amit Shah dispensation the BJP is sniffing a chance to form a government in Assam for the first time and make forays in the political landscape of West Bengal and Kerala where the BJP has traditionally been a mere fringe party.
To realise this ambition, the BJP will have to shift its focus from its traditional vote bank of the middle class and flash a laser beam focus on rural India which has been a pocket borough of the Congress for decades.
The Congress is a serious contender in Kerala and Assam and an important player in West Bengal, but by and large a fringe party in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
It is for this reason that Budget 2016-17 has a laser beam focus on rural India. It is Modi-Jaitley's way of rebuffing the Congress jibe of the government being a 'suit-boot ki sarkar.'
The prime focus of Budget 2016-17 is on agriculture and the rural sector.
Sample the following takeaways from the Budget in this sector. Allocation for agriculture is Rs 35,984 crore, while allocation for the rural sector is Rs 87,765 crore.
A sum of Rs 38,500 crore has been allocated for MGNREGS, while allocation under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana has been increased to Rs 19,000 crore.
The Budget promises 100 per cent village electrification by May 1, 2018, an ideal time for the BJP to prepare for the 2019 general election.
Agricultural credit target has been fixed at Rs 9 lakh crore. The Budget has allocated Rs 5,500 crore for crop insurance scheme and proposes to bring 500,000 acres under organic farming under the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana.
The Modi government seeks to empower rural folks and put more money in their pockets by having a deep focus on infrastructure and ensuring better connectivity with special focus on rural India.
The Budget puts the total outlay for infrastructure at Rs 221,246 crore. Total investment in the road sector, including PMGSY allocation, would be Rs 97,000 crore.
Allocation for roads is pegged at Rs 55,000 crore while an additional Rs 15,000 crore is to be raised by the National Highways Authority of India through bonds.
Besides, 10,000 kilometres of national highways are proposed to be built in 2016-17 and 50,000 km state highways are to be converted to NH roads.
The political message from Budget 2016-17 must not be seen only in the context of the coming five assembly polls. The political stakes for the BJP are not that high as the party does not rule any of these four states and Puducherry.
The biggest message is that the BJP is preparing for the all-crucial assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh next year. That will be the virtual semi-final before the final match of the 2019 general election.
One shouldn't forget that the BJP won 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP on its own steam in the 2014 general election with its pre-poll ally th Apna Dal getting two seats, bringing its total tally to 73.
The BJP has everything to lose if it performs poorly in UP. It dreads a repeat of Bihar in the state. That is why the Modi-Jaitley duo has focused so much and so hard on rural India.
Budget 2016-17 is the first step aimed at the UP battle. The next Budget will take the politics of economics to another high with an eye on UP.
Rajeev Sharma is an independent journalist who tweets @Kishkindha.