Poll pot: on Union Budget 2021

The Budget as an instrument of politics found full play this year

The largesse to the election-going States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam in the Budget presented by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday was unmistakable. The massive outlay of ₹65,000 crore for the development of the NH 66 corridor in Kerala, as well as the announcement of the second phase of the Kochi Metro and the development of the Kochi fishing harbour as a commercial hub are big ticket budget proposals by any standard. Ms. Sitharaman announced that national highway works worth ₹19,000 crore are in progress in Assam and projects of more than ₹34,000 crore covering over 1,300 km of national highways will be undertaken in the State within the next three years. The BJP has been harping on the “transformation” of Assam’s road network over the last five years to showcase its focus on infrastructure development. For West Bengal, there is a new “Economic Corridor” covering 675 km of national highway, with an expected investment of ₹25,000 crore. For an industry-starved State, which is still trying to wish away its anti-industry image, investment in infrastructure was aimed to give a message that the BJP has plans to bring in investment in the State. The party has started saying that the announcement was the beginning of “Sonar Bangla”. For Tamil Nadu, the proposed projects could cost up to one lakh crore rupees. This includes the Chennai Metro Rail (phase two) of 118.9 km for ₹63,246 crore and two expressways connecting Chennai.

Besides infrastructure allocations, the Budget also seeks notable social sector interventions in these States. Assam and West Bengal get a special scheme, with a ₹1,000 crore outlay, for the welfare of tea workers, especially women and children. Plantation workers and descendants — or “tea tribes” and “ex-tea tribes” — comprise almost 20% of Assam’s total population, and are a decisive factor in many Assembly seats, in Assam and West Bengal. The Budget is an instrument of politics, but it should not be predicated entirely on immediate electoral calculations. The BJP’s single-minded pursuit of its ideological politics is often a source of tensions, but its developmental politics expressed in the Budget, particularly the significant outlays for infrastructure, has to be appreciated. The BJP is trying to retain power in Assam, and in West Bengal, it is within striking distance. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, it is quite a distance away from being a serious contender for power. The allocations for these States are therefore a significant statement of intent by the party. The projects here will take a few years to complete, but have considerable transformative potential. The BJP appears serious about its southern foray, but its rivals might not allow it to take full credit for the allocation of State resources.

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