“You are asking about the impact of the budget but take a look at the election results in Rajasthan,” remarked a Bharatiya Janata Party minister when asked to comment on Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s budget speech that was delivered on Thursday.

The Union minister was referring to the crushing blow dealt to the ruling BJP by the Congress in three bye-polls in Rajasthan whose results were also declared on Thursday. The Congress wrested the Mandalgarh Assembly seat and the Alwar and Ajmer Lok Sabha seats from the BJP with huge margins.

The results took the shine off Jaitley’s last full-fledged budget, which was clearly aimed at shoring up the BJP’s support base in rural areas that have not responded positively to the Narendra Modi government’s policies as seen in the recent Gujarat Assembly elections.

Predictably, the bye-poll results have left the Congress upbeat. The party was quick to declare that the electoral outcome was a clear pointer to the growing disillusionment of people with the Modi government. Though it is still early to say whether the results reflect the mood across the country, there is no doubt that they have dampened the spirits of the ruling party.

BJP ministers put up a brave face in public, saying the results were on expected lines. But privately, party MPs pointed out that the defeat could not be dismissed as a temporary phenomenon. After all, they said, the BJP had swept Rajasthan in the last Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, virtually pushing the Congress out of the race. The fact that the Congress had bounced back with a huge margin was a matter of concern for the BJP rank and file, especially since bye-polls are usually won by the incumbent.

Party members were particularly worried with these results for another reason. They said that it showed that the BJP’s communal agenda has its limitations and cannot always guarantee a win. Over the last four years, Rajasthan has come to be viewed as the new Hindutva laboratory of the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The state has witnessed an increasing number of hate crimes against the Muslim minority while concerted efforts have been made to propagate the RSS worldview in schools and colleges since Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje came to power in 2013.

‘Poll budget’

The Modi government’s last full-fledged budget before the next Lok Sabha polls was also the subject of animated discussion. The effort it made to appease the rural poor, small and medium enterprises and farmers has fuelled speculation that the 2019 general election could be advanced to be held along with Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh due at the end of this year.

“Arun Jaitley announced everything in his budget speech except the date of the next election,” said a BJP minister. “Maybe, he forgot to read the relevant paragraph.”

There has already been considerable chatter in recent weeks that Modi could call for early general elections. Now, there is a growing belief among some BJP leaders that the Rajasthan bye-poll results could propel the party leadership to choose this option instead of allowing anti-incumbency to build up further.

The possibility of an early poll has added to the woes of ruling party MPs who are not happy at the prospect of their five-year term being cut short. Not everybody is sure of winning their seat again. Worse, there is no certainty that the BJP will even give them a ticket in the next election.

“Last time, many of us won because of Modiji’s appeal,” said a worried BJP Lok Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh. “This time we are not sure as many state governments are facing anti-incumbency.”

(Photo credit: PTI).

‘Promises not enough’

While admitting that Modi’s charisma remains undiminished, there is no certainty that the budgetary sops announced on Thursday will reach the intended beneficiaries by the time the elections are called.

Even as BJP leaders, led by Prime Minister Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Jaitley, ably assisted by party spokespersons extolled the virtues of the budget on Thursday, the party rank and file was not impressed.

“Farmers do not get carried away with grand announcements,” said a BJP minister. “They will only be impressed when they actually get the benefits of these schemes.” He said that the government will have to first put in place the necessary infrastructure and the delivery mechanism before people can benefit from various schemes, which is not possible in the short time available to them.

A senior BJP minister said though serious attempts have been made to address agrarian distress, there is no clarity about the availability of the funds. It is the same story, he said, with regard to the ambitious health scheme unveiled by Jaitley, which promises Rs 5 lakhs a year for each of the targeted 10 crore families for secondary and tertiary care hospitalisation.

The Congress was quick to pan the budget with former finance minister P Chidambaram pointing out that its proposals are a “big let down”. Given the picture painted in the economic survey, he said, it was expected that the budget would be bold and radical with adequate provision of funds but this was not the case. An upbeat Sushmita Deb, Lok Sabha MP and Mahila Congress chief, summed the budget up in one line, “This budget is an admission by the BJP that it is losing.”