New Delhi, March 1 (IANS) Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's seventh budget for India evoked a uniform response from the media as being populist and election-oriented, but none trashed it for being politically correct.
Highlighting the $15 billion bonanza for an estimated 40 million farmers in the form of loan waivers, newspapers said the budget also had much to offer to the country's tax-paying middle class - the two most important vote banks.
The Economic Times said Chidambaram had come out with measures that could be called 'intelligent populism' - where populist sops were combined with sensible measures to stimulate growth.
Like other dailies, The Economic Times said the $15 billion loan waiver scheme stole a major election plank away from opposition that had been clamouring for such measures.
Several states will elect new assemblies this year, and there is speculation that the next Lok Sabha election, scheduled in 2009, could be advanced towards the end of 2008.
The Hindu Business Line also called it an 'election year' budget, but said what differentiated it from similar ones in the past was it appeared to be handing out relief without breaking the back of the economy.
'The macro-economic figures he (Chidambaram) reported and projected, in terms of fiscal and revenue deficits, show remarkable adherence to fiscal discipline,' the newspaper said in the main story.
The paper's editorial said the measures were not populist in the traditional sense as they had a rationale and did not divert resources from more essential need, like the populist politics of yore.
The Hindustan Times, which said the budget put more money into the hands of farmers and the middle class with sops that would make cars and air conditioners cheaper, pointed out that urban India had given a thumbs up to the proposals.
'An overwhelming 76 percent of people responding to a poll by Hindustan Times and market research firm C-Fore in four metropolitan cities rated the budget as either excellent or good,' said the lead story.
'Sowing for the future, reaping from the past,' said the paper's editorial. But it questioned if the finance minister could reconcile the $15 billion bonanza for farmers with the objective of setting government finances in order.
The paper said the budget also had positives and ascribed the reason behind such optimism to the fact that the Indian economy had grown a record 8.8 percent annually in the past four years, giving Chidambaram the needed leg room.
'Who will pick the tab?' queried the editorial in The Indian Express, and said the loan-waiver, although a political pre-election exercise, would encourage non-compliance. 'This is a very bad precedent.'
The Times of India said along with the 40 million farmers, if each tax payer was able to influence one more voter, the numbers would add up to 140 million - much more than the 103 million votes the Congress party secured in last election.
Giving 'two cheers' to the finance minister, the paper's editorial said this was both a happy time and an election year, coupled with some high growth, due to which populist measures was not surprising.
'However, the finance minister could have done more to address long-term reform concerns,' the editorial added, commenting on what was called the last full budget for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
The Business Standard said Chidambaram had touched the popular nerve. 'It is a political budget from start to finish,' said its editorial.