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Modi rolls out his populist plans with a second term in mind

Health insurance and farm subsidies take center stage

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi   © Reuters

NEW DELHI Nothing has underlined the challenge facing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi better than the results of three key by-elections in the western state of Rajasthan on Feb. 1. His Bharatiya Janata Party lost two seats in the lower house of parliament and one in the state assembly to the opposition Congress party by big margins. This was in a state where the BJP had won all 25 parliamentary seats in the 2014 national election after a huge 163-21 defeat of Congress in December 2013 state polls.

The shock results coincided with the unveiling by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley of an ostentatiously pro-poor central budget for fiscal 2018-19, starting April 1. At the top of the populist menu is an ambitious National Health Protection Scheme, promptly dubbed "Modicare" by skeptics, that aims to provide health insurance of up to 500,000 rupees ($7,800) annually to 100 million poor families. Jaitley did not spell out where this funding would come from. The scheme will expand an existing government health insurance program for which the budget provided only 20 billion rupees. Modi endorsed the budget in his own 25-minute speech following Jaitley's, stressing that the program is "by far, the world's largest health insurance plan."

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