Curiosity begins: Populist or pragmatic? What FM will choose in budget 2018

New Delhi, Feb 1: Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will present today the current National Democratic Alliance government's fifth and arguably his toughest budget yet as he seeks to address agriculture distress, create jobs and boost growth while at the same time stick to fiscal prudence.      The budget, in view of upcoming assembly polls in eight states -- including three major states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party -- and general elections next year, may see new rural schemes and stepping up of funding towards existing programmes like MNREGA, rural housing, irrigation projects and crop insurance.      With the recent elections in Gujarat indicating erosion of BJP's rural vote base, Jaitley may also unveil incentives for the farm sector.      Small businesses, which have traditionally formed the core support base of the BJP, too may get some sops to ease pain caused to them due to chaotic rollout of the Goods and Services Tax and demonetisation.      There is also an expectation that common man may get some relief in income tax by way of a raise in the exemption limit.      Also on Jaitley's menu may be upping spending on infrastructure projects like highways and modernisation of railways to boost economic growth that is at a four-year low.      But he has to do all this while sticking to the road map of narrowing one of Asia's largest budget deficits, as failing which, India may fall on the wrong side of global investors and credit rating agencies which had late last year handed out a rare sovereign upgrade.      The target Jaitley had previously set out was to lower the fiscal deficit to 3.2 per cent of the GDP in the current fiscal and to 3 per cent in 2018-19, the Budget for which he would present in the Lok Sabha today.      Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to have already lowered expectations of mass voter swaying announcements when he indicated that the budget may not be resort to populism and that it was a myth that common man wants sop.      This will be India's first post-GST and is being keenly watched to see what Jaitley does to boost growth in Asia's third largest economy. -- PTI