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If it is so soft, it must be an early poll

New Delhi, Feb. 26: The BJP is understandably coy but the Opposition and at least one NDA member think Nitish Kumar’s populist rail budget is the precursor to an early Lok Sabha election.

NDA ally and Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee dubbed it an “election-oriented” budget, saying it was probably the last full budget before the general elections due in the latter half of 2004. Next year, there was likely to be only a supplementary demand for grants, she added.

CPM veteran Somnath Chatterjee agreed with Mamata, terming the rail budget “tepid”. “Politics is the main issue. The government is obviously more concerned with the four states (Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi) going to polls in November because they have been the largest beneficiaries.”

But Chatterjee added that a mid-term general election “was more likely than it seems”. “If they (the BJP) win Himachal, they will go for an early poll. The general budget, too, will be soft, I have no doubt. The proof is the government’s rejection of the Kelkar committee report (on tax restructuring and reforms).”

While the Congress would officially not link the budget with elections, sources said in private that it was a “wake-up call” to the party.

“We don’t agree with the CPM that the BJP will bring forward the Lok Sabha elections if they retain Himachal. The crunch will be in November because we are vulnerable in all the four states ruled by us.

“If the BJP wins even two of those, we are in for a general election in December or January. The rail budget shows they have already got into pre-election gear,” sources said.

Observers believe the general budget will be the clincher. While it seems more or less certain that the Kelkar proposals will not be incorporated, it remains to be seen whether other items on the BJP “wish-list” are implemented.

Party sources were confident the general budget would be “every bit as populist” as the rail budget because of “concrete” inputs: the Prime Minister’s dismissing the Kelkar report as a bureaucratic exercise and saying the government was not bound by it.

Sources claimed deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani had advised finance minister Jaswant Singh to bear in mind that “elections were round the corner” while preparing the budget.

Political circles said another reason to think mid-term polls were likely was the frankness with which the BJP had brought Hindutva back to the centre-stage post-Gujarat, after maintaining for three years that it was committed to the NDA agenda.

The “paradigm shift” was because of the “very likely possibility” of a mid-term poll, the sources said.

“There are three objectives behind this strategy. The first to test the waters vis-à-vis the NDA allies and see if they are ready to stick to us despite Hindutva in the next elections.

“The next is to prepare the cadre to talk about issues like Ayodhya and cow-slaughter ban without feeling embarrassed because of the NDA coalition.

“The last is to assure the parivar members, especially the RSS and the VHP, that at the end of the day the BJP is as sincere and serious about Hindutva as they are,” the sources said.

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