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Jaswant strains at budget leash
- Minister demands match updates during business meets

New Delhi, March 1: The time: 3.45 pm. The venue: Finance minister Jaswant Singh’s outer chamber in North Block. There is pin drop silence. Everybody is just a little tense.

Pakistani batsman Yusuf Youhana has just got out. There is jubilation in the air. Singh rings up his officer on special duty, Bengali-speaking civil servant Raghvendra Singh, from within. “What’s the latest'”

One would probably think that the would-be is about the latest political moves by his rivals from the Opposition or his own political party, demanding a rollback in fertiliser and diesel prices, which shot up by Rs 12 a bag and Rs 1.50 a litre, respectively. Or else, the situation in the Gulf on which he is keeping a hawk’s-eye view, as it could upset budget calculations despite claims about factoring the impact of a possible Gulf war while drawing up the budget.

But no, those are not on the budget-maker’s mind right now. It’s all about cricket.

“Sir, a gentleman named Youhana has managed to get out. Zaheer took the catch off a Srinath delivery....,” Raghvendra intones softly over the phone as his eyes cue in on the television set in his room.

Day One after the marathon budget-making exercise, his boss, cricket-crazy Jaswant Singh, is itching to switch on the television but can’t as a series of post-budget meetings and interviews are on.

He is not really bothered about the clamour for rollbacks. Or about editorial comments attacking his 1 percentage point cut in small saving scheme rates. He knows he will have to suffer all this for some more days anyway.

Singh has in his usual self-deprecatory manner already protested to his OSD that he was sure his staff had thought the match started at 6.30 pm, which was why they had set up the string of post-lunch meetings.

The last man in (not on the crease but in the finance minister’s chamber) had a scheduled half-an-hour meeting but came out after 17 minutes. “He (Jaswant Singh) seems jaded and fagged out,” the visitor comments as he leaves.

His OSD bustles around. Maybe boss should have a hot cuppa and a small break before the next meeting — another half-hour session.

No, the message from within is “send ’em in; let’s finish up as soon as possible. And “what’s the score now'” “Another one’s out, Sir. But the Pakistanis are running up a big total. Things are difficult.”

The next spinner to take on Maj. Jaswant Singh (Retd), Rajput nobleman and one of the BJP’s most astute statesman after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is this correspondent. It is an interview to try and explain the budget to the lay reader.

The ever-polite Singh comes out from behind his huge mahogany wood table to shake hands with his visitor. The smile on his face is a little weary. He is a tired man, having struggled with a budget replete with sops for the middle-class, which he would like people to see as a people’s budget and his opponents would like to dub an election-oriented one.

Before any questions can be shot at him, he has one: “What’s happening now'”

“The Pakistanis have lost yet another wicket — Saeed Anwar, and the score is 195 for 5.” “How many overs left'” a little less than 10 overs. The smile widens, and the tiredness falls off.

A frown appears. “But they can still score quite a lot.” The former armyman, who met the Pakistanis on a different kind of pitch during the 1965 war, is obviously rooting for India. He has already told reporters in the morning: “India should win.”

What about the fertiliser price rise' No rollbacks, of course. “But we can debate this issue. The right forum is Parliament. That’s where the budget should be debated.”

Of course, he is a little “saddened” by the bouncers being hurled at him (probably more so because his party chief Venkaiah Naidu himself led the attack).

Last year, fertiliser prices were raised by 5 per cent; this time, its just 1-2 per cent. After all, the total subsidy bill was a huge Rs 50,000 crore, of which, fertiliser subsidy amounted to Rs 12,700 crore and petroleum subsidy Rs 9,000 crore.

Singh reckons big-ticket disinvestments in the coming fiscal are achievable. After all, his Cabinet colleagues (most of whom had opposed selloffs of various PSUs through last year) have gone through a learning curve and “all concerned” would deal with things more “maturely”.

The disinvestment fund was coming but much of its kitty would be spent on various objectives like the social sector for which plans exist and only some on retiring old debts. Details are still being worked out in the North Block pavilion.

What are his hopes on the economic revival' Good. “No, no I am not banking on services (which grew at a scorching 7 per cent plus this fiscal) alone. Manufacturing will be the at the core of my hopes; the drivers of our economy this year will be healthcare and pharmaceuticals, gems and jewellery, textiles and automobiles.”

A huge package of incentives has been given to these sectors on the basis of assumptions that they could expand fast. A war in the regions will of course upset prospects for two of them — textiles and gems and jewellery. Perversely, healthcare and pharmaceuticals may actually pick up in a war-like situation in the Gulf with West Asia driving demand.

Auto prices are tumbling daily and that will expand the market enormously. Growth could be in double digits in that sector alone. “Did you know every car built here creates 20 jobs'” Singh asks.

States like West Bengal and Maharashtra have not accepted his debt swap scheme for states which could see high-cost debt amounting to an enormous Rs 83,000 crore being retired by states. “I hope they come around next year. After all, it’s their burden that will be halved.”

The Centre’s own planned debt swaps, trading in costly loans for cheaper ones, better cash management of various ministries and other measures are expected to help save huge sums. Coupled with better tax administration, this would keep the red ink from blotching the government’s balance sheet too much and the fiscal deficit (the finance minister hoped) would stay below target.

He is tired now. A polite smile indicates he would like to rest.

The door closes behind the visitor. Suddenly, there is a huge noise from within. Has the telly been finally switched on' Outside, the peon says, “Saab, aur ek gira”.

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