The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Beijing broth awaits Left at Singh's table

New Delhi, Feb. 23: The 'neutral umpire' is set for another 'balancing' act.

Sources close to Manmohan Singh said if he refused to campaign in the Bihar elections to avoid being seen as taking the side of either Laloo Prasad Yadav or Ram Vilas Paswan, he hopes to do a similar 'balancing' act on the budget.

The Prime Minister, they added, would try to keep the Left 'happy' and the pro-reform group in his government smiling.

The sources said it was 'easier said than done' but stressed that Singh was 'very clear in his mind' that the budget's prime thrust would be on infrastructure.

Singh, who meets Left leaders for a breakfast session at his residence tomorrow, is expected to reiterate his fundamental thesis that if India has to compete with China and build on its real and projected economic growth, the byword is infrastructure. 'He will tell them that with a positive growth rate and other economic indices looking suitably good, the budget is a historic opportunity to build on these advantages and not to be wasted on polemics. 'We must not lose the opportunity',' a source said.

The Prime Minister, the source said, would hold up China as a role model for two reasons: it would blunt the edge of the Left's objections against economic growth and convey the point that without a 'powerful' economy, India would be 'worth nothing' in the eyes of the world.

'Take the example of Nepal. India's advice (against the royal coup) was ignored because Nepal was confident of China's support. China is pumping millions into its economy. It is aiding the infrastructure development of not only Nepal but also of Pakistan, Myanmar and Thailand. Indian businessmen are willing to risk their investments in China instead of India and all for one reason ' it has the right infrastructure backup,' the source said.

Singh's belief is the 'world' expects India to emerge as a second 'Asian tiger', which can countervail China. 'But this is not possible even halfway unless we get the infrastructure in place,' the source said.

The Prime Minister is also likely to raise the issue of private participation in infrastructure development and mention the 'interest' Japan had shown in modernising the Calcutta airport. 'We are sure the Bengal chief minister will warm up to such a proposal,' the source said, 'but what of the hardliners in his party'

The most charitable view the Prime Minister's Office is willing to take of the Left's stand against reforms is 'it is a part of the internal power struggle' within the CPM. 'The CPM and the BJP are facing a similar crisis of a generational shift from the old guard to the newer leaders. The newer leaders are basically bureaucrats who were created by the (party) system and not by people. By raising economic issues, they hope to create a mass base for themselves,' the source said.

If infrastructure is the budget's thrust area, the focus of the President's joint address to both Houses of Parliament on February 25 will be on the Congress-led government's 'human face'.

The source said the address would dwell on implementation of the 'pro-people' commitments in the common minimum programme like holding the price line, legislating the national employment guarantee bill, introducing the food-for-work scheme and restoring the 9.5 per cent interest rate on the employees' provident fund.

The address ' which will be a status report on the state of the Union ' would also dwell on national security and foreign policy. While the 'Naxalite problem' is expected to be defined as a 'socio-economic' one, the address would highlight the turnout in the Jammu and Kashmir civic polls as 'evidence' of return of normality to the state.

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