| Chidambaram’s wife Nalini (left), daughter-in-law Nidhi and son Karti arrive for the budget session. (PTI)
New Delhi, Feb. 28: When Palaniappan Chidambaram was addressing Parliament in his speech for the 2006-07 budget, he was engaging the Left ' the largest bloc of support for the UPA government ' in a dialogue.
The BJP found this spectacular and its MPs in the House were benumbed. They found little to disagree with in the economics of the UPA but plenty that is distasteful in its politics.
Like pasta. The only time the BJP benches were animated was when Chidambaram mentioned “pasta”.
It was close to lunchtime and the finance minister was through two-thirds of his speech. He had just announced that the Italian staple will be exempt from excise duty. Pasta reminded the BJP of something Roman about the UPA. Exemption from excise meant it will be available on the cheap and sell more. The very idea gave the party indigestion.
“Pasta!” exclaimed a BJP MP and a titter went around. Chidambaram went on. “...Excise duty on ready-to-eat packaged foods and instant foodmixes like dosa and idli mixes will be reduced from 16 per cent to 8 per cent”.
That was all the BJP offered that was palatable during today’s budget. Otherwise, Chidambaram was dialoguing with the Left. So complete was the decimation of the BJP in the power space of Parliament that it had surrendered all but its rightful claim as the principal Opposition party. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was absent from the House.
The Left was mostly dissenting, growling almost. A dissenting Left hijacks the Opposition space from the BJP. Every wave of the finance minister’s hand was directed at the Left and was a plea for the bloc of 61 MPs to hold patience, every giveaway to the social sector was an earnest effort to win its approval.
The Left’s MPs cheered the Rs 100-crore grant he offered for a Calcutta University research programme, booed when he said there will be no new direct taxes. Gurudas Dasgupta of the CPI in a white shirt and maroon sweater wondered aloud why the finance minister was not levying higher corporate taxes and was immediately admonished by Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.
“Pare bolben (speak later),” Chatterjee told him. “Kichu bolchhi na (I’m not saying anything),” Dasgupta replied. He went back to taking copious notes.
CPM leader Basudeb Acharya interjected with a “that is cosmetic” when Chidambaram announced farm sector giveaways and an MP with a thick Malayali accent shouted “only a committee for the poor”! when the finance minister said there will be a study of the ills plaguing farmers.
Even Lakshman Seth, the MP from Haldia, was on his toes, asking for a grant. The announcement of the research donation for Calcutta University followed.
In contrast, BJP and NDA members, who were in the benches facing the finance minister, sat inert.