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Vanilla budget? For PM, it’s a fine balancing act

New Delhi, Feb. 16: With two aides, the Prime Minister watched his government’s last budget statement on TV. If he was affected by industry terming it a “non-event” and a “vanilla budget”, his expression didn’t betray any hint of it.

Manmohan Singh’s late-evening statement said the interim budget was a “fine balancing act between the need to restore the economy to its optimum growth path and the constitutional constraints of a pre-election budget”.

The Prime Minister, recovering from bypass surgery at home, praised Pranab Mukherjee for his “effective response to a difficult economic situation”. He described the effort as a “people’s budget”.

“I have no doubt that the continued stimulus for the various flagship programmes of the government will provide relief to all sections — especially the aam aadmi,” Singh said.

He added that while the benefits of the stimulus package for industry and the export sector, announced earlier, continued to be available and investment on infrastructure and employment generation would increase, the common man was the centre of his planning process.

Sources said that if Singh had been losing sleep over the economic slowdown and the Satyam bust-up, and felt industry needed fiscal transfusion, he was also clear that three months before a general election — in which his own stakes were as high as those of the Congress — he would not lose sight of the aam aadmi.

The sources claimed that industry had “no reason to sulk” because the proposal for a third stimulus package was never on the table.

“The government is still trying to figure out whether the effects of the first two packages had percolated down to their intended beneficiaries,” a source said.

The Prime Minister’s Office had messaged a few journalists late last evening to say that Singh had gone through the “interim budget-related” papers, signed them and forwarded them to the President. He even approved the speech to be delivered by Mukherjee. The message said Mukherjee had met Singh yesterday.

Since the Prime Minister would not be at the customary cabinet meeting held an hour before the budget was unwrapped, sources said, he had asked to see Mukherjee.

Normally, if a Prime Minister wants last-minute changes, he has to get cabinet approval for which such a meeting is called. It is believed that Singh did not propose any amendment.

Sources said the PMO statement was essentially meant to convey that the Prime Minister would now start reading files.

They said he watched TV from his “real home”, 5 Race Course Road, and not 3 Race Course Road. Although both bungalows are in the same compound — officially known as 7 Race Course Road — Singh and his family reside at No. 5 which was also home to his mentor, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

When Singh was brought back home after surgery, doctors had said he should be temporarily “quarantined” at No. 3 to avoid catching infections. In “quarantine”, only his wife, doctors and nurses were allowed to meet him, though a couple of PMO officials had access for short periods.

Singh, sources close to him said, wondered what the budget build-up brouhaha was about considering this was a vote-on-account.

If the Congress and the government lowered their pitch on what a month ago was being billed as an “event”, reducing it to a bald recitation of what the government did in 2008, blame it on expediency.

Although convention and propriety would not have allowed the government to announce new policies and schemes that called for fiscal outlays, sources said the Centre could have broadly signalled its intent on both counts.

It did not because it felt that if the Opposition demanded a vote, the UPA could not take the Samajwadi Party’s support for granted.

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