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Congmen sing pro-poor tune

- Chidambaram faces fiscal prudence ‘risk’

New Delhi, Feb. 12: Finance minister P. Chidambaram’s job of budget-making, at a time when growth has slumped to the lowest rate in a decade, is going to be influenced more by political exigencies than fiscal prudence and Congress leaders smugly hail this irony.

If the next financial year comes against the backdrop of pitiable economic parameters, with the growth rate dipping to five from the impressive nine or eight per cent during the better part of the UPA regime, this is also the government’s last full-fledged budget before the next general election.

But, the Congress leadership is in no mood to take risks despite the gloomy economic scenario. “The finance minister would have learnt what the party desired at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir,” a Congress general secretary said.

Chidambaram will formally meet party office-bearers day after tomorrow to elicit their expectations from the budget and all the leaders, from top to bottom, are rehearsing the old “pro-poor” song to dilute the intoxicating sway of corporate item numbers that the finance minister is addicted to.

Though AICC office-bearers find this exercise unnecessary this year as the finance minister might have understood the party’s mindset at the Jaipur meet, they are eagerly waiting for another opportunity to rub the message in.

In the Jaipur Declaration, the tenor of both the political and economic challenges left little doubt about the direction in which the Congress planned to go in the remaining part of its regime.

While the section on political challenges spoke of economic growth for “the aam aadmi representing the poor and the middle class,” the final draft on economy identified inequality as the biggest socio-economic challenge. In fact, out of the 17 paragraphs enlisting the economic challenges, one dealt with business environment and investments while the rest focused on the social sector and agriculture.

The final draft adopted at the Jaipur meet was a much sanitised version of the position paper on socio-economic challenges that painted a grim picture of India’s future, laying the greatest emphasis on the growing chasm between the rich and the poor, unprecedented unemployment crisis and the rising aspirations of the masses which could trigger anarchic responses.

One senior minister even cautioned the party in Jaipur that there could be violence on the streets in the coming years because of the wretched poverty in large sections of society.

The position paper prepared by a committee headed by Digvijaya Singh said, “There is need to strike a balance between fiscal reforms and need of the common people. Reforms measures should be inclusive and should primarily promote interests of the common people.”

It also responded to the Government’s concern about the huge subsidy bill, pointing out that subsidy management cannot lose focus on the interests of the vulnerable sections of the society. It asked the government to contain inflation “at any cost.”

Most Congress leaders say any attempt to give a budget that prioritises industry and deficit management would be insensitive and politically unwise as this government had to return to accomplish the unfinished agenda of social transformation.