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Troubles weigh down President’s speech

Pranab Mukherjee after arriving at Parliament on Thursday. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha

New Delhi, Feb. 21: The presidential address to the joint session of Parliament today sounded like a tale of the UPA’s decline with problems piling up every year while the government wandered aimlessly for solutions.

Although the government has been struggling to stem the rot for the last few years, the address was probably the most disconcerting as it not only betrayed the lack of resolve but was also deficient in rhetoric.

The President’s address identified problems, hinted at the growing frustration among youths and unveiled the government’s failure in checking the downslide.

The speech, which is prepared by the government, conceded that not only global but even domestic factors hit economic growth, inflation remained a problem, lack of adequate infrastructure affected industry, fiscal deficit was high, bills on land acquisition, food security, Lokpal, whistle blowers’ protection, grievance redress and judges accountability were still to be passed. The speech did not mention the communal violence bill conceived in 2005.

Although it gave an exhaustive account of welfare schemes and measures to address fundamental problems of the economy, the staid details failed to lift the morale of even ruling combine members, with many wondering if the government had lost its zeal.

The last presidential address delivered by Pratibha Patil was enmeshed in promises to fight corruption, highlighting the level of concerns in the government over the image crisis caused by numerous scandals.

Last year, Patil at least hoped the economy will get back to the high growth trajectory of 8 to 9 per cent while dwelling on the challenges posed by the global slowdown.

But Pranab Mukherjee didn’t promise any immediate turnaround. He said: “We are burdened by gathering anxieties about economic slowdown, job security and employment prospects. People are concerned about the security of our women and children. They are also anxious about timely delivery of their entitlements and about persisting social and economic inequality.”

Mukherjee began his speech saying: “I am aware that an aspirational India is emerging, an India that demands more opportunities, greater choices, better infrastructure and enhanced safety and security. Our youth, our greatest national asset, are a confident and courageous lot. I have no doubt their passion, energy and enterprise will take India to new heights.”

This defensive tone is in sharp contrast to the lofty sentiments expressed by the President in 2009, when the UPA was voted back to power the second time.

The presidential speech then said: “The dreary desert sand of dead habit must be left behind. Our young people are tearing down the narrow domestic walls of religion, region, language, caste, and gender that confine them. The nation must invest in their hope. India’s young population is naturally restless and wants to see change quickly. My government carries the weight of their dreams. Together, let us dedicate ourselves to making each day of the next five years, a day closer to the realisation of their dreams.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi have reasons to ponder if the government lost its way and if it was still possible to rediscover the magic that brought them back to power in 2009.

The presidential speech laid great emphasis on the direct benefits transfer scheme and the record foodgrain production that can sustain the upcoming Food Security Act.

But majority of Congress members felt the chips were down at this moment, barely a year before the next general election.

The government sought to draw solace from its efforts to improve the investment climate, rising tele-density, better internal security scenario and sustained communal harmony but its lack of confidence was reflected in very tentative proclamations on economic turnaround, threat of communalism and employment generation.

The dismayed ruling combine members will now eagerly wait for the budget to change their outlook, though the tough fiscal realities give little elbow room to the finance minister to indulge in populism.