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Over to Chidambaram for ‘reforms’

New Delhi, Feb. 26: Congress leaders today lauded the railway budget as one of the best to have been tabled in Parliament but hoped that finance minister P. Chidambaram would show greater creativity in striking a balance between fiscal prudence and populism on Thursday.

The party also dismissed as “outrageous” the BJP’s description of the railway budget as a “Rae Bareli budget”, with minister Pawan Bansal saying the main Opposition was “good at coining phrases”.

Among the rail-based industries to be set up is a wheel factory at Rae Bareli, the parliamentary seat of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

Senior leaders insisted that the rail budget couldn’t be viewed as a benchmark because there was little scope for manoeuvre. But though the party lauded Bansal’s exercise as “one of the best budgets ever tabled in Parliament”, it admitted that the absence of a headline-grabbing relief for the common man was because of the narrow framework for the exercise, with the focus on safety, expansion and fare.

“Bansal has done a good job, extracting the rail budget from the abyss of populism but he couldn’t have reduced passenger fares to create sensation. The finance minister has a bigger canvas to play with,” a party general secretary said.

While the difficult economic situation does not give enough scope to Chidambaram to play Lady Bountiful, Congress leaders are confident he would be able to marry “reforms and relief” in the general budget he presents on February 28, keeping the party’s electoral compulsions in mind.

Congress leaders expect the high investment cycle in the social sector to continue apart from substantial tax relief for the middle class as well as a positive signal to the corporate sector and investors.

There was, however, no disappointment with Bansal as he became the first Congress railway minister to present a budget after a decade and a half and sent out a clear signal that the fundamentals of the system would not be ignored to please commuters.

Party leaders explained that the focus on passenger safety, elimination of level crossings, fiscal discipline, rationalisation of the fare structure and a clear roadmap for improving the railway network were important features of this budget.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also complimented Bansal.

“The minister for railways has done a commendable job in meeting competing demands of improving and increasing services for commuters and controlling expenditure of his department. It is a reformist and forward-looking budget which presents a realistic picture of railway finances,” he said. “I compliment him for his innovations in critical areas of railway infrastructure and paving the way for capacity expansion.”

Chidambaram, too, pointed to Bansal’s pragmatism, saying: “It is a remarkable and commendable budget. It is a responsible and practical one within the resources the railways has mobilised.”

Foreign minister Salman Khurshid said: “I think he has done a very good balancing act. He has tried to explain the demands for growth and constraints.” The reactions indicate the government is not prepared to indulge in financial profligacy to cater to popular sentiments even as it remains committed to protecting its common-man electoral plank.

Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi, who complimented the minister for not hiking fares, said the decision to link Arunachal Pradesh with the railway network was a commendable step.

Asked about the “Rae Bareli budget” tag, Alvi said: “The BJP is known for its negative politics but this description is outrageous. Have they failed to see other features of this excellent budget? There is a project in Rae Bareli that is situated in the heart of India but there are new projects for Haryana, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Chandigarh.”

Bansal said the BJP was “good at coining phrases but nothing exceptional” had been done for Rae Bareli. “If the area is anathema for them, I can’t do anything about it.”

His deputy Adhir Chowdhury said: “Is the BJP saying Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh should not get any project?”

Several other ministers said the BJP could have come up with a genuine critique on several fronts but showed mental bankruptcy by harping on Rae Bareli.