Verbose and anti-farmer: Sushma Swaraj, who called the budget “verbose”, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, who found it “anti-poor and anti-farmer”, join hands outside Parliament on Thursday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Feb. 28: The budget may not be bursting with populism but Congress and government leaders aren’t shedding any tears.
They feel that P. Chidambaram has done a lot to strengthen the economy’s fundamentals while ensuring the budget reflects the Congress’s commitment to the poor, Dalits, tribals, minorities and women at a time some of these sections seem perilously close to switching loyalties.
“You can say the aam aadmi plank has been slightly adjusted,” a Congress leader said. “It is tilting towards the real poor (rather than the middle class) now.”
Party leaders also appreciate the bold decisions to tax the super-rich and raise the surcharge for domestic companies whose taxable income exceeds Rs 10 crore.
“The finance minister has done a commendable job in containing the deficit while simultaneously addressing the growth imperatives,” the Prime Minister said.
“In August-September 2012,” a Congress source explained, “it had looked like the economy would slip off the rails. No amount of politics, doles or sops can save economics. It’s a politically neutral budget, not too much on this or that side of the class divide. The aim is to see the economy does not keel over and become a reason to lose the next election.”
“No finance minister could have done better in this situation,” was telecom minister Kapil Sibal’s verdict. “The basic point is that social sector allocations have gone up and the fiscal deficit is down.”
A left-of-centre Congress minister suggested that Chidambaram’s budget was a “repudiation” of the Narendra Modi “governance template”.
“We have seen some states grow at a fast rate while leaving the women behind, as also the Dalits, tribals, minorities and some backward classes,” the minister said.
“The UPA believes in inclusive development, with the emphasis on improving human development indicators,” Chidambaram said in his speech, aiming a swipe at the Modi government’s below-par record on health, women’s literacy and nutrition.
Chidambaram’s overt focus was on women, reflecting the realisation that the gender had the potential to influence politics.
This message, learnt from the street protests following the December bus gang rape, has been enshrined in the shape of a Rs 1,000-crore fund, named the Nirbhaya Fund, to empower women and keep them “safe and secure”.
The Opposition and some women’s activists are sceptical, though. “The substantive issue here is whether the government intends to allocate more funds to recruit women cops, set up more designated courts, and organise safer public transport,” said BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman.
Kavita Krishnan, national secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said: “The sum of Rs 1,000 crore is seed money and not an allocation. Every rape survivor or acid-attack victim deserves safety, medical care, transportation, legal aid and rehabilitation.
“The costs will vary from case to case. It would be better for the government to make individual assessments and then underwrite the costs instead of earmarking a onetime fund.”
Chidambaram’s elaborate references to the youth were a “political response” to the perception that urban and semi-urban youth, both male and female, were gravitating towards Modi, sources conceded.
“The wake-up call was Modi’s address at the SRCC college in Delhi and the plaudits that followed,” a Congress source said.
He said the youth — for whom the budget earmarks a Rs 1,000-crore fund for skill development — “embody the aspirations unleashed by Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation agenda and, in that sense, are a Congress constituency”.
“We won every metro (in 2009) barring Bangalore because the aspirational class saw the nuclear deal as a symbol of India’s empowerment. Can we lose this class to the BJP?” the source asked.
Among the other steps that have gladdened the party are the concessions for weavers, penetration of insurance into villages, the promised women’s bank and the special grants for backward regions in Bihar, Bengal and Odisha where the Congress is weak.
Many in the government believe there will be opportunities to announce sops for the middle class during the passage of the Finance Bill, or later in the winter session during the run-up to elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi.
A former Congress finance minister of a northern state who is close to Manmohan Singh, however, was sceptical of what the budget would eventually deliver “politically”.
“Let’s face it, Modi personifies hope and optimism because he has marketed the Gujarat dream to the country. We are trapped in a sense of hopelessness, not entirely of our own making. Unless Chidambaram raises investor confidence, reassures manufacturers and creates jobs, the budget will be superfluous,” he said.