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Cong off beaten track on economy

New Delhi, June 20: The Congress today said hard decisions were necessary to sustain the economy’s health in a volatile global atmosphere, displaying a kind of Opposition politics that had almost been forgotten in the past few decades.

Former finance minister P. Chidambaram told a news conference at the party headquarters: “I would have supported hard decisions had I continued in the government…. Hard decisions are required. The world economy is still very sluggish.”

He was speaking a couple of hours before the railway fare hike and addressing larger economic issues.

A statement issued by the party too noted: “The crisis is not yet over. Estimates of world economic growth have been revised downwards in the last few days. The Indian economy will face head winds. The government of the day is obliged to assess the situation from time to time and take appropriate measures.”

This was in sharp contrast to the repeated BJP attacks on the Manmohan Singh government on the subjects of inflation, the rise in prices of petroleum products in particular, and the tough measures taken to bolster fiscal prudence.

Chidambaram was sympathetic enough to acknowledge that “all factors are not in control of the government”.

His position may annoy those in the Congress who equate politics with partisan warfare but party president Sonia Gandhi had herself adopted a similar approach towards the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. She may well pursue the same line in the future.

Several senior Congress leaders have said in private that they do not favour blocking legislative business that is good for the country. They say the BJP’s obstructionism may have yielded electoral dividends but the Congress would not repeat those tactics.

Chidambaram asserted the Congress would be a “formidable and resolute” Opposition. He then set what many see as an example in constructive criticism.

He issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent remarks on the UPA government’s performance on the economy, but also “wished the government well in its efforts” to manage the economy with tough decisions.

“A few days ago the Prime Minister said: ‘I have taken over reins of the country in circumstances where there is nothing left behind by the previous government’,” Chidambaram said in a statement on behalf of the party.

He asked: “Did the Prime Minister refer to the cash balance of the government?”

Chidambaram then asserted that the opening cash balance on June 1, 2004, when the NDA stepped down from office, was Rs 2,730 crore and on June 1 this year it was Rs 26,510 crore.

His second question: Did the Prime Minister refer to the foreign exchange reserves? His answer: In 2004, when the NDA stepped down, it was $113 billion; now it is $304 billion.

Third question: Was Modi referring to the outstanding liabilities of the Centre? The answer: It was no different when the NDA was in office; it was the same during UPA rule; and it would be no different during Modi’s tenure.

Fourth question: What did Modi mean by saying nothing was left behind?

Chidambaram’s answer: The UPA government left behind 243,000MW of installed power capacity and 207 million tonnes (MT) of petroleum refining capacity; it had raised coal and lignite production to 562MT, steel to 82.2MT, fertiliser to 36.5MT and cement to 25.6MT.

It left behind a farm sector that produced 263MT of food grains, 389,578km of new rural roads, a universal midday meal scheme, a generous education loan programme, a scaled-up skill development mission and reduced fiscal and current account deficits.