| Venkaiah Naidu
Feb. 28: Barely had Jaswant Singh unveiled the budget than the BJP and its allies began clamouring for a rollback in the hiked prices of urea and other fertilisers.
BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu rushed to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and drew his attention to the hike that had given a handle to the Telugu Desam Party, the Indian National Lok Dal, the Samata Party and the Akali Dal to dub the budget “anti-farmer”.
Later, Naidu hinted to reporters that a rollback was in the offing. “We want the government to think seriously on urea and fertiliser prices and we hope that when the budget is discussed in Parliament, it would arrive at some solution,” he said, but refused to term the “solution” a rollback.
BJP sources said they expected the pressure to start piling on Vajpayee and Singh from Tuesday when the parliamentary party holds its routine weekly meeting.
Sources feared that the Congress might exploit the price hike to dub the BJP “anti-farmer” in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which go to polls in November. “The issue has the potential of gaining momentum. As it is, the Rajasthan chief minister has been campaigning against the Centre for denying adequate drought relief for political reasons. If people buy the Congress line, our Hindutva card may not be enough to counteract it,” they said.
The BJP tried to mitigate the effect of the announcement. “The additional expenditure of Rs 27,000 crore on food subsidies and the recent increase in minimum support price for rice and wheat will be of immense benefit to the farmers. The emphasis on horticulture and drip irrigation as also the extension of Antyodaya Anna Yojana to cover additional 50 lakh families will immensely benefit the agriculture sector,” economic cell convener P.N. Vijay said.
Otherwise, the BJP lavished praise on Singh’s debut budget and described it as “growth-oriented, progressive, innovative and people-friendly”. Vijay dwelt on the “innovative method of swapping the debt of the states at a cost of more than Rs 80,000 crore for the Centre”.
He added: “This will go a long way in meeting the challenge on the fiscal front of the states and also strengthen the federalism in the country and is the first of its kind.”
NDA allies were not convinced by the claim of “strengthening federalism”. The Desam said the budget was “not good for the farmers who are already in distress and the increase in urea price will hit them badly”.
Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu described the budget as an “inadequate and imbalanced exercise against the farming community and the poor”. But he added that the exercise had set its sights on growth and, in that sense, it is a “reasonably positive budget”.
Lok Dal member Kailasho Devi said a party delegation would meet Vajpayee to demand a rollback. The Akali Dal also sought a rollback in urea prices.
Chandrakant Khaire, Shiv Sena leader in the Lok Sabha, said his party welcomed the budget in general but opposed the increase in fertiliser prices.
Lok Dal leader Ajay Chautala asked the government to reconsider the hike as “grave injustice was being meted out to the farmers”. The Samata said a budget that did not take care of farmers’ interests could not be called a “balanced one”.
Biju Janata Dal leader Bhartuhari Mehtab termed the budget forward-looking. He said the middle class would greatly benefit from the proposals but an attempt should have been made to create health facilities in backward states.