Home / India / Nirmala Sitharaman to Opp: You have to listen to political speech

Nirmala Sitharaman to Opp: You have to listen to political speech

Some BJP members say the poor should be grateful to PM Modi for their two 'free' meals a day
Nirmala Sitharaman speaks in the Lok Sabha on  Monday.
Nirmala Sitharaman speaks in the Lok Sabha on Monday.

J.P. Yadav, Our Bureau   |   New Delhi   |   Published 02.08.22, 01:39 AM

The long-awaited debate on price rise between the Modi government and the Opposition on Monday descended into a bad-tempered, inconsequential slugfest punctuated by pettifoggery and petulance.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman began her speech, which lasted over 90 minutes, in the Lok Sabha with a warning to the Opposition: “Political bhashan sunna hi padega (You will have to listen to a political speech).”

Sitharaman argued that India had done well despite the pandemic and the Ukraine war and insisted “the House has to feel proud for this country and its people”, a remark that inspired a member to later invoke Marie Antoinette.

Some other BJP members denied any price rise and said the poor should be grateful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for their two “free” meals a day.

The finance minister began: “So, my reply will be a little politically driven. Political bhashan sunna hi padega.”

Her aggressiveness in the context of the hardships caused to citizens by the rising prices drew uproarious protests from the Opposition and a walkout by the Congress and some other parties.

Sitharaman justified herself saying the Opposition had dwelt on the “political angle of price rise”, and she too would have to do the same.

She said that despite the pandemic and the disruption of supply chains by the Ukraine war, assessments by all agencies had shown that India continued to be the “fastest-growing economy in the world”. She then asked the Lok Sabha to “feel proud for this country”.

Her tone angered the Opposition. First, the Congress walked out in the middle of her speech, and then Trinamul and the DMK did so.

Congress member Gaurav Gogoi later tweeted: “30 minutes into the reply of the Union Finance minister Smt Nirmala Sitharaman we have heard nothing but self-praise and self-adulation. At a time of back-breaking inflation and record price rise, such speeches are vulgar and the epitome of Marie Antoinette ‘let them eat cake’.”

According to legend, French queen Marie Antoinette (1755-93), told in the run-up to the 1789 revolution that her subjects were too poor to buy bread, had said: “Let them eat cake.”

The Lok Sabha had taken up the price rise debate after the revocation of the suspension of four Congress members.

Before this, Speaker Om Birla had secured a promise from Opposition members that they would not wave placards in the House. Birla said he would be free to act promptly against members violating rules by waving placards.

Sitharaman sought to trash the Opposition’s accusations over the price rise.

“The pandemic, delta and omicron wave, Russia-Ukraine conflict --- in spite of all this we have held inflation at 7 per cent and below,” she said. “During UPA (rule) inflation went into double digits. Inflation was above 9 per cent for 22 consecutive months.”

She claimed: “(The) macroeconomic fundamentals of the country (are) perfect. There is no question of India going into stagflation or recession.”

Most of the inflation, she said, was on account of food and fuel. “Food inflation is coming down in the world, and it will come down in India also,” the finance minister added.

“We are delivering on our promises to the people by providing a stable government,” she asserted to the delight of the party faithful on the treasury benches.

Responding to the Opposition’s demand for withdrawal of the fresh GST on packaged essential food, the minister said the decision had been taken through consensus at the GST Council, whose members include the finance ministers of all the states.

She accused the Opposition-ruled states of agreeing to GST on packaged items at the Council and opposing it outside for political reasons.

“The GST is on packaged goods and not loose items, so it will have no impact on the poor,” she said.

Speaking during the debate earlier, NCP member Supriya Sule had denied that the GST Council had taken the decision by consensus, saying the then Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra had opposed it. Bengal too has said it had opposed the measure.

Sitharaman sought to justify an excise duty that the Opposition has held responsible for the rise in oil prices, blaming it on the oil bonds issued by the previous UPA government. She said the Narendra Modi government had to pay huge amounts in the form of principal and interest on the bonds.

During the debate, Pinaki Misra of the BJD had quoted figures to claim that the oil bonds argument did not hold water and that the government was using the high excise duty on oil to fund its welfare schemes. Misra criticised the Modi government for its “lazy taxation scheme”.

Sule tried to inject a bit of earthiness into the debate by drawing attention to the politics in India’s humble kitchens.

“After a new bride enters her marital home and then stays there for eight long years, she can’t keep raising legacy issues… that this is an issue continuing from my mother-in-law’s days,” Sule said.

“After eight years, the new bride becomes a full-fledged member of the household. Yahi mahangai ka problem hai (And this is exactly the problem with inflation).”

The Modi government has completed eight years in office.

Sule also reminded the House of what late BJP leader Sushma Swaraj had said during a tense debate on price rise when her party was in the Opposition.

Swaraj had then said: “The common man does not understand the narrative of percentage increases; all he knows is how much is going out of his pocket and what he is getting in return.”

Congress member Manish Tiwari said: “The government has strengthened their budget (through the fresh GST and high excise duty on oil) but ruined the budget of the common people.”

Participating in the debate, BJP member Nishikant Dubey painted a gloomy picture of economies around the globe and asked: “In this scenario, if the poor in India are getting two free meals a day, then shouldn’t we thank the PM?”

He appeared to be referring to the free food grain scheme started for the poor after the onset of the pandemic.

BJP member Jayant Sinha went on to claim there was no price rise.

“The Opposition is going around looking for price rise but they can't find any because PM Narendra Modi has filled the plates of the poor with all the essentials,” the son of Yashwant Sinha, the defeated Opposition candidate for President, said.

As Sitharaman replied in a mix of Tamil and Hindi to a question DMK member Kanimozhi had asked in Tamil on the GST on pencils, she appeared to take a few political digs at the southern party. DMK members walked out in protest.

Manish Tiwari later said that the Modi government was not ready to acknowledge that the common man was battling a whirlwind because of the relentless price rise.

He said: “The finance minister’s reply was disappointing. The attitude of the government is (that) there is no inflation in the country; people are not suffering. Everything is hunky-dory. If that’s your response to the concerns of the Opposition articulating the voice of 140 crore people in the country, why listen?”

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