Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday launched a scathing attack on the NDA that lost power in 2004, accusing it of leaving behind problems such as indebted farmers and rising prices that his government was now forced to solve.
"What we have done is nothing more than picking up the unpaid distress bill which the NDA government left behind," he told the two Houses of Parliament in a hard-hitting speech in which he pledged to implement the government's decision to waive off farm loans of Rs 60,000 crore by end June.
The prime minister's offensive follows buoyancy in the Congress ranks after the budget, which offered a lot to the poor and the middle class, setting off speculation that the ruling party was set to call elections.
Startling his critics who have always considered him not very political and an Opposition that never thought he could hit back, Singh, an economist, delivered his strongest-ever political speech and said there was no need to doubt his government's ability to find money to waive off farmers' loans. He said his government would use increased tax and non-tax revenue receipts to erase the debts. "This is a historic opportunity to share the benefits of growth," Singh said.
Leader of the Opposition LK Advani led a BJP walkout from the Lok Sabha in protest against Singh's speech, saying the PM had not answered any questions and was resorting to falsehood. He asked why the government was hedging on hanging of Mohamad Afzal, convicted in the 2001 Parliament attack case. The Left also walked out, demanding a bill on quota for women in Parliament.
Singh reserved his best punches to address domestic issues and used statistics to show his government of four years was better than the NDA's in tackling poverty, inequality, price rise and internal security.
Brushing aside protests from BJP members, he said the NDA government's approach caused the present-day inflation and his government was committed to maintaining "reasonable" price stability at 4-5 per cent that won't be at the cost of farmers.
Singh said during its rule, NDA had raised wheat prices by just Rs 50 a quintal, or 8.6 per cent, and paddy prices by 12 per cent. The minimum support prices of wheat and paddy have been raised by 56 per cent and 33 per cent respectively, while fertiliser prices have been maintained at the same level during UPA rule, he said.
Singh charged that the NDA had maintained the "modicum of price stability" by depressing farm prices coupled with low international crude oil and food prices. Despite international oil prices rising from $36 a barrel in 2004 to more than $100 a barrel, Singh said his government had raised diesel and petrol prices only marginally and maintained kerosene prices at the same level.
Rebutting Advani's charge that the UPA was trying to appease minorities with different programmes, he said there was no need to be apologetic. "This is part of the process of inclusive growth. We are trying to reduce inequalities of opportunities, gaps that exist between region, between classes, between urban and rural areas."
He also blasted the BJP on terrorism and reminded the Houses about the attack on Parliament and the "shameful sight" of the then foreign minister Jaswant Singh "escorting dreaded terrorists to their freedom". He was referring to the exchange of terrorists for hostages in the hijack of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999.
Singh also made it clear that his government intended to move ahead on the India-US civilian nuclear deal by seeking the broadest possible political consensus. He chided the BJP for its opposition to the deal and urged former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to listen to his conscience to let the deal go through in national interest.