Opposition Congress triggered a major tremor in the SAD-BJP government on Tuesday, leaving its finance minister red-faced and the bureaucracy stunned after Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Sunil Jakhar pointed out the "illegalities" the government had committed in 2012-13 budget by "breaching" the Punjab Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, 2003.
The Punjab government had amended this Act in March 2011, promising to keep fiscal deficit at 3.5% of the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) in 2010-2011, 2011-2012 and 2012-13 and at 3% in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
The government had also passed a law that it would reduce revenue deficit as per the GSDP and bring it down to 1.8% of the GSDP in 2011-12, 1.2% in 2012-13, 0.6% in 2013-14 and 0% or surplus in 2014-15.
Leading the Congress attack against the 2012-13 budget estimates, the CLP leader fired a salvo, accusing the government of "breaching" the law it had passed in March 2011. His contention was that as per the budget estimates, the fiscal deficit was 3.88% of the GSDP in 2011-12 and that the revenue deficit was 2.25% of the GSDP in the previous fiscal.
"This is illegal and the budget cannot be passed in this manner. The government should have first amended the Act in question… the government has brazenly violated the law it had passed," Jakhar said.
The stunning move sparked off a major firefighting exercise in the government as chief secretary Rakesh Singh and principal secretary (finance) Satish Chandra, along with a battery of officers, started ascertaining the factual position, while food minister Adesh Partap Singh Kairon and MLA Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema rushed to assist finance minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa, who was completely at loss to defend the government.
As the government was admittedly on the defensive after Jakhar accused it of even fudging the budget figures, revenue minister Bikram Majithia rushed out of the House and consulted the officers of the finance department.
Initially unable to forward a convincing argument to defend the government, Majithia said: "None of us will ever break the law…What the Congress is saying is a mere pretext…"
On his part, an SAD spokesperson said: "The CLP leader has just raised a technical objection."
With the second-rung of his leaders failing to pull the government out of this embarrassing situation, the chief minister made an impromptu statement, owning the responsibility for whatever had happened.
Later, in a written statement, he said: "It was obligatory on the part of the Punjab government to keep its fiscal deficit at 3.5% under the Punjab Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act, whereas the fiscal deficit for 2011-12 was pegged at 3.88%."
Badal said even the union government "was unable to keep fiscal deficit within the prescribed limit at 3% and its deficit has also jumped to 5.75%."
The chief minister assured that the state government was committed to abide by the financial discipline in conformity with the FRBM Act.
The chief minister said the 2012-13 budget had been meticulously prepared and there was "no scope for any fallacy on account of allegedly fudged statistics."
Though Badal took a bold stand, the Congress had clearly inflicted a major damage. Even the finance minister later admitted that the state government had "violated" the Act. But he also blamed the Centre for committing the same mistake.
The finance minister told the House that the government might have to bear some financial losses for not keeping the deficit within the permissible limits.