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Free hand gives Congress a leg up

Unlike UPA-I when the pressure from demanding allies influenced the Budget, this time, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had a free hand in shaping and prioritising the social contours of the proposals. See graphics

delhi Updated: Feb 27, 2010 03:03 IST
HT Correspondents

Unlike UPA-I when the pressure from demanding allies influenced the Budget, this time, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had a free hand in shaping and prioritising the social contours of the proposals.

Other than the party diktat to keep the common man (aam aadmi) in mind, there were no other specifics. With only Bihar — where the Congress is still a straggler — going to the polls this year, there were no electoral compulsions as well.

“This is virtually a Congress Budget, barring some concessions to allies,” said a party minister. Mukherjee could concentrate on balancing fiscal consolidation with economic growth and social inclusiveness, he said.

So, there are no big-ticket programmes. Instead, the emphasis is on trying to consolidate the gains of the UPA’s “inclusivism”, the results of which may be evident closer to the next general elections (2014).

The only dark cloud is the hike in duties on diesel and petrol, which would have a cascading effect on prices. The Opposition has already picked on it — slamming the Budget as anti-people.

Instead of bulk allocation for flagship programmes such as NREGA, the FM apportioned funds to schemes across the country. The idea is to add up to an agenda that is socially and geographically inclusive. The targeted approach may help the Congress make inroads where its rivals hold sway.

For example, the Rs 400-crore plan to extend the “green revolution” to the east — Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Orissa — with the involvement of the gram sabhas and farmers. Opposition parties rule these states. In reaching out to the farmers, the Congress’s inclusive agenda also appears to carry a heavy political overtone.

The Budget makes overtures to other groups as well. The increase in IT exemption limits is aimed at the middle class. More money has been given for women and child development, minority affairs and social justice.

Initiatives such as the Rs 100-crore women agriculturist empowerment scheme, and skill development programmes for textile and garment sector are aimed improving delivery to the targeted groups.

Will Mukherjee’s Budget foster social inclusion?

“There are no incentives for reviving domestic demand and domestic savings — the two engines of growth…’’ said BJP’s Yashwant Sinha.

The Left, too, picked holes. “Though the Budget is in the name of aam aadmi, it is against aam aadmi… The increase in prices of petrol, diesel and fertilisers will only fuel inflation," said CPM’s Sitaram Yechury.

The Congress is unfazed. “Social inclusion is a process not an event,” said spokesperson Manish Tewari. He counted increased outlays for agriculture, school education, retail reforms, and rural development among move for social inclusion.