The UPA members could not believe their ears, the Opposition looked stunned and the vociferous Left, the ruling coalition's ally, was left speechless in the Lok Sabha as Finance Minister P Chidambaram surpassed all expectations in rolling out sops for almost every section, including distressed farmers, while presenting his Budget.
Topping the list is a Rs 60,000-crore loan waiver benefitting four crore farmers and an across-the-board income tax relief, prompting several leaders to describe what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hailed as an “aam aadmi, middle class and farmers' budget” as one that is “poll oriented”.
On Friday, while unveiling his Budget proposals, Chidambaram also tried to tide over the problems denting the UPA’s image, including price rise, farmers’ suicides and agricultural distress, while re-focusing on the aam aadmi and the UPA's pledge to deliver “inclusive growth” that caters to the rural hinterland and disadvantaged groups.
Peppered with quotations from Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Tiruvalluvar, Chidambaram’s proposals touched huge sections to the delight of UPA members who now hope to use it to build their appeal among farmers, SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities, women, youth and the middle classes ahead of the assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
The delectable spread saw Congress president Sonia Gandhi — who had nudged the government to go for a pro-farmer and pro-woman approach — smiling all through: Rs 60,000 crore farm loan waiver, a minimum income tax relief of Rs 4,000 for all assessees, IT exemption limit of Rs 1.50 lakh in general, Rs 2.25 lakh for senior citizens and Rs 1.80 lakh for women, doubling allocation for minority welfare to Rs 1,000 crore, greater allocations for SCs and STs, smart cards and other measures to tone up PDS, a Rs 400 crore national programme for the elderly, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana for providing health cover of Rs 30,000 to every BPL unorganised sector worker and insurance cover to poor households through Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana.
There is enhanced funding for the UPA's flagship Bharat Nirman and National Rural Employment Guarantee programme and confidence that the Sixth Pay Commission would meet the legitimate expectations of government employees.
But the big question was whether the Budget, read along with the Railway budget, would spell elections? Yes, said BJP's Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. “In his exuberance, Chidambaram has announced everything other than the election date,” quipped CPI's Gurudas Dasgupta. Chidambaram, on his part, was sarcastic. “If you have nothing else to say about the budget, then you can call it an election budget.”
There is no indication whether the Budget is a precursor to early Lok Sabha polls slated otherwise before May 2009. But its first impact would be felt in the year-end elections in states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi and in Karnataka sometime this year as the schemes get implemented.
The loan waiver, for instance, has to be completed by June 2008, one crore landless have to be covered by September through the bima yojana and the rural job plan will be expanded to all 595 districts in April this year.