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Pranab treads softly as coalition gets choppy

india Updated: Mar 17, 2012 00:24 IST
Varghese K George
Varghese K George
Hindustan Times
Varghese K George

Only the naïve would be overly surprised that Pranab Mukherjee's fifth budget as finance minister in the UPA government lacked a raft of measures that could usher in a wave of new economic reforms.

Mukherjee, who has earned the epithet of Mr Fix-it for the coalition government, knows better than anyone else that any reform that is not likely to pass muster with the Congress's allies is akin to being no reform at all.

After all, it has been he who has had to bear the brunt of trouble-shooting every time an ally, the Opposition or even civil society activists have been irked over issues such as FDI in multi-brand retail, ushering in a uniform tax system or drafting of a new lokpal bill.

So, those who dismiss the budget as inadequately reformist must see the predicament of the finance minister in a government that has been hit by multiple blows: its main constituent, the Congress, took a drubbing in the recent Uttar Pradesh and Punjab polls; its allies have been coercive; and, last, but not the least, the effects of adverse global conditions on the Indian economy, have all come around the same time.

Untamed inflation has been boxing in the UPA government ever since it came to power for the second time in 2009, ruling out any opportunity for reformist initiatives whether through looser monetary policies or otherwise.

As Mukherjee said at the beginning of his budget speech, the government has "for the better part of the past two years" had to "battle double-digit inflation" with the result that a tight monetary policy impacted investment and consumption growth.

Though obliquely, he later lamented that FDI in retail and the attempt to move to a goods and services tax regime have been caught in political wrangles.

In a TV interview after the budget, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, in the context of the possibility of raising prices of essential commodities as the government attempts to reduce subsidies: "I think there are compulsions of managing the coalitions… there will be difficulties."

"I sincerely hope that when the time comes to take relevant decisions that are tough, we will consult all our allies and take them on board," the prime minister said.

Still, the fact is that even in political terms, this could have been an opportunity to push through some big-ticket reforms that the UPA missed.

Even if one discounts speculation about mid-term elections, the government has little time on its hands to push through policies that could boost growth and not smack just of populism.

With its term ending in 2014, the government's next budget would hardly be an opportune time for ushering in any radical reforms.

Mukherjee has been aware that the government's political capital has been dented because of corruption and bad governance - the reason why he has promised a slew of anti-corruption measures, including a white paper on the black money.