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Don’t just bank on the Budget

While everyone has hailed the Budget as good, one needs to examine whether the sops that have been offered will help the Congress reap political dividends in the elections, writes Pankaj Vohra.
Hindustan Times | By Between us | Pankaj Vohra
UPDATED ON APR 02, 2008 06:58 PM IST

Most analysts have described this year’s Budget as an election-eve Budget and have predicted a parliamentary poll anytime post-November. This view is based on the fact that October is the cut-off date for the implementation of some of the schemes announced by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. In fact, politicians agree that this is the UPA’s last budget before the elections.

The projected timing of the poll has also given rise to the speculation that sometime towards the end of the Budget session, the UPA might go ahead and sign the Indo-US nuclear deal. And if the Left decides to withdraw its support, then “so be it”. In fact, ten years down the line, the treaty will be the single-most important achievement of the UPA. If for some reason it is sidelined, the US may not give India such a lucrative offer ever again.

While everyone has hailed the Budget as good, one needs to examine whether the sops that have been offered will help the Congress reap political dividends in the elections. As a senior Congress functionary said recently, the Congress seems to be in a state of drift and has not been able to reap political dividends from the good schemes launched by the Centre. The good, the bad and the ugly seem to be all part of the same package and not much care has been taken to showcase its achievements.

The huge financial package for the agricultural sector declared in this year’s Budget must be used by the Congress to reclaim its rural base. The UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, has described the package as revolutionary, but it is for state-level leaders of the party to reap the political dividends of the

Rs 60,000 crore waiver. This is not to say that the Congress should start fighting with its allies but it has to aggressively send the message across that it was the Congress and not its allies (Left, NCP, RJD, etc.) which got this done.

Spreading this message will not be easy because there are many parties which have been working for the farmers. The farmers also belong to different castes and communities and, of late, not many have been supporting the Congress in the elections. But the Congress has to rise this challenge and regain its original support base by prevailing over the caste and community barriers. Otherwise, others will reap the benefits from the waiver announcement, which was made under pressure from Ms Gandhi.

Some will argue that it is the government’s job to help the weaker sections and by announcing the agricultural package, the government has only done its duty. But political parties need to ensure that others don’t get mileage for the good measures they have taken.

This is important because for the last few years, the Left has been trying to take the credit for the popular measures, leaving the UPA to carry the burden of the unpopular ones. Now with the elections in sight, the Congress has to exercise greater caution. Alliances are fine but political survival is also important. The Congress will now find that some of its allies are trying to distance themselves from the tough and unpopular measures. In the case of farmers too, the NCP and the RJD from within the alliance and the Left from outside may do it. From one perspective, there may seem to be nothing wrong in it since the alliance is in it together. But then there are many players within the alliance who will be with the Congress only if it helps them to remain in power after the next elections. The moment they feel otherwise, they would look for other winning combinations, including the third front.

The Budget is only one of the components that can help a political party to march towards a better future. Equally important is to create a perception that the government is in control and capable of dealing with problems, both administratively and politically. In addition, there are other issues that affect the people. For instance, the government has failed to take a stand on the Ram Sethu project and has left it on the Supreme Court to decide on the future of the project. The SC reserves the right to express itself on any subject but the government must clear its stand on the issue.

Just because a certain minister from a southern party is keen to push the project through, the government cannot be seen losing sight of the fact that tinkering with the controversial project may not be taken very well by a sizeable section of the country. If the government believes that Lord Ram was a mythological figure, then why have holidays on Ram Navami, Dussehra and Diwali? Does any government have the guts to take such a decision?

Budgets alone cannot win elections; it must be backed with sound politics and good governance. A message also has to go down the line that the government knows its mind and has a goal in mind. Most important, there can be no compromise as far as the interests of the country are concerned. Any party, which helps in preserving the dignity, unity and integrity of the country, deserves to win. Between us.

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