Govt, Oppn slug it out in debate on price rise

Updated on Aug 02, 2022 12:47 AM IST

The first set of the minister’s responses were to issues raised by Congress MP Chowdhury, triggering multiple interjections from the opposition camp as she sought to rebut the allegations.

Govt, Oppn slug it out in debate on price rise (ANI)
Govt, Oppn slug it out in debate on price rise (ANI)
By, New Delhi

India’s economy is in a better position with respect to the rest of the world in the aftermath of a pandemic and a war in Europe and the Modi government’s performance in battling inflation has been superior to its predecessor’s, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on Monday, responding to the debate on price rise in the Lok Sabha.

Speaking for a little over one-and-a-half hours, moving from English to Hindi to Tamil to make her point, and amid several heated exchanges with members from the opposition benches, Sitharaman hit out at the government’s critics, reiterating several times that the country’s current situation must be seen in the context of an unprecedented set of circumstances created by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

“India has been recognised as the fastest growing major economy… even when agencies have downgraded global growth, including India’s, we remain still the fastest growing,” she said, adding that the country did not face the threat of a recession.

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“[Leader of Congress in parliament] Adhir [Ranjan Chowdhury] ji asked, are we getting into stagflation? I want to state that there is no question of us entering into stagflation or even technical recession,” Sitharman added, citing a Bloomberg poll of economists to buttress her claim.

Opening her speech, the minister said much of the contention by opposition members were from the “political angle instead of being based on concerns backed by data”. “Therefore, my answer will also be political,” she said.

The first set of the minister’s responses were to issues raised by Congress MP Chowdhury, triggering multiple interjections from the opposition camp as she sought to rebut the allegations.

A little over 30 minutes in, the Congress members walked out of the Lower House. “I am sad to see that the Congress party that accused the government of running away from a discussion on price rise debate is itself not capable of hearing my reply,” she said as Chowdhury and his colleagues walked out.

Congress’s Gaurav Gogoi, the party’s deputy leader in Lok Sabha, told HT that the party walked out after being “unsatisfied with no plan to arrest price rise and ease the burden on the people” in Sitharaman’s response. “30 minutes into the reply of the Union finance minister Smt Nirmala Sitharaman, we have heard nothing but self-praise and self-adulation. At a time of back-breaking inflation and record price rise, such speeches are vulgar and the epitome of Marie Antoinette ‘let them eat cake’,” Gogoi said in a tweet separately.

Earlier, Chowdhury asked the government to respond on what he said was falling agricultural incomes and rural wage growth, rising trade deficit and growing economic inequality. His party colleague, MP Manish Tewari, too spoke earlier in the House, pointing to economic inequality and citing “sufferings of the poor” that began with the NDA government’s currency demonetisation in 2016.

To refute these allegations, the minister cited indicators such as Goods and Services Tax (GST) collection trends — on Monday, the government announced the July number was 1.49 lakh crore; the fifth straight month collections were above 1.4 lakh crore — and the Purchase Manager’s Index (PMI), which came in at 56.4, above 50 for the 13th consecutive month to back her contention that the “economy is showing very positive signs”.

On the core issue of price rise raised by the opposition, Sitharaman said: “I accept inflation exists. But at what level? Let us remember that because of a taper tantrum of the [US federal reserve] Fed in 2008, the problem lasted till 2013. Where are we today? In a world with a pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and supply problems due to China’s lockdowns. In spite of that we have held inflation well within the 7% range or below.” India’s retail inflation eased from 7.8% in April to 7.04% in May, and stayed flat at 7.01% in June. The July number will come in later this week.

She then drew a contrast with the inflation trends in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power: “In 2013, retail inflation was over 9%. Now it is less than 7%. Inflation at the time went into double digits nine times.”

It was at this point that the Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha walked out, while the minister went on to cite reductions in levies such as customs duty on several imports and what she said was targeted assistance to the poor. “We don’t print money, we plan and target aid to the most needy,” she added.

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A second major confrontation occurred when the minister responded to issues raised by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) members, in particular K Kanimozhi, who criticised the increase in certain GST levies when she spoke earlier, calling these measures a burden on the poor.

Sitharaman rejected the characterisation, saying the levies were only on pre-packaged items and did not apply to products sold loose. For a part of her response, Sitharaman switched to Tamil, entering into a heated argument with the opposition party, which become the second outfit from the opposition benches to then walk out.

The minister addressed some specific criticisms around GST, calling these — such as a member’s purported remark asking if the government planned to next levy GST on dead bodies — as dismaying political rhetoric.

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“I feel sad they make such comments. The GST Council takes the decision, not the Central government. The decisions are taken by consensus. It is their [states’] decision too. When they go back to their states, they should own up that they too were part of the discussions in the council,” she said.

The discussion on price rise was a key opposition demand, which held protests for most of last week seeking the government address the issue. The debate lasted a little under seven hours in Lok Sabha on Monday, and will now be taken up at Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.

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