Union Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram surprised all those who had expected the Union budget to reflect the desperation of a government that has less than 15 months to change the current narrative of rising prices, financial scandals and terror attacks. Instead, on Thursday, Mr. Chidambaram chose to present a budget that had a mid-term aura, rather than an end of the road, pre-general elections feel about it.
In close to a two-hour-long speech, he conveyed to his rapt listeners that the UPA government intends to restore financial discipline before it indulges in populism: and it was this message that Congress MPs latched on to later, as a sign of a government regaining its stride, one that hoped to return to power. In the Lok Sabha, while his party MPs cheered him on, the Opposition heard Mr. Chidambaram’s speech in silence, not interrupting him even once.
But if the budget was not populist, it was certainly political: the fact that the Congress’ chintan shivir last month devoted an entire section of its Jaipur declaration to the need to pay more attention to the safety and empowerment of women (following the social upsurge after the gang rape of a 23-year-old paramedical student in December last year) found reflection in Mr. Chidambaram’s budget speech.
His announcement, for instance, that the government would set up an all-women bank to cater exclusively to women received the endorsement of women cutting across party lines: while Congress president Sonia Gandhi thumped her desk, on the other side of the House, there was a corresponding show of approval from the Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, too. There was also the setting up of the Rs. 1,000-crore Nirbhaya Fund.
Simultaneously, Mr. Chidamabaram also demonstrated political correctness in gender issues: while on the Rajiv Gandhi Equity Savings Scheme, he said, “it will be liberalised to enable the first time investor to invest in mutual funds as well as listed shares and she (my italics) can do so, not in one year alone, but in three successive years.”
The second time the Finance Minister used the pronoun, “she,” equally effectively, was while talking about the youth: “He is impatient, she is ambitious, and both represent the aspirations of a new generation,” he said as he promised to improve their employability.
All the political messages went out: the Congress’ emphasis on financial exclusion of the poor, the marginalised and vulnerable, the appeal to the Opposition to help pass the Food Security Bill, promise of help for the largely OBC women handloom weavers, the enhanced taxes for the super rich, and the focus on women, youth and the poor, the three faces “that represent the vast majority of the people of India.”
He promised security and empowerment to women, jobs to the youth and the Direct Benefits Transfer – “aapka paisa aapke haath” – to the poor.
When he made the promise in the name of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, there was a sharp collective gasp, but clearly the Opposition decided not to challenge the Finance Minister’s inclusion of his party president in a budget speech.
Mr. Chidambaram also took a swipe at his predecessor, Pranab Mukherjee, now President of India.
“In the budget for 2012-’13, the estimate of Plan Expenditure was too ambitious and the estimate of non-Plan Expenditure was too conservative. Faced with a huge fiscal deficit, I had no choice but to rationalise expenditure. We took a dose of bitter medicine. It seems to be working,” he said. The negation of Mr. Mukherjee’s budget did not go unnoticed in the House – and Congressmen themselves later pointed it out.
But the Finance Minister also took an indirect potshot at Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi: “We examples of States growing at a fast rate, but leaving behind women, the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes, the minorities, and some backward classes. The UPA does not accept that model. The UPA Government believes in inclusive development, with emphasis on improving human development indicators.”
Pokes fun at corporates
And he poked gentle fun at the corporates: “I believe there is a little bit of the spirit of Mr. Azim Premji in every affluent tax payer. I am confident that when I ask the relatively prosperous to bear a small burden for one year, just one year, they will do so cheerfully.”
Watching Mr. Chidambaram from the Speaker’s Gallery were several members of his family – wife, son, daughter-in-law and grand daughter but, oddly enough, the diplomats’ gallery was empty.
The Rajya Sabha gallery had the usual suspects – agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, journalist H.K. Dua, the BJP’s Tarun Vijay, the Congress’ Satyavrat Chaturvedi and Murli Deora, and the Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien. And when the speech ended, it was Mr. Chidambaram who walked across to the two Yadavs, Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad: when he returned, he received the congratulations of many party colleagues, including Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.
Quote from Tiruvalluvar
The Finance Minister’s favourite poet, Saint Tiruvalluvar, made a predictable appearance at the end of the speech: “Kalangathu Kanda Vinaikkan Thulangkathu Thookkang Kadinthu Seyal” (What clearly the eye discerns as right, with steadfast will /And mind unslumbering, that should man fulfil).
He also referred to Swami Vivekananda who told the people: “All the strength and succour you want is within yourself. Therefore, make your own future.”
While Mr. Chidambaram’s effort did not sound like an election budget, the Congress hopes that his efforts to restore the health of the economy will lay the ground for a brighter future for the party.