States told that additional funding “would not be like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it”

If the Union Budget was expected to make some special concessions for West Bengal to placate Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, there was no hint of it in Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's Budget speech in Parliament. Indeed, it was a speech singularly short of any political message; nor, indeed, did it have a strong social message, as most of the schemes mentioned are already in place, with the Government just making additional allocations. Perhaps the only social sector issue that Mr. Mukherjee highlighted as part of the five objectives to be addressed this fiscal was to “intervene decisively to address the problem of malnutrition, especially in the 200 high burden districts.” If it did have a message, it lay in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's interview to Doordarshan on the Budget, that the Government intends to govern, and it hopes to have its allies on board.

Interestingly, that message appeared to have got across to the Trinamool Congress. For despite the fact that West Bengal only got a flood management project in Murshidabad, a Congress-controlled district, and Rs.50 crore to establish a world-class centre to improve water quality in Kolkata, the Trinamool MPs seemed low-key, describing the Budget as “tolerable”. Of course, Trinamool Leader in the Lok Sabha Sudip Bandopadhyay did mention the fact that West Bengal, like Punjab and Kerala, was “in a debt trap” and wanted a three-year moratorium. But government sources told The Hindu that the Centre had made it clear to all three States that it wanted to see some signs on the part of these State governments that additional funding “would not be like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it”.

The message that the UPA government, evidently, wants to send out through this Budget is that its focus will be on strengthening the economy, stimulating growth and on revenue generating measures. “If India can continue to build on its economic strength, it can be a source of stability for the world economy and provide a safe destination for restless global capital,” the Finance Minister stressed at the start of his Budget speech.

Later, in an interview to Doordarshan on the Budget, the Prime Minister indicated that he intended to walk the talk. “The Finance Minister has pointed to the need to control subsidies. He has also said that he would bring the subsidies to less than 1.7% of the GDP in the next three years,” he said, adding, “Now that is obviously a task which would, I think, require the Government to put forward an effective programme for adjusting the prices of petroleum products, and adjusting other relevant prices. So we have to bite the bullet.”

Asked whether Mamata Banerjee was on board, he replied: “Well, I think these are compulsions of managing a coalition. There will be difficulties. There have been difficulties. But ultimately, if the Government is to govern, it must have a sustainable strategy for managing the economy. I sincerely hope when the time comes to take relevant important decisions which are tough, we will consult all our allies and take them on board.”

That's the message of this Budget: the Government intends to govern, and the allies need to get on board.