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Multi-tasking Chidambaram addresses core constituencies

Finance Minister P Chidambaram on Thursday presented a budget in Parliament which could have been much worse given the challenges faced by the UPA-II government. It needed the extraordinary ambidexterity of a seasoned politician and also a well-clued economist to address the pessimistic economic scenario and at the same time provide ample ammunition to his party to take on the opponents in the general elections scheduled for the summer of 2014.

The message of the budget is clear, it’s batting for polls but not before the summer of 2014. It has come out with a message for youth, poor, women and backward classes, the constituencies of the Congress party. However, it also underlines that it would take time for logon ka paisa (people’s money) to reach logon ke haath (people’s hands).

A comparison which Chidambaram himself would not be very comfortable with, the finance minister has now presented eight annual financial statements for the government of India, equalling the feet of Morarji Desai. Into his third innings in North Block, Chidambaram, on Thursday, had the challenge to reverse the pessimistic trend, spur growth and make adequate provisions for the political battle to be fought ahead. It could be said that he has made a sincere attempt.

The fiscal deficit at 5.2 per cent of GDP in 2012-13, pegged at 4.8 per cent in 2013-14 and 3.0 per cent in 2016-17, Rs 1,000 crore for skill development of ten lakh youth, a regulatory authority for the road sector, expanding private FM radio to 294 cities and plan to auction 839 licenses for FM network to cover all India, plan to issue inflation-indexed bonds, Rs 65,877 crore allocated to education, an increase by 17 per cent over last year and to set up India’s first Women’s Bank are the key highlights of the Budget.

The member of parliament from Sivaganga seat in Tamil Nadu, both in his appearance and work, attempts a mosaic by fine tuning contrasts; something which he again successfully did on Thursday, which had both the treasury and opposition benches hearing him in rapt attention. But at the end of day, despite, in FM’s own words, keeping his speech simple, short (94 minutes) and straightforward, Chidambaram’s claims of achieving a 4.9 percent fiscal deficit has not convinced many.

If one looks for the politics in the financial statement, Chidambaram succeeded in opening dialogue with Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who applauded the FM, for agreeing to revisit special status criteria for states. Kumar, who is currently part of opposition NDA, had indicated in past that post-2014 poll he could go with anybody who supports special status for the state of Bihar. FM also took potshots at Kumar’s adversary Narendra Modi criticising Gujarat growth model (without naming it) saying, ‘We have 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.’

Social sector in UPA-I had flourished. Chidambaram was skipper of Finance Ministry then and true to his wont, he has once again given it a big push. The big ticket funding for social sector, however, this time around has come with support for infrastructure sector with equal vigour.

The attempt at sending positive vibes to probable post-2014 poll allies is not lost in giving a new sea port to West Bengal. The promise to spur road building, pushing industrial corridors and power transmission lines should all help push growth rate but will the finance minister have enough to fuel it, is the big question.
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