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Hard bargain

Discussions on India’s Union Budget are likely to revolve around contentious legislation such as CAA-NRC besides concerns over the sliding economy

Hard bargain

All eyes will be on the annual general budget for the year 2020, which will be presented this week. The budget session is set to begin with the customary President's address to the joint session of Parliament on January 31. The session is important because this is when the Parliament scrutinises the budget proposals of the government and votes for the budget. There will be two phases of the budget session with the first phase scheduled from January 31 to February 11, while the second from March 2 to April 3. There will not be a separate railway budget from this year, as they will become part of the general budget.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be presenting her second Union Budget on February 1. Sitharaman would attempt to stage a reversal of the sharp economic decline that has gripped the Indian economy. Official data suggests that the GDP is likely to shrink to 5 per cent this fiscal, the slowest pace in about a decade. The International Monetary Fund has pegged the growth for the year 2019 at 4.9 per cent, predicting the year 2020 will see an improvement.

Sitharaman is expected to announce a slew of measures to boost the economy. Though the economic indicators suggest that the economy will bounce back in the first half of 2020, a lot depends on the government's budgetary announcements. It is likely that the government may skip all populist measures to focus on industry-specific boosters. Sitharaman has already announced certain steps like support to exporters, housing industry, small and medium enterprises and non- bank lenders. Some new income tax slabs with simple and fairer income tax, relaxation in long-term capital gain (LTCG) and relief in dividend distribution tax (DDT) are also expected.

For all these, the Parliament should function normally. For some years, the Parliament has not functioned well with several disruptions and adjournments. Some bills were even passed without discussion. A total of 42 bills are pending before Parliament to be cleared during the coming session. Will the budget session be more productive and peaceful? Most probably not, in view of the belligerent opposition which is determined to obstruct.

Incidentally, the last budget session was one of the busiest in the last two decades. According to official data, both houses spent nearly half their time on legislative business, passing 30 bills and working more than 70 hours extra. As many as 30 bills were passed by both houses of Parliament.

The opposition is up in arms against the CAA plus NRC and has already taken the issue to the streets. The student community and the civil society also have shown their apprehensions about the twin measures while the student community has taken a lead over others. So this issue is bound to top the list of the opposition.

The second is the sliding economy. The Opposition could put heat on the government for the consistent decline in GDP even as several macro indicators signalling recovery reveal that it could take some more time. Finance Minister has to address issues like the lack of jobs and decline of growth in almost all sectors including manufacturing, civil aviation, agriculture, and infrastructure and banking sectors.

The third issue is the state of affairs in Jammu and Kashmir. Though the bill for bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir was passed in the last session, normalcy is yet to return in the valley and the Congress and other parties are likely to push for a discussion on the situation. The northeast is also burning after CAA was passed and the opposition is likely to push for discussion on this issue.

The Centre wants to get the Personal Data Protection Bill passed, which will allow data to be stored abroad with consent and with mirror images in India. A bill to link the Aadhaar with voter identity cards for the new voters is also likely to be introduced.

The sale of Air India is another controversial issue. While the government is looking at completing disinvestment of Air India in the current fiscal year, half a dozen AAI airports are to be bid out on PPP model.

It is not clear whether the opposition will chalk out a joint strategy to take on the government. The Modi government is banking upon a divided opposition which has helped the government push through even contentious bills like the abrogation of Article 370 and the recent CAB in the past. The Congress wants to take a leadership role in uniting the opposition but there is resistance from major opposition parties like the Trinamool Congress, Bahujan Samajwadi Party and Samajwadi Party.

It would be better if the parliamentarians decide to debate and discuss the issues instead of walking out and making noisy scenes. In a democracy, a civilised debate would go a long way in solving problems. The members should not fail in their basic duties of legislation, scrutiny of the budget, holding the government accountable and judicial functions. After all, people have elected them to perform these duties. IPA

Views expressed are strictly personal

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