With little money to play around with, Finance Minister P Chidambaram could not present a politically flamboyant budget, thereby lending credence to speculation that the Congress would not dare to advance the general elections.
The 2014 polls may be held as per schedule in April-May next year and not earlier.
Chidambaram’s last budget as finance minister in 2008 did send out a strong electoral message by incorporating a massive loan waiver for farmers surpassing Rs67,000 crore. It caused quite a flutter even in the rural hinterland and, along with the MNREGA, it was able to gift the Congress-led UPA a second consecutive poll victory in 2009.
With Chidambaram confronting the twin headaches of fiscal deficit and current account deficit, there was hardly any scope for financial adventurism, which came through in the finance minister’s well-attended evening press conference at Shastri Bhavan. In the morning itself, he had spoken about constraints and severe restrictions on his spending ability during the next fiscal.
Yes, the budget did offer a few sops meant for significant pocket boroughs. Chidambaram said he remembered three faces during the preparation of the budget, the first being that of the woman, second of the youth and the third the poor’s.
The poor don’t gain significantly as MNREGA allotment is down from last year, the social sector sops are only marginally higher and will be offset by inflation in the course of the year.
The women are offered an all-woman bank, apart from a new Rs1,000-crore Nirbhaya trust. These are hardly likely to ensure a bulk transfer of the woman vote to the Congress' kitty; neither is there any definite message for the Congress vote bank among the minorities.
The government did not plan a scheme to entice the urban voter. The Congress had assessed quite a while ago that it was on the verge of losing a substantial chunk of the metropolitan voters.
The Congress openly admitted that Chidambaram had done the best under the circumstances, but even the best from the man who has presented the most budgets in the country isn’t enough to win over the electorate.
Chidambaram did explain in the evening press conference that more steps and measures will be announced in the course of discussion on the budget and the Finance Bill in Parliament.
Even the not-so-optimistic Congress leaders appeared to have reconciled to their fate and looked as though they would rather wait for the flagship programme of direct beneficiaries transfer (DBT) to cover the entire country by early next year. That could be an electoral game changer, they hoped.
Some of them pointed out that the finance minister had confided in them that the economy could well turn around in the next six months to help the government launch a few more politically profitable pro-poor schemes.
Meanwhile, both the allies as well as the opposition took potshots at the budget, describing it as more a statistical jugglery than a pledge of real benefits. The Congress’ key friends — now that it has been reduced to a minority government — the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) were dismissive of the budget as one which is harmful to the interests of the poor and the agriculturists.
The principal opposition party, the BJP, dubbed it “verbose in content” and “low in ambition”. Leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, and her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, said, "This budget is not a policy statement. It brings no directional change. It is merely an accounting exercise wherein expenditure has been cut with no prospect of increase of allocations. This may not spur growth.”
They said the budget also contained no steps to boost exports, contain inflation and strengthen the rupee. They pointed out that through sleight of hand, the finance minister showed increased allocations, whereas the real increases are marginal. Former finance minister and senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha described the budget as “pedestrian”.