Not a single voice in Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's pre-Budget meeting with Congress party office-bearers sought further economic reforms. Instead, the overwhelming demand from the party on the eve of the 2009-10 Budget was: take care of the 'aam aadmi (common man).'
A delegation of Congress party general secretaries, secretaries and other functionaries met the FM on Monday for the traditional pre-Budget meeting. Most demanded focus on four areas -- education, health, infrastructure, agriculture -- and provision of more budgetary support to these sectors. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi did not attend.
Among the aam aadmi measures, leaders sought an increase in the minimum support price mainly for sugarcane, income tax relief to the salaried class and more benefits to senior citizens. Suggestions were also made to increase subsidy for diesel for farmers and fishermen. Soft loans for minorities and SC/STs were also demanded.
But issues like disinvestment, SEZ amendments, insurance bill or financial sector reforms were not discussed. Many leaders said infrastructure should be given priority, as the sector is able to churn jobs and investments.
Former Union home minister Shivraj Patil initiated the discussion and gave his vision of the next budget, stressing on enhanced outlay for the defence and home ministries, along with social sector schemes.
Initially, the FM didn't want to say anything. But when party general secretary Oscar Fernandes requested him to address the meeting, Mukherjee went back to his favourite subject, history, to talk about the future.
He spoke about former US president Ronald Reagan and British premier Margaret Thatcher and how they tackled economic woes in their time. Mukherjee also mentioned World War II and the Great Depression before assuring his listeners that India would maintain at least 6-7 per cent growth rate during the current fiscal.
According to insiders, many in the party also expressed political concern that state governments were 'hijacking' centrally-sponsored schemes and that these schemes should maintain their own identities.
Mukherjee told them the party had got a mandate to govern the country for the next five years and even if all the schemes promised in the party manifesto were not implemented in the coming budget, the party still had five years to fulfill all its promises.
Some leaders like Jairam Ramesh and Arjun Singh remained silent. When asked what he said in the meeting, Singh replied, "Nowadays, I am in silent mode."