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Virender Kapoor | February 24, 2005
It should not come as a surprise if the annual budget Finance Minister P Chidambaram presents in Parliament on February 28 does not carry his stamp.
Even after making allowance for the compulsions of a coalition government, the truth is that no other finance minister in Independent India has had to cope with such contrary pulls and pressures from so many diverse quarters. That is why the Budget may end up being a mish-mash of pious intentions without offering anything concrete to any one section of people.
Of course, the Leftists' sensibilities prey on the mind of the Budget-makers as do the concerns of United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who has been passing on various suggestions and proposals to the Prime Minister's Office.
But the fact that the prime minister himself is an economic expert has curbed Chidambaram's freedom to a great extent. Unlike former prime ministers who laid down broad guidelines and passed on suggestions and memoranda from various sectional interests to finance ministers, and then left them to do their own thing, Dr Manmohan Singh has been involved in the nitty-gritty of Budget-making from the word go.
Assisting the prime minister actively is Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, who insists on vetting the Budget. Since Montek enjoys the prime minister's confidence, Chidambaram cannot be seen to be resentful of Montek's poaching on his domain. Incidentally, the Planning Commission has on a number of times bypassed the finance ministry in sanctioning proposals involving huge financial implications.
Former Reserve Bank of India governor and chairman of the Economic Advisory Council, Dr C Rangarajan, too is in on the Budget loop.
But what should prove most galling for Chidambaram is the PMO's reported insistence to vet his Budget speech, lest it contain something indelicate for the constituents of the ruling coalition.
It is in this context that the joke has gained currency that instead of locking out the media from North Block during the current Budget-making exercise, they should have barred outsiders from the PMO and Yojana Bhawan, where the real work is done for formal presentation to the nation on D-Day, February 28.
A haircut tax?
Among the Budget proposals aimed at widening the tax net, there is one to extend the service tax to some 50 more areas. Among them is a proposal to rope in the burgeoning number of beauty saloons and barbers' shops with five or more workstations. So be prepared to pay a little more after the Budget for that routine haircut or body massage at your neighbourhood saloon.
Internet cafés, whose number has grown phenomenally as rival service providers extend their network deep in the country, too are likely to be brought in the service tax net.
Intrigues in the BJP
The second rung leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot seem to trust each another. So deep are antipathies and jealousies among Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley et al that what is discussed internally is soon leaked out to interested elements within the party and select journalists.
Recently, when some half a dozen leaders -- including the above-mentioned trio -- met to assess the election strategy and the impact of party leaders on the campaign trail in Bihar, who said what against whom was immediately revealed to the affected persons.
Such backbiting at the senior level bodes ill for a party which claims to be different from the Congress.
The prime minister might want to cut down administrative flab and promise far-reaching bureaucratic reforms, but babus can always be relied upon to find post-retirement sinecures at the taxpayers' expense.
Take the case of the Competition Commission. An Indian Administrative Service officer got himself installed at the Competition Commission within days of his retirement in February last year though a cloud of uncertainty hung over the formation of the Competition Commission.
A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court pronounced its judgment on a public interest litigation challenging the formation of the commission. The PIL had questioned the stipulation that the Commission chairman should not necessarily be a retired high court or Supreme Court judge.
Even after the apex court verdict, it will be quite a while before the Competition Commission can be functional since an amendment to the original legislation -- under which it was sought to be set up -- has become necessary.
In fact, the order could entail fresh legislation altogether rather than an amendment since it calls for vital changes in the original law.
It is clear that till the government implements the court order fully, the Commission cannot be operational. But this has not prevented the babu from making the best of his present position.
He and two senior IAS officers and a host of supporting staff have been marking time for nearly a year without performing any of the Commission's originally mandated functions.
Since babus are good at creating work for themselves, ostensibly they are gainfully employed, supposedly spreading awareness about the proposed Commission's role and functions at seminars and talks.
Retired Intelligence Bureau operative Maloy Krishna Dhar's book, Open Secrets: India's Intelligence Unveiled, has unravelled so many reputations that it is a huge surprise none of his victims has sued him for defamation.
Could it be that there is more than a grain of truth in what Dhar writes about these people who strut their act on the capital's power circuits as if they alone have the monopoly on wisdom?
Here is what Dhar writes about the influence of Leftists at the height of the Cold War when he headed the USSR counter-intelligence desk in the IB: 'My painstaking research and intelligence penetration had succeeded in identifying over four Union ministers and over two dozen MPs who were on the payroll of KGB operatives. Some of them are still around.'
Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh