Congress leaders at the All India Congress Committee presented Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram their most important wishlist for the coming budget, when he came calling at 24 Akbar Road on Thursday evening: ‘Since they are now in the election year the Congress needs a people-friendly and a vote-friendly budget’. Renu Mittal reports.
This was translated by various leaders to the minister in the form of a number of concerns which they wanted him to address. It included bringing down prices; continuing subsidies on gas cylinders, particularly in the midday meal schemes, in religious places and overall increasing the number of cylinders, increasing the income tax limit, decreasing the service tax, the sales tax andmaking life saving drugs tax free, and the kisan credit card limit should be raised particularly for those with a good payback record.
Even as a number of senior leaders such as Minister for Health and Family Welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad, Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh, Ahmed Patel, B K Hari Prasad, Madhusudan Mistry and others were absent, the almost 40-odd office bearers who were present told the finance minister clearly that the party wanted a populist budget which would not be too harsh on the people, who are already reeling under increased prices.
There was serious concern over the manner in which non-Congress governments and chief ministers were misusing the Centre’s flagship programmes and passing them off as incentives by the states.
A large number of leaders raised this issue and said there should be strict monitoring and the centre should ensure that the credit for the schemes goes to the United Progressive Alliance. It was pointed out that opposition chief ministers put their logos and photos on Central schemes, thereby taking benefit of the large amount of money being spent by the Centre.
Tribal leaders such as Ajit Jogi, Sushila Tiriya, Tarachand Bhagora and others spoke about the tribal issues, the Forest Dwellers Act and the pattas given to the forest dwellers and made the point there was lack of central monitoring and that is why the Congress was not getting the benefit of this.
The Muslim leaders raised the point that the promised allocation of funds for the minority community was less than what was promised and this led to suspicion among the people. They said whatever is promised should be delivered and there should be no ‘shortchanging’.
Cutting across the north-south divide, leaders from across the country focused on agriculture and said the government must give the highest priority to the sector.
It was felt the agriculture marketing system should be strengthened to ensure the farmers got the right price for their goods, that there should be incentives for agriculture, creation of jobs both for the educated and the unskilled in rural areas and that the kisan credit card limit should be raised.
It was felt there should be youth-centric activities in rural areas and if there are no jobs, at least the sports infrastructure should be created for rural youth to keep them busy and away from drugs etc as well as to create better sportsmen in the country.
There was mention of gender budgeting where schemes and subsidies especially for the women should be prominently highlighted so they can take the benefit of this and the credit should come to the Congress.
General secretary Jagdish Tytler gave the example of Orissa and the Comptroller and Auditor General report which has pointed out that the money for one Central scheme was put in another scheme and the chief minister highlighted this as a state initiative to project himself.
He said there was no one from the Congress to counter this and expose the Orissa chief minister.
Tytler told the finance minister he did not know how he will balance his budget but told him clearly that since this was an election year, the Congress needed a people-friendly and voter-friendly budget.
Chidambaram told the assembled leaders that this would be his last budget as the government would have a vote on account next year and not a regular budget before the elections.
He said that the growth rate had fallen but was optimistic it would go up by next year. He said there was recession in Japan, in Europe and this had also affected India. He said he wanted to hear their suggestions, but gave no clues on whether the budget would be populist and what he planned to do to give relief to the people as was being demanded by the party members.
It was felt that women should be kept in the loop as far as direct cash subsidy is concerned, since there were no guarantees that men would use the money being given for the household expenses. It was also pointed out that since such an issue had been made of FDI leading to political battle lines being drawn, the government should go ahead and bring in FDI.
As always it was evident that party leaders were highlighting issues which they thought would bring them political dividends apart from bringing relief to the people. How much this gets reflected in Chidambaram’s final budget remains to be seen.