Economy Feb 26, 2013
That the leaders of the UPA live in a parallel universe of incomprehension has been known for long. Yet, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P Chidambaram commend Pawan Kumar Bansal's colourless and vision-less Railway Budget as "reformist" and "forward-looking", it gives reason to wonder if they have escaped the time-space continuum in its entirety.
Bansal's budget, as Firstpost noted a short while ago, made a pretty good diagnosis of the various ailments that wrack the Railways. And to give credit where credit is due, it didn't compound the complications by resorting to reckless populism of the sort we've seen in recent times. But the good news ends there.
Having made a correct diagnosis, the 'doctor' stopped well short of prescribing any cures. Perhaps he sensed that the UPA government doesn't have the political goodwill to get any unpopular "reformist"measures through Parliament, even if he remained convinced that they were desperately needed. And in the absense of remedies, the patient seems fated to remain on life support for a lot longer.
Bansal's budget can at best be called a "benchwarmer's budget" - presented by someone who is marking time until the next election, and is merely using the instrument of the budget to tick the appropriate boxes to propitiate his political masters in the Congress. The ritual genuflections to Rajiv Gandhi - to whom Bansal owes his parliamentary career, may have been intended purely for optics. But there were substantive concessions too to Sonia Gandhi's parliamentary constituency, Rae Bareli, which found mention in the budget in six different contexts, including the proposed establishment of a new forged wheel factory for which a memorandum of understanding has been signed with the Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd.
That the Railway Minister should consider objections to such excessive Railways patronage on admittedly partisan considerations as frivolous, says much about the overall descent that finds expression in bending the instruments of the state in the blatant service of politics.
But far more serious than this is what it says about the state of mind of Congress, barely two days before the Union Budget is to be presented.
If this is the kind of a lacklustre Railway Budget that the Congress will draw up, even though it had wrested the Railway portfolio to itself after more than a decade and concedes that much needs to be done to restore the financial health of the Railways, it bodes ill for what we might reasonably expect of this government on Thursday, when Chidambaram presents the Union Budget for 2013-14.
In framing this Railway budget as "commendable", Chidambaram is evidently lowering the bar of expectation of what to expect on 28 February. And Manmohan Singh has given new meanings to the expressions "reformist" and "forward-looking," which again provides the framework to understand how the Congress is approaching the main Budget.
Chidambaram, of course, is under greater pressure to deliver substantively, rather than the hot air that Bansal gave us. Sovereign rating agencies are watching with hawk-eyes to see if he will stick to his fiscal deficit target, and the Minister himself has staked his political reputation on getting the macroeconomic numbers right in this budget.
Chidambaram is also, in many ways, his own man, and from all account it the strength of his personality and his persuasive power that has dragged the senior leaders of the UPA, including Sonia Gandhi, and his ministerial colleagues into conceding the need for spending cuts to their signature programmes.
Yet, the 'spin' that is being given to Bansal's "non-budget" gives cause for disquiet: it signals that the attempt to dab lipstick on a pig and certify it as presentable is under way.
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