For all its exhibition of linguistic beauty, ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts revealed to the world the squalid secret of Mumbai’s slums. Slums might not have been on the top of the Central Government’s priority list until now, but shaken awake by the threat of losing face in the looming general elections, the interim Union Budget (2009-10) promises an alleviation of this persistent problem. With the ambitious objective of making India ‘slum-free’, the budget allocation to the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission has been hiked to Rs 11,842 crore from Rs 10,447.98 crore in 2008-09. Sadly, this is one of the few provisions of the budget that actually deal with the urban population.
What with skyrocketing inflation, astronomical fuel prices and a world teetering at the bring of another Great Depression, Pranab Mukerjee, the interim finance minister had to face the wrath of corporate demi-gods as they gave the budget a unanimous thumbs down. In a desperate last ditch attempt, the Congress has reached out, one last time, to the apple of the Indian politician’s eye, the aam aadmi. With a budget tailored to suit his needs, the Government seems to be in denial about the Wall Street crisis. With Arun Jaitley comparing the budget to the “Satyam balance sheets”, it is evident that this lacuna has scarcely gone unnoticed by the Opposition. The Left too has lambasted the Budget, drawing a parallel with the trillion dollar debt that Bush has left Obama to deal with.
The Congress seems smug in its sanctimonious halo, packaging the deal as the step of an ethical government that refuses to fiddle with tax rates even in the face of adversity. But the question remains—where will the bailout come from if not from the government?
The global meltdown did merit the mention of its ‘extraordinary’ proportions but the response it elicited was far from extraordinary. Singh later attempted to justify this on grounds of constitutional propriety, pointing out that a Vote-on-Account is supposed to deal only with the next few months, till the next government can pass an official budget. But the feeble plea seemed more like an afterthought than a well thought out plan of action. In fact, Pranab Singh’s Economic Survey seemed to focus almost entirely on the first four years of the UPA-led alliance’s tenure and sought to highlight the benefits reaped in the past by the rural populace.
There are suggestions that the Congress did not want Pranab Mukerjee to steal the thunder form Manmohan Singh in his absence. But to sacrifice whatever little public support the Congress has left, a couple of months before the elections might prove to be an expensive proposition.
For an agro-based country, this becomes a major factor. The lavish expenditure on schemes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is well taken. But when the world is facing its worst financial catastrophe in recent times, one expects more than a passing reference to it.
Clearly, the country is not happy. The growth rate of 9 % seems like a thing from a long-forgotten past and what stays fresh in public memory is the shrinking economy and pervasive unemployment. The government has, however, failed to realize that the wounds are too fresh to have been healed.
The Congress seems to have its heart set on wooing the common man. But in all likelihood, heartbreak awaits.