The annual budget session this year began somewhat belatedly in March against a challenging political backdrop for the Congress and the ruling UPA coalition at the centre. It was quite clear from the outset that the government reeling under the pressure of the blows suffered by the Congress in the just concluded Assembly polls would have to face a major storm. The President’s address inaugurating the budget session and the Rail budget that followed produced two early flashpoints – the centre’s unilateral decision to set up a National Counter-Terrorism Centre and the massive fare hikes announced by the Railway Minister.
The first decision evoked strong opposition from most non-Congress state governments while the second move found the TMC led by the mercurial Mamata Banerjee demanding not only a rolling back of the fare hike but removal of its own minister who had presented the budget. Even as the showdown seemed to be reaching a point of no return, hectic moves went on behind the scene and we now see how the Congress has weathered the storm. The railway minister has been replaced (the fares, as the buzz goes, may see only a partial rollback) and in the Rajya Sabha where the UPA is in a minority, the SP and the BSP have both bailed out the government while the TMC has merely staged a walkout.
Clearly, parties like the SP, BSP or for that matter the TMC, are more interested in doing business with the Congress and striking as hard bargains as they can, than upset the applecart at the centre and face mid-term elections. Meanwhile, the BJP which was till now relishing the rebellions within the Congress whether in Andhra Pradesh or Uttarakhand, is now finding it hard to douse the fire in its own house in Karnataka. The electoral implications could not be clearer – the party has lost the Lok Sabha by-poll in the Udupi-Chikmagulur seat vacated by its present Chief Minister Sadanand Gowda much the same way it had earlier lost the Jamshedpur Lok Sabha seat in Jharkhand vacated by Chief Minister Arjun Munda.
While the UPA and NDA play their own survival games, the issues that have come up pose grave threats to the already endangered livelihood and rights of the common man. The NCTC not only violates the federal principles, together with the draconian provisions of the UAPA it would sound the death knell for democracy in the country. The government which refuses to empower the Lok Pal to deal with corruption is bent upon bestowing sweeping powers on the Intelligence Bureau, powers that are enjoyed not even by the CIA and FBI in the US.
As far as the rail budget is concerned, while the fare hike itself is unacceptable, what is even more unacceptable is the thesis that passengers will have to buy their own safety by paying higher fares! Passenger safety has been reduced to a saleable commodity! Equally disastrous is the direction set out in successive general budgets – taxes on the rich must remain standstill, defence budget must keep soaring, the only way to raise revenue is to slash subsidies and tax the poor through inflation. And after the injurious budget, has come the insult from the Planning Commission – even as prices rise, it takes increasingly lower daily expenditure to stay above the poverty line! The BPL benchmarks have now been lowered to Rs. 22.40 for rural areas and 28.65 for urban India!
If the NDA government was voted out of power in 2004 for its “India Shining” joke, the same punishment must now be meted out to the UPA government for its BPL lies. The Congress has managed to weather the storm in Parliament; it is now for the people to ensure that the protests on the streets prevail over the narrow limits of the bourgeois politics of backdoor bargaining and parliamentary shadow-boxing.