Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, February 16, 2009

EXTERNAL affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee and railway minister Lalu Prasad do not have much in common except for the fact that both are senior ministers in the UPA government. Both are also law graduates, though in case of one of them, familiarity with the law seems to have had no effect on complying with it. They are a study in contrast.
Pranab da, among the senior most politicians in the country, is a stickler for political and constitutional proprieties, while Lalu, blessed no doubt with the common touch, has no use for such niceties and does not mind playing to the gallery as long as there is some political mileage to be drawn.

Last week, the 14th Lok Sabha convened for its last sitting, to pass a few pending bills. And of course, the not so small matter of the Union Budget and the Railway Budget. Technically, the government’s term expires on May 23, 2009 and it is well within its rights to present a regular budget. Mukherjee, who was nominated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to prepare and present the budget — remember, there is a vacancy at the finance ministry after P. Chidambaram was moved to home — was under pressure from his party colleagues as well as alliance partners to present a regular budget. Elections are due soon and some of the senior most ministers of the UPA felt a regular budget would enable the government to roll out dollops of doles, which in turn would get them the votes. Cut indirect taxes, make goods cheaper, announce centrally sponsored schemes which will come in handy for the UPA when its leaders begin the poll campaign, went the argument.

As chairman of the Congress election manifesto committee, Pranab da should have found such logic appealing. But the stickler in him didn’t allow him to buy the idea which would have involved committing new expenditure without levying fresh taxes that would have been binding on the next government. “ I am not a confidence trickster to do that,” Pranab da told a close associate and made it clear he would seek nothing more than a vote on account seeking approval for meeting government expenses until July 31, 2009.

Over at Rail Bhavan, Lalu clearly had other ideas. He has already presented five Rail Budgets during this government’s tenure and set a record of sorts with the latest, his sixth in a row, which was termed an “ interim budget” but was one that was basically a please- all exercise with an eye on the polling booths.

It had all the ingredients of a regular budget. Apart from reductions in passenger fares, he announced several new trains, electrification of thousands of kilometres of railway lines. Fresh from his visit to Japan where, while travelling on one of the famed Bullet Trains, he is said to have been as ecstatic as a kid taking his first train ride, he announced feasibility studies will be conducted to run such trains — which travel at speeds in excess of 300 km/ hr — between New Delhi and, that’s right, Patna. The costs involved are humongous and unless the railway minister in the next government comes from Bihar, the enthusiasm is likely to wane. It’s clear why Lalu has no problems winning elections while for a whole lot of others, it’s always a problem.

No comments: