FOR A long time now, Pranab Mukherjee has been the Congress- led UPA government’s Miracle Man. He is many parts rolled into one: the main troubleshooter, a great unifier and the man to get the most improbable job done. “ The man for all seasons and all reasons,” they called him. But even miracle men are human and prone to errors. On Budget Day, he made a misstep whose effects are likely to be felt on our politics for a long time.
His decision to hike Customs and excise duties and remove the existing concessions on petrol has created history for more than one reason: for the first time ever, the entire Opposition walked out of the Lok Sabha during the Budget presentation. We also saw something we haven’t seen in a long time — MPs from the CPM, BJP, RJD, SP, JD( U) and many smaller parties grouping together outside Parliament, hands linked and pledging to fight the government collectively.
Perhaps, Pranab da and the Prime Minister didn't bargain for the backlash when they went through the formality of approving the Budget proposals in a 15- minute cabinet meeting on Friday morning. It wasn’t that the Budget was a letdown. The prime minister has congratulated Pranab da for a “ job well done” which he feels would take the country back to the 9 per cent growth trajectory.
Even sections of the Opposition were seen thumping desks when Pranab da rolled out a series of measures for the social, agriculture and infrastructure sectors. But in the end, petrol’s inflammable properties spoilt the party. It is quite likely that faced with the backlash from the united Opposition and even a section of the ruling coalition, the petroleum cess will be rolled back. But the damage has already been done. The UPA which is still a minority government in power with outside support of the BSP, SP, RJD and some smaller parties will be alarmed as some of them begin to find better options across the aisle.
If anything, this Budget reflects the crises and the lack of political consensus within the UPA. With Sonia opting to stay out of the government, there is no tall leader who can iron out the differences within the coalition.
Though Madam is the chairperson of the UPA, there has been no formal meeting of the coalition convened in a long time. The Telangana fiasco best sums up the collapse of the consultation process in the coalition when each coalition partner talked a different language. Of course young Rahul Gandhi offers hope but he is busy— and rightly so— creating a Congress party for the future and has left it to the current establishment to handle its own affairs.
The Prime Minister ought to be commended for giving full autonomy to most of his minis- Sonia Gandhi ters to deal with their departments as they deem fit. But some ministers, particularly those handling fertilisers and telecom portfolios have milked this autonomy to deviate from acceptable norms and policies.
When the Centre tried to rein them in, it couldn’t, because the ministers rushed to Chennai to complain to M. Karunanidhi. With the Prime Minister’s mind focused on economic diplomacy and forging strategic international alliances, the UPA’s internal political management leaves a lot to be desired. The Opposition seems set to take full advantage of the disarray. The new found political unity is not the outcome of a preplanned strategy.
The decision to walk out of the Lok Sabha was taken on the spot by the BJP leaders; the others found common cause and joined. The Congress’s problems will only mount with the political authority of Pranab da , its tallest leader, taking a beating. So far, his cross- party friendships and acceptance ensured that the government was able to take allies along and take its legislative agenda forward.
Till recently, the BJP too had been playing the role of a “ constructive, friendly” Opposition since it found ideological and social affinity with the Congress on many economic issues. But now the BJP sees an opportunity and may no more be content being the “ loyal opposition”. For the Congress and the UPA, the only remedy now is course correction.
It has to take the alliance partners more seriously and revive the spirit of the UPA. And oh yes, it has to help restore the credibility of the Man for All Seasons.
Through his budgetary exercise, Pranab da has tried to paint a scenario of ‘ short- term pains for longterm gains’. But the experienced warhorse didn’t seem to have anticipated the political realignments.
The assault from the joint Opposition could leave the government not just in pain; it could even leave the government crippled to reap the long- term gains it set out to do.