The UPA government has already become a lame duck. That is the image it has been giving ever since the Mumbai terror attack on November 26, 2008, but the interim budget it presented in the Lok Sabha on February 14, confirmed it.
One cannot expect major policy initiatives in a vote-on-account. But the hype about tinkering with tax rates, fiscal concessions for industry to boost the economy, separate packages for job creation and populist bonanza for the common man was all the government'sown making. The pro-establishment media built up these high expectations deliberately, with sufficient material input from the Finance Ministry mandarins as if the government was in a mood of yet another budgetary splurge. Even seasoned economic writers?who should have known better that a vote-on-account is not the occasion to indulge in financial profligacy of a sort that would set a bad precedent?went to town suggesting and anticipating major booster bailout packages in Pranab Mukherjee'sand Lalu Prasad Yadav'spre-poll rhetorics. It all ended in a disappointment and all-round adverse reactions. Understandably, the UPA'slast budget exercise has failed to stimulate the common man, stir the Sensex or enthuse the industry.
What has been lost sight of in the ongoing hoopla was how the UPA has abdicated its primary duty of governing the country in the midst of deepening global economic crisis. Even diplomacy in the modern context is more economics than politics. Yet we have a Foreign Minister overburdened with finance and many other crucial responsibilities. He was asked to handle the interim budget less than two weeks before he was to present the vote-on-account in Parliament. Obviously, the interim budget is not his baby. Before him, for a few days again, it was former Finance Minister P Chidambaram who was holding the additional charge. In between our economist Prime Minister also held charge of the ministry before he underwent the heart surgery.
The government has been headless ever since. P Chidambaram, who should be made accountable for the economic mess he created in the last five years, has been conveniently shifted to Home Ministry. The person who messed up the national security under UPA is out?enjoying his well-deserved compulsory retirement?writing his memoirs. The Defence Minister, who joined the cabinet mid-way, could not spent even half of the allocated budget which he generously returned to the deficit-hit Finance Ministry, while our defence forces remain sadly under-prepared and are complaining about the raw deal they received under this government. The HRD Minister spent more time in hospitals than in the ministry. His only other vocation being assuaging the mullahs. The Agriculture Minister who explicitly entertains Prime Ministerial ambitions spent more time playing politics in cricket than that in his crucial ministry. Less said the better about other departments. Accountability was one thing that was missing when Pranab Mukherjee presented his vote-on-account.
So it was a pre-poll speech without a pre-poll campaign agenda. Perhaps, that is why many called it ?zero-fizz budget count?. The UPA has proved a monumental failure on the economic front. It is more culpable for abdicating its duty since September 2008, when the world economic meltdown hit India. Ever since it has been behaving like a headless chicken.
For, all these years it spent as if there was no tomorrow. The result is a 6.6 per cent revenue deficit (which experts predict will cross 10 per cent), the highest in many years. The NDA government'seconomic initiatives during 1998-2003 created the boom and the UPA benefitted. In three successive years when growth rate was nine per cent it did not take any measure and did not practice fiscal prudence. It could have used the surplus funds available on bettering civic infrastructure, health services and road construction. On the contrary, it totally abandoned the NDA-initiated village road-building scheme (Gramin Sarak Yojna). On highway projects its completion record is 40-45 per cent as against the NDA's80-90 per cent. There cannot be a better illustration of its simplistic approach when the country is facing its worst recession in many years than the fact that it does not have a full-fledged Finance Minister for the last three months. Because of the wrong policies the UPA pursued we are now discussing not about the double-digit growth but how low the growth will be in the coming years. It was this fizzling out that the vote-on-account was all about. Though the CPM has withdrawn its support, as a Marxist, Prakash Karat must be happy that the UPA government is not going out but ?withering away?.