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Flat Budget: Congress scared of Pranab stealing show
February, 17th 2009

Mystery surrounds the UPA government's decision to present a flat Interim Budget /Vote-On-Account (VoA) devoid of any tax changes/fiscal
measures. Standing finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has cited constitutional propriety to justify his playing by the book. Indeed, as this paper wrote in its Learning With The Times column on Sunday, by convention, a VoA is meant to do no more than simply seek Parliament's approval for expenditure to run government in the 3-4 months of the transition phase before and after elections, till a full-fledged Budget can be presented.

Just as there's nothing that stops a nighwatchman in Test cricket from scoring a few runs instead of merely holding the fort, there's nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a government from doing more. Why then did the UPA forgo an opportunity to come out with a few vote-catching fiscal proposals just ahead of elections?

It could have justified another stimulus package in the Budget in the context of the global financial crisis and the domestic slowdown in business. The Opposition, which in normal times would have been well within its right to cry foul, would have appeared churlish in blocking say, tax/duty incentives/rebates for the salaried middle class or industry or for investors, given the urgent need for an economic recovery.

Mukherjee, in his speech said, "There may be need to consider additional fiscal measures when the regular budget is presented by the new government after the elections." Deputy chairman of Planning Commission and Manmohan's economic confidante, Montek Singh Ahluwalia reportedly said that with just a few more days of this Parliament remaining, there would have been no time left for discussion.

Fact is that the last Budget (2008-09) was cleared by Parliament with almost no discussion.

All these questions have spawned a range of speculative answers, none of which can be confirmed. The one that's doing the rounds the most is that the Congress high command did not want Mukherjee, who's standing in for a still-recovering Manmohan Singh, to steal the thunder with a flurry of crowd-pleasing proposals.

According to this version, the government might in the coming days come out with a third stimulus package. But senior Congress leaders scoff at this conspiracy theory while senior finance ministry officials discount the possibility of a last-minute dose of fiscal measures from this government.

A top official in the ministry pointed out that between the two stimulus packages so far, the government had signalled additional spending of about Rs 150,000 crore as well as duty rebates of Rs 40,000-50,000 crore. The Reserve Bank, too, had pitched in on the monetary policy front with rate cuts and various other measures aimed at stimulating growth. "A lot has already been done. We must first allow the impact of the recent actions to play out. Also, there are signs of some industrial recovery in February," the official said.

At the same time, Montek has kept the window open for more monetary action. He was quoted by a TV channel as saying that it was for the RBI to decide on the timing of such action. Having been disappointed by Mukherjee's Budget, the markets now seem to be pinning their hopes on another dose of rate cuts.

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