The BJP-led government is all set to move ahead with an ambitious legislative agenda in Parliament even as its resistance to budgetary rollbacks leads to resentments all over.SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN
FINANCE Minister Yashwant Sinha made much out of the metaphor of biting the bullet in the days leading up to Budget 2000. The implication clearly was that he would take on the burden of adjustment in areas under his direct control. Those who took him in good faith believed that he would focus on areas such as revitalising the flagging initiatives in tax administration, curtailing unproductive expenditures and rationalising other kinds of commitments.
As the budgetary figures were unravelled, however, it became evident that in his main revenue conservation measures, the Minister was seeking to evade responsibility entirely and put a disproportionate share of the burden on the States. The backlash was inevitable and not long in coming. Yashwant Sinha is now under increasing pressure from the Opposition parties as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party's allies in the ruling coalition to reverse the price increases he decreed on foodgrain issued through th e public distribution system (PDS).
Even as resentments on this account remained unassuaged, the government announced a sharp increase in the prices of a range of petroleum products shortly after Parliament had adjourned for its mid-session break. When the House assembled again on April 17 , it was in an environment of considerable discord. The context seemed right for new alliances based on contingent circumstances.
In the presence of other leaders including Sonia Gandhi and I.K. Gujral, Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar speaking at the dharna organised on Parliament Street in New Delhi on April 18 to protest against the hike in the prices of essential commoditi es and the cut in PDS subsidies by the Union Government recently.
On the first day of the resumed session, the Congress(I) sought an adjournment motion on the PDS price hike. It had the support of all the other Opposition parties, as also the tacit endorsement of various members of the ruling coalition. Upon their dema nd being disallowed, the entire Opposition walked out of the Lok Sabha, voting with their feet against the government's fiscal prescriptions.
Following the restoration of order, P.H. Pandian, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam member from Tamil Nadu, utilised his temporary vantage point in the Speaker's chair to upbraid the government for serious improprieties. Presiding over the Lok Sabha during the brief absence of the Speaker, Pandian administered this coup after Petroleum Minister Ram Naik had read out a statement on the rationale behind the petroleum price hike. Invoking parliamentary procedure and propriety, the former Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly best remembered for his pronouncements in that House in 1988 about the "sky-high powers" of a Speaker, ruled: "The House should have been taken into confidence on the hike. The House was not prorogued and the budget session wa s still on when the hike was announced."
Stung by this unprecedented admonition from the chair, BJP members protested volubly. But Pandian was unfazed: "If my ruling is not in consonance with the constitutional conventions, tell me... I will reverse my decision." Expectedly, Opposition members greeted his assertion of parliamentary proprieties with loud acclaim.
The States that have a serious and immediate stake in reversing the hike in PDS prices are predominantly the southern States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where the network of fair price shops plays a vital part in meeting basic food needs. K erala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar was the focus of the most spirited public protest when he sat on a two-hour long dharna on Parliament Street in New Delhi. Former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh and I.K. Gujral were present. And in a a gesture of solidarity that transcended political partisanship, the dharna was joined by A.K. Antony, leader of the Congress(I) Legislature Party in the Kerala Assembly, as also by other Opposition figures from the State such as K.M. Mani and K. Karunakaran.
Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, then in the midst of sorting out the knotty problems posed by her party's West Bengal unit, made an appearance at the dharna. She made a brief speech, expressing "solidarity" with the people of Kerala in their struggle against the "anti-poor policies" of the Central government.
Within the ruling National Democratic Alliance, the Telugu Desam Party, the Trinamul Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were reportedly the most upset by the PDS price hike. In the inner councils of the coalition, TDP leader N. Chandrababu Naidu was reportedly insistent on a reversal of the decision. From another flank, the Shiromani Akali Dal was pressing for a review of the decision to hike fertilizer prices. The Finance Minister had the backing of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who in t urn was assured by the BJP National Executive session that the government would have unequivocal backing if it were to choose to stick to the path of steadfastness.
In private though, different signals were being conveyed. At a meeting with the Finance Minister on April 20, BJP members of Parliament reportedly expressed deep anxiety that their constituencies would react adversely to the bitter medicine administered in the Budget. Yashwant Sinha, for his part, insisted that he could not afford to review the cuts in food and fertilizer subsidies, since that would only stimulate a rash of sectional demands which would be difficult to resist.
In a Budget that was widely characterised as being colourless and unimaginative, Yashwant Sinha had a sense of proprietorial pride over five specific initiatives. Among these the curtailment of subsidies occupied a position of some importance, together w ith a half-hearted rationaliisation of excise duties, a liberalisation of imports, the imposition of taxes on export earnings and the revision of interest rates on small savings deposits. Acceding to the demand for a roll-back of the first of these suppo sed achievements would have made him vulnerable to similar demands on other fronts. That would have effectively reduced the Budget to a meaningless exercise.
However, as the first week of the resumed Budget session drew to a close with the prospect of a coordinated assault from the Opposition, that increasingly was the prospect confronting the beleaguered Finance Minister. The BJP's partners in governance hel d out adequate assurances that they would not be a party to Opposition moves to amend key provisions of the Budget. There was talk of coordinating the parliamentary strategies of all the allies to ensure that the government faced no prospect of losing a vote on a financial matter. But certain concessions from the Finance Minister were beginning to be seen as unavoidable, to secure the whole-hearted cooperation of all the BJP's allies. If not a full-fledged rollback, then at least a partial one was begin ning to appear almost inevitable.
THE Vajpayee Government is disinclined to see much more time being spent in ensuring the passage of the Budget. It has chalked out an ambitious legislative agenda for the residual portion of the Parliament session and needs all available time to ensure a t least its partial fulfilment. Among the Bills that are scheduled to be introduced, two have a bearing on the country's participation in World Trade Organisation councils - the Industrial Designs (Amendment) Bill and the Plant Varieties Protection Bill.
These apart, the government proposes to move an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure, which will in effect restore some of the key enabling provisions of the now lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, or TADA. This is a matte r on which there are understandable reservations across the political spectrum, since TADA was allowed to lapse only because it had become an instrument of indiscriminate violence against certain vulnerable sections.
Among the other Bills that the government has committed itself to introducing are one pertaining to the citizen's right to obtain information of public concern from official agencies. Although it is learnt that the proposed Bill is severely limited in it s scope by the number of exemptions that have been inscribed into it, advocacy groups that have been fighting for the right to information believe that there is some purpose served from bringing the issue into the realm of public debate.
Another priority area for the government is broadcasting. Since it swears by the promise of the ICE-age industries (representing information technology, communications and entertainment respectively), the government believes that it needs to enact a comp rehensive and updated law on broadcasting to establish its own credibility. All previous efforts have been stalled by the untrammelled play of various kinds of vested interests. Indeed, the BJP's own ideologues have been instrumental in reversing much of the progress that was achieved in broadcasting reform under the United Front government. But the new broadcasting law, if and when it sees the light of day, is less likely to be concerned with issues of autonomy than with commerce.
A matter of immediate priority for the government would be to follow up on repeated assurances it has made to enact a constitutional amendment that will enable reservations in promotions in government service for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes . The matter was reaffirmed as recently as April 17 by the Prime Minister as he addressed a Dalit rally in Delhi. It is unlikely that any party would make bold to overtly oppose this proposal. But the ranks of the BJP itself are teeming with resentment a t the move.