New Delhi: Seizing on a 'disconnect' between the budgets presented by former finance minister and now President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, just last year and the one presented by P Chidambaram this year, the Opposition turned the knife where it knew the government would not be able to defend itself: Two lines in the finance minister's Budget speech.
"In the Budget of 2012-13, the estimate of Plan expenditure was too ambitious and the estimate of non-plan expenditure too conservative," Chidambaram had said in his speech, in the context of government spending. He added: "Wisdom lies in finding the correct level of government expenditure." Interpreting this as implied criticism of the previous finance minister's handling of the economy, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Venkaiah Naidu said: "The government is the same. The prime minister is the same. So, was the government right then (in 2012-13)? Or is it right now (in 2013-14)? Pranab babu deserves better."
Overall, the Opposition was unanimous in its criticism: That the 2013-14 Budget had nothing for the poor, very little for farmers and relied on tokenism for the benefit of women. Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha said it was a Budget that would, in fact, push up costs for the poor, especially when read in conjunction with the railway budget, which visualised an increase in freight rates, with concomitant effects on the cost of commodities transported by rail.
Sinha said four challenges - fiscal deficit, price rise, current account deficit and reviving investment - found hardly any remedial treatment in the Budget. Instead, there was excessive reliance on foreign investment.
The Budget was also slammed by two of the government's important allies - Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi party (SP). Speaking to Business Standard, SP MP from Kannauj, Dimple Yadav, said: "There should have been much more for farmers. It is not an effective Budget."
BSP leader Mayawati said though the allocations for the underprivileged, especially scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes, had been increased, the money never reaches the states. "The government has tried to give an impression that by taxing the rich, it is pro-poor. But, its other policies are anti-people," Mayawati said referring to the new surcharge on the rich.
In contrast, several Congress leaders, including Jairam Ramesh, who was anticipating a big cut in his rural development budget but has got a hike upwards of 40 per cent, were pleased. The finance minister made it clear that the criteria for ascertaining "backwardness" would be redefined - a long-standing demand of the rural development minister.
Minister of State for Home R P N Singh said Chidambaram had kept his balance in the "tightrope walk". Singh tweeted: "A Budget which is inclusive yet focuses on sustainable growth. Highlights are the emphasis on women, the young and the poor. Proud of our FM."
Congress leaders across the board outrightly rejected the Opposition charge that it was a populist "Budget targeted at the polls". Congress leader Ambika Soni, while describing the Budget as "progressive" and growth-oriented, wondered how only 42,800 people in the entire country had admitted to being under the super-rich tax bracket. "There will be many more than that number in south Delhi alone," said Soni. In her view, more people in the super-rich bracket needed to be brought under that tax net.
Law Minister Ashwani Kumar welcomed the "social upliftment initiatives" in the Budget, as well as the first public sector women's bank and the Nirbahaya fund. He said such measures were reflective of the United Progressive Alliance's focus on women and the girl child.
Congress leader Oscar Fernandes welcomed the initiatives for farmers and the farming sector in the area of finance and credit - agricultural credit target has been raised to Rs 7 lakh crore. In addition to that, private sector scheduled banks would now give agricultural loans and farmers can avail of the benefits of interest subvention.
Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi's pet concerns - rural development and youth - also got a fillip.
While the Opposition described it as a 'lacklustre' Budget, Congress leaders, from states as well, were confident that the aam aadmi sops like the Rs 10,000 crore for the Food Security Bill and the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme to be rolled out across the country by 2014 would all help them in the countdown to the polls.