The day Chidambaram held the nation in thrall

February 29th, 2008 - 8:46 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of P. Chidambaram
By Monobina Gupta
New Delhi, Feb 29 (IANS) P. Chidambaram is a smart man who blends his Tamil sartorial taste with an appetite for economic reforms. As he presented his fifth and last budget of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, he was, just for the whole of this day, what Shah Rukh Khan is to the people of India the rest of the year. So what if the minister does not have the actor’s six-pack abs to flaunt. He has something that makes the nation tick. The key to the purse of its people, the mathematical solutions that can send them sprinting to the mall to do some more shopping.

There was a dramatic change of mood in parliament between the time the finance minister unveiled the budget and by the time he turned the last page of the dossier. The stodgy grey changed to bright rainbow colours.

There was little cheer when Chidambaram began the exercise with the gloom of an international recession and the dipping domestic growth rate hovering in the air. The finance minister is no Lalu Prasad who, two days ago, had unveiled the railway budget with his usual flamboyance, tickling the audience with his homespun, rustic English.

For the first 30 minutes of his presentation Chidambaram plodded on, sloughing through the tepid response, if any at all, of the MPs. But this was when he dwelt on the money his government is going to pump into education and health - the ‘two pillars’ - of the social sector. But the announcement did not excite the MPs because neither education nor health is considered to be a subject that can spin out votes.

Chidamabaram, regardless of the trenchant criticism he faces from his government’s Left allies, is more in the mould of a welfare economist. Like the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. The minister believes a buoyant education and health system is the bedrock - the only guarantee for cushioning the hard impact of a globalised economy.

Preparing seven union budgets is enough hard work that can hone your skills to perfection. Chidamabaram, during the earlier United Front government’s tenure, drew up two union budgets. Even then he was engaged in a ‘cat and mouse’ game with the Left parties, which had a more strident anti-liberalisation stance than now.

Friday’s budget was critical both for the UPA government and the minister himself because it is the last in a row of five budgets. Both seem to have pulled it off. The minister broke the lull in the Lok Sabha when he came to the ‘poll-friendly’ parts of the budget: the loan waiver scheme for farmers, particularly for the small and the marginal ones.

The opposition, sniffing victory for the UPA, was offended. BJP members leapt to their feet protesting even as the Congress members were grinning like Cheshire cats. The minister knows the loan waiver is a ‘vote-catcher’ - something the UPA can take to the electorate as a trophy, when it goes to the polls next year.

His next highlight came in the income tax concessions he gives to the salaried sections, particularly the women. The middle class is happy.

By the time the minister came to the last word on his financial dossier, the mood changed from lackadaisical to ebullient. India’s farmers and white collar middle class liked his last signature tune. Believed to be a chocoholic, a man who cannot resist chocolates, Chidambaram sure is going to enjoy a special one today.

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