Jangipur (West Bengal): The government plans to go ahead with its proposed so-called stimulus package for bus and truck makers, despite the general election that starts next month and stays its hand in terms of the ability to implement major initiatives such as this one.
To get around this, the government will seek the permission of the Election Commission (EC) to launch a scheme that will allow states to buy around 5,000 buses funded by the Centre’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), according to interim finance minister Pranab Mukherjee.
Although the scheme was announced last month, the polls were announced before it could be implemented. Governments cannot go ahead with significant policy initiatives in this period according to a code of conduct prescribed by EC because doing so could influence voters.
Roadshow: The external affairs and finance minister campaigning in the Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency of West Bengal on Friday. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“We will seek the EC’s permission so that the package could be executed. We cannot announce it, but we have already made allocations to different states. For example, we have allotted some 1,300 buses to West Bengal. So orders can be placed, and procurement can begin,” Mukherjee said in an interview.
Mukherjee, 73, who is also India’s foreign minister and the government’s preferred trouble shooter, also spoke about the efforts to manage the economy and tackle the growing threat of terrorism. Edited excerpts:
How do you rate your government’s performance in containing inflation and, now, in coping with the economic downturn?
The economy is growing steadily. Because of the financial crisis, there will be some impact. When we started our government, India used to buy crude petroleum at $37 (Rs1,854 today) a barrel, and in August 2008, it reached as high as $147 a barrel. So, it must get reflected in the rise of the prices of commodities. During the six year-tenure of NDA (the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government that was in power between 1999 and 2004, and which was succeeded by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government of which Mukherjee is a part), the minimum support price of wheat and paddy increased over a period of six years by Rs60-70—at an average rate of Rs10 a year. During the five years of UPA (government’s rule), we have increased the minimum support price of wheat by Rs450 per quintal, and for paddy, (by) Rs350 per quintal. You may say ‘Why have you increased it?’ We have increased it to ensure food security. That is why, when there was a major food crisis all over the world, India did not feel the pinch. But again, for a short while, say for a year, prices went high. And now it has started to come down.
It is because of the impact of global developments…recession is starting to affect (us) to some extent because there is no demand—there is no demand in the export market (and) demand in the domestic market has sunk. GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate has been brought down from 8.6% to around 7%. The question is whether the government is taking appropriate action or not.
Yes, the government has taken the appropriate action—(it has announced) three fiscal packages and a monetary package (has) been announced by the Reserve Bank (of India). Reserve Bank has created enough liquidity in the system. Banks can lend money, but there should be takers. But takers are a little shy…
The two stimulus packages that Prime Minister announced, and the third one, which I announced in my interim budget, will have an impact.
In between, election came… so, to some extent, there will be some delays.
The UPA has been criticized for being soft on terrorism.
As far as terrorism is concerned, I don’t subscribe to the view that the government failed. Terrorism is a global problem. It cannot be switched off (and) switched on. Simply the presence of strong law does not prevent terrorism. Tada (a previous anti-terrorism law that was repealed because it was repressive) was there. It did not prevent the attack on Parliament (in 2001). It did not prevent the attack on Srinagar Assembly (in 2001). Therefore, the short point is that (tackling) terrorism requires patience. It is a global phenomenon, and India has become the worst victim.
We told Pakistan (where some of the terrorist groups that have carried out attacks in India, such as the ones in Mumbai in November, are based) what we expect of them. It is not a question of India and Pakistan—there is no tension as such (between the two countries), but we want Pakistan to respect its own commitment that territories under its control will not be allowed to be used by terrorists.
That logically means that the infrastructure available there, which is being used by terrorists, should be dismantled. Perpetrators of terror attacks must be brought to justice. The fugitives must be handed over to India.
On the political front, you seem to be having problems keeping your allies together. In West Bengal, where you have joined hands with the Trinamool Congress, aren’t there dissident voices from within your own party?
Frankly speaking, this is nothing new in politics of coalition. Every political party has to face it. Until the other day, BJD (Biju Janata Dal, a regional party based in Orissa) was with the NDA. TDP (Telugu Desam Party, based in Andhra Pradesh) supported NDA’s government to the hilt till 2004, and Jayalalitha (leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu), …NDA could form government only because of her support. Hers was the last voice that clinched the magic number, but she withdrew support.
Still, we are trying to work it out (with allies)… (And) after the election, everything will depend on numbers. You know, political parties always are in talking terms with everybody, and that is the beauty of politics. We are political opponents, not enemies. In Bengal, some of our leaders feel we should have got a better deal, but at the same time we felt it (the alliance with the Trinamool Congress) is necessary because the Left Front has become really unpopular.
The mood of the people is they want to have a change. What struck me was that during the panchayat election, Congress workers at the grass-roots level entered into seat adjustments (with the Trinamool Congress) at the panchayat-level, panchayat samiti (committee)-level, and in a few cases, in the zilla parishad-level (all local administration bodies). The performance is reflective... So the conclusion was, there is a groundswell (of support) for this alliance and as a political party we cannot ignore it.
I do hope that they (Congress leaders in West Bengal) will recognize the logic. Also, the Trinamool leader’s announcement that in the formation of government at the Centre, she will support secular, progressive, democratic forces is a big achievement. We will project Mamata (Banerjee) as the popular leader (in West Bengal)…we have no problem in doing that. We did it (in) 2001, we will do it again.
Do you see differences within the BJP (party leaders Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh have been sparring, for instance) helping the Congress?
The Congress always depends on its positive programmes not on the weakness of others. We have ruled this country on our own strength for 45 years (and) we have led a coalition for five years out of 60-plus years of our independence. It is not on somebody’s weakness—it speaks of the strength of the Congress. So the Congress will do much better this time compared with 2004, on its own strength, on its performance.