New Delhi: The Congress indicated its willingness to stare down both allies and rivals opposed to some of the Union Budget’s tough measures, with the party’s president Sonia Gandhi saying the government needed money to fund its social development agenda.
“We have many essential social obligations and to meet them, it is necessary to raise resources. I congratulate the finance minister for a fine and delicate balancing act, which has been widely welcomed,” Gandhi told her party’s representatives in Parliament during a Congress parliamentary party meeting on Thursday. Referring to the briefing the party’s representatives had been given on the Budget, she added: “I am sure this input will help you in countering the Opposition’s propaganda.”
Gandhi indicated there would be no rollback in the government’s decision to restore the basic duty of 5% on crude petroleum and 7.5% on diesel and petrol, leading to an increase in the prices of the fuels—a rise that prompted the opposition parties to walk out of the House during finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s Budget speech.
Apart from its main rivals the Left parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party, two of the Congress’ key allies the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC), as well as other parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party have been demanding that the government roll back the increase in fuel prices.
Both the DMK and the TMC, however, have said that they will not exit the United Progressive Alliance government on this count. Their exit could bring down the government.
A senior leader of the Congress said that his party was confident it could muster the numbers as the DMK and the TMC were with it. If they weren’t, added this person who did not want to be identified, given the seriousness of the issue, then the two parties should be prepared to face fresh elections.
The Congressman admitted that even with this support, it would only have a thin majority. The Congress has 208 members in the 545-member Lok Sabha, 65 short of absolute majority. He said the party had the support of around 276 representatives, without including those from parties that are not part of the alliance.
An analyst said that the Congress’ behaviour shows it is past the stage of being blackmailed by allies.
“The Opposition as well as allies want more allocation for agriculture, education and health. How would the government make the money? The Prime Minister or the finance minister is not a magician who can waive a magic wand to create millions for funding the schemes. At the end of the day people would rate the government on the basis of what it has done for them,” said B.G. Varghese, political analyst and visiting professor at Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.
The Congress also indicated that it would not bend on the issue of women’s reservation Bill, a long-pending legislation to provide 33% reservation for women in Parliament and legislative assemblies.
Despite strong objections from the RJD and the SP over the proposed Bill, Gandhi said in her speech on Thursday that the Bill, which has been cleared by the cabinet last week, would be taken up in Parliament on 8 March, which is International Women’s Day. “What a gift to the women of India, if on this important day this historic legislation is introduced and passed,” she said.
RJD chief Lalu Prasad said his party would not “tolerate” the Bill, while the SP’s Akhilesh Singh Yadav said his party was opposed to the Bill in its present form because it wants a separate norm on reservation for women from other backward classes.
Law minister M. Veerappa Moily told reporters that the government is unlikely to make any changes to the Bill.