New Delhi: The Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance is bracing for a tumultuous budget session as the opposition and some allies are set to attack the government that has been dogged by corruption scandals, a slowing economy and high inflation.
A fresh round of hikes in petrol and diesel prices by the government scrambling to reduce its fiscal deficit is only expected to add to the UPA’s discomfort in the crucial parliamentary session starting on 21 February.
Controversies over the alleged kickbacks in a helicopter purchase deal, the return of a sex scandal that named Rajya Sabha deputy chairman P.J. Kurien, and remarks of home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde on Hindu terrorism have vitiated the atmosphere ahead of the budget session. Corruption charges against UPA leaders have disrupted consecutive Parliament sessions in the past two years.
Even if the UPA government tries to improve the situation by presenting a populist budget, its effect might not last long, political analysts said.
“Whatever little bit of cushion the government creates now, even in the form of a populist budget, it will not last long and will have to be followed by harsh measures. Before those harsh measures need to be rolled out, the ruling party would like to close in on an election,” said political analyst Jai Mrug.
The UPA and the country cannot afford a populist budget now, according to T.V.R. Shenoy, journalist and political analyst. “This, along with the general atmosphere (against the UPA) and the controversies against Kurien and Shinde (who is the leader of the Lok Sabha), will make the Parliament session a tough session.”
To be sure, the government is trying to build bridges with the opposition. Parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath has promised that the government is willing to hold any kind of debate and inquiry into the defence kickback allegations. The government ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe last week after Giuseppe Orsi, chief executive officer of Finmeccanica SpA was arrested in Rome for allegedly paying kickbacks for the deal to sell helicopters to ferry VIPs.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties are not happy with a CBI probe alone. While the Left has sought a cancellation of the Rs.3,600 crore chopper deal, the BJP has demanded a Supreme Court-monitored probe.
The opposition parties also have also sought the resignation of Kurien on moral grounds for his alleged involvement in a sex scandal. Although Kurien, who has denied all charges, was once cleared by the Supreme Court, the victim, who was allegedly abducted and sexually exploited by different people in 1996 in Kerala, has recently sent a letter to the apex court seeking a review of its order clearing Kurien.
The opposition will also take on the government over the recent increase in fuel prices. Oil marketing firms have increased diesel and petrol prices by Rs.1.50 and 45 paise per litre, respectively, citing the increase in crude oil prices in international market.
“The BJP will make government accountable on the issues of price rise, economic development, corruption and helicopter scam in Parliament,” BJP’s deputy leader in Rajya Sabha Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
Tapan Sen, Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, said that while the Left parties will take up economic issues in the budget session, they will attack the Congress on both the helicopter deal scam and the controversy surrounding Kurien.
“Scam is a big area where slippage of revenue is happening and the helicopter deal is another name in the list,” Sen said. “These scams are being facilitated to benefit corporate houses and we will take up these issues in the budget session.”
Although the BJP had called for a boycott of Shinde in Parliament following his remarks that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, and the BJP are running terror camps, the focus seems to have shifted to the corruption scandals, especially after the 9 February hanging of 2002 Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru.
“Anything can happen any time,” Prasad said, while indicating that this could be the last budget session of the government and there could be an early general election.
The BJP had earlier said it was gearing up for early elections and new party president Rajnath Singh will give a message to party workers during the national executive and council meeting on 1-3 March in New Delhi.
Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav had earlier this month urged his party workers to start preparing for elections, saying that the UPA might go for polls by September.
Shenoy and Mrug also agreed.
“I think there will be elections towards the end of 2013,” said Shenoy.
The government has a heavy agenda for the three-month-long session. The budget will be presented on 28 February, the railway budget on 26 February and the economic survey will be tabled on 27 February. The food security Bill to provide subsidized food for the poor, the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, which has a direct impact on farmers as well as industrial projects, the Judicial Accountability Bill that has a provision to debar judges from making verbal comments against any constitutional authority in open courts and the anti-graft Lokpal Bill are expected to be passed in the session.
Sahil Makkar contributed to this story.