Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Congress banks on Budget to stem anger over scams, prices

NEW DELHI: Corruption and inflation, the bugbears of UPA-2, dominated discussions Congress functionaries held with finance minister Pranab Mukherjee amid expectations from the party that a populist Budget would help check the negative tide against the Centre. 

Party leaders are hoping specifically for income tax relief for the middle class and concessions for rural populace as the budgetary antidote to the negativity post-2G spectrum scam. 

Mukherjee assured his party that prices would come down by March. 

That the Opposition campaign on graft is playing on the government's mind was evident when Mukherjee opened discussions at AICC headquarters on Tuesday by explaining how the Centre had nothing to hide on black money but was bound by secrecy clause in treaties with countries which had supplied names of foreign bank account holders. He is likely to touch on the issue in his Budget speech. 

Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan stressed that corruption and inflation were the main issues concerning the common man and demanded measures to satisfy people. Ved Prakash, one of the joint secretaries, called for state funding of elections. 

On inflation, party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi demanded that essential commodities should be taken off forward trading. 

The twin concerns provide the backdrop for Union Budget 2011 on February 28 as Congress brass is working hard to counter an incessant stream of negative reports. A senior leader said the expectations from Budget reflected the thinking that the finance minister's offer to people will have an impact also on polls in five key states soon after. 

The leaders, who included senior partymen, office-bearers and ministers, flooded Mukerjee with demands for concessions for key social groups like minorities. AICC secretary Vivek Bansal cited Sachar Commission to demand that grants be hiked for schools run by Aligarh Muslim University, while Mohsina Kidwai and Shakeeluzzaman Ansari demanded a waiver on loans to weavers on the lines of amnesty to farmers. 

Partymen are hoping for I-T rebate and rationalization of tax slabs which they say will counter the negative perception about government among middle classes and the service sector by cushioning them from inflation. There was a demand for check on fuel price hike. 

Austerity, long identified by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi as a vehicle to people's hearts and to counter negative perceptions, found a strong mention. R K Dhawan asked why repeated diktats for party leaders to observe austerity, simplicity and to shun vulgar display fell on deaf ears. He demanded that ostentatious weddings be taxed. 

Sonia exhorted partymen at the recent plenary meeting to embrace austerity, a recurring feature with her addresses.

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