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Manpreet: The lone ranger
Ruchika M. Khanna
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, March 17
For someone who loves to read history to understand conflict between nations, Punjab finance minister, Manpreet Badal, seems to have learnt little in trying to resolve the conflicting interests of the coalition government he represents. Inspite of his well rehearsed rhetoric on the need for fiscal prudence in cash- starved Punjab, the ‘coalition dharma’ is apparently holding him back.

For the past four years, the people of Punjab have been looking up to the state finance minister, hoping that something positive to propel growth would emerge from his budgets… and each time they have been disappointed. His disillusionment with the scheme of things is not just writ large on his face, but is also reflected in each and every speech he makes. His predicament was best summed up by Congress MLA, Lal Singh, in the Assembly today. “Manpreet is like a caged lion. He can only roar”. Says Jassi Khangura, Congress MLA from Qila Raipur, “Manpreet is a well meaning guy, but if he fundamentally disagrees with the government decisions, he should quit”.

Apparently, whatever the finance minister proposes, his cabinet colleagues choose to dispose. His oft- repeated statements on reducing the total subsidy bill of the state government by 50 per cent, doing away with certain populist welfare schemes and need for austerity in government functioning, have met with strong disapproval by his own government. But even if he has failed to bring austerity within the government, he has introduced austerity measures in his personal life by refusing a huge security cover and chauffeur driven vehicles.

“I agree that I had a great opportunity at bringing fiscal prudence and my budget may not have been ideal in generating additional resources for the government. But in a coalition government, resource mobilization becomes a tricky affair. One has to walk the tight rope and come out with solutions amicable to all, in a coalition,” he told The Tribune at his tastefully furnished residence at Chandigarh’s ministerial row in Sector 2. Over the past three years, much to his well known displeasure, concessions worth Rs 1000 crore have been granted by the Akali- BJP government, by deviating from the VAT regime.

Badal agrees that in today’s time, people do not mind paying taxes provided the government is ready to provide the essential services of bijli, paani and sadak. “BiPaSa is on everyone’s agenda. But with limited resources at our disposal and a huge debt burden of Rs 64,924 crore, we have not been able to allocate as much funds as desired for improving infrastructure. Though the allocation under these heads has gone up over the years, we need much more funds at our disposal to have good infrastructure in place. However, we have made an effort to introduce green initiatives in the budget, allocating nearly Rs 400 crore to take an initiative for cleaning Punjab’s air, water and promote climate change,” he says.

Though the Finance minister refuses to be drawn into any conversation about differences with his cousin and deputy chief minister, Sukhbir Badal, it’s a well known fact in the political circles that he has been peeved at the way his suggestions on fiscal reforms have been treated by his cabinet colleagues. His exclusion from the two member resource mobilization committee, even as he holds the portfolio of Finance Minister, did not go down very well with him.

This committee, comprising of Sukhbir Badal and industries minister, Manoranjan Kalia, had recommended giving only partial subsidy to agriculture consumers, increasing VAT slabs, imposing abiana, and tax on DTH service among other things, to generate an additional Rs 1930 crore. Though Manpreet had himself recommended some of these measures on earlier occasions, it apparently needed the stamp of the Akali and BJP top brass to be finally implemented. “Its not important, whose suggestion has been implemented, as long as it is helping us generate more resources,” he says.

Not perturbed over the fact that the committee’s recommendations have taken the sting out of the budget- a prerogative of the finance minister, the 47 year old Manpreet preferred to spend a quite evening at his well stocked study, reading his favourite Urdu couplets. Today, too, he took out time in the afternoon (between the two assembly sessions) to take his octogenarian father for a medical check up, and checking on his uncle, chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s health. This is perhaps one of the reasons that even the Opposition is all praise for him.

Manpreet has always been different. A student at Delhi's St Stephen's college, joining politics was perhaps not on his agenda then as he went on to study law in England. His academic interests run deep and he has a massive library which he proudly shows to every visitor to his house. When a colleague ran into him at Delhi's Khan Market, he was busy looking for some books on military history. They had lunch together and when the colleague insisted on paying for it, Manpreet quipped: "My state may be broke, I am not!'

After presenting the budget Manpreet admitted:“I would have liked to do much more, but my hands are tied. However, I can claim some success in initiating steps to bring down the revenue deficit by as much as Rs 263 crores this year alone. Punjab may be under debt, but I am a proud Punjabi who will never seek favours and would prefer to repay his debt. Repayment of Punjab’s huge debt is going to be my focus for the next year,” he says. There is little doubt that Manpreet is well intentioned but it needs more than good intent to succeed.

FM’s Track Record

Budget 2010-11: Little attempt made to plug the revenue deficit in Punjab’s first “green budget”, with nearly Rs 400 crore reserved for cleaning state’s air, water and initiating climate change.

Budget 2009-10: Budget had no provision for additional revenue generation. Manpreet’s move to increase electricity duty, cess on VAT and abiana were stalled by the coalition partner, the BJP.

Budget 2008-09: Allocation for the power sector was increased by 100 per cent; allocation was almost 35 per cent of the plan outlay. But there was no focus on promoting industrial growth.

Budget 2007-08: Manifestation of SAD’s poll manifesto, with stress on curtailing expenditure and waiving the limit of owning minimum 10 acres for availing tractor loan. The budget ignored rural education, health and unemployment. 



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