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Pranab tries arithmetic to impress southern voters

Saubhadra Chatterji  |  Chennai/ Thiruvananthapuram 

There’s not that much difference between reading the budget speech and campaigning for elections in South India for Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. While other top leaders of his party are talking on political issues, Mukherjee is churning out financial statistics to woo voters for the Congress.

The toughest challenge lies in Tamil Nadu, where his party’s own internal assessment concedes the Jayalalithaa-Vijayakanth combo has an edge. With its partner, the ruling DMK, facing corruption charges and A Raja, the party’s nominee in the UPA cabinet, in Delhi’s Tihar jail, the Congress is taking refuge in the financial health and pro-people measures of the Karunanidhi government to defend the title. Mukherjee said at the state Congress headquarters, “Between 2005-06 and 2009-10, the fiscal deficit of Tamil Nadu was 1.01, 1.61, 1.34, 3.01, 3.49 per cent, respectively. This government has done very well in financial management.”

In Thiruvananthapuram, Mukherjee compared the two communist-ruled states of Kerala and West Bengal, and said, “During the same period, Kerala’s fiscal deficit was 3.51, 2.28, 4.63, 3.85 per cent. In West Bengal, it was 4.07, 4.33, 3.86, 3.85 and 6.23, respectively.” Mukherjee also quoted the debt and gross state domestic product ratio and said, “While at the end of 2009-10 the national average of this ratio was 24.3, Kerala had 29.57 and West Bengal 38.05, respectively. These facts show, the Left doesn’t know how to run the state.”

The focus on statistics remained even at Karikklampakkam, a small village in the poll-bound Puducherry. At a colourful gathering of a Congress rally, Mukherjee said, “While the average GDP (annual growth) rate was 8.5 per cent during the past five years, Puducherry registered a 14 per cent average GDP rate!”

There was more applause for the minister, when he said, flanked by chief minister V Vaidyalingam and central minister V Narayanasamy: “If we come to power in Puducherry, everybody will get free mobiles and two-wheeler owners will get free helmets.”

He speaks of financial assistance up to '2 lakh for medical and engineering students and 50 per cent subsidy for women self-help Groups. But Congress supporters still remain doubtful, as a former Congress chief minister has turned into a rebel and floated his own party to cut the Congress vote.

For Tamil Nadu, the Congress is desperately trying to cover up the corruption issues and focus on social benefits given by the Karunanidhi government. “Freebies are socially important measures. The government has taken a lot of these measures for the weaker section, minorities, the scheduled caste population of the state,” says K V Thangkabalu, the state unit president of the party.

While Mukherjee is busy dishing out statistics, the Congress banks more on the fact that Jayalalitha and Vijayakanth have yet to share the dais in the campaign. Also, as a last-ditch argument, the Congress tries to point out that if the party and its allies are voted to power in this series of South Indian elections, “There will be better co-ordination, co-operation and implementation of schemes, as there is a Manmohan Singh government at the Centre.”

First Published: Mon, April 11 2011. 01:00 IST