After Pinarayi's assertion, it is wise to shed any hope of a fuel cess rollback

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. File photo: Manorama

Two rival gangs fighting each other during a village festival is a common occurrence. After a long and intense, sometimes even bloody, fight they somehow break away from each other and go their separate ways to resume the fight later.

At this point, during this temporary ceasefire, some mischievous elements in one group would burst a loud cracker, not to cause any harm but simply for the fun of watching the members of the rival gang jump in fright.

It was this 'fun cracker' that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan detonated at the back of the UDF on Thursday evening. Finance minister K N Balagopal's refusal to withdraw the fuel cess and other levies had ostensibly provoked the UDF legislators to disrupt the Assembly proceedings on Thursday (January 9) and vow to take the fight to the people.

The Chief Minister's press conference late on Thursday had the effect of jeering at the UDF just when they least expected it. The Chief Minister merely repeated his finance minister, he said nothing new. The only difference was, Pinarayi used a far more provocative and mocking tone.

Like the gang member who gets some wild unholy glee from watching his rival members freeze in fright at the unexpected explosion, the Chief Minister seemed to delight in the possibility of infuriating the opposition.

Pinarayi joked that the media should not have led the opposition into such a trap. The finance minister had on February 8 told the Assembly that the UDF had started its agitation after the media said the government was working on reducing the cess.

Representational image
Representational image. Photo: Reuters

"Reading what you people wrote, they believed that we would reduce the cess by one rupee," Pinarayi said, laughing as if he just saw a rival slip over a banana skin.

He simply could not stop laughing even when he was told that while in opposition he had urged people not to pay the additional tax imposed during the UDF tenure. Neither was he caught off guard nor was he in the least provoked by the question.

He even started to rationalise what he said at an earlier time. "The circumstances during the UDF tenure...," he began but was seemingly so amused by the plight of the UDF that he thought the better of it. There was not enough time to press Vijayan further on the issue either.

Even if he was made to answer, such was his mood that Pinarayi would have probably said he had fooled the previous UDF government and continued laughing.

A village gang member's wily cracker burst from behind is intended not only to get some cheap laughs. It is also a message that the gang has nothing but contempt for the rival, and that it was unwilling for a compromise.

Through his presser, the Chief Minister, too, was telling the opposition to do whatever they can but none of what they do can force the government to move an inch backwards.

Finance Minister KN Balagopal. File Photo: Manorama Online

The Chief Minister also wove a compelling anti-BJP political narrative to back the two-rupee cess, though it was something the finance minister had already articulated.

He said it was the Centre's vindictive attitude that had forced Kerala to make such a decision. He reeled out numbers to demonstrate the manner in which the Centre was constructing Kerala's fiscal space.

He said the Centre had reduced the borrowing limit of states. He said the Centre was including the loans taken by off-budget entities like KIIFB in Kerala's borrowing limit,thereby further narrowing Kerala's open market borrowing. He said the Centre's share in Centrally Sponsored Schemes were coming down steeply.

The Chief Minister also picked out figures from budget documents to show that Kerala's debt position was getting better and that its revenues were on an upswing. "We are not in a debt trap as the opposition says," he said. "If we were inefficient, how did our revenues go up commendably," he asked.

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