Embattled Indian govt defends record in pre-poll budget

NEW DELHI, Feb 17, 2014 (AFP) - India's embattled government said Monday it had lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty as it announced an interim budget ahead of elections that it is widely tipped to lose.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram trumpeted the Congress-led government's achievements during its decade in office, as he presented the budget to cover spending until the general elections due by May.

Struggling to be heard above protesting lawmakers, Chidambaram steered clear of a populist spending spree to win over voters, despite almost certain defeat at the polls to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Chidambaram said the fiscal deficit would be contained at 4.6 per cent of gross domestic product in the current financial year, beating his own target of 4.8 per cent.

The minister estimated that the fiscal deficit would shrink further to 4.1 per cent in the next financial year.

"I can confidently assert that the fiscal deficit is declining, the current account deficit is constrained, inflation is moderated; exchange rate is stable," the minister told the parliament.

"All of this is a result of hard work, my mother and Harvard (University) taught me the value of hard work," he said.

"I reject the argument of policy paralysis," he added.

"Let history be the judge of the last 10 years."

Asia's third largest economy is facing the worst economic slowdown in a decade, with growth at 4.5 per cent last year, along with shrinking manufacturing, poor jobs growth and stubbornly high inflation.

Opinion polls show the Congress party headed for defeat at the elections, with voters disenchanted by a string of corruption scandals as well as perceived mismanagement of the economy and policy paralysis.

But Chidambaram said the government had successfully steered India through the global economic slowdown, before listing a string of domestic achievements, including helping the poor and hiking food production.

"Our greatest achievement is lifting 140 million people out of poverty," he told lawmakers, some of whom were angrily chanting against plans to create a new state in the country's southeast.

"Only a handful of countries were able to keep their heads above the water (because of the global slowdown) and India was one of them."

In an attempt to boost India's slumping manufacturing sector, he announced a cut in excise duties for the car industry, including for SUVs from 30 per cent to 24 per cent and from 12 per cent to eight per cent for other vehicles.

In other measures, he announced a 10 per cent spending increase for the defence sector, to boost pensions for retiring personnel, as well as a moratorium for students paying back soft loans.

India's economy grew at just 4.5 per cent last year, far below the near double-digit growth enjoyed in the past decade.

On Monday the minister forecast growth of 4.9 per cent in the current financial year which ends March 31.

While cutting expenditure to lower the fiscal deficit is a standard procedure worldwide, rolling back the government's presence can also hurt growth in a country with widespread poverty and scant infrastructure, analysts say.