On Literary Dabs by Finance Ministers

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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The light touch

LITERARY FLOURISHES in the Budget speech are like the dabs of comic relief in the darkest tragedies of Shakespeare. Hamlet, for instance, which you wouldn’t really turn to for brightening up a gloomy day, has characters called Clowns, gravediggers who insert witticisms and jokes while disposing of bodies. The responsibility for inserting the literary touch in the Budget’s ocean of numbers is possibly the doing of Manmohan Singh. A cursory perusal of Budgets before his momentous 1991 liberalisation one shows little such predilection. The interim Budget a few months earlier by Yashwant Sinha or the preceding ones by Madhu Dandavate and SB Chavan are all as dry as a centenarian’s wrinkles.

It was also sparse with Manmohan Singh, just a touch or two, which is perhaps what made it so delicious in the middle of earthshaking policy changes. In 1991, it was a line by Victor Hugo saying, ‘No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come’. And then P Chidambaram brought in regional flavour in his dream Budget of 1996 where he took a snipe at the Opposition with these words, “What will we do without our critics? As Saint Tiruvalluvar said: ‘Idipparai Illatha Emara Mannan Keduppar Ilanum Kedum’ (Behold the King who reposeth not on those who can rebuke him/He will perish even when he hath no enemies).” From then on the practice just grew stronger. Yashwant Sinha, whose 1991 interim Budget was sans flourish, had swung around in his 1998 Budget with a line by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘You cannot cross the sea by standing and staring at the water’. Arun Jaitley was a serial couplet dropper in his Budgets. In 2015, he said, ‘Kuch to phool khilaye humne, aur kuch phool khilane hai / Mushkil yeh hai baag me ab tak, kaante kai purane hai’ (We have bloomed some flowers, some are yet to / the difficulty is that the garden still has thorns of the past). Next year, the lines had doubled to a Hindi poem on when the boatmen (read the previous Government), defeated, handed the oars to them, despite the storms they showed how to cross the river.

The literary flourish is mostly a political jab. It is unsurprising that Nirmala Sitharaman had a dollop of it while doing a balancing act of sorts. She had lines from Chanakya and Swami Vivekananada to appeal to the nationalist; an Urdu couplet for the party’s northern base and, for south India and to emphasise her own Tamil roots, verses from a Tamil Sangam-era work (translated by her as ‘a few mounds of rice from paddy that is harvested from a small piece of land would suffice for an elephant. But what if the elephant itself enters the field and starts eating? What it eats would be far lesser than what it would trample over!’). One wonders what would have happened if Manmohan Singh had decided on a joke instead of a literary line in 1991. It might have sparked a different tradition of mild levity, which wouldn’t have been all that bad for the middle class considering the shocks they receive in Budgets.

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