THE PRESENTATION OF the Budget is a day of spectacle and tradition. It begins with cameramen and journalists pursuing a man with a leather briefcase as though he might trip and spill its content. It is a route everyone knows well, from his residence to the North Block office by 9 am, through the Rashtrapati Bhavan for a quick sit-down with the President, and finally to Parliament House sometime before 11 am, where on the hallowed steps of the institution, he will pose for pictures. Meanwhile, industrialists and analysts elsewhere would have gathered around a screen as though watching a marquee match unfold. Here, they spend all morning in speculation over the contents of the briefcase, and, once revealed, engage in lengthy exegetical performances.
However, at the end of it, the Budget is but a dense and dour subject. Hundreds and thousands of dry and dreary numbers and words set on several hundred pages. Cold, unfeeling numbers and the dismal details of a government’s fiscal plans for revenue and spending. Newspapers the next day take recourse to puns, graphics and images to jazz up its details. But to the man of the hour, the Finance Minister, all he has is his speech, the arithmetic often leavened with humour, wit and literary references, some of them verses from many centuries ago, that illuminate his proposals. Saints, philosophers and poets, they have all figured as signposts to the Government’s approach to economic matters. Such flourishes are usually met with either heavy protest or thunderous applause, establishing that the Budget is not just numbers and fiscal jargon. It is really the blueprint of the future, and, as John Mathai, India’s second Finance Minister had expressed in his only budget speech in 1950, a “human document” of its time.
The hand that nailed Jesus to the Cross reached out of the evil recesses of history once again and slew the latest in the line of prophets. In Mahatma Gandhi the world has lost an uplifting standard
The earliest budgets were grim affairs that reflected the horrors of Partition and the pains of acute poverty. But like the leaders of the time, they were heavy on literary aspirations, exercises really in faith and the hope of language. The first Union Budget of India, an interim one since it was being tabled just three months from the 1948-49 Budget, was presented by RK Shanmukham Chetty. It was mostly a review of the economy with no new taxes proposed. The estimated revenue was just a paltry Rs 171.15 crore and the revenue expenditure, Rs 197.39 crore. At one point, Chetty added, “There is nothing spectacular about my statement and there will be no surprises associated with a Budget.” But despite the small figures and the fiscal pains of a newborn country, Chetty’s speech to Parliament and the country brimmed with hope and ambition. “...We feel like the pilgrim who drags his weary limbs finally to the mountain top only to find higher peaks stretching before his eyes,” he said. “It is by no means the journey’s end and the night falls and engulfs him in darkness. And like him, we are inspired to pray in the spirit of the favourite hymn of Mahatma Gandhi Lead Kindly Light. The next step is enough for us if it is illuminated by the star of our ambition and fortified by the faith in our destiny.” In the next Budget, little had changed. “There has been no material change in the general economic conditions in our own country,” Chetty remarked, “The dislocation caused by the mass migration of people between Western Pakistan and India still remains to be surmounted and only the fringe of the problem of rehabilitating the millions of people who have crossed over to India has so far been touched.” Gandhi had been assassinated barely a month earlier, and it cast a long shadow on the speech. “The hand that nailed Jesus to the Cross reached out of the evil recesses of history once again and slew the latest in the line of prophets,” Chetty said. The tradition of finance ministers delving into literature may have begun when he quoted George Bernard Shaw as saying, ‘Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination.’ “In Mahatma Gandhi,” he added, “the world has lost an uplifting standard, our nation its Founding Father, and each one of his friend, philosopher and guide.”
While space travel beckons to us and the vast expanses of the universe almost appear to be in our reach, the horizon of our minds is limited by fear and the shadow of terrible disaster hangs over us
Chetty was succeeded by CD Deshmukh and later TT Krishnamachari. After the latter was accused of a corruption scandal, Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister to also hold the Finance portfolio. Presenting the 1958-59 Budget, Nehru’s speech was frank and contemplative, a classic. “In the circumstances that we face today, I can only present before this House, what might be called a pedestrian budget,” he said. “...While space travel beckons to us and the vast expanses of the universe almost appear to be in our reach, the horizon of our minds is limited by fear and the shadow of terrible disaster hangs over us. How can we and others raise ourselves above fear and hatred and the petty conflicts that are so out of place in the new world that is taking shape? How can we in India function with courage and unity and grasp with strong hands and stout hearts at this future?... This Budget statement is a minor event in our march forward. We have to look at it in the perspective of what we have to do and what we have to achieve.”
The 1980s were dull in comparison. Most governments had absolute majorities. And finance ministers, lacking the flamboyance of the earlier generation and the literary efforts of later ones, sought inspiration from the usual subjects. Every finance minister quoted either the Prime Minister or past leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi being favourites, with Mahatma Gandhi occasionally slipping in. ND Tiwari, the butt of several later jokes, presented what came to be known as the ‘Sindoor’ Budget in 1988, for the astonishing level of detail it had on exempting a variety of products, including sindoor and kajal, of excise duty. His speeches were filled with effusive praise and quotes of Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, with Nehru getting a word or two. Populist and unimaginative, the speeches were exceptionally dull.
Yunaan-o-Misr-o-Roma, sab mitt gaye jahaan se/ Ab tak magar hai baaki, naam-o-nishan humaara (Greece, Egypt, Rome have vanished all/But our name and glory live on)
By now, they were also becoming extremely long. Pranab Mukherjee’s 1982 speech went on for an hour and 35 minutes, leading Indira Gandhi to remark, “The shortest Finance Minister has delivered the longest Budget speech.” But Parliament, as they say, hadn’t heard anything yet. Jaswant Singh clocked two hours and 13 minutes when he finished his 15,081-word marathon for fiscal 2003-04. In word-length, he came close to his predecessor Yashwant Sinha, who went on for 15,882 words just the year before. Indira Gandhi was not around to take note, but for his 2012-13 Budget, Pranab Mukherjee’s swansong, he droned on to cross over 14,000 words. The stamina record, though, has been reset since. Three years ago, in his first Budget speech, Arun Jaitley went on for over two hours and 15 minutes, including a short break to recover from exhaustion and a poor back, to deliver a 16,536-word epic.
GIVEN THE LONG span of attention demanded of those listening, comic relief is arguably as crucial as taxation relief. Back in 1973, YB Chavan, who raised taxes on cigarettes in a couple of his budgets said, “There comes perhaps a time in the life of every smoker when the concern for his own health begins to outweigh the loyalty to an old and faithful companion. For those who cannot shake off their consuming passion, there is at least the consolation that the more taxes they pay, the more they serve the common cause.” Cigarettes evoked a light moment in Rajiv Gandhi’s only Budget speech in 1987 as well. “In looking for more revenue, I have to fall back on the ever dependable and reliable friend of finance ministers and the certified enemy of health ministers.” He also switched from the old system of basing the excise rate on the printed price of cigarette packets to the length of cigarette sticks, as it is today.
Let me assure you that it would be our endeavour to support the entertainment industry Dil Se (from our heart), and I am sure that no longer would the industry have to ask the Government Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (who am I to you)?
The 90s saw not just the arrival of coalition governments and powerful regional satraps, with intense criticism of fiscal policies, but also a bloom of literary references in budgets. Finance ministers began to look at poetry and literary texts to make their points. They joked and sparred.
Budgets brought out a wry humour and yen for sher-o-shaiyari even in the usually reticent Manmohan Singh. He quoted poets. “Yunaan-o-Misr-o-Roma, sab mitt gaye jahaan se/Ab tak magar hai baaki, naam-o-nishan humaara (Greece, Egypt, Rome have vanished all/But our name and glory live on).” He joked. “This is in gratitude to the East for providing a home to a homeless Finance Minister,” referring to Assam, which elected him to the Rajya Sabha. And at a time when he was often accused of bowing to diktats of the World Bank, he once remarked during a Budget speech, “I am doing this under pressure from WB, and WB is not World Bank but West Bengal.” His most unforgettable quote, of course, was made in 1991 when the economy was thrown open. “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come,” he said, citing Victor Hugo.
Just as one plucks fruits from a garden as they ripen, so shall a King have revenue collected as it becomes due. Just as one does not collect unripe fruits, he shall avoid taking wealth that is not due because that will make the people angry and spoil the very sources of revenue
A few finance ministers since have almost become patrons of some philosophers and sources. Pranab Mukherjee would quote Kautilya, the strategist of Chandragupta Maurya, in almost all his speeches. He once compared tax collectors to honeybees gathering nectar without disturbing the flower. In 2009, he quoted Kautilya to say, “Just as one plucks fruits from a garden as they ripen, so shall a King have revenue collected as it becomes due. Just as one does not collect unripe fruits, he shall avoid taking wealth that is not due because that will make the people angry and spoil the very sources of revenue.” P Chidambaram also liked to quote from ancient Indian texts, his favourite being the Tamil saint-poet Thiruvalluvar. In 2007, he said, “Uzhavinar kai madangin illai vizhaivathoom vittame enbarkum nilai (If ploughmen keep their hands folded, even sages claiming renunciation cannot find salvation).”
The BJP-led NDA governments’ finance ministers have not been found lacking. Yashwant Sinha quoted the poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in 1998. “Rise O’ warrior, march ahead undaunted. You are the Creator of future history. The stars of the dark night are fading. The whole sky belongs to you.” The following year, while announcing budgetary sops for the film industry, he peppered his speech with cinema titles. “Let me assure you that it would be our endeavour to support the entertainment industry Dil Se (from our heart), and I am sure that no longer would the industry have to ask the Government Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (who am I to you)?” he quipped. Two years later, he did it again. “It is time we brought about a fiscal regime to usher in more Khushi (happiness) and take away the remaining Gham (sadness) from the entertainment industry. Filhal (for now), I shall have more to say on this in Part B of my speech.” Jaswant Singh, presenting his first and only Budget in 2003, said, “It is not for nothing that even Albert Einstein had ruefully observed that he found ‘Income Tax the most difficult thing upon Earth to understand’.”
Nayi duniya hai, naya daur hai, nayi umang hai/Kuchh thhe pehle ke tareeke, toh hain kuchh aaj ke dhang/Roshni aake andheron se jo takraegi/Kaale dhan ko bhi badalna pada, aaj apna rang (There’s a new world, new era, new hope/there were old ways, and there are new/when darkness collides with light/even black money has to change colour)
The current Finance Minister, since his 2014 marathon speech, which was detailed and substantial but lacking in the lighter touch of his predecessors, has also begun to keep things breezy. He took a dig at the previous dispensation with a couplet. “Kuchh toh phool khilaaye humne, aur kuchh phool khilaane hain. Mushkil yeh hai bagh mein ab tak, kaante puraane hain (Some flowers have blossomed under us and many more are to come. The difficulty is that the garden still has thorns of the past).” And last year, when Parliament began its Budget day proceedings on a discordant note, with Congress and Left members pressing for a privilege motion against Smriti Irani over her comments on the JNU and Rohith Vemula issues, Jaitley helped change the mood a bit with an Urdu couplet: “Kashti chalaane waalon ne jab haar kar di patwaar hamein, Lehar-lehar toofan mile aur mauj-mauj majhdhaar hamein, Phir bhi dikhaya hai humnein aur phir yeh dikha denge sabko, inn halaat mein aata hai dariya paar karna humein (When the boat’s sailors handed the oars to us, we encountered storms and rough weather, but we’ve demonstrated and we will still show everyone that we know how to get across in conditions like this).”