Whether their provisions spread cheer, gloom or even tedium, budget speeches in the Westminster tradition have always served as a platform for the display of good manners and wit. And what makes a particular budget memorable — apart from the odd essay where dramatic policy shifts are announced — is the thrust and parry between Finance Minister and Opposition. Even when the exchanges are not so scintillating, it is always possible to have a laugh about it later. Hartington’s 1881 speech in the House of Lords on Indian finances was so boring that he apparently yawned several times during its delivery and yawned again many years later when asked by a lady admirer to recall that session.
Pranab Mukherjee’s colourless delivery on Friday was neither so exciting nor so boring as to allow its mirthful recall even a few months from now. If, nevertheless, this budget is remembered in the future, it will be entirely for the gracelessness of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which led an Opposition walkout from Parliament even as the Finance Minister was reading his speech.
The walkout may be unprecedented in the annals of Indian parliamentary practice but it reflects the steady erosion of civilised norms that is taking place in virtually all situations where disagreement and difference are occasioned. Whether in culture, politics or even diplomacy, bans, boycotts and noisy protests are seen as a better and more effective way of expressing opposition — even when ample, and often structured, avenues for debate and argument are available.
In the old days, parliamentary jousting was all about the fine arts of humour, irony and sarcasm. In the hands of a skilled parliamentarian, an understatement delivered firmly on the floor of the House could be more lethal than the kind of rhetorical overkill Opposition leaders like Sushma Swaraj indulged in once they had stormed out of Parliament. In parliamentary politics, there is place for mass agitation, demonstrations, public protest and even the boycott of Parliamentary sessions as a tactic. But the issue on which the last weapon is used must be commensurate with its gravity, so that the public understands the logic of the Opposition rejecting a platform that was created precisely for the purpose of holding bad policies in check. And despite the popular dissatisfaction over inflation, the announcement of an increase in diesel and petrol prices is not seen as justification enough for the walkout.
The contrast with the Budget speech of 1991 couldn’t have been starker. Manmohan Singh was finance minister and his budgetary essay — which contained reform measures much more radical than the oil price hike Mr. Mukherjee announced yesterday — was listened to attentively by the Opposition. Specific measures were greeted not with a walkout but with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s sharp wit and repartee.
Had they been better prepared this year, the BJP and other parties could have found more decorous means of registering their dissatisfaction. But all they had in their armoury against the decimal of oil prices was decibel, which they used in ample measure to no avail.
Politically speaking, this is unfortunate. Mr. Mukherjee’s budget — and the sting of higher oil and fertiliser tariffs it brings — has been drafted for a year in which the Congress faces no major electoral test except Bihar — where its prospects are dim to begin with. The public needs a debate on the measures proposed and it needs an Opposition that can take on the government. If Friday’s walkout was spontaneous, the Government may still have a fight on its hands. But if it is an early indication of tactics the new Leader of the Opposition intends to employ, the public could well end up paying the price.