“I must be cruel only to be kind,” Minister says, quoting Shakespeare to blunt the edge of tax plan impact

It wasn't the most propitious beginning for the presentation of the budget.

As soon as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee rose to read out his speech on Friday, Opposition MPs jumped to their feet to protest against the slashing of Employees Provident Fund interest by 1.25 per cent a day earlier, a decision that will hit more than 4.7 crore subscribers.

Basudeb Acharia of the CPI(M), Gurudas Dasgupta of the CPI, Murli Manohar Joshi and Gopinath Munde of the BJP and Anant Geete of the Shiv Sena were among those who expressed their unhappiness. But Speaker Meira Kumar succeeded in restoring order soon, reminding MPs that they must not interrupt the Finance Minister who was “performing his constitutional duty.”

As Mr. Mukherjee resumed his speech, all eyes were on the Trinamool Congress contingent. While the Ministers among them sat on the Treasury Benches, the others were scattered, with actress-MP Satabdi Roy arriving late. The man of the moment, Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi, arrived to warm greetings from Congress colleagues: he sat in the front row, next to Home Minister P. Chidambaram, still uncertain about his future. But belying all expectations, the Trinamool MPs sat silent — and subdued — all through Mr. Mukherjee's 110-minute speech.

The Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh, to whom the Congress is again looking for “committed support,” in view of its on-again, off-again relationship with the Trinamool, was expected to attend the budget speech. But he failed to show up; his seat in the front row remained vacant. But when the word ‘cycle' occurred in Mr. Mukherjee's speech as he announced an increase in basic customs duty on cycles from 10 to 30 per cent to boost the domestic industry, there was a buzz in the House: it is the Samajwadi Party's election symbol, which Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav made a household word as he rode his “cycle of hope” to power. That was “a subtle overture from Mr. Mukherjee to the Samajwadi Party,” some MPs joked later.

Barring the initial outburst over the EPF issue, the Finance Minister held the floor, the only interruption occurring when his microphone failed, and the Opposition MPs rose to point it out. Mr. Mukherjee demonstrated his puckish sense of humour when he was asked by Yashwant Sinha of the BJP to read out the previous two paragraphs as they had not heard them. “Of course,” said Mr. Mukherjee, “it will be a rollback of the speech.”

The Finance Minister also quoted from Shakespeare's Hamlet to blunt the edge of the impact of his tax proposals. “I must be cruel only to be kind,” he said, raising a ripple of laughter, adding: “Economic policy, like medical treatment, often requires us to do something which in the short run may be painful but is good for us in the long run.”

But despite the verbal flourishes and the occasional humour, the speech excited little response. Mr. Mukherjee's emphasis was on “growth with stability,” and revenue-generating measures. There were neither dramatic new reforms nor anything very new in the social sector. From time to time, Congress MPs dutifully broke into polite applause; once, when the Minister announced a hike in the outlay for the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana — launched during the BJP-led NDA's time in power — a couple of BJP MPs thumped their desks gingerly. Like last year, industrialist Rahul Bajaj in the VIP gallery and the former Revenue Secretary, N.K. Singh, in the Rajya Sabha gallery across the House, could, however, be seen furiously taking notes as the Finance Minister made his speech.

Clearly, Mr. Mukherjee did not expect to make a splash with his budget. For, he concluded his speech saying: “Whether or not today's announcements make tomorrow morning's headlines matters little, as long as they help in shaping the headlines that describe India a decade from now.”

More In: National | News