An attentive, model Lok Sabha heard the seasoned Pranab Mukherjee in silence on Monday, as he presented his sixth Union Budget in a speech that ran for an hour and fifty minutes. It was almost as though MPs across the political spectrum had taken to heart the Finance Minister's homily on parliamentary decorum, which he had made on the day he moved the motion for the setting up of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the 2G spectrum scam.
Of course, Mr. Mukherjee's speech was interrupted occasionally, but it was all very parliamentary. Close to a dozen times, polite applause broke out, largely from the ruling party benches, in appreciation of increased allocations for social-sector schemes or agriculture. Subjects flagged by the Congress MPs included the direct transfer of cash subsidy to the poor for kerosene, LPG and fertilizers, the new Women's Self Help Groups Development Fund, a hike in the interest subvention for farmers who repaid crop loans on time, enhanced salaries for Anganwadi workers, increased allocations for the welfare of Primitive Tribal Groups, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Backward Regions Grants Fund, lowering the age for old-age pensions and instituting an ex-gratia compensation for Defence and paramilitary personnel killed or disabled while tackling Maoists.
Evidently, all these issues are seen as vote-getters, unlike the slew of financial sector reforms that Mr. Mukherjee promised to take forward, but which left the House cold. Of course, industrialist Rahul Bajaj in the VIP gallery and the former Revenue Secretary, N.K. Singh, in the Rajya Sabha gallery across the House could be seen furiously taking notes as the Finance Minister made his speech.
The Opposition, occasionally, made its presence felt through mild expressions of protest — an unappreciative murmur from the BJP benches when an additional allocation for Jammu and Kashmir's development needs was announced, cries of “shame, shame” from the Biju Janata Dal when the undertaking of a separate caste-based census was confirmed, mild derision when Mr. Mukherjee recounted details of the government's efforts to tackle black money and corruption through a Group of Ministers looking into the issue, and cries of “chunav, chunav” (elections, elections) when he announced new Aligarh Muslim University campuses in West Bengal's Murshidabad, and Kerala's Malappuram. .
Very few light moments
On the whole, Mr. Mukherjee permitted himself very few light moments: when he announced that the old-age pension for those over 80 would be increased from Rs.200 to Rs.500, he quickly added that he himself had a few years to go to touch 80. Everyone, but the octogenarian Working President of the National Democratic Alliance L.K. Advani, appeared amused.
At the outset, while seeking the blessings of the gods — Indra for “timely and bountiful monsoons' and Lakshmi for greater wealth — he said, “I think it is a good strategy to diversify one's risks.” A ripple of laugher ran through the House when he said a little later: “Honourable members must be wondering why all new projects have been allocated Rs.300 crore. It is because number three is lucky for me.”