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Bards and the budgets, over the years

Most Finance Ministers seem to turn to verse to buttress their case colourfully

February 23, 2014 01:26 am | Updated May 18, 2016 10:19 am IST

As in the interim Union budget presented this week, Finance Ministers over the years have tried to embellish, sometimes even justify, their budgetary proposals by quoting from their muses. None has excelled in this more than the current incumbent, P. Chidambaram, who has regularly quoted the Tamil saint-poet Thiruvalluvar in every budget he presented since 1996.

Most Finance Ministers, condemned to this thankless job, find no solace in the support from the treasury benches or the brickbats from the Opposition. In fact, they turn to the bards of yore who seem to have composed verses to approve their budgets.

Finance Ministers probably believe in seeking approval from the dead if your contemporaries are not forthcoming with approval. In 1991, Dr. Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister heralded the economic reforms by quoting French poet and dramatist Victor Hugo: “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” The economic reforms, taken for granted now, were criticised then for unleashing market forces upon hapless Indians. Trying desperately to woo these critics, Mr. Chidambaram in his 1997 “dream” budget quoted Thiruvalluvar for the first time: “The king who reposeth not on those who can rebuke him, will perish even when he has no enemies.” Critics do not easily fall for such couplets.

The 1980s represented a different era. The bards had not yet made it to the budget speeches. Clearly, their support was not needed. Strong mandate for a single party meant that any critics inside Parliament were subdued. Finance Ministers often quoted their own Prime Minister or leaders, the favourite ones being Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. N.D. Tiwari profusely quoted Rajiv Gandhi in his 1988 budget speech. Occasional Mahatma Gandhi quotes were also seen. V.P. Singh’s two budgets drew inspiration from what Rajiv and Indira Gandhi had said, and once from Mahatma’s words. For a citizen not interested in the dreary income and expenditure details, budget speeches did not offer anything to look forward to then.

This changed when coalition governments took over in the 1990s. They had no dearth of critics, ranging from alliance partners to the Opposition parties. Faced with critical scrutiny from all the sides including their own parties, Finance Ministers probably turned to their favourite muses. Following the recipe of Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha closed his budget presentation in 1998 citing the noted Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, extolling the country to march forward. In 1999, it was Prime Minister Vajpayee’s poetry that Sinha cited at the end of his speech.

However, Pranab Mukherjee as Finance Minister bucked this trend and stuck to the standard closing phrase, “I commend this to the House.” This was how most of the budget speeches ended from 1947 until the 1980s. They rarely cited anyone and did not engage in poetic musings. India’s first Finance Minister, R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, too followed this rule but made an exception to quote Bernard Shaw to condole the death of Mahatma Gandhi in his budget presented in 1948.

The most sobering final remarks made in a budget speech were by C.D. Deshmukh in 1951. After a rather unfriendly budget that increased both direct and indirect taxes, he informed the House that he received five rupees from a villager who wished to contribute to the Government of India to tide over the post-War crisis. In Deshmukh’s words, “It is from one who at present pays no tax to any authority, Central, State or local. He says that he has a burning desire to help the Government of India in some way or the other… It is not the small amount that he has offered but the spirit behind the offer that matters…”

As India’s second Finance Minister, John Matthai, said in his only budget speech in 1950, “a Government Budget in the last analysis is a human document.” It is only natural that a human touch to the cold numbers in the budget document is provided through the poetic licence wielded by the Finance Minister. Though the common people may not understand the complexities of revenue and fiscal deficit, GST and Central Excise, GDP and balance of payments, they can still understand whose poetry inspired the year’s budget. If the Finance Minister is pushing for strong austerity measures or additional tax burden, they can be lightened with appropriate lines from Thiruvalluvar or Ghalib or Tagore.

I was led to think, whose poem will feature in the next budget? Thiruvalluvar or perhaps Dinkar, or someone else? The coming elections will decide this.

santh@iiserpune.ac.in

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