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Once upon a time, in North Block

KR Srivats | Updated on February 01, 2021

Weft and warp: Finance ministers have over the decades created their own dressing styles, with most of them opting for the comfort of Indian wear on Budget days   -  REUTERS/ ANUSHREE FADNAVIS

The usual pre-Budget razzmatazz was missing this time around: Covid-19 restrictions poured cold water on lawn-level talks among reporters who would gather outside the finance ministry

* February 1 — the national day for number crunching — portends different things for different sections of India’s vibrant and diverse society

* When Mukherjee came up with the controversial Vodafone tax (taxing the company with retrospective effect), he also donned a fob chain

* P Chidambaram, of course, was the notable exception to the bandhgala brigade

* Members of Parliament were given digital copies of Budget documents instead of the physical papers

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The finance minister was spot on. The General Budget, she’d said some days ago, would be like a “never before” Budget. Its provisions and promises are being debated and dissected, but it can be said with some certainty that for a section of reporters, at least, this Budget has been like no other.

February 1 — the national day for number crunching — portends different things for different sections of India’s vibrant and diverse society. For reporters covering this annual all-important event, it meant days of gruelling work, talking to mandarins, ferreting out scoops and endless analyses and speculation. Till last year, those in the finance beat would huddle together before the Budget and predict its provisions — and often its length. On the sidelights, there would be some light-hearted banter on what the minister would be wearing. For the last couple of years, the discussions (in some quarters) zeroed in on the colour of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s sari.

There was little of the frenzy in the run-up to the Budget this year. As millions of breadwinners in middle-class and poor households hoped the minister would deliver the right fiscal pill for a Covid-19-ravaged economy, members of the fourth estate sighed about a bygone age when Budgets were like festivals.

FM’s dress code

And, as in every festival, attire was an important of it. Would Sitharaman go green, some had asked before the Budget? No, they were not referring to an environment-friendly outlay, but wondering if she would don green, since her last two presentations did justice to the colours maroon and yellow. (For the record, the minister was draped in shades of cream, red and green.)

Finance ministers have over the decades created their own dressing styles, with most of them opting for the comfort of Indian wear on Budget days. The men mostly went in for a bandhgala — the most preferred male formal wear — eschewing suits and other such Western wear. From Rajiv Gandhi on February 28, 1987, and Manmohan Singh in the ’90s to Yashwant Sinha in the noughties and Pranab Mukherjee in 2012, it was the bandhgala that ruled the roost. In 2012, when Mukherjee came up with the controversial Vodafone tax (taxing the company with retrospective effect), he also donned a fob chain. There was some significance attached to that, no doubt. Was time hanging still? Or was he going back in time?

P Chidambaram, of course, was the notable exception to the bandhgala brigade. For almost every Budget that he presented, he came clad in a pristine white veshti and a crisp white shirt.

Arun Jaitley did bring in his own style with his churidar-kurta-Nehru jacket combinations, starting with the interim Budget of 2014. His Nehru jacket changed colour every year on budget day. It changed its name, too, and has been in recent years known as the Modi Jacket. Clearly, Jaitley had a refreshing approach not only to budget making but also to his dress code on Budget days.

Missing media chatter

Covid-19 robbed hundreds of media persons of their pre-Budget excitement this year. This was the time they gathered on the wintry lawns outside Gate No 2 of North Block, where the finance ministry is housed. They’d keep track of which biggie industrialist or Union leader or a political party representative made it to the pre-Budget consultations with the finance minister. The finance ministry this year poured cold water on the usual reporting thrill by being stingy on information sharing when it came to the kind of suggestions that poured in, thanks to such meetings having gone virtual. One can only fondly remember the elaborate press releases that came the way of reporters when Mukherjee or Jaitley used to take such pre-Budget meetings.

The entire pre-Budget razzmatazz was missing this time around. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, there were no lawn-level talks among reporters before the Budget. Muted, too, would be the post-Budget sessions; earlier, reporters gathered in large numbers to hold forth on the right course of action that the Finance Minister should have taken to further reduce the income inequality in India or what else could have been done to address the widening fiscal deficit.

There were no reams of papers in trucks to be spotted either. Members of Parliament were given digital copies of Budget documents instead of the physical papers. Reporters will not be rifling through hillocks of documents: Information, instead, will be available on an app.

Temple effect

What do most religious Indians do whenever they are anguished? They up the number of visits to their favourite religious shrines for the almighty’s blessings, needed for improving their financial situation or addressing other concerns. Likewise, large sections of Indians — struck by the pandemic — are looking up to the North Block for succour. And many of them, troubled by joblessness, pay cuts, health problems and other such issues, want instant solutions — not long-term ones. Some 130 crore Indians would want the finance minister to play a T20 innings even if Budgets are essentially a Test match game.

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Published on February 01, 2021
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