B S Raghavan

Juicy bits about the Budget

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on November 14, 2017

A somewhat desultory excursion I undertook into the Internet to ascertain the mode of presentation of the Budget in the Mother of Parliaments in Britain has yielded some juicy tidbits.

The word Budget itself comes from the French word bougette, meaning a little bag in which the British Chancellor of the Exchequer carried his financial statement and accounts to Parliament.

William Ewart Gladstone changed it into a red dispatch bag in 1860 and that is what has been in use till today.

A recent, and rather offputting, trend that is getting established in India is the progressively increasing duration of the Budget speeches by the Finance Minister.

It is getting to be close to two hours, and, I think, even this was breached some time during Mr Yashwant Sinha's tenure as Finance Minister.

Is it the long-winded garrulous nature of the Indians that is stretching out the Budget like Hanuman's tail, or whether the British MPs and public too suffered a similar infliction — I used to wonder while listening to the speech in a somnambulant state.

There is some consolation to be had from the fact that no Indian Finance Minister has so far broken the record of the longest continuous Budget speech (4 hours and 45 minutes) delivered by William Ewart Gladstone in 1853.

Benjamin Disraeli's speech in 1852 lasted 5 hours but included a break. He is also the record-holder for the shortest speech of 45 minutes with which he presented the Budget in 1867.

MONOTONOUS RECITALS

Actually, there is considerable scope for pruning the contents of Budget speeches.

Where is the need for the Finance Minister to be reading out a long list of allocations of Rs10 crore and Rs 20 crore to umpteen institutions all over the country? Why, indeed, should he be doing that even in respect of individual schemes?

He could cut down the speech to half its length and time if he confined himself to highlighting some major, path-making or path-breaking initiatives fitting into the framework of requirements for the country's development.

The Chancellors of the Exchequer in Britain do not indulge in the kind of monotonous recitals of minutiae familiar to us in India.

Their Budgets contain essentially a mention of their tax proposals and their significance. They also incorporate a part of what we bring out in our Economic Surveys and focus on the strategy or vision for economic management, instead of losing their way in exhaustive as also exhausting details.

The style and content, as it has involved in India, do not provide any coherent picture of what the sum-total of all that had been proposed would mean for the economy as a whole and the difference it would make to the average house-holder and tax payer.

Merely bandying about figures pertaining to the GDP, the deficit and the inflation do not leave the listeners any wiser at the end of the speech than at the beginning.

AUSTERE HABIT

The result is that both the MPs and the people at large miss the wood for the trees.

In short, the concept of economic management has not yet got ingrained in the system and procedures of Budget-making in India.

OK, getting back to the juicy tidbits: Finance Ministers in India still keep to the severely austere habit of occasionally sipping water to slake their thirst while reading the speech. I think it was Mr P.Chidambaram, who, as the Finance Minister, once read out his whole speech without once touching the glass of water kept before him.

The British Parliament is very indulgent in permitting the Chancellors of the Exchequer to drink alcohol within the House, as a special mark of recognition of the sanctity of the occasion.

We are told that previous Chancellors have chosen whisky (Kenneth Clarke), gin and tonic (Geoffrey Howe), brandy and water (Benjamin Disraeli), sherry and beaten egg (Gladstone) and spritzer (Nigel Lawson). Gordon Brown chose to drink mineral water. Alistair Darling and George Osborne also only drank water.

But there is one tradition unique to India which is yet to take root in Britain.

And that is the practice of interspersing the Budgets with quotations from poems, with Pranabda, this year, making a quantum leap to the exalted Shakespeare himself.

Published on March 18, 2012

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