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A revolutionary proposal to the Finance Minister for the Union Budget 2021

I would like to propose a deeper, more meaningful, far more fundamental reform, one that would leave an indelible mark on budget-making for all time to come

January 09, 2021 / 09:56 AM IST

Dear Finance Minister,

You have said the forthcoming Union Budget will be one that has never been seen before and have invited inputs to help make it so. Of course, we hacks are in the habit of offering you advice willy-nilly, whether you want it or not, but the thought of a budget like none other will stimulate us to greater feats of the imagination.

I am certain the op-ed pages in the coming days will be filled with all kinds of sage advice, ranging from cutting taxes to raising them, from ignoring the fiscal deficit to reducing it, from bank privatization to setting up a ‘bad bank’ to asset monetization and what not.

Many years ago, at the height of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, the RBI governor told me, in response to my question, that in the morning he was of the opinion the crisis wouldn’t affect the Indian markets, but after a meeting with economists in the afternoon, he wasn’t sure what to think. You must be feeling a bit like that.

I would therefore not like to add to the confusion with yet another list of measures to boost the economy. Instead, I would like to propose a deeper, more meaningful, far more fundamental reform, one that would leave an indelible mark on budget-making for all time to come.

I would urge you to keep your Budget speech short. I remember you felt ill last year during the speech, only to be expected after speaking non-stop for 160 minutes. Were you trying to emulate former finance minister VK Krishna Menon, who holds the world record for his seven hour long speech delivered at the UN? Surely you don’t want to be like Fidel Castro, who regularly tested the strength of his colleagues’ bladders by forcing them to listen to his tirades against capitalism and US imperialism for hours on end?

For the sake of your health, please keep your speech as short as possible— covid-19 lurks in the shadows, waiting to pounce on any weakness.

It is also for the sake of our health. What you may not have realised is that many of your listeners too were in excruciating pain as the speech went on and on. It starts with a slight pain in the neck after an hour, followed by a throbbing at the temples.

At the ninety minute mark, some get a shooting pain while another clinical symptom is an irresistible urge to down a couple of quick ones. At the two hour mark, people have been known to slip into a deep depression, with the iron having entered their souls.

It’s no reflection on your speaking skills—it has been the same story with every Budget over decades. Indeed, some venerable hacks claim the reason their hair has turned grey is not so much because of age, but because they were forced to listen to agonizingly long budget speeches.

Many government supporters have turned away embittered and disillusioned after budgetary outpourings. Hardened and cynical journos have been known to break down and weep.

I realise the temptation to hold a captive audience in thrall to your oratory is a powerful one. But, contrary to what you have been led to believe, that audience is a very small one—the sad truth is nobody listens to a budget speech if they can help it.

Only we hacks, market traders and some corporate honchos have to undergo the ordeal. We do it because it’s our job, traders so that they can ramp up the stocks of all infrastructure companies as soon as you mention the word ‘roads’ and industry big shots pretend to listen so that they can give your speech 9 out of 10 when we ask them for their opinion.

Pay them no heed, they would give 9 out of 10 even if you sang bhajans in lieu of a budget speech.

Everybody else is only interested in whether their taxes have been cut or, heaven forbid, raised. Of course, your colleagues in Parliament also have to turn out for the speech and while there is some initial enthusiastic banging of desks by your party members and heckling by the opposition, that is soon replaced by a uniformly glassy-eyed look, followed by dull despair as the speech drones on interminably.

A short speech, say half an hour long, would be truly revolutionary, the best by miles in a hundred years.

It would also help, ma’am, if you could be a bit less solemn when delivering the speech. Everybody knows it’s a serious occasion, but it’s really not obligatory for finance ministers to read out their speeches as if they are making a funeral oration over the remains of the economy.

You could even crack a few jokes to liven it up. A well-aimed dig at the opposition, such as ‘I am glad that one of the esteemed leaders of the opposition has managed to return to India in time for the Budget’, will get some laughs. But there’s no need to push in too many jokes—the Budget forecasts are usually hilarious enough to keep us entertained for months.

Please try and keep numbers down to a minimum. Those who want them can always look up the budget papers. Most of us don’t really understand the difference between a billion and a trillion. Pranab-da, God rest his soul, had the knack of sending us into a stupor by his never-ending supply of very large figures—I think it was a deliberate ploy to shock and awe us.

There’s also no need to list in painful detail every programme and scheme of the government—they are best left in the budget papers, where those shrivelled souls who revel in such things can have the joy of discovering them.

All you have to do is explain the state of the economy, put your finger on how you can make it better, do a paragraph on reforms, enumerate the ways you plan to give a fiscal boost to the economy and tell us how much we have to pay for it. Such cogent, succinct, lucid reasoning will make your speech truly exceptional, apart from earning our undying approbation and gratitude. As the Bard said, ‘brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.’

That brings me to the quotes in the Budget. It’s all very well to quote Thiruvalluvar or the Mahatma, but how many of us remember those quotes? Yet most recall the Victor Hugo one, ‘No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come’ in Manmohan Singh’s landmark 1991 budget.

Simply put, the quote has to fit the context to be memorable. Shakespeare’s ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men…’ is an obvious one for a path-breaking budget, but too clichéd.

Perhaps a truly inspirational quote for your mind-blowing budget would be this one from Douglas Adams, the great man who wrote ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’: “Let's think the unthinkable, let's do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”
Manas Chakravarty
first published: Jan 8, 2021 08:26 am