Breaking the age-old tradition of carrying a briefcase to Parliament for presenting the Union Budget, newly appointed Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman posed outside Parliament on Friday with a ‘bahi khata’ (traditional Indian ledger) instead.
Speculators were quick to presume that Sitharaman ditching the briefcase for a red cover to carry the files was symbolic vis-à-vis her being India’s first full-time female finance minister. However, that argument doesn’t hold ground because Congress leader and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had also held that post (not independently), but she didn’t break the convention of carrying the briefcase.
So, what could have prompted her to carry the bahi khata?
Carrying a Red Budget briefcase was a convention passed down by the British and is still followed in the United Kingdom. In fact, the Budget briefcase our FMs have carried so far were a copy of the ‘Gladstone Box’ that is used while presenting the British Budget.
It was used for the first time by British Budget chief William Gladstone in the 19th century and had the royal monogram embossed in gold. It has been referred to as the Gladstone Box since.
Also, in the UK, finance ministers have passed down the Budget briefcase to their successors, but in India, every FM has carried his or her briefcase.
RK Shankmukham Chetty, who was independent India's first finance minister, followed the Brits and carried a Budget briefcase to Parliament.
Nehru succeeded him and did the same while presenting the Budget in 1958. Over the years, the practice almost got institutionalised and almost all Finance Ministers followed suit, including Yashwant Rao Chavan, Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, and also Arun Jaitley.
The only deviation noticed in the past came from Krishnamachari (Congress) and Morarji Desai (Janata Dal), who carried files with them instead of a briefcase.
Experts say that this breaking of tradition symbolises India’s departure from the colonial practices.
Later, the Finance Minister herself clarified that her deviation was indeed symbolic of breaking of away from British traditions. Commenting on it, she said: "I thought it is high time we move on from British hangover, to do something on our own. And it's easier to carry too."
There have been many changes in this regard earlier too. In 2001, the BJP government, under the then FM Yashwant Sinha moved the Budget presentation time from 5 PM (it is still presented in the second half of the day in the UK) to 11 AM.
The date of the budget presentation was moved ahead from the last day of February to the first day of February in 2017. Moreover, the Railway and Union Budget budget were merged the same year after 92 years.