Just 40 minutes into one of the longest Budget speeches in recent years, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley looked up and asked for a five-minute break. He had already surreptitiously massaged his shoulder several times. The Speaker granted a five-minute adjournment; the cameras switched off; and members flocked down to the well of the House to ask how the FM was doing. Even Congressmen, Jyotiraditya Scindia for example, walked over from the opposition benches to fuss over Jaitley. Others got up to stretch their legs and continue interrupted conversations. One man, however, sat undisturbed for almost the entire five minutes, in a pool of stillness at his end of the Treasury front bench: Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At one point he called M Venkaiah Naidu — a Rajya Sabha MP but on the floor of the Lok Sabha during the adjournment — over to exchange a few words. But, other than that, nobody dared intrude on the PM, who sat with his eyes fixed on the middle distance — except for the occasional sidelong glance at the fuss around Jaitley. Even when his party clapped some major intervention, the PM didn’t join in. He only looked at Jaitley if the FM paused for some reason. It was almost possible to forget Modi was in the House. BJP clapped with tremendous enthusiasm at various predictable points — when the National Mission on Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive was launched, for example. It is unclear whether they were clapping because they realised immediately it was to be abbreviated PRASAD, and thought that was clever.
The PM clapped for none of these items, even the one meant to rejuvenate Varanasi and other historic cities — the National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana, or HriDAY. He only applauded twice: When the new income-tax exemption limits were announced; and when the caps in foreign direct investment in insurance and defence were raised. The second time, a puzzled party followed the PM’s lead dutifully. The degree to which the prime minister is held in awe by his party was clear even earlier, in the alacrity with which the entire BJP parliamentary party stood up and silenced its chatter, like unruly schoolchildren, when he had entered the House — the last MP to do so, moments before the Speaker. The Opposition, very pointedly, did not stand, taking cue from Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who sat with her arms firmly crossed. But, at that moment, BJP’s overwhelming numbers in the House became obvious again. The signs were already there, of course. Where the Opposition benches were a little strip of shining white shirts and kurtas, BJP had a solid core of saffron and pink and yellow. Where the Opposition front bench was sparsely populated, with just Mallikarjun Kharge and Sonia Gandhi to start, the Treasury bench was crowded — the second and third rows even more so. Eventually the Congress front bench was further adorned by the presence of Rahul Gandhi. When the finance minister took his five-minute adjournment, the Congress’ vice-president — previously slouching happily in the second-to-last bench — was summoned to the front and made to sit up straight. The Treasury front benches, in contrast, were so crowded that, when Nitin Gadkari sauntered in, there was no place for him. All the seated MPs looked firmly in the other direction, like riders in the metro refusing to give up their seats to someone who needed it more. Intervention arrived from an unlikely quarter: Varun Gandhi galloped down from the back benches, chivvied some unfortunate first-term MP away from his comfortable spot in the second row, and solicitously deposited Gadkari in it. Little display of off-camera camaraderie is exactly what the Lok Sabha specialises in. An entire generation of young Hindutva fanatics would have been shocked to see Murli Manohar Joshi laughing loudly with Mulayam Singh Yadav before the speech began, each tugging on the other’s sleeve. Pretty much the only place where there was no such atmosphere was the government front bench, where an icy silence prevailed: Jaitley, the PM, L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj barely said a word to each other.