Every year in February in newspaper offices, especially the financial ones, the tension begins to build up from around the 15th. Furrowed brows, endless meetings, frantic phone calls, increasingly frayed tempers, all topped up with a never-ending stream of press notes from the CII, Ficci and Assocham.
The correspondents buzz around blowing tit-bits out of proportion (though, for some reason, this newspaper does it the other way around); the news desk huddles planning the quadrupled number of pages for the Big Day; and the editors, having nothing better to do, get in everyones way with their idiotic suggestions. Very heady stuff and I miss it. I wish they wouldnt pull down governments in November-December so that elections are held in February. Its very unsettling for creatures of habit like us journalists.
My first experience of what a happens in journalistic establishments during these hectic days came in 1981. I had joined the Eastern Economist (EE) a few months earlier as Swaminathan Aiyars chief and only sidekick. (During the interview, which lasted about three minutes, he had said in his usual direct way that I would be his pitthu or gopher, which I duly became for the 18 months that I worked with him). But the EE was a weekly and had a completely laid-back approach to Surveys and Budgets. We left the buzzing about to the financial dailies.
A year later, however, I was working for one as a leader writer. Not having a clue as to what happens on Budget day, I showed up as usual for work at 10:30 a.m. There wasnt a soul in sight, not even the secretaries to the various editors. Even the sweeper was hanging about lazily smoking a foul smelling beedi and grinning at me.
I sat at my desk and waited for the day to begin -- and waited and waited and waited. Six hours went by and nothing happened, absolutely nothing. At about 4, I hadnt seen a single journalist the whole day and my six hours being over Justice Palekar in his award had mandated a six-hour day for journalists I left for home more than little puzzled. No one, you see, had bothered to tell me that on Budget day, the action began only at 5 p.m.
So the next year, I landed up on the dot at 5 p.m, as eager a beaver as ever was -- only to be asked by the resident editor why I had bothered to come. Don't you know the editor himself writes the leader today? Go on, buzz off, so that the reporters can use your table, chair and typewriter. The year after that, I took the day off with a clear conscience.
Alas, that was the last year of calm and repose on Budget day. Since then, I have been coerced into more active participation. Once I even wrote the editorial in an hour after the papers came in at 7:45 p.m because the editor had to go for dinner at 9 p.m and was pacing up and down behind my chair saying: Faster, TCA, faster. Come on yaar, hurry up, I am late already. Usually, the Budget day editorial isnt ready until about 11:30 p.m. That day we sent it off at 8:45.
The high point of the day had come a little earlier. The editor and I were watching Prannoy Roy on TV in the formers room when Ram Nath Goenka trooped in with four or five friends. I gave up my sofa for them and I think Mr Goenka mistook me for the copy boy. Each time Prannoy came up with a flash, Mr Goenka would chase me off to the newsdesk in the far-off basement to get the hard copy. He was, after all, a journalist of the old school.
But Budget day is like the wedding day it is preceded by minor celebrations like the Economic Survey and the Rail Budget. Once, thanks to a one-dayer, which I didnt want to miss, I wrote the Rail budget editorial in about 30 minutes after it came on the wires at 12:30 and vanished homewards.
The trick is to play the percentages and bet on the Railways adopting a time-table approach to the Budget no variations from the routine, including identical policy-errors year after year. (Even the number of cashew-nuts at the post-budget conference tea in Rail Bhavan remains the same). Given this high predictability, writing the rail budget editorial is childs play. You can, if you wish, simply write it beforehand and fill in the latest numbers as the copy comes in.
The Economic Survey is a bit trickier, if only because it can break the pattern now and then. Usually, though, it is the same out-of-date verbiage with the same predictable theme. Alls well, lads, weve done a great job and, sure there are problems, but none that we cant handle. Sometimes things do go wrong like in 1990: by January 1991, India was mortgaging its gold to the Bank of England and by May-June that year it was bankrupt.
The guys who wrote that years Survey are making High Policy now. Which is why you should read the editorial elsewhere on this page.