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It was just the beginning of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget (2018-19) speech and he had already used the word “poor” half a dozen times. Slightly irritated, the former president of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi, twisted in her front row seat to alert her son and current Congress president Rahul Gandhi (sitting in the row behind) to this fact.
It was not hard to lip-read. “Why aren’t you saying something?” she asked. Kamal Nath (who was sitting next to Rahul Gandhi) gesticulated to explain, possibly, that they would do it at the end of the speech. Nothing happened. After the speech, Rahul Gandhi came out, was mobbed by the media but his only comment, before he sped away, was: “I’ll react on Twitter.”
Although interruptions during a Union Budget speech are par for the course, there were very few this time. The most memorable was the one by the Trinamool MP from Dum Dum, Saugata Roy. When the finance minister announced the new ‘Greens Revolution’, meant for better marketing of fruit and vegetable especially potatoes and onions, Roy remarked loudly: “Pakoda! Eat pakoda. That way India’s onion and potato marketing problem will be solved.”
The other important political interruption was by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), after the speech had ended. “Jaya TDP,” declaimed an MP from the back benches, waving his hand in the air to signify the state had got nothing in the Budget. After a meeting in early January with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Jaitley, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu returned home and declared that a special package for the state would be announced in the Union Budget. There was no evidence of one in the speech Jaitley read out on Thursday.
This year, ruling party managers were subdued, letting the Budget speak for itself. And, the loudest, most spontaneous, applause was reserved for outlays in health insurance and breaks for senior citizens. Railway Minister Piyush Goyal did a double take when Jaitley read out the figures for unmanned railway crossings. Many BJP MPs, possibly unaware of the implication, thumped their tables loudly when a 10 per cent long-term capital gains tax for equity and mutual fund investment over Rs 100,000 was announced.
On the Treasury benches, the faces of MPs who are accountants by training and profession were impassive when Jaitley announced that the fiscal deficit targets were going to be breached.
Many MPs gave up the attention battle midway through the speech, which was long by any standards. Some snoozed intermittently. The most conspicuous was former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda, whose chin was sunk on his chest for a large part of the speech though he would sit up from time to time, nod sagely, and then slump back into his seat again. The FM’s wife and son-in-law were in the visitors’ box.
The gallery for Rajya Sabha MPs was full; the one for diplomats almost empty. The visitors’ gallery is usually packed with people on Budget day. There were a few empty seats this year.
If a Budget has a colour, this one was yellow. All over the Lok Sabha, shades of yellow bloomed. Both Murli Manohar Joshi and Prakash Javadekar wore kurtas the colour of mustard flowers.
Nirmala Sitharaman glowed in a turmeric kanjivaram while Sushma Swaraj was swathed in a black and mustard bomkai sari, Hema Malini was in an understated yellow and gold, Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah in a bright yellow dotted with red, and Meenakshi Lekhi in shades of yellow and orange. It was spring fever in the Lok Sabha.