The Budget 2021-22 was still wrapped in a red velvet bahi-khata, but there was no paper inside. For the first time, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman read out her Budget speech from a tablet that she pulled out carefully from a velvet bag and returned to it when she finished her speech.
Sitharaman walked into the House several minutes before 11 am and placed the tablet on the podium. It kept sliding off, so jugaad followed: A thick navy blue book was produced to stabilize it. The device made a marked difference to her delivery -- unlike previous occasions, there was no wobble in her voice, no fumbling fingers, no trembling hands.
There was a lot about Budget 2021-22 that was different from the past. Members were less enthusiastic, the overall mood was subdued and the Opposition even forgot to walk out. Congress MPs from Punjab came dressed in black robes emblazoned with slogans against the three new farm laws. But inexplicably, they left the House before the Budget speech started. The slogans said: “I am a kisan. I am a landless labourer. Don’t kill me”.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress exchanged taunts as SAD leader Sukhbir Badal and his wife, former Union minister Harsimrat, raised slogans against the farm laws before walking out in protest. “So you’re sitting in their laps,” mocked Harsimrat gesturing towards the Treasury benches as Congress MPs stayed in the House. “Look who’s talking,” retorted the Congress. Some slogans were raised by MPs from the Trinamool Congress when issues relating to farm welfare were raised. But their heart wasn’t in it.
The seating of MPs made it hard to oppose policies in unison. MPs were everywhere: In the galleries, below in the House, all at a distance. The names of private business houses were bandied about as the finance minister mentioned privatisation of several sectors, including ports. Normally, the Speaker would have come down hard on members who named persons and entities not present to defend themselves. But merely remonstrating mildly, Om Birla let it go.
The underlying theme of the budget was tailored to poll-bound states. So, whether it was highway allocations to Kerala, West Bengal, and Assam, or skill development programmes for nurses (Kerala and Tamil Nadu), or allocation for tea estate workers in West Bengal and Assam, all the announcements met with cat-calls from Opposition benches. The BJP thumped the table on the announcement that the Ujjwala scheme was being extended.
But some things don’t change. Though much less frequently, Sitharaman could not prevent herself completely from repeating sentences for emphasis in the Budget she thought were important.
She wore orange. So did many of the members.
The cameo moment was the entry — and exit — of Mulayam Singh Yadav. Walking slowly, assisted by a helper, Mulayam made his painful way down many shallow steps to his seat, as his son Akhilesh watched his progress anxiously whilst seated, heaving a sigh of relief as his father found his seat and settled in it. But Mulayam had to leave before the Budget speech ended. While walking out, he spotted All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi.
There is hardly any doubt that the Samajwadi Party’s vote bank is going to be badly dented by Owaisi’s entry in UP in the upcoming Assembly elections and is probably going to hurt Akhilesh’s political prospects. But the warmth with which the elder Yadav greeted Owaisi —who also bent to receive blessings — transported the moment to another era: When nationalism was not a commodity and politicians, however opportunistic, were also human beings.