The nervousness was palpable. As she adjusted her sari to affix the microphone that would relay the Budget live to the world, Nirmala Sitharaman’s fingers trembled and she thought she might need a safety pin. With barely a minute to go for 11 am, there was no time to get one.
On the third try, the microphone was fixed, and she took a deep breath. Then she bowed low, folded her hands to her parents who were sitting in the Speaker’s gallery (her husband, Prabhakar Parakala, was in Hyderabad). Her uncle nodded. Her aunt smiled. Her daughter, Vangmayee, waggled her fingers in a tentative wave, meant to be reassuring. The gesture said: ‘Don’t worry. We’re there for you.’ It was a cameo moment, poignant and private, revealing a different, vulnerable Nirmala Sitharaman from the one who presented and defended her first Budget as finance minister of India.
And then, off she went.
The highlight of the Budget 2019-20 was as much about the finance minister as it was about the Opposition. For the first 90 minutes, the Opposition did not utter a sound. Nobody passed any comments, nobody tried to interrupt. Only at the mention of the Rs 1 cess on petroleum and diesel was there a hubbub.
That too came from the Trinamool Congress whose MP Saugata Roy commented loudly that the government would “put everything up for sale”, when Sitharaman announced disinvestment targets. MPs from the Congress just sat quietly, apparently too crushed to say anything.
On the other hand, Sitharaman had Opposition MPs from her home state, Tamil Nadu, thumping the table when she quoted from an ancient Sangam age Tamil text. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK’s) Dayanidhi Maran made no secret of his appreciation as Sitharaman explained through a Tamil parable that the government would never be like a marauding elephant to taxpayers. For Karnataka, the state she is elected from, she quoted from Basaveshwara, the rebel poet who questioned caste and social hierarchy in the 12th century and laid the intellectual foundations for the Bhakti movement that spread all over India.
Her party bucked her up as she stumbled through tongue-twisting Hindi sentences and she got extensive applause for her Urdu couplet. The whole house erupted, especially women, when she referred to women as ‘Narayani’.
It was only after she had completed her presentation that the new power equations in the government really hit people. Harsimrat Badal and women MPs from her party were the first to surge towards her to congratulate her. Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed and cracked a joke at which everyone around her laughed uproariously. The minister for housing and urban development with additional charge of trade and civil aviation, Hardeep Puri, scribbled right through the Budget, nodding appreciatively several times, especially when she mentioned the launch of a new television channel for start-ups.
Unlike her predecessors Arun Jaitley and Piyush Goyal, Sitharaman had no band of cheerleaders. It was mostly backbenchers who came up to thank her. She herself did not refer to any of her predecessors -- neither Goyal, who presented the interim Budget, nor Jaitley, one of her political mentors.
The colour of this Budget? Pink, definitely. Sitharaman herself wore fuchsia pink, Harsimrat Badal was clad in dusky rose, Mala Rajyalaxmi Shah wore brilliant pink, Dushyant Singh was in pale pink. Even the Opposition was clad in baby-pink (Preneet Kaur) and pink-and-white (Supriya Sule).