The defining moment of Budget 2015-16 must surely be the point when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley pronounced: “Defence of every square inch of our motherland comes before anything else…”
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar smiled, half to himself and half to anyone who might have been watching, and made a gesture that is understood universally. He rubbed his index finger against his thumb, as if to ask: “That’s all very well, but what about the money?” The 7.4 per cent increase in the defence outlay so riled former Uttarakhand chief minister Gen B C Khanduri that he came round to Parrikar after the speech to quiz him on the disappointing increase..
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Jaitley was expected to read his speech from a laptop or iPad. However, he arrived clutching the traditional tan briefcase from which he took out a bulky file. He dumped the file on top of the briefcase, keeping his left hand on it possessively until it was time to start reading out the speech.
By then the treasury benches had settled down in a tight squeeze behind him: Minister for Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Kalraj Mishra inserted his substantial frame between Shanta Kumar and Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Badal. Health Minister J P Nadda had to gallantly vacate his seat for Uma Bharati when it became clear that Najma Heptullah, Maneka Gandhi, Nadda and Uma Bharati wouldn’t be able to squeeze in together on the same bench. These seats are so prized because they are in direct focus of the TV cameras.
The Rajya Sabha gallery was full. Derek O'Brien, Anu Aga, Rajeev Chandrasekhar and other MPs from the Upper House arrived well before the speech started. However, the diplomats’ gallery was empty. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh was present in the gallery to hear the speech. The Speaker’s gallery had the finance minister’s sister and niece but not his wife or children — they are in the US where Jaitley’s wife, Sangeeta, has to undergo surgery on Sunday.
But personal travails appeared far from Jaitley's mind. His couplet: “Kuch to phool khilaaye humne, aur kuch phool khilaane hain/Mushkil yeh hai baag me ab tak kaante kai purane hain” elicited loud ‘waah waah’ from BJP MPs. MPs on both sides also smiled ruefully, Trinamool Congress’s Saugata Roy especially, when the Budget announced tobacco and gutka prices would be increased. One could have heard a pin drop when Jaitley announced the tax on the super rich in lieu of the wealth tax. Kamal Nath (Congress) and
Y S Chowdary, a minister and Telugu Desam Party MP who has reported the highest assets in this Lok Sabha, looked carefully expressionless.
However, the cheers were inexplicably the loudest from the BJP when the announcement on enhancing the MNREGA outlay was made. Equally inexplicable was the table thumping on the intent to pass a law on government procurement: This was one of the erstwhile Planning Commission’s signal legislative moves that never saw the light of day during the previous government. Congress MPs howled in unison when Jaitley promised to cut tax on corporate houses. Later, Jaitley savoured a meal of chhole chawal. But the most important thing: It can be reported with authority that during the 2015-16 Budget speech, nobody fell asleep.