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7 July, 2019 10:27:41 AM

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An Indian budget in the Indian way

Indian Finance Minister Sitharaman arrived at the parliament with the budget document covered in a ‘red cloth’ with the national emblem on the top
KUMKUM CHADHA
An Indian budget in the Indian way

When Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman carried a red folder instead of a briefcase there was shock and relief in different quarters depending on where you belong and the mindset that governs you. Shocked were the brown-sahibs who even after decades of getting freedom are shackled in British tradition: happy  were those who carry Indian tradition on their sleeve.  It took a lady to do it: single-handedly and with great pride: going against a norm and doing what others, yes men, had not dared.
Nirmala Sitharaman is the second woman Finance Minister to present the Indian budget: the first being Indira Gandhi who had additional charge of the Finance Ministry.

It was in 1970 that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi became the first woman to have delivered Union Budget . But hers was a role in addition to being the country’s Prime Minister.
By that yardstick, Sitharaman is actually the first full-fledged and full-time woman Finance Minister to present the Union Budget: her first as Finance Minister as also the Modi-government’s under his second term as Prime Minister.
Sitharaman also has the distinction of being the first full-timeDefence Minister of India. Even here, there are similarities with Indira Gandhi who had additional charge of the Defence portfolio. Sitharaman bettered this by serving as the first full time Defence Minister of the country. During her tenure she also was the first woman to fly the Sukhoi fighter jet.

But first the low-down:  

In her capacity as country’s Finance Minister, Sitharaman  abandoned the western legacy of the briefcase.  A clear attempt at  what is seen as “decolonise the Budget presentation” Sitharaman bid adieu to the legendary briefcase.

Since the British rule there has been a tradition of  carrying the Budget papers in a leather briefcase.

Different Finance Ministers have merely experimented with its colours be it black, red velvet and even dark brown or tan but none dared to do away with the tradition of carrying a leather bag or a “box”  as it was synonymous with the Budget.

In 1860, British budget chief William Ewart Gladstone used a red suitcase, similar to the one used by England’s Queen. The red suitcase used by Gladstone had Queen’s monogram embossed in gold to carry his bundle of papers.

Derived from a French word,  Bougette means a leather bag, However in the context of the Budget, it is understood as a  'budget briefcase' that contains the printed budget speech.

While Gladstone’s red box was in use for a very long time by the British parliamentarians, only “retiring it”  because it had become so shabby that it could no longer be used.  

However, finance ministers in India have used their own set of bags, usually  a new one every year. Some have used plain ones while others have gone with ones with straps and buckles too.  

Conspicuous in pictures outside the Parliament House, the briefcase was a “must have” and usually held up prominently during pre-budget photo sessions by Finance Ministers: a legacy of the colonial rulers since  the 18thcentury.

India's “budget bag”, though it has varied in colour and shape every year, is a copy of Britain's quintessential red Gladstone box that has been used in every single British budget since 1860. Enter Sitharaman as a ritual breaker, She grabbed eyeballs as she decided to do away with the tradition. She did carry her budget papers except she did in the Indian way: she carried them in the red-coloured bahi khataand as Chief economic advisor, Krishnamurthy Subramanian, said that it  is in “Indian tradition” that “symbolises our departure from slavery of western thought”.

Predictably questions arose at her choice but Sitharaman was ready with the answers: “I thought it is high time we move on from the British hangover to do something on our own. And well easier for me to carry too”, she said.  Sitharaman arrived at the Parliament with the budget document covered in a ‘red cloth’ with the national emblem on the top and tied with a golden string. In a single stroke she buried, hopefully forever, the British-era custom of carrying the official papers in a briefcase.

Incidentally, the red cloth is traditionally used to  cover spiritual texts, but given that Sitharaman carried a bahi khata,it was symbolic of the traditional method of keeping account books: a ledger  maintained by businesses to record their transactionsin the good old days.

The symbolism of the red saree was also not missed given that in the Indian tradition red is associated with everything that is auspicious.

British legacy apart, another reason that Sitharaman is believed to have given the  leather briefcase a miss is because she considers leather products to be inauspicious, According to Subramanian,  the minister  believes that “leather made products are not auspicious for the big occasion, so she avoided the leather bag and took the bahi-khatawrapped in the red cloth. This is considered to be auspicious,’ he is reported to have said.

Sitharaman did not stop at that.

In the run-up to the budget, she had broken another tradition. During the inauguration of the halwaceremony at the finance ministry, which marks the start of the budget preparation, Sitharaman decided to un-tie the inaugural ribbon, instead of cutting it. This was because she thought cutting the ribbon was “inauspicious”.

The halwaceremony has its genesis from the Indian tradition of eating something sweet to mark an auspicious event. At the Finance ministry the halwaceremony marks the beginning of the lock up period where the officers involved in the preparation  of the budget are isolated and not allowed to communicate with the outside world: in other words they are quarantined in the Finance ministry till the Minister has presented the Budget in Parliament.

As for the Budget, all eyes were on India’s woman Finance Minister, who made it  a point to bat for the women of India:  

"It is not possible for a bird to fly with one wing. Similarly, it is not possible for the country to succeed without women participation. Government wishes to encourage and facilitate the role of women in India," she said.

Invoking Swami Vivekananda, she reiterated that India's tradition is steeped in "Nari tu Narayani" (Oh, woman, you are a goddess) adding:  "there is no chance of welfare in the world unless the condition of women in India is improved."

To empower women financially, Sitharaman announced an overdraft facility of Rs 5,000 for all verified women self-help groups (SHG) member with a Jan Dhan bank account.

Hailing the Modi government for making it an inclusive society, she  said that the regime had managed to restore the dignity of women by ensuring that every home has a toilet. She  proposes to expand SHG to all districts and said one woman in every SHG will get loan of up to Rs 1 lakh under Mudra Yojana : a sure thumbs up from women across the board. Among key announcements, Sitharaman said that digital payments will get cheaper, govt will launch an ATM-like One Nation One Card for pan-India travel and new model rental laws will be unveiled.  

The budget proposes to consider issuing Aadhaar Card for NRIs with Indian passports after their arrival in India.

A big miss was the financial outlay of the Defence sector.

The winners were clearly state run banks wherein the government plans to infuse capital ; rural India from raised spending on road building to connect villages, more rural homes built with power and fuel connections and the aviation sector where the government shall consider further opening up foreign direct investment.  What is likely to touch a chord is the plan to provide piped water across Indian households by 2024 and a model tenancy law and a promise to build nearly 20 million rural homes by 2022.

The losers seem to be jewellers because of the raised import tax on gold; the rich because the Finance Minister has proposed to raise tax on income earners above Rs 20 million as well as discourage cash payments by levying two per cent tax on withdrawal over Rs 10 million in a year. Increase in prices of petrol and diesel is sure to hit the middle class.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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