Budget speeches in India: it’s how you say it

February 6, 2013

The annual budget is a big event in India, but ministers’ speeches on the budget can be mighty boring. From Shakespeare to Bollywood, ministers have used all kinds of popular and esoteric sources to make their points. Whether that has helped is up to you. Here are a few examples from recent years:

President Pranab Mukherjee is a veteran Congress politician and has presented four budgets. His favourite authority to quote was Kautilya, the great Indian pioneer of economics and politics who was prime minister in the court of King Chandragupta Maurya in the fourth century BC. Mukherjee quoted Kautilya in his first budget speech in 1984 and as recently as in 2010.

Thus, a wise Collector General shall conduct the work of revenue collection … in a manner that production and consumption should not be injuriously affected … financial prosperity depends on public prosperity, abundance of harvest and prosperity of commerce among other things

He invoked Lord Indra, the Hindu rain god, and prayed to the goddess of wealth Lakshmi in 2011:

While, like last year, I seek the blessings of Lord Indra to bestow on us timely and bountiful monsoons, I would pray to Goddess Lakshmi as well. I think it is a good strategy to diversify one’s risks

In his last stint as finance minister in 2012, Mukherjee quoted Hamlet:

I must be cruel only to be kind

Perhaps the best way to explain that is to take a line popularised by Mary Poppins: “When everything goes well with the economy, we all share in the joy. However, when things go wrong, it is the finance minister who is called upon to administer the medicine.” In other words, the finance minister’s job is to tell you that there’s no spoonful of sugar.

Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram liked to quote from ancient Indian texts, his favourite being the weaver-philosopher Tiruvalluvar who lived in his state of Tamil Nadu some 2,000 years ago. Chidambaram said in 2007:

Mr. Speaker, Sir, I have devoted the last 15 minutes or so to agriculture. There is no dearth of schemes; there is no dearth of funds. What needs to be done is to deliver the intended outcomes. Saint Tiruvalluvar watches over us and warns: Uzhavinar kai madangin illai vizhaivathoom vittame enbarkum nilai (If ploughmen keep their hands folded, even sages claiming renunciation cannot find salvation)

Here’s another from 2008:

As always, I turned to my muse, Saint Tiruvalluvar, for guidance and reassurance. 2,000 years ago he set the benchmark for good governance in the following immortal words: Kodai ali esngol kudi ombal nangum, Udaiyanam vendharkku oli. (Generous grants, compassion, righteous rule and succour to the downtrodden are the hallmarks of good governance)

Chidambaram did not limit himself to Tiruvalluvar, leaning adequately on Jawaharlal Nehru (“Everything else can wait, but not agriculture“) and Henry David Thoreau (“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”) to make a point or two.


Even the usually quiet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is known to quote Urdu couplets on important occasions. In 1991, he reaffirmed his faith in a financially strained nation by invoking the poet Iqbal, who chose to live in Pakistan after the partition of India:

 

Yunaan-o-Misr-o-Roma, sab mitt gaye jahaan say/Ab tak magar hai baqi, naam-o-nishan hamara (Greece, Egypt, Rome have vanished all/But our name and sign live on)

Yashwant Sinha, finance minister in the first BJP-led government, announced measures for the film industry in true Bollywood style, using movie names in his budget of 2002:

It is time we brought about a fiscal regime to usher in more ‘Khushi’ (happiness) and take away the remaining ‘Gham’ (sadness) from the entertainment industry. ‘Filhal’ (for now) I shall have more to say on this in Part ‘B’ of my speech

 

Lalu Yadav, a leader from Bihar, often leaves his audience laughing thanks to his rustic, jovial delivery. Here is a couplet, recited during his railway budget of 2008:

Everybody is appreciating that I have done a tremendous work; each and every year I have earned millions and millions every year. And they are saying … I have … uh … Lalu Yadav has planted a fruit tree, and every year it is duty of mine to grow fruit tree

The poetic performance was punctured with unabashed laughter from other lawmakers.

In 2007, while presenting his railway budget, he compared himself to Lord Krishna – in all humility, of course.

 

Lord Krishna was acclaimed as Giridhar when in a moment of crisis he lifted Mount Govardhan on his finger. However, he did this with the supporting hands of thousands of his fellow villagers … though people are giving me the credit for the turnaround of the railways, with all humility I would like to share with the house that this miracle has been possible because of the tireless efforts of 1.4 million railway employees

West Bengal leader Mamata Banerjee’s rail budget speeches were more akin to admonishments. In 2011, she said:

Madam, while railways deliver on their promises, they are not good at publicity. This House and the nation do not come to know of our achievements or what we are doing. Hum aah bhee karte hain toh ho jaate hain badnaam, Woh katl bhee karte hain toh charcha nahi hota’. (We earn a bad name even if we moan/but there is not even any mention if they commit a murder.)

She has been accused of favouring her state of West Bengal in the railway budgets and lawmakers have often objected during her speeches. At such times, she asks them to shut up and listen, and threatens them with funding cuts in their constituencies:

What is your name, the one who is shouting, what is your name? My pronunciation will get messed up if I shout so let me go slowly. I am also a human being … I can’t satisfy all of you

 

(Follow Shashank Chouhan on Twitter @shashankchouhan )

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