India Insight

Chidambaram’s ‘Hangout’ debut: learning from Modi, a lesson for others

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)

P. Chidambaram’s budget announcements might not have pleased everyone, but the finance minister has done reasonable work in the recent months to improve market sentiment and shed the ruling coalition’s “business as usual” image.

On Monday, he became the first cabinet minister in India to appear on Google Hangout, taking questions from young students, analysts and industry experts on topics from the budget, rising prices and the economy in general.

Chidambaram, seen by some as the Congress party’s next candidate for prime minister, has taken the right step towards shedding the reticent, sometimes secretive image of the party’s top brass. Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul have long been criticised for their media shy, quiet image.

Chidambaram as finance minister must address businesses and the media regularly. But with 65 percent of India’s population less than 35 years old, connecting with masses using platforms like social media is key in today’s age, and a good step for someone who already has a good record of communication.

Budget in a bunker

The leather briefcase that the finance minister holds up for the cameras before he delivers the budget in parliament is one of the most curious hangovers from British colonial times.

But one tradition that gets little attention is the intense secrecy that surrounds the preparation of the budget.

Weeks before the finance bill is presented, finance ministry officials clam up, and refuse to speak in detail about the economy to the media. The basement of the Finance Ministry in the North Block of India’s central government secretariat, which has its own press to print the entire set of budget papers, is declared off limits to people not involved in the exercise a month before the big day.

How to rate the budget?

INDIA-BUDGET/When the finance minister presents the budget, the stock market moves one way or the other.

And like every year this will dominate the news.

Over there and everywhere.

Is that fair? Or convincing?

Some of the analysis will follow a pattern.

If the stock market goes up, the budget may be described as successful because it didn’t “rock the boat”.

If  it moves sideways, it may be said the market had already absorbed the good news — the growth figures for instance.

The Unique Identity number — putting all eggs in one basket?

There was a television ad some time back where a village leader played by Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan cutely decrees that feuding villagers would be known by their mobile numbers rather than names denoting caste or community.

It’s an idea that no longer seems far-fetched.

This week, the finance minister allocated 1200 million rupees to  the Unique Identification Authority of India, headed by former Infosys chief Nandan Nilekani.

The project provides a unique identity number, something like the U.S. social security number, to India’s billion-plus citizens.

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