An open letter to the Union Finance Minister

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presents the Union Budget 2020-21 in the Lok Sabha
Mind it, I say!

Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman
Union Finance Minister
Cabinet Secretariat
Raisina Hill
New Delhi.                                                                          January 27, 2021.

Dear Ms. Sitharaman,

On the first of February, you will rise to present the Union Budget to the nation from the Lok Sabha – an event, I venture to suggest, that captures more attention than most programmes barring the Prime Minister’s periodic updates to the nation on Mann ki Baat, the Election results or an India – Australia Test match. You will doubtless already have received representations from all manner of interested groups to take care of their specific requirements. Industry and the Farm Lobby, to name just two denominations will be asking for the moon. Not to speak of the poorest of the poor for whom you will unfailingly announce a slew of relief measures. The rich and the super-rich will be soaked, along with the sinful tobacco lobby which is only right and proper. The middle-class, or muddled class, will be loftily ignored. It is a taxing task, in every sense of the term.

That is how I anticipate your speech will go, based on decades of historical data analysis of our finance ministers’ budget speeches since Independence. You will also be fully aware that, no matter what you propose, the opposition will condemn it outright as anti-people, anti-farmer and pro-rich. Or more precisely, pro Ambani / Adani, the suit-boot ki sarkar. (The farmers’ protest took a violent turn for the worse on Republic Day, but since no one is owning the blame for the fracas that ensued, we will just have to wait for the plot to thicken and unravel). The middle-class will moan and groan, and the rich will sigh resignedly – a few hundred crores here or there will make little difference to their bank balance. There will be much heckling, wailing and gnashing of teeth, flailing of fists and banging on the benches. Some MPs may even barge into the well of the House and attempt to grab the Speaker’s microphones, waving a tattered copy of the Constitution the while, but you are fully seized of all this and will surely be adequately prepared to present a dead defensive bat.

As one who represents R.K. Laxman’s fabled Common Man, I can freely confess to not following much of what the budget speech is all about. Or the Finance Bill, come to that. Truth to tell, pretty much most of it. All those provisions, exemptions, tax impositions, tax breaks, sections from various acts being quoted left, right and centre. And don’t even get me started on ‘vote-on-account.’ They tend to go over my head for the most part. My usual practice is to call up my tax consultant and get the low down on whether I will be paying more tax or less, as a result of your lengthy spiel and closing peroration. The fact that my tax consultant may himself have been gasping for breath is another matter altogether. I appreciate that the television channels invite a host of business and finance experts to provide an elucidating running commentary even while you are making your announcements, but that only serves to create more confusion. Add to that the live, racing figures of the Sensex and the Nifty, yo-yoing up and down after every announcement from you, keeps us all enthralled. Only the fine print in the next morning’s newspapers will tell the real story, provided I can follow a word.

Under the circumstances, I am eschewing any attempt to make silly requests to you to increase this or decrease that. You are going to ignore my pleas anyway, as the idle wind. Notwithstanding, kindly don’t be predictable and impose a ‘pandemic tax.’ We have suffered enough with Covid19. Hope I am not putting ideas into your head! You may treat what has just preceded as the preamble to what now follows, which is a step-by-step guide for a few simple rules you should adhere to in order to make your budget presentation more decorous and appealing on television. Since the majority of folks watching your ‘great moment’ are clueless, the following tips may endear you to them, make you more beguiling. What is more, it will keep their minds blissfully away from all those complicated numbers you will be spewing, which will be a blessing in disguise. After all, the next general election is not too far away.

Dress code: As the second lady Finance Minister of the nation (PM /FM Indira Gandhi was the first in 1970-71), though this is your third budget presentation, what you wear becomes vital, bearing in mind your viewers. As befits your conservative background, a white or cream-coloured silk sari, with a bright saffron border would present a dignified presence. The blouse can either be of the same colour as the sari, or match the saffron border to provide a stark contrast. You may, if you wish, completely reverse the colour scheme, making saffron the dominant colour and cream providing subtle support. Personally, I would stick to the former combo. This will portray you on screen as a person of quiet authority coupled with elegant dignity. Elegant dignity goes down well with the masses, particularly for a lady. Our late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had elegant dignity down to a nicety, even if she did a lot of not very nice things. A word of caution. Whatever you do, please do not approach a fashion consultant for advice. That way lies disaster. You are addressing the nation from a pristine podium, not sashaying on a ramp.

Opening quotation: It has now become standard practice for our finance ministers to open their budget preamble with a quotation. From Ghalib to Tiruvalluvar, a wide range has been covered depending on which part of India the minister hails from. I understand Ms. Sitharaman, you are fluent both in Tamil and in Telugu. You have a wide choice, from some of the great Tamil poets like Subramania Bharati, to the likes of Saint Tyagaraja who composed his immortal songs in Telugu. May I suggest, however, that you break with tradition and opt for the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius. The Chinese government, whom we treat with kid gloves, will be pleased as punch and much goodwill could be garnered. I would even suggest the following quote – ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall / It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.’ The quote must necessarily be preceded by the words, ‘Confucius say,’ which sounds grammatically incorrect, but it is what it is. With the help of a coach, you could even attempt to first read the quotation in Mandarin, but I would advise against it. Your reach might exceed your grasp.

Praising the Prime Minister: After your first budget presentation, some smart aleck journalist who had nothing better to do, kept a tab on the number of times you mentioned the Prime Minister in your speech. In glowing terms, of course. He counted thirteen occasions when, in his considered, if ill-advised opinion, you took the PM’s name in vain. I disagree with this petty scribe. I think your invoking the name of the country’s tallest leader was entirely in keeping with the tenor of your speech. That being the case Madam, for your forthcoming budget please talk about our PM as and when the fancy takes you. Only don’t stop at thirteen mentions. Unlucky for some, as they say. Go on to achieving higher goals. Don’t scrimp. Make it fourteen, fifteen or even twenty. Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar, as my English master in school used to tell us. The words of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson will come in handy. In his poem Ulysses he waxes lyrical, ‘Men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.’ Should some literary, journalist wag cavil that you are quoting Tennyson out of context, put him in his place and take away his Lok Sabha entry pass. That’ll teach him!

Spectacles: I fully understand that at your age, 61 I am reliably informed, a pair of reading glasses is a pre-requisite. All those reams of pages with statistics and graphs are enough to give anyone blurred vision. The thing is successive finance ministers, and you are no exception, have found it necessary to keep removing their glasses and putting them back on again in mid-speech. This is as much due to a nervous habit, as it is to wipe one’s eyes and the bridge of one’s nose to dry out accumulated moisture and, at times, just for effect – waving your glasses at the opposition benches while making a telling point. I would also caution against a chain or strap cord attached to your glasses. It can get caught in your hair and generally get in the way, causing needless awkward moments. Remember you are on television. Contact lenses can be considered, but it’s a big risk if one or, horror of horrors, both of them fall off. The press will go bonkers with tasteless barbs about ‘the blind leading the blind.’

While on the subject of glasses, the glass of water placed at the podium for you to frequently take sips from (the Budget speech is thirsty work), could do with a change. Instead of the standard, quotidian glass, why not look at a sparkling silver tumbler with some ornate filigree work of your party symbol? The lotus suggests itself. In marketing we call it subliminal advertising. The cameras will lovingly pick it up, the journos will have a field day commenting on it and the opposition will go ballistic. That’s three birds with one stone!

Deportment: You should try and maintain a smiling visage throughout your speech and particularly during the climactic peroration, post which you can end with another quote, this time reverting to your mother tongue. You could even consider singing a line, which will be a real first for a budget speech! I seem to recall your gracing the Music Academy Madras a few years ago at their annual festival, when your love for Carnatic music was amply evident. I emphasise the smile because I have observed during interviews that you tend to maintain a consistently grim visage. I have also heard tell that you have a bit of a temper on you. In the words of 17th century English playwright William Congreve, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I would strongly suggest you treat all provocation from the opposition members with a cold hauteur. It’s a proven winner, cold hauteur, leaving your foes looking silly and abashed. To remind you again, the television cameras are on you. As Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits said in one of his songs, ‘close ups can get rough.’ Further, we cannot rule out the possibility of a leading member of the opposition crossing the floor unannounced, to hug the Prime Minister. At this point you can purse your lips and sneer contemptuously, something you affect so well, but no more. All this will come to nought if you wear a mask, even if cunningly colour coded. Avoid the mask at all costs, so long as you are socially distanced. What is more your speech will be muffled. Restrained subtlety and understated emotion. Poise is the name of the game.

The bag (bahi khata), you displayed last time round, specially designed by your aunt, for you to carry those vital budget papers, was an absolute winner. Ethnic chic is the term that springs to the lips, reflecting an amalgam of the traditional with the modern – the India of today. Such powerful symbolism compared to those staid, old briefcases other finance ministers carried. A variant on the same would be welcome this time round, perhaps designed in the shape of, what else, but the lotus. The cameras would feast on it. And the pièce de résistance? The sacred bindi on your forehead, could be in the shape of your party’s lotus symbol, in the traditional saffron colour. The optics will zoom stratospherically. Cynics will carp and snipe. To which I can only paraphrase Kipling, ‘What do they know of India, who only India know?’

Finally, on the subject of deportment, I observe that you have greyed gracefully since your last budget speech. Understandable, given the inevitable pressures of your high calling and the inexorable passage of time. Forget about Indira Gandhi’s coiffured grey streak. Nevertheless, I think you should do absolutely nothing about this. Grey hair represents experience, wisdom and maturity. Qualities that all of us cherish in our senior ministers. Lest we forget, the budget speech can be quite hair-raising at times.

Medical aid: On an earlier occasion, your budget presentation was so lengthy that you were beginning to feel faint and required some tablets to keep your BP from plummeting. I expect your speech this year to be even longer. It goes with the territory and I would therefore strongly advise you to keep handy a clutch of tablets for any eventuality. And do keep yourself hydrated every 10 or 15 minutes, Madam. Long speeches tend to parch one’s throat easily, and I have personally found hot water mixed with lemon and honey to be most efficacious for a dry throat. And without wishing to sound alarmist, a doctor in the house, purely as a sensible precaution, may not be entirely out of place. I say this out  of concern for your well-being on this momentous occasion when the eyes of the world (India, at any rate) will be on you and you can ill afford a slip-up.

In conclusion, you may consider telling a joke, which has never been attempted before. It will reduce the tension and leave people with a smile on their lips. You will be lauded as someone with a sense of humour, generally not considered a strong suit of finance ministers. This needs careful thought as things can go awry if the joke falls flat. However, try this one on for size. You first preface the joke with a remark that you would like to end on a light note, and boldly dedicate the joke to your Prime Minister who has been most vocal in wishing to root out corruption in our country. It goes like this. “A teacher reads this sentence to the class, ‘One day our country will be corruption free.’ And asks the class, ‘Which tense is it?’ One bright spark puts his hand up and goes, ‘Future Impossible tense.’” The Lok Sabha collapses with mirth. You will then tell the house that your government is dedicated to proving that impertinent, too-clever-by-half student, wrong. This will earn you the double bonus of ending your speech amidst raucous, thigh-slapping laughter and tumultuous applause from the Treasury and Opposition benches, and will show your vast audience that you have the ability to laugh at yourself – a quality as rare as hen’s teeth.

I thank you for your time and patience, Madam Finance Minister. One must also thank your government for changing the timing of the budget presentation (from evening to morning), moving it forward by a month, and doing away with a separate Railway Budget some years ago, to suit India’s requirements and not to cater to British needs, as was absurdly the case for many decades after Independence. Big Ben is no longer timekeeper to our nation. While you’re at it, you may consider changing our financial year to follow the calendar year, as is the practice worldwide.

Finally, do forgive my extended, circumlocutory style. I was greatly inspired by another loquacious Chinese philosopher, On Too Long. I wish you the very best as you prepare to present India’s Union Budget for the financial year 2021-22.

With warm personal regards.

Sincerely yours,

Suresh Subrahmanyan.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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