The secret wish of all finance ministers

What do P Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha, the late Jaswant Singh, the late Pranab Mukherji and the late Arun Jaitley have in common? Other than being finance ministers, just one thing.

They have all believed that Part A of the Budget speech should not have to be read out fully. Some of them have told me as much.

They all agree that reading only 10 per cent of it would be enough to suggest, if not prove, that the government is serious about welfare and investment and so on. The rest can and should just be placed on the Table of the House.

I asked why they didn’t do it, then. Their answers were the same: Noblesse oblige. It seems ministerial colleagues want bits about their ministries to be read out. But this is completely unwarranted. Recall in this context that in the last six years two of them have nearly collapsed while reading out the speech.

I think that sight at least should prompt the prime minister to order that Part A be merely tabled. It is not too late even now for such a decree.

Please, Sir, just do it.  The same way as you abolished Article 370.

The thing is that part A has become nothing than a mind-numbing litany of mostly piffling allocations to several redundant ministries. Truth be told, these allocations can be tweeted or posted on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Negative externality

All good decisions have a bad aspect to them as well. The Budget speech is no exception.

In the old days, the Budget used to be read out at 5:30 pm. It would finish by 6:45 or 7:15 pm because it simply had to.

The speech and the associated papers had to reach the newspapers by 8 pm -- at the very latest -- so that the first edition could be ready by midnight. Thus there was a really hard time-constraint.

 

But ever since Budget was moved to the morning and the time-constraint went, Part A has grown longer and longer.

However, in its place has come a hard money constraint. That, I think, is just as good a reason as the hard-time constraint for keeping Part A really short. When there is so little money to allocate, why go on and go on for 150 minutes? Just 30 minutes should do.

Brevity is the soul of a good Budget.

Perfect time for it

The 2021 Budget would be the perfect opportunity to effect this change -- for an indisputable and incontrovertible reason: there is no real money to allocate.

In fact Part A should be the exact opposite of what it has been till now: it should list the cuts that have been imposed on all the faltu allocations which, in the end, are never handed out anyway.

The expenditure secretary can be given as many red pencils as he needs. That much at least, or so I think, the government can afford.

If the prime minister -- uncharacteristically for him -- demands a precedent he can be shown all the speeches where Part A was read out in 30 minutes or less.

He should also be told that this whole Part A was introduced four decades ago as a way of grandstanding. But as innovations go, it was wholly unnecessary.

The time has come to discard it as it doesn't serve any useful purpose.



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