FM Sitharaman's Budget speech: A perfect start to an imperfect end

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presents the Union Budget 2020-21 in the Lok Sabha, in New Delhi (LSTV/PTI Photo)
It started brilliantly. No fumble and a quick namaskar to her uncle in the gallery to seek his blessings as Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, her voice ringing out strong and true, announced she was tabling the Finance Bill 2020, aka the 2020-21 Budget. Nary a tremble to be seen.

Everyone, and four other members of her family in the visitors’ gallery, including her daughter Vangamayee, hunkered down into their seats and held their breath for the second-most-awaited speech of the year (the first being the PM’s Independence Day address from Red Fort). It was around 11.03 am.

By 12.39 pm, Hema Malini, Lok Sabha MP from Agra, had abandoned all pretence at acting. Her eyes were shut — no doubt, in deep thought — as the finance minister began explaining tax proposals and gulping draughts of water. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh urged her to continue her speech sitting down. It was clear she was feeling poorly. In the gallery, Vangamayee bit her lip. Never one to give up, Sitharaman soldiered on, re-reading the lines she thought were important for emphasis, though Opposition Trinamool Congress MPs implored her not to: "We can hear you. There’s no need to repeat," called out MP for Krishnanagar, Mohua Moitra.

A few minutes later, Sitharaman had thrown in the towel: She sat down, whispering that the rest of the Budget may please be taken as read. The harsh white fluorescent lights in the Lok Sabha bounced off her face, highlighting a faint sheen of sweat.

It is a tribute to India’s democracy, however flawed, that the very same MPs who had harangued her intermittently from Opposition benches now surged towards her, anxiety writ large on their faces. One offered her some homoeopathic tablets, another advised her to stay seated, another grasped her hand wishing her good health... the crowd parted as Prime Minister Narendra Modi strode up to congratulate her. But it was mostly well-wishers from the Opposition and the NDA that kept the finance minister cocooned with good wishes until it was time to leave. Sitharaman had recovered by then, and she waved to the gallery to reassure her family but it was empty: Her daughter was already outside waiting to be escorted to the minister’s room. "We’re worried about your mum," called out a reporter. Vangamayee smiled: “I’m sure she’ll be all right,” she answered.

Sitharaman needn’t have worried: The front benches in the Opposition were empty. There was no Sonia Gandhi, no Sharad Pawar; Trinamool Congress was holding the fort. "Sab to jail mein hain (they’re all in jail)," said Saugata Roy when Sitharaman read out a couplet by Kashmiri poet Dinanath Kaul, omitting his Urdu nom de plume ‘Nadim’ (Kaul wrote a poem in praise of Sheikh Abdullah when he was released from jail which is recalled in Kashmir even today). When the FM mentioned that an online degree programme will be offered by the country’s top 100 educational institutions to disadvantaged students, Vangamayee surreptitiously joined MPs in thumping the table. She would smile when her mother used the ultra-cool phrase "gaming the system" to describe GST frauds.

Wearing his railway minister hat, Goyal quickly shook his head when Sitharaman referred to "500 wifi-enabled railway stations". Obviously, the number is much more. But the outrage of the Opposition was expressed loudly when Sitharaman in one swift sentence announced that government would sell part of its holding in Life Insurance Corporation. The award for sartorial elegance must go to Trinamool MP Nusrat Jahan: She wore acid-washed jeans, a blue jacket, high-heeled white sneakers with a peach-coloured bag slung from one shoulder by a gold chain... tres mode!

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