Two TV channels have had enough of Kanhaiya Kumar. Yesterday, Zee and India TV blacked out his press conference at JNU, which appeared to have been called to clarify that he is a student leader, not the prime minister. At the rate he’s going — “The constitution is not a video which you can doctor” — either the government will smear him, or the communists themselves will administer the midnight knock. But maybe the government wants peace and quiet now. In sharp contrast to Rahul Gandhi’s exuberant sniping — he has really found his stride as a self-deprecating gadfly — the prime minister’s parliamentary address was the most cautious and muted to date. And when a right wing government produces a left-leaning budget, something serious is afoot.
Budget mornings are hard on general news channels. They have to keep the audience interested with at least three hours of speculative bilge straight up before the finance minister steps into the spotlight, holding up his briefcase like a trophy of the hunt. On Twitter, the ever-helpful PRS reminded us that retro luggage is associated with the budget for etymological reasons. ‘Budget’ derives from the medieval English bowgette, imported from the French ‘bougette’ — a little bag.
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A relation with ‘baguette’ would have been much more sustaining on a budget morning, when the finance minister had no sops for the middle class. But on the Times Now budget show, Dinesh Trivedi (how does an intelligent man with a clean record remain in the Trinamool Congress, and intact?) stepped into the breach with businesslike humour. He noted that finance minister Arun Jaitley’s briefcase was unpropitiously red, and that someone should have had the sense to keep it in the black. Upon which, his host Arnab Goswami remarked that another guest, Meghnad Desai, was playing the field by wearing both red and black. Goswami was full of beans, bounce and boister. How does a man shrug off the shame of being the hanging judge of JNU, and stooping so low that it looked like his channel had been assimilated into the ministry of information and broadcasting?
“No finance minister has ever worked so hard to deflate public expectations,” said India Today’s Rahul Kanwal, which was one way of saying that the fuzzy-feelgood election promise of big bang reforms had been the original jumla. And one of his guests, a believer in a suit, marvelled at the “transformative speed” of this government. It is wonderful to see that such people still exist in the wild. They should be conserved. Just as we must always support free speech, we must stick up for biodiversity.
Since budgets these days seem to consist of a series of loud whimpers rather than big bangs, should the finance minister be required to trot out his performative side any more? Jaitley bravely turned down Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s offer to read the budget papers sitting down, but he had to read to the point when he was tongue-twisted and spoke of differently abled people with “austim and cerebral Plassey”. And there was the bit about the complexities of “monetary ballisy”, too. We lay people always suspected that it was precisely that, but to have our fears confirmed by the finance minister himself is nevertheless mortifying.
The budget speech was so long that by the time he reached the end, Jaitley had forgotten what he had said at the beginning. He had initially presented India as a haven of peace and prosperity in a fiscally troubled world, a fit destination for the world’s spare cash. He closed by saying that his ministry had weathered “global and domestic headwinds”, meaning that you shouldn’t come to India without your brolly.
Apart from one tactical blunder (fiddling with provident funds) and one fantastical promise (to double farm incomes) it wasn’t a totally execrable budget. The BJP wanted to show commitment to new sections of the electorate and, bravely setting aside hereditary aversions, it confidently reached out to farmers and the poor. Whether they enjoyed being felt up remains to be seen, but the volte face has certainly baffled loyal supporters. Sadanand Dhume, a confident social media proselytiser of the prime minister’s reformist agenda, now seems to agree with Arun Shourie, who famously said that the BJP is “the Congress and a cow”. And that cow has damaged the BJP much more than the Congress ever could.