There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either. That’s the takeaway from the Union budget presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, one of the most business-like exercises in recent memory. For a full two hours and eight minutes, it stuck to making and reducing allocations, announcing and renaming schemes, never taking its attention away from the ledger. Nearly every budget speech in the past has featured literary quotations, either to frame the big idea or to sprinkle across the text for rhetorical effect. Manmohan Singh favoured Iqbal, P. Chidambaram quoted Thiruvalluvar and Thoreau, Pranab Mukherjee leaned on Kautilya. It’s not just Shakespeare and Vivekananda, less beatified individuals like Amartya Sen and Indira Gandhi have also been quoted to support the finance minister’s logic. Yashwant Sinha riffed on Bollywood movie names in 2002. Budget speeches, like other political addresses, deploy rhythm and cadence — like Jaswant Singh’s “garib ke pet me dana, grihini ki tukia mein anna”.
Most of the time, these are special effects, designed to lighten an otherwise dry budget speech. At a deeper level, it is a reminder that this business of expenditures and inflows is also in service of larger ideals. It is a gesture away from the specifics, towards a sensibility, towards the realm of justice as conceived by the government. It is an attempt to bring an element of moral stewardship to the economic agenda — last time, Chidambaram’s poetic couplet said: “generous grants, compassion, righteous rule and succour to the downtrodden are the hallmarks of good governance”. Manmohan Singh’s famous 1991 budget inaugurating economic reform quoted Victor Hugo’s “no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come” — well-worn words that acquired a new thrill and power from their context.
Jaitley has dispensed with all that quote-mongering. He intends to govern in prose. Or perhaps he prefers to leave the rhetoric to his prime minister, who has a keen sense for oral poetic devices and whose weakness for alliteration and acronyms is impossible to miss. Either way, this budget speech painted by numbers, and had no time to waste on word games and fanciful notions of poetic uplift.