It’s that time of the year again when everybody starts worrying about the budget. Will the finance minister burden us with fresh taxes and will he reduce the fiscal deficit — these are minor matters being discussed ad nauseam in the media. What’s bothering me is a far more important matter. The big question is, whom will Pranab Mukherjee quote in his budget speech this year?
Budget speeches are excruciatingly painful. Rumour has it that one of the torture methods used by the CIA on terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay was to force them to listen to Indian budget speeches. Strong men reportedly wilted under the strain. It’s no wonder then that everybody looks forward avidly to the budget quotes, since they are the only bright spots in the performance. Bets are placed on who will be quoted and bookmakers offer odds on them. During Chidambaram’s stint as finance minister, he used to quote the Tamil saint Tiruvalluvar so often that the saint was a huge favourite and got odds of no more than 20/100, which means you got back Rs 120 for every Rs 100 you bet on Tiruvalluvar being quoted by the minister. That’s hardly worth the effort.
Finance ministers need to vary their quotes to allow risk-takers to get a decent return. In his 2007 speech, for instance, punters whooped with joy when Chidambaram quoted Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel Laureate from Bangladesh, who was a rank outsider getting fantastic odds of 30 to 1. Last year Rabindranath Tagore was the hot favourite, with Swami Vivekananda a close second, because we expected Pranab babu to favour his Bong connections. Unfortunately for us, he chose to quote Manmohan Singh, Kautilya and Mahatma Gandhi instead.
It’s advisable, though, to back quotes by the Mahatma, the Nehru-Gandhi clan, Vivekananda and Kautilya, as these have proved to be consistent performers over decades of budget speeches. Rajiv Gandhi, for example, was quoted by Finance Minister V.P. Singh in 1986 and by Narain Dutt Tiwari in 1988. Interestingly, Tiwari quoted Rajiv Gandhi quoting Mahatma Gandhi, which led to a dispute in the payout that year, with those who had bet on the Mahatma being quoted asking for half the money.
It’s unfair, though, to paint Chidambaram as being all too predictable in his quotes. In 1997, for instance, he completely flummoxed us by quoting Deng Xiaoping. Because it was so unexpected, hardly anybody made any money out of it, except for our tea boy, who got confused between Deng Xiaoping and Rabindranath Tagore and bet on the former thinking he was putting his money on the latter. Incidentally, the versatile Chidambaram had also quoted Thoreau in 2006.
But Victor Hugo occupies pride of place in the new liberal India, for he was the person Manmohan Singh chose to quote in his path-breaking 1991 budget speech. “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come,” was the Hugo quip that Manmohan Singh chose.
Whom will Pranab babu quote on Friday? Could he start a new trend by tweaking Shakespeare a bit to suit the occasion, something like “Friends, Indians and countrymen, lend me all your money”? Or will he quote Gore Vidal, “The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.” I wouldn’t bet on it, though.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal