The first time I got into a discussion on the budget was in my first year in college in the early 1970s.
A bunch of us sat in the St Xavier’s canteen between classes and tried to see how the then finance minister had affected our wallets.
Our three areas of concern were how much personal income tax had been reduced or raised, and whether costs of cigarettes (a newly acquired indulgence) and petrol (to make the occasional travel by taxi possible) had gone up.
Though most of us were non-earners then, the first of these was the most crucial. If personal disposable income hadn’t improved it would leave the family breadwinner surly. This in turn would influence pocket money, and impact the other two areas.
The budget itself did not arouse so much interest in those days. It seemed like an annual academic exercise that had to be gone through and was largely consigned to business papers, which were hardly read by students.
The build up to the event was nondescript. There was none of the months of anticipation that precedes the budgets these days, and post-mortems were confined to select groups and forums, far removed from the student world.
The verdict in college canteens and classrooms — as well as on the street and in drawing rooms — would usually be non-complimentary as most popular items would end up attracting extra levy.
So, if you ‘kicked the butt’, as I fortunately did, the monetary benefit would be offset — or even go into the red — as eating out or clothes or gadgets and gizmos became more expensive. Of course, the cost of petrol never subsided in those days.
I got to understand the budget — its provisions and implications — only when I was introduced to Nani Palkhivala’s celebrated talk while studying law. The first time I went to it for a lark — and got hooked till it was discontinued in the early 1990s.
Palkhivala was an authority on jurisprudence and taxation. His expertise had won him national and international recognition, apart from a place as director on the boards of many blue chip companies.
His annual dissertation on the budget, held on the east lawns of the CCI, was among was among the most looked forward to event in the city’s calendar. Palkhivala not only had deep knowledge and expertise, but was also a scintillating speaker: insightful, uncompromising and full of biting wit.
Beginning with a small group in 1958 in Green Hotel, as I have recounted earlier in this column space, Palkhivala’s following grew so rapidly by word of mouth that he had to soon look for a larger venue. The CCI lawns fit the purpose splendidly.
His audience would be eclectic: Almost the entire Parsi community (naturally), Gujarati and Marwari brokers from the stock exchange, a sprinkling of industrialists and, over the years, also students and homemakers too.
Palkhivala’s speech would be a mix of the direct and the nuanced: something to offer every section of society. And no mincing words. Many other experts took a leaf out of his book and started their own post-mortems, but Palkhivala remained distinctive and coveted.
By the early 1990s, he was getting on in years and called a halt to his budget talk. By that time, India had also become liberalised, and an all-pervasive, highly competitive media had made post-budget speeches also-ran events, if not redundant.
Alas, this has not been an entirely educative or enlightening evolution as the necessary expertise — and more pertinently honest appraisal — is usually obscured by the need for ‘exclusive’ if pointless angles to stories, and/or unreserved but unsubstantiated hosannahs.
For instance, rarely does a head honcho or business promoter do a clinical assessment of a budget. In the past couple of decades, irrespective of which political dispensation is in power, for them, the budget has either been good, very good or excellent.
This takes away objectivity, reduces the gravitas of the post-mortem and leaves the lay person none the wiser: and for people of my vintage, deeply nostalgic for a Nani Palkhivala.
Also read: A four-point agenda to make Mumbai livable