Not too long back, a couple of days after the finance minister had tabled the Budget on the floor of Parliament, the lawns of the Cricket Club of India would be thronging with people to hear Nani Palkhivala’s take on the document.
Entry for the lecture for the aam janta would be from the gate leading into the east lawns of the CCI and a serpentine queue could be seen hours in advance. To those who associate the CCI only with cricket, it could have been mistaken for a night match involving India and Pakistan.
Palkhivala’s popularity was based on trust in his erudition, understanding and articulation. He was the pre-eminent authority who ratified the merits or otherwise of the budget — not just for Mumbaiites, but the entire nation.
For the vast majority of Indians, what Palkhivala had to say was perhaps more important than the finance minister’s speech in Parliament. I dare say that the powers that be in Delhi waited as eagerly to read what the jurist’s verdict was. If he gave a thumbs down, it could spell serious trouble.
This was before cable television had penetrated deep into our lives, unleashing petulant anchors and penny-wise experts to make wholesale idiots out of us. There is untold excitement aired in the public domain nowadays — both preceding the annual Budget and after — but somewhere the gravitas and understanding of this document now seems lost.
Debate on the issue is high on noise these days, but low on context and content. I suspect this is true of most matters, but particularly so on a subject that is so complex and where the fine print not the bombast — of the political class as well as experts — is of the essence.
Nani (derived from Nanabhoy) Palkhivala started the tradition of his much-looked-forward-to Budget postmortem in Bombay’s Green Hotel in 1958. The beginning, according to legend, was humble with only a handful to listen to him. As word spread of his expertise, clarity of thought, insights and cutting wit, his audience soon multiplied manifold.
For more than three decades after, Palkhivala’s post-budget speech became a Bombay staple with thousands craving to listen to him: rich, poor and middle class alike. The fact that he could cut through the waffle and jargon to explain the nitty-gritty gave him an iconic status that nobody before or since has enjoyed.
Palkhivala’s genius was such that he could speak extempore and keep a crowd hanging on his every word. But it might surprise some old-timers who may have heard him to learn that he had a stammer when he was young and shied away from speaking in public!
He overcame this handicap through high education, courage and diligence and went on to become an ace lawyer, constitutional expert, economist, philanthropist and among other things also a key adviser to JRD Tata in his years of pomp. He was the sort of Renaissance man that India once seemed to have in abundance. Sadly, that kind of stock seems to be running low these days.
In the days before liberalisation — and all-pervasive media — every little tax cut or increase could have meaningful impact on the average salary and every duty or surcharge could dramatically change a businessman’s prospects. There was nothing ‘saral’ about taxation in those days, so to speak.
When he stopped his post-Budget speech in the early 1990s because of advancing years, it was to mammoth crowds at the CCI. Some say he took this decision because he believed that post-liberalisation there was no need for great analysis.
Just perhaps he knew that good sense was giving way to cacophony — and in such an environment silence is golden.