Sitharaman breaks from briefcase tradition with bahi khata
The briefcase, which every Indian finance minister since independence has religiously carried to Parliament on the day of the budget presentation in a throwback to the colonial era, may finally have had its day.
When Nirmala Sitharaman posed for the traditional photo-op Friday before entering Parliament, she did so carrying a “bahi khata” or ledger, packed in a red cloth embossed with the national emblem.
It was the first and perhaps the most talked-about non-verbal statement Sitharaman made, tacitly pushing ‘Make in India.’
It was a departure from a tradition set by RK Shanmukham Chetty, who was independent India’s first finance minister and also the first to carry the “budget box,” as the briefcase was then known. The British had done so since 1860, according to finance ministry officials.
The first full-time woman finance minister of India (Indira Gandhi held the portfolio for a year when she was also prime minister) called it curtains on the briefcase.
As the photo went viral and everyone struggled to put a name to it, chief economic advisor Krishnamurthy Subramanian explained what lay behind her use of the “bahi khata”.“It symbolises our departure from the slavery of Western thought,’’ he said.
Sitharaman, 59, herself explained to reporters later: “I thought it was high time that India moved away from the British hangover of having a briefcase... I also found it easier to carry.’’
For others, it meant more. For some, it was almost a feminist statement — the first full-time woman finance minister individualising the accessory to suit her style and the clunky leather briefcase being replaced by what looked like a clutch that matched fashion with practicality.
“I think it (briefcase) is a very masculine object. Its absence could denote a significant departure,’’ said a former finance ministry official who has been associated with the making of the budget, on condition of anonymity.
Not all agreed. “Briefcase was a longstanding tradition. I would have liked her to have continued it,’’ said former finance secretary Arvind Mayaram. “I believe she is the finance minister and her being a woman should not take the focus away from the seriousness of her business.’’
Even the opposition couldn’t help but comment on it. Former finance minister P Chidambaram said the Congress would do one better in the future. “I promise in future a Congress finance minister will carry an iPad.”