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Jaswant breaks tradition

New Delhi, Feb. 28: Finance minister Jaswant Singh did what he promised his family before he sat down to write his first budget speech — cut down its length by half.

Compared to the 60-76 page budget speeches split in two parts read out by his predecessors: Yashwant Sinha, P.Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh, Jaswant Singh’s was a crisp 33-page document in one single volume.

The speech itself was a marked departure from all earlier budget speeches — instead of the traditional approach of spelling out government priorities and then listing out tax measures, Singh decided to address the common man’s concerns: his proposals for their welfare, his broad plan for new tax slabs and how well off or badly off the government will be at the end of the fiscal year. That’s all.

Starting off with an introduction on the impending war in the Indian neighbourhood, terrorism exported from across the western borders, he warmed to his pet theme -- lifetime concerns, food for the poor .... Followed by a far thinner reading of tax proposals which gave just the basics and left analysts groping for details in the fine print of papers laid in Parliament.

Nor did he go in for the much appreciated tradition of quoting couplets started off by Congress finance minister Manmohan Singh, followed by United Front's P. Chidambaram and BJP’s first finance minister Yashwant Sinha who took off on quotes from popular Hindi film songs, whose last ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam’ unfortunately left not just the tax-payer but also the BJP party crying.

The only popular saying Singh quoted was a promise he had made almost year back —‘Garib ki pet mein dana aur Grihini ki tukia mein anna” (Food in the poor man's belly and money in the housewife's purse).

This he said with a wry smile which failed to raise any of the laughs he may have intended to raise. Indeed most thought his speech was too serious a piece of work to be laughed at -- especially as he had taken the trouble of adding an index at the end of it for ready reference.

The lack of humour relief in the budget, however, went unnoticed as people kept guessing the import of many of the measures he spelled out in his speech delivered in his usual clipped Oxbridge accent.

For instance, a Rs 50 a metric tonne tax on crude oil did not seem much to most members of Parliament, till one of them sat down with a calculator to work it out to mean 50 paise a litre who then realised that the sum total of taxes on petro-goods would mean a Rs 1.50 a litre hike in petroleum prices.

But then despite the innovations and slash in speech length — Singh’s speech still took a good two hours 20 minutes with interruptions which accounted for about 25 minutes, compared with one hour forty five minute long speeches by Chidambaram and and two hour ones by Yaswant Singh.

However, that, was as one bored member of Parliament put it, was because, the inimitable Rajput nobleman, delivers all his speeches in the manner of a radio newsreader reading out bulletins at “very slow speed.”

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