Manmohan Singh in the Lok Sabha. (PTI)
New Delhi, Feb 28: This was the baton budget; a 10-year UPA relay finally transitioning into the final lap to retain power or be relieved of it.
P. Chidambaram stood engrossed with the task at the cusp of it, the two men on either side made a contrast after their own fashion: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a little less waxen at what could well be the valedictory budget of his record tenure in office; Rahul Gandhi, more distracted than usual with proceedings that could well become the tarmac of his proposed take-off.
Singh loosened his otherwise frozen demeanour courtesy a pencil that he frequently used to jot points from Chidambaram’s presentation. Rahul, seated many rows behind him, loosened his jaw with gum.
The Congress vice-president and the man his party wants to be king had arrived five minutes late and, back-bencher-like, he slipped quietly into his appointed seat to gather what was transpiring in the House.
The budget, after all, could well mean the world to Rahul, widely seen as the succession bet in the Congress ahead of the next elections. Chidambaram’s presentation could mean boon to him, or burden.
Rahul didn’t seem to be paying much attention, though. He seemed more interested, again back-bencher like, in striking an under-the-breath chat with junior railway minister Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, seated beside.
Rahul smiled, even nodded in approval, as Adhir passed notes, possibly exchanging the trends from the bypoll results in Bengal. It was just after 11am, and the first leads had started to trickle in.
But suddenly, as Chidambaram began announcing a sharp increase in the Scheduled Caste and Tribe sub-plan allocation and reiterated that the funds set aside for the weaker sections couldn’t be diverted, Rahul reverted his attention to the day’s central event. He joined the treasury’s bench-thumping applause to the proposal.
All this while, the Prime Minister remained his usual sombre self. But when Chidambaram began talking about fiscal and current account deficits, he reached for his pencil and put it to a notepad.
Chidambaram’s constrained budget resisted election-year populism and so did not have much to woo the electorate with. A possible reason why Rahul didn’t bother paying too much attention. Not that the young Gandhi is known to be a keen parliamentarian. He rarely participates in debates, he comes to the House even less often.
Prime Minister Singh, in fact, thumped the desk more times than Rahul, feeble though his efforts at applause were. Dressed in a regulation white with a black Jawahar coat and the signature light blue turban, Singh initially used a glistening steel pen to note down what he thought worth, but then moved to a pencil which he held through the budget presentation.
Dressed similarly in white and sporting a week’s stubble, Rahul was restless at the back. He kept changing his posture. Sometimes he was seen reclining and lapse in a world of his own. Sometimes he appeared to be attentive, chin meditatively rested on his arms. Sometimes he merely fidgeted, vigorously chewing on gum, then reaching out to pull a paper from junior minister Jyotiradiya Scindia seated in front of him and quickly returning it after a glance.
Around 50 minutes into Chidambaram’s speech, Rahul’s patience seemed be running thin. He unpeeled a new pack of gum, then left his seat to head to the exit, where he stood for a while, unsure whether he should leave or return.
It so happened that Chidambaram began to unveil his proposal of an exclusive bank for women at that stage. Rahul reached for the nearest bench and thumped it hard in applause. The next moment, he was gone. He returned a couple of minutes later, and settled beside Adhir who, by then, was probably sure the Congress was winning his Rejinagar pocket borough.
At the conclusion of Chidambaram’s speech, Singh headed out and ran into Rahul en route. He stood surrounded by a group of young party MPs. They all greeted the Prime Minister, Rahul included.
Singh lumbered out. Rahul headed to the front benches where Sonia Gandhi stood congratulating Chidambaram. Mother and son, president and vice-president of the Congress, respectively, were briefly courted by the thinned-out attendance, before they too departed the scene of their tenure’s last financial proposals to the people.