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 in 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 Chidambaramís presentation.
Gandhi, 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. Chidambaramís presentation could mean boon to him, or burden.
Rahul didnít 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 by-poll results in Bengal. It was just after 11 am, and the first leads had started to trickle in.
But suddenly, as Chidambaram began announcing a sharp increase in the scheduled caste and tribal sub-plan allocation and reiterated that the funds set aside for the weaker sections couldnít be diverted, Rahul reverted his attention to the dayís central event. He joined the treasuryís 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.
Chidambaramís constrained Budget resisted election year populism and so did not have much to woo the electorate with. A possible reason why Rahul didnít 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.