New Delhi, July 10: Half an hour after his first and extraordinarily long budget speech, the mood in the finance minister’s Parliament chamber appeared to reflect a relaxed informality.
After a few gruelling weeks, Arun Jaitley had at last earned a breather of sorts.
The room, insulated against casual callers in the run-up to today’s exercise, turned into an open house this afternoon.
Jaitley’s staff laid out a huge lunch spread that came from the minister’s home, with the signature dishes of rogan josh and katthal (green jackfruit) subzi.
Jaitley asked for the jackfruit curry and rotis in between fleshing out the budget before a gathering of journalists and BJP spokespersons who would soon be appearing on the various TV channels.
No gathering at Jaitley’s is complete without a sprinkling of his lawyer friends: they too had shown up.
Jaitley’s gaze was fixed on the stock market meter on TV that, in the final reading, dropped by just a few points after early oscillations.
Somebody asked why he hadn’t summarily scrapped the retrospective tax laws. He began saying “Yes, we didn’t go all out” before another query popped up.
Power minister Piyush Goyal was filling in the gaps. “That itself would have meant bringing in a lot of retrospective amendments,” he said.
Drawing up the budget had made tough demands on Jaitley although he was used to hard work as Rajya Sabha Opposition leader and Narendra Modi’s principal strategist in Delhi.
He had to forgo his morning walks at the Lodhi Garden, medically mandated for someone with a heart condition, as he tried to do justice to his double role as finance and defence minister.
In between, his job forced him to travel out of Delhi occasionally.
To Jaitley, the Lodhi Garden drill was not just part of his doctor’s prescription. Interacting with fellow walkers in a relaxed atmosphere was a source of feedback.
The blip caused by Jaitley’s request for a five-minute break midway through his speech had his colleagues and the BJP benches in a tizzy.
A Lok Sabha staff member summoned a doctor in the lobby though nobody had asked for medical help. Somebody rushed with a painkiller.
It emerged that the finance minister had felt a cramp in his back, induced by an uneasy drive to Parliament in a car he was unused to. The pain flared as he was speaking. By the time he returned to presenting the budget, the discomfort had eased.
At his parliamentary chamber, Jaitley looked as though he could do with a break. But TV interviews were lined up, so he left it to his quintet of ministers — Nirmala Sitharaman, Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar — to answer the waiting journalists and, of course, help themselves to the repast.
Was there a vacation in the offing, somebody asked. Jaitley shook his head, saying his Brazil visit with the Prime Minister was off because he was required in Parliament.
A summer holiday, preferably in London, had been de rigueur for him in the past.
The morning walks, though, are likely to resume once Jaitley moves from his private residence to his new home in Lutyens Delhi that has a large garden and a jogger’s track in the vicinity.
Among the political meetings Jaitley had had with various leaders and stakeholders in the run-up to the budget presentation, there were two interactions with Manmohan Singh at the former Prime Minister’s residence. The second of them took place on Sunday.
Jaitley’s cross-party camaraderie has served the BJP well on occasions when it has had to wriggle out of sticky situations in Parliament. It is learnt that he discussed the state of the economy — past, present and prospective — with Singh, who was apparently “quite candid” with him.
Singh let on that as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s finance minister and executor of Rao’s programme to usher in economic reforms, he had often had a “tough” time defending the switch from the Congress’s “socialist regime” to a liberalised economic dispensation.
When the Congress lost the 1996 election, the party’s conservatives blamed Singh.
The BJP does not expect Jaitley or Modi to have run-ins with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s “swadeshi” votaries this time because Sangh chief Mohanrao Bhagwat has made it clear that no show of “anarchy or open dissent” would be brooked.