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Time out! First finance minister to disrupt own budget

New Delhi, July 10: Literary flair clearly doesn’t figure in the Narendra Modi stylebook. William Shakespeare and Mirza Ghalib, and the legions fore and aft and betwixt, need probably be sent word their ghosts have been dusted off the reference racks of budget scribes.

This week has seen two budgets read out to the nation and we haven’t heard half a couplet quoted. Even Mamata Banerjee dared Urdu, unintelligible though it was for the better part.

But far from affording himself the occasional flight from dour budgetary prose into fanciful poetry, Arun Jaitley sat his presentation down, hobbled by a sudden violence of cramps in his back, an affliction that may have rendered him the first finance minister to disrupt his own budget presentation.

For all the high and radical expectations that attended pre-budget speculation, about the only out-of-the-box act the finance minister seemed to reveal was that he read the budget out seated.

Forty-five minutes into what would become the longest reading of accounts and intent, Jaitley suddenly steered off-text and turned to the Lok Sabha Speaker to request a break. “Madam Speaker, could we take a little break, and I can resume reading after?” he begged, already lowering himself into his seat, unable to stand any longer.

To those able to observe the finance minister closely, the interruption had been coming a while. He had repeatedly reached out to clutch his right shoulder, he seemed unsteady on his feet, pain was preventing focus, he was stuttering on words, losing link between one page and another.

Speaker Sumitra Mahajan readily obliged, even announcing a five-minute adjournment during which attention and advice descended on Jaitley from all sections of the Lok Sabha.

Ministerial colleagues closed in, some of them concerned if the back pain was a symptom of something more portentous; Jaitley suffers the diabetes rogue, after all, and undertook a heart bypass surgery in 2005.

He also has vertebral disc-related problems and it is possible he suffered an aggravation because he came to the Lok Sabha cramped at the back of a mini-SUV (as opposed to the spacious Lexus Jaitley is used to) between officials and stacks of budget documents.

It was nothing more than a “cramp”, he was heard telling colleagues, “don’t worry, I’m fine, I only need to sit for a while”. But even as he was motioning wellness, Rahul Gandhi proceeded towards him from the Opposition benches to ask his welfare. He was motioned to restraint by Sonia Gandhi; she despatched Jyotiraditya Scindia instead, who seemed to recommend the finance minister some manner of water-soluble potion as remedy. Rahul, meantime, assumed a seat beside his mother and appeared, between sotto voce exchanges with Sonia, to scribble notes.

Seated in the fore row of the Speaker’s gallery, daughter Sonali and wife Sangeeta — lemon salwar suit to match the hue of her husband’s bandi, or Nehru jacket — seemed not overly bothered at all; they probably knew better than most it was nothing more than his back and it would come to settle.

All the finance minister required in the end was a few gulps of re-hydrant and the comfort of his seat, resting where he read the remaining, and major, part of his presentation. Budget-day veterans promised this was the lengthiest time a finance minister had held them back in the press gallery.

“A good hundred paragraphs more than longer budgets of the past,” one said, adding, rather unkindly. “It would have given Arun Jaitley a backache even if he hadn’t had a history.”

A good part of that duration was taken up by what swiftly came to be known as the Pollywood chapter of Bollywood’s “Rs 100-crore club”.

Jaitley made at least 28 mentions of Rs 100-crore allocations to schemes, some new, some merely dressed up as new — Rs 100 crore for metros in Lucknow and Ahmedabad (a one-line Mumbai Metro cost upwards of Rs 4,000 crore and the Delhi Metro consumed more than Rs 200 crore for every kilometre); Rs 100 crore for soil health cards; Rs 100 crore for community radio; Rs 100 crore for virtual classrooms; Rs 100 crore for solar parks; Rs 100 crore for archaeological site preservation; Rs 100 crore for development of ghats along the Ganga; Rs 100 crore for a Centre for Himalayan Studies; Rs 100 crore for a sports university in Manipur; Rs 100 crore for the girl child; Rs 100 crore for upgrading madarsas et al.

That figure recurred so often, it triggered derisive whispering in Opposition benches. At one point, Sonia turned to her pick for leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge, and seemed to say: “Yeh kya sau karor-sau karor hai? Yeh bhi sau karor, woh bhi sau karor, har cheez sau karor, aur ek statue ke liye (Prime Minister Modi’s pet Sardar Patel national unity statue in Gujarat) do sau karor!”

Throughout the election campaign this summer, Jaitley had indignantly fought off speculated suggestion that he was part, if not the founder, of the so-called “160 club”, a euphemism for an alleged ginger group within the BJP that wanted the party’s Lok Sabha tally to halt at 160 so Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions could be scuppered. The “Rs 100 crore” tag will not be as easily shaken off; Jaitley has signed on to it in full public view.