Divergent Accounts

Nirmala Sitharaman's rise as spin doctor for Modi's broken economy

31 March, 2022


AT 11.01 AM ON 5 JULY 2019, amid the thumping of desks in the treasury benches, Nirmala Sitharaman rose to her feet in the Lok Sabha to deliver her maiden budget speech. It was only the second time that a woman had done so—Indira Gandhi presented the budget in 1970, during her first term as prime minister. While preparing for this historic occasion, Sitharaman had sought the blessings of two of her predecessors: an ailing Arun Jaitley, whom she would describe in an obituary the following month as “my guru, my mentor, my moral strength,” and Manmohan Singh, whose budget speech in July 1991 had begun an era of reforms that, she assured parliament, would see India “become a $3 trillion economy in the current year” and reach “$5 trillion in the next few years.”

Sitharaman had carried the budget documents to parliament in a bahi khata—a traditional ledger wrapped in a red cloth—instead of the red briefcases preferred by her predecessors which mimicked the ministerial dispatch boxes of the British government. Krishnamurthy Subramanian, the chief economic advisor at the time, told the media that this choice symbolised “our departure from slavery to Western thought.” Sitharaman later explained that the subtle message behind the choice was that the Narendra Modi government “does not indulge in a culture of exchanging suitcases”—in other words, bribery.

“The recent election, which brought us to this august house today, was charged with brimming hope and desire for a bright and stable new India,” Sitharaman began, referring to the general election that had returned her Bharatiya Janata Party to power, two months earlier, with an even larger mandate than in 2014. “The people of India have validated the two goals of our country’s future: that of national security and economic growth.”