WHEN, ON THE MORNING of 26 February, the diminutive, bespectacled finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, gets up from his seat in the Lok Sabha to present the Union government’s annual budget for the fiscal year that will end on 31 March 2011, don’t expect fireworks. There is every possibility that the bulky document he will read out will be greeted with quite a few yawns. The editors of the pink dailies and breathless anchors on television screens with running tickers where stock quotations change furiously would, in all probability, express their disappointment that the budget was bereft of path-breaking economic reform initiatives.
But, then, the finance minister hates playing to the gallery. He presented a vote-on-account on 16 February 2009, in the run-up to the general elections. It was a bland interim budget that had no surprises. Then, after the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was firmly in place, the budget he presented on 6 July 2009 was no different. There is no reason to presume that the 73-year-old political veteran will do anything uncharacteristic of him this time round either, when he presents the first full-fledged budget of the second UPA government.
Budgets in India are much more than statements of financial accounts of the world’s largest democracy: they are important pronouncements on the political economy of the second most-populous nation on the planet. Mukherjee is arguably among the most experienced of the current crop of politicians in power. Born on 11 December 1935, he is barely three years younger than Prime Minister Mamohan Singh. He has been a teacher, a lawyer and a journalist. It is said that he has a brain like a computer: he never forgets, has an infinite capacity to store and quickly recall information and he remembers names and numbers with unerring accuracy. But staid conservatism has been the hallmark of his career.