Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday again took a digital tablet wrapped in a traditional ‘bahi-khata’ style pouch as she headed for Parliament to present Union Budget 2023-24 in a paperless format just like the previous two years.
She posed for the traditional ‘briefcase’ picture outside her office along with her team of officials before heading to meet the President. She, however, was holding a tablet instead of a briefcase to present the Budget in a digital format.
With the tablet carefully kept inside a red cover with a golden-coloured national emblem embossed on it instead of the briefcase, she went straight to Parliament after meeting President Droupadi Murmu at Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Sitharaman, India’s first full-time woman Finance Minister, had in July 2019 ditched the colonial legacy of a Budget briefcase for the traditional ‘bahi-khata’ to carry Union Budget papers. She used the same in the following year, and in a pandemic-hit 2021, she swapped traditional papers with a digital tablet for carrying her speech as well as other Budget documents.
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Her Budget for the fiscal year beginning April 2023 (FY2023-24) is the Modi government’s 11th straight Budget since 2014 (including one interim Budget presented ahead of general elections in 2019).
She was appointed as the finance minister when Narendra Modi swept to power again in the 2019 election and presented her maiden Budget on July 5, 2019. She used a red-cloth folder enclosed with a string and emblazoned with the national emblem to carry Budget documents.
The Budget for 2023-24 is Sitharaman’s fifth straight Budget.
Earlier, finance ministers in different governments, including her predecessors in the Modi government – Arun Jaitley and Piyush Goyal- used the standard Budget briefcase.
Before Sitharaman, a long-standing colonial tradition in connection with the Budget presentation was broken during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government when the then finance minister Yashwant Sinha presented the Budget at 11 am rather than at the traditional time of 5 pm.
Since then, all the governments have been presenting the Budget at 11 am.
The tradition of carrying the Budget briefcase was a British legacy. The word ‘Budget’ originates from French word ‘bougette’, which means leather briefcase.
The ”budget case” tradition started in the 18th century when the Chancellor of the Exchequer or Britain’s budget chief was asked to ‘open the budget’ while presenting his annual statement.
In 1860, the then British budget chief William E Gladstone carried his papers in a red suitcase with the Queen’s monogram in gold. Budget briefcase came into being because Gladstone’s speeches were extraordinarily long, and he needed a briefcase to carry his speech papers.
However, in India, different finance ministers carried different briefcases with colours of red, black, tan or brown.
India’s first finance minister RK Shanmukham Chetty carried a leather portfolio to present the first Budget in 1947. TT Krishnamachari in the 1950s carried something that looked like a file bag. Jawaharlal Nehru carried a black briefcase.
As the finance minister, Manmohan Singh, who delivered the iconic 1991 economic liberalisation proposals, carried a black bag. Pranab Mukherjee, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s finance minister, used a red briefcase similar to the Gladstone case of Britain.
Piyush Goyal, who presented the interim Budget in February 2019, was the last finance minister to have carried a briefcase. He carried a red one to Parliament.
On Budget day, the finance minister of India poses with the Budget bag outside Parliament. In Britain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer poses with his suitcase in front of 11 Downing Street before the Budget speech.
Soon after presenting her maiden Budget in 2019, Sitharaman had said that the bahi-khata was a break from the colonial legacy.
”Why did I not use a leather bag to carry budget documents? I thought it is high time we move on from the British hangover, to do something on our own. And well, easier for me to carry too,” she had said.
One of her predecessors, P Chidambaram of the Congress, had however scoffed at her choice in that year. ”A Congress finance minister in future will bring an iPad,” the former finance minister had said when asked to comment on the bahi-khata.
And Sitharaman did just that in 2021 and 2022 and again this year.