The importance of being Nirmala Sitharaman doesn’t lie only in her being the Union finance minister, or that she is the first woman to hold that prestigious post, full time. Nor does it not lie in her being the senior-most female cabinet minister in the Narendra Modi government.
It lies in the fact that she is the only Union minister of such seniority to attend a press conference, telecast live across all channels, at least once a year, and allow herself to be questioned any which way by journalists.
Prime Minister Modi doesn’t do it, Union Home Minister Amit Shah doesn’t do it either. Other Union ministers such as Rajnath Singh, Piyush Goyal and Smriti Irani, to name a few, may hold media briefings but those are brief and not always available to the public.
Many ministers talk to journalists who accompany them on official or political tours/trips but that is informal – and again, we the public don’t get to listen in.
The PM and his ministers give interviews to individual journalists or media houses, but that’s isn’t the same as facing an auditorium full of media professionals, many of whom do ask hard-hitting questions.
That’s what makes Nirmala Sitharaman’s Tuesday post-Budget press conference special.
In the line of fire
Of course, she isn’t the first nor will she be the last to do this. It is traditional for finance ministers to hold a live press conference, hours after delivering the Union Budget speech in Parliament — at 100 minutes, this was Sitharaman’s shortest. They also give DD News an interview So, Sitharaman was merely following tradition, as she has done for the last four years.
What makes it very special, though and something we all look forward to, is that it’s probably the only occasion in 365 days that we get to watch a senior BJP minister in the line of media fire.
And being Nirmala Sitharaman, the Finance Minister shoots from the hip and the lip, gives back better than she gets, all in her customary schoolmarmish manner.
She delivered her Budget speech with becoming gravitas – it didn’t evoke a great deal of applause but nor did it provoke too many interruptions or ‘hai hais’ from the Opposition benches.
At the press conference, Sitharaman was more relaxed but sharp as nails when the need arose. So, when the inevitable question on no tax relief was asked she turned it on its head and said she has resisted the push to increase taxes for the past two years; then, to a question about Rahul Gandhi’s rating the budget as ‘Modi Government’s Zero Sum Budget’, she dismissed him with disdain as the ‘MP who ran away from UP’.
As for the hapless journalist who dared to suggest that her answer on rising prices was ‘gol mol’ for the general janta, did she not give him a scolding he is unlikely to forget?
Sitharaman was quintessential Sitharaman: She has this bird-like quality to her, which sees her dart glances and remarks here there and everywhere. By turns, she smiled, she frowned, she pursed her lips, she dictated proceedings – yielding to her finance ministry colleagues when she felt the need but otherwise handling herself with considerable aplomb. Good TV.
News channels speak back
Like election specials, Budget coverage on news channels is informative and in-depth. On Monday and early Tuesday morning (some beginning at 7 am), TV news channels had given us a lowdown on the state of the economy, so when Sitharaman rose to speak in Parliament at 11 am, we were prepared.
All news channels made an effort to invite as many economists as possible – many men in grey suits, alas, but it was good to see several women including Dr Ila Patnaik (who is a contributing editor at ThePrint) and Dr Shamika Ravi, on panels.
Between them, we learnt about what NDTV 24×7 called ‘Hits and Misses’ of the Budget. Most experts agreed that it was a ‘booster’ but not a ‘wah’ budget. The news anchors kinda agreed: On Times Now, anchor Navika Kumar said it wasn’t a ‘blockbuster’ but ‘critically acclaimed’ by those who know and understand such things. Ouch. Most channels and their anchors said there was a huge impetus for growth and infrastructure in the Budget but little masala.
‘Kam kisan kamai’ is how Times Now described the Budget, adding, ‘A giant leap for atmanirbhar’. ‘Jobs, Janta, Jantantra,’ lauded CNN News18. The two headlines were odd inasmuch as most commentators across channels would criticise the budget for not addressing the immediate concerns of unemployment, farmer distress and those of the middle class — `Middle-class ko bada jhatka,’ said ABP News.
News anchors didn’t shy away from addressing these issues—they asked questions of BJP spokespersons and Union ministers like Hardeep Puri (Times Now) who were fielded to discuss and defend the budget. They were especially concerned with the absence of tax relief and badgered their guests on the subject. In the good-old days before GST, anchors could dwell on the rise in the prices of individual household items such as soft drinks, toothpaste or even cigarettes. Now, none of them knew what to ask about the cut in duty charges for frozen mussels and squid.
So taxes it had to be.
Govt’s soldiers on TV
Not everyone took kindly to being questioned about this: Sanjeev Sanyal, the government’s Principal Economic Advisor, didn’t like the tone or tenor of anchor Anjana Om Kashyap’s question regarding taxes and lost his cool, snapping repeatedly at her, sarcastically asking her to tell him where to cut costs and accusing her of playing politics.
When Republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami, who still finds it necessary to yell at all his guests all the time, attacked Niti Aayog’s Amod Kanth with, ‘How will consumption be driven without tax relief?’ Kanth didn’t get as shirty as Sanyal but was somewhat dismissive too. It’s not possible to give ‘tax concessions’ to all sectors, he said. Am guessing that since a channel like Republic TV is watched by a middle-class audience, this answer wouldn’t have gone down well with viewers.
Sanyal and Kanth ought to have taken lessons from Hardeep Puri who dealt with Navika Kumar’s question on taxes—‘What happened to that love affair’ (with the middle class)—much more suavely, saying there were indirect benefits in the Budget (Times Now).
All in all, a good day at the office for Sitharaman and news channels. It wasn’t ‘poetry’ as Yogendra Yadav observed, but it was pertinent.
Views are personal.