Union Budget 2023: A look at the most remarkable speeches by India’s finance ministers

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be presenting her fifth Budget on 1 February, which will lay out the financial statements and tax proposals for the fiscal year 2023-2024. She is the second female finance minister to present the Union Budget after Indira Gandhi, who delivered it for the financial year 1970-71. From sharing personal anecdotes to quoting poetry, finance ministers have adopted unique ways to make their speeches more interactive in the recent past.

The then-prime minister Indira Gandhi, who also held the finance portfolio, read out the Budget speech on 28 February 1970. As was the convention then, the Budget was presented at 5 pm on the last day of February. While earlier Budgets were just ‘dry recitation of facts’, experts point out Gandhi’s speech changed the tone from being a financial statement to a political one, Chakshu Roy, the head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research, wrote for Indian Express.

While making announcements, she also lightly took a jibe at the smokers. “I’m sorry that the smoker’s pocket has to be touched once again. The duty on cigarettes is being enhanced with the increase ranging from three per cent to 22 per cent ad valorem depending on the value slabs. The cheaper varieties of cigarettes will go up by only one or two paise per packet of 10 cigarettes. Assuming that the smoking community remains steadfast in its devotion, the additional revenue from this measure will be Rs.13.50 crore,” she said, as per Business Today.

The Budget speech that changed the course of India was delivered by the then-finance minister Manmohan Singh under the PV Narasimha Rao government. His landmark 1991 budget, which ended licence raj and kickstarted the era of economic liberalisation, is known as the ‘Epochal Budget’. The Budget led to disinvestment in ineffective Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), easing of imports and permitting foreign investment.

The former prime minister, who is known for being reticent, did something unusual by opening up about his personal life, says Economic Times. The Congress leader also quoted French poet and novelist Victor Hugo’s famous words to stress on how it is time for India to take a “high seat at the global table”, noted Mint. “…As Victor Hugo once said, ‘no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come’,” he said.  With 18,650 words, this is the longest Budget speech in terms of word count. The second place is held by late finance minister Arun Jaitley whose 2018 Budget speech had 18,604 words.

On 1 February 2020, Sitharaman delivered the longest Budget speech when she spoke for 2 hours and 42 minutes. She had to cut short her speech with two pages still remaining as she felt unwell, asking the Speaker to consider it complete, noted PTI. Earlier, during her maiden Budget in July 2019, she ended the tradition of carrying the documents in a leather briefcase and replaced it with a red silk bag with the national emblem engraved on it.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister is the only woman to have presented four Union budgets. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she also presented the country’s first paperless Budget for the financial year 2021-22. She called her 2021 budget a ‘once-in-a-century Budget’ as it emphasised on “aggressive” privatisation strategy and “robust” tax collections, while reviving the economy by investing in infrastructure and healthcare sectors, PTI reported.

Yashwantrao B Chavan, the finance minister in the Indira Gandhi government, presented the ‘Black Budget’ for the 1973-74 financial year. It was dubbed so as the fiscal deficit during that year was Rs 550 crore, PTI reported. The Budget came at a time when India was reeling under an acute financial crisis.

In 1977, the then finance minister Hirubhai Mulljibhai Patel read out the shortest Budget speech with just 800 words.

P Chidambaram’s 1997-98 Budget is remembered as the ‘Dream Budget’ where he reduced tax rates to increase collections. He also slashed customs duty to 40 per cent and simplified the excise duty structure, reported PTI.