New Delhi/Mumbai: The history of India’s budgets is a history of its economy. If the 1950-51 budget speech by John Mathai signalled a turn towards planning, with the announcement of a Planning Commission under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that of Manmohan Singh would dismantle the planned model in his 1991 budget speech.

The budget numbers may divulge the government’s priorities for different sectors, but it is the speeches that reveal the message it wants to convey to voters, or the public anxieties the government wants to assuage.

A Mint analysis of budget speeches of India’s most prolific finance ministers (FMs) shows how different personalities and the era in which they operated in left the mark on their budget speeches. The nine FMs who delivered a total of 51 budget speeches include C.D. Deshmukh (1951-57), Morarji Desai (1959-64, 1967-70), Y.B. Chavan (1971-75), V.P. Singh (1985-87), Manmohan Singh (1991-96), Yashwant Sinha (1998-2004), P. Chidambaram (1996-98, 2004-09, 2013-14), Pranab Mukherjee (1982-85, 2009-13) and Arun Jaitley (2014-19).

Among these, Manmohan Singh’s speech in 1991, at approximately 18,700 words, is the longest. But on an average, Sinha delivered longer speeches than any other FM in our list, at around 15,700 words. Indira Gandhi’s FMs delivered the shortest speeches—Desai’s averaged 10,000 words, while Chavan averaged 9,300 words.

Interestingly, as the role of the state and the importance of budget speeches have shrunk in the post-liberalization era, speeches have grown longer. Nirmala Sitharaman’s maiden budget speech, around 11,000 words, aligns with this trend. As speeches become long-winding, they have also turned less readable. The Flesch-Kincaid reading ease scores of budget speeches have been declining over time, shows our analysis. The Flesch-Kincaid score is a widely used metric to assess the readability of English language texts. The test score ranges from 0 to 100 and it is higher for easy-to-read texts.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint; Graphic: Sriharsha Devulapalli/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint; Graphic: Sriharsha Devulapalli/Mint

To see an enlarged version of this image, click here

Budget texts of Jaitley and Sinha were the toughest to decipher, with readability scores as low as 52 and 54, respectively. The test assigns higher scores to Deshmukh (62) and Desai (61), indicating budgets in earlier times were more comprehensible.

Words used in budget speeches by the FMs have also changed with the times. Deshmukh, in the mid-1950s, inherited an India recovering from the aftermath of famines. Food shortages, high prices and external payments were the key concerns that found frequent mention in his speeches, and which he managed to bring under control.

Peaking in the Nehruvian era, “planning" remained a dominant word, flattening out after the end of the licence-permit-quota raj. References to markets rose in the post-liberalization era. But in recent years, “state" has made a big comeback.

The rural and agrarian economy has been an evergreen area across budget speeches, but the focus seems to have sharpened after the National Democratic Alliance lost power in 2004, by popular lore, because of an urban-centric focus.

Rising focus on the farm was accompanied by greater attention to poverty and human capital (which includes health, education and sanitation), with Mukherjee, Chidambaram and Jaitley making them central to their addresses. Budgetary references to the environment, technology, gender and urban issues have also been more prominent in the 21st century budget speeches than they were earlier.

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