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Remembering the Budget speech that changed India

Towards the end of his speech Manmohan cited Nehru's advice to daughter Indira that in dealing with the affairs of the state one should be full of sentiment but never be sentimental.

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Last Updated: Jan 16, 2020, 12.38 PM IST
A narration of someone's life story is something that you may not have heard in a Budget speech, which usually is a sedate and serious affair. Most of us remember the witty remarks, the comebacks and the couplets that have now become an inseparable part of the India's biggest financial exercise.

In all of India's budget history, there was, however, one such time when a digression from the 'routine' happened. And the finance minister at the centre of that episode was a person who is regarded as one of the most restrained and reserved politicians India has ever produced.

The 1991 Budget speech by then finance minister Manmohan Singh was pathbreaking in more ways than one. It was the speech that changed India — ushering in what the posterity would know as liberalisation. It eased imports, allowed foreign investment and started disinvestment in inefficient PSUs.

Most importantly, it marked the end of notorious licence-permit raj.

The 1991 speech was also unique for something very unusual for the reticent Dr Singh — an emotional narration of personal life.

Thus went his speech: "I was born in a poor family in a chronically drought prone village which is now part of Pakistan. University scholarships and grants made it possible for me to go to college in India as well as in England. This country has honoured me by appointing me to some of the most important public offices of our sovereign Republic. This is a debt which I can never be able to fully repay."

Towards the end of his speech Manmohan cited Nehru's advice to daughter Indira that in dealing with the affairs of the state one should be full of sentiment but never be sentimental. "But the House will forgive me if on an occasion like this I cannot avoid being somewhat sentimental," said Manmohan before he began narrating the story of his life.

To the story of his background Manmohan added, "The best I can do is to pledge myself to serve our country with utmost sincerity and dedication. This I promise to the House. A Finance Minister has to be hard headed. This I shall endeavour to be. I shall be firm when it comes to defending the interests of this nation. But I promise that in dealing with the people of India I shall be soft hearted. I shall not in any way renege on our nation’s firm and irrevocable commitment to the pursuit of equity and social justice. I shall never forget that ultimately all economic processes are meant to serve the interests of our people."

Manmohan knew full well that his speech would become a milepost in India's history and be read and re-read for a long time to come. By peppering it with personal anecdotes, he was perhaps trying to make it even more unforgettable.

Or probably he was aware that his radical reset of the economy might come across as mainly a pro-business gesture, so he brought up his own humble origins to underline his commitment to the poor.

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