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Between two Finance Ministers, a Book Launch Nearly Gives In To Budget Talk

New Delhi, Nov. 7: For a fair while it was tough to make out if the evening was about a hot-off-the-press bestseller or about superannuated or future budgets.

Between an incumbent finance minister and his immediate predecessor and adversary, the launch of Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2014 The Election that Changed India (Penguin Viking, Rs 599) became a dour policy duel rather than a soiree of political spice that lies liberally stuffed between the covers.

P. Chidambaram challenged Arun Jaitley to have the courage to scrap the controversial retrospective tax proposals with the comfortable parliamentary majority his government enjoys; Jaitley appeared the meeker to the task, suggesting he expected the outgoing UPA to have “cleaned up the mess” before departing from power.

“I feel let down, if I enjoyed such a majority as you, I would have repealed the retrospective tax,” was how Chidambaram cast his dare to Jaitley. “And I sincerely hope you do that in your next budget, that you will scrap it.”

Jaitley only half approached the challenge saying he had let investors at home and abroad know retrospective tax provisions will not be implemented. To which came Chidambaram’s swift retort: “Well, I gave similar assurances several times and it did not make any impact.”

Not content he had scored a point, and mischievously provoked by moderator Karan Thapar, Chidambaram proceeded to impale Jaitley with blame for leaving the insurance reforms stalled. “How many times I implored the BJP in Sushmaji’s (Swaraj) chamber in Arun’s presence but finally they said they did not intend to support it,” Chidambaram lanced on, to some murmur of appreciation in the packed Nehru Memorial auditorium.

Jaitley, intent and all ears, turned to remind Chidambaram that the insurance bill was originally a proposal of the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee government. “Let me take you back….”

But Jaitley had scarcely begun when Chidambaram interrupted: “Well, if we are going back, let me take you even further back to 1996-98 when I had originally made the insurance liberalisation proposals as finance minister in the United Front government, but that is probably too far back for you to remember….”

Rippling laughter, but also, barely disguised in its echo, a hubbub of frustration. Barely any of this seemed to be about the book the two had come to unveil. They had made a two-man joust of it, virtually relegating to the ringside the centre-stage man of the evening: Rajdeep Sardesai. He sat on stage, quite upstaged and bewildered the conversation had run away from him.

On another evening the veteran of the studio debate could well have intervened to direct the drift. But he was the groom amid ceremonies he seemed to have no control over. He sat there, his lips almost ready to munch the microphone, a news anchor tormented to await his turn on what may have been his biggest show night.

Mercifully, Thapar did eventually come to realise it was a book launch he was anchoring and not his own show, which he daily conducts with famed precision and provocation. He probably just happened to see there was a pile of virgin volumes alongside on the dais and remembered they’d all been authored by the same man. He turned to Rajdeep, and thereupon, the audience came to be treated to just a few sparks of the fireworks it had turned out expecting.

Like Jaitley saying, to monumental surprise, that of course he did not believe Rajdeep saying Modi had been “incompetent” in handling the 2002 Gujarat violence. “It does not become true that Modi was incompetent just because one journalist chooses to write it.”

Or, Chidambaram drawing away from Rajdeep’s argument that Rahul Gandhi was a split personality divided between Bharat and India, between a daytime politician and nighttime party-goer, a 9 to 5 politician, by saying: “Well, having read the book as I have, I can say it is a mixture of memory, a few notes and gossip. I do not know where this fits in, perhaps it fits in with gossip.”

Rajdeep rebutted hard, asking if Rahul really did display the gut and energy for battle as Narendra Modi did, wondering if Modi should not send a thank-you card to, among others, Rahul for the BJP’s staggering victory.

Came a confessional from Chidambaram that already lay embossed with the ruthless judgement of May 16. “Well, perhaps, we made some mistakes, as I said even if we had not made all mistakes and taken some timely corrective action, the BJP would still have been the single largest party, though it would not have had the majority it got.”

That majority Chidambaram has now thrown as a budgetary gauntlet to Jaitley; it’s moot if Jaitley will pick it up. It’s moot too if two finance ministers made it a profitable evening for Rajdeep’s book.

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