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Family Suggested 'Bahi Khata', Says Nirmala Sitharaman on Decision to Ditch 'British Era' Brown Briefcase

Nirmala Sitharaman abandoned the western legacy of a suave briefcase and carried in her hands the red-coloured bahi katha.


Updated:July 6, 2019, 8:06 AM IST
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Family Suggested 'Bahi Khata', Says Nirmala Sitharaman on Decision to Ditch 'British Era' Brown Briefcase
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman along with MoS Finance Anurag Thakur.

Nirmala Sitharaman began the Budget day with a ritual breaker. India’s first full-time woman finance minister to present the Budget on Friday, Sitharaman did away with the traditional brown briefcase that all of her male counterparts have used to carry budget documents in, in the past. Instead, she carried a traditional four-fold red cloth, the kind often seen in the hands of Indian traders and also used to wrap religious texts.

In an interview with CNBC TV18, Sitharaman revealed that her family had suggested she ditch the briefcase for the traditional four-fold red cloth. She added that she wanted to “get out of colonial hangover”.

Red-coloured bahi-khata (ledger) notebooks are considered auspicious for money matters in Indian traditions and the traders keep their account files in these notebooks to bring in prosperity and as a means to worship the goddess of wealth.

In an attempt to decolonise the Budget presentation, Sitharaman abandoned the western legacy of a suave briefcase and carried in her hands the red-coloured bahi katha. Chief economic advisor, Krishnamurthy Subramanian, stated, “It is in Indian tradition. It symbolises our departure from slavery of western thought. It is not a budget but a bahi-khata (ledger).”

Another reason why the finance minister gave leather briefcase a miss is because she considers leather products to be inauspicious, Subramanian said. "Sitharaman believes that leather made products are not auspicious for the big occasion, so she avoided the leather bag and took the bahi-khata wrapped in the red cloth. This is considered to be auspicious,’ Subramanian was quoted as telling ANI.

Seen since the independence of the country, finance ministers have carried a “briefcase” outside the parliament and posed for photographers before delivering the Budget speech. The tradition began when the country’s first finance minister, R K Shanmukham Chetty, presented the first ever Budget in the Parliament on November 26, 1947.

It has been largely influenced by our colonial rulers who first started the tradition back in the 18th century when chancellor of the exchequer or the counterpart of the modern day finance minister was first asked to ‘open the budget’ while presenting the annual statement.

In 1860, British budget chief William Ewart used a red suitcase, similar to the one used by England’s Queen. The red suitcase used by Gladstone had Queen’s monogram embossed in gold to carry his bundle of papers.

The word ‘budget’ is derived from the French word ‘Bougette’, which means a leather bag, thereby making the budget a metonymy – a figure of speech (about a speech, as it turns out) in which a thing (the budget exercise) is referred to by the name of something (the leather bag) closely associated with the former.

While Gladstone’s red box was in use for a very long time by the British parliamentarians, only retiring in 2011, finance ministers in India have used their own set of bags, experimenting with colours, to present the Budget speech in the parliament.

In 1998-99, then finance minister Yashwant Sinha used a black-coloured leather bag with straps and buckles, while former prime minister and then finance minister Manmohan Singh carried a plain black budget bag during his famous Budget in 1991.

Former President Pranab Mukherjee used a bag that was similar to the Gladstone’s “red box” during his tenure, while former finance minister P Chidambaram maintained a low profile with what appeared to be a bag with a lighter tone and softer leather.

However, present day finance minister Arun Jaitley used three different briefcases in his last three budgets and was similar to the one used by Chidambaram.

The tradition of carrying a leather bag or a “box” to the budget speech by the finance minister has become synonymous to that of a bandhgala and Nehru jacket of a politician.

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