Finance minister Arun Jaitley takes his new responsibility seriously. He has literally adopted the secrecy requirements of his budgeting exercise in spirit as there are hardly any letters about it.
It is part of North Block lore to bar the media from entering the finance ministry headquarters a couple of months ahead of the budget presentation in normal course. Hence, by December, the finance ministry scribes' entry into North Block are forbidden. This unwritten code is accepted by both sides — although those who cover the finance ministry for the media enjoy fairly comfortable bonhomie with the ministry mandarins.
But now Jaitley has hit upon a novel though rather discomforting idea for communicating with the media, in times of a gag. He calls press meets informally these days and addresses media persons outside the North Block buildings. This serves a dual purpose: he could convey what he wants to say, but the scribes do not enter the building. The first time that he adopted this method of communication was to announce the extension of duty concessions on motor cars and machines recently.
There was, however, a little snag: these informal meets were held right under the blazing Delhi sun. That must have been uncomfortable for Jaitley who emerged out of the cold confines of his office. But it must have been even more so for the media persons who came well in advance of the minister's presence. For the television reporters and crew, the task of putting up their gadgets and waiting was even harder.
Jaitley called another such meet on Friday. Now this was taking things too far. North Block is a cavernous building having innumerable rooms and meeting spaces. There are conference halls even on the ground floor where the finance minister meets representatives of chambers of commerce and other interest groups for consultations in preparing the budget. They are herded into the rooms and then carefully shepherded out. The minister could have met the scribes in any such place, but the minister possibly considered the media a more sinister threat. He might have considered putting up a shamiana at a preferred point outside North Block!
And there was still another way out. The finance minister could have been more considerate to himself as well as to his interlocutors. He could have utilised the spanking new National Media Centre (NMC), not very far from his North Block headquarters. The NMC now houses the Press Information Bureau (PIB) of the Government of India, which is the official arm for interaction with the media. It is imaginatively constructed and centrally air-conditioned unlike the old Shastri Bhavan, which is like any other old government building.
Jaitley addressing the media from the new NMC could have another import. If nothing else has changed in the government in the aftermath of the NDA's huge victory, at least one significant difference was found at the NMC. An inscription on the plaque in front of the NMC building informed that the new press centre was inaugurated by "Smt Sonia Gandhi" in the presence of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. With the new government taking charge, the plaque was immediately taken down and it has since been replaced by another similar black granite plaque announcing that the foundation stone of the building was laid by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Jaitley could perhaps have taken advantage of what his BJP predecessors in government had achieved.
The author is a Delhi-based analyst and commentator