It had been over one and a half hours since Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman began presenting her budget for the Financial Year of 2019. The country waited with bated breath for her to give the slightest hint at how the government will alter the existing tax regime and what it means for the common man.
And when the minister finally delivered the overview of the Modi government's tax policy, it was not through mere numbers but with a Tamil poem from the Sangam era.
The Finance Minister chose the 184th verse of the reportedly 2,200 year old 'Purananooru', which describes how a king should act, and how he must treat his subjects, through poems collected over a long period. The Purananooru has a total of 400 verses with details on who gave the advice and to which king. The verses deal with a wide range of subjects including - wars, greatness, generosity, ethics and philosophy.
The verse quoted by the Finance Minister, was advice given to the King Pandian Arivudai Nambi. "At this juncture I find wisdom in Purananooru, which is a Sangam time Tamil literature piece. It is a work by Pisirandaiyaar. It is a long verse and I am only picking up some lines from the beginning, middle and end. It is called 'Yaanai Pugundha Nilam' or a land where an elephant gets in," she stated, before launching into the verse.
காய் நெல் அறுத்துக் கவளம் கொளினே,
மா நிறைவு இல்லதும், பல் நாட்கு ஆகும்;
நூறு செறு ஆயினும், தமித்துப் புக்கு உணினே,
வாய் புகுவதனினும் கால் பெரிது கெடுக்கும்;
அறிவுடை வேந்தன் நெறி அறிந்து கொளினே,
கோடி யாத்து, நாடு பெரிது நந்தும்;
மெல்லியன் கிழவன் ஆகி, வைகலும்
வரிசை அறியாக் கல்லென் சுற்றமொடு,
பரிவு தப எடுக்கும் பிண்டம் நச்சின்,
யானை புக்க புலம் போல,
தானும் உண்ணான், உலகமும் கெடுமே.
The Minister began smiling as she asked the House for the meaning of the verse. As most members of Parliament remained silent, Tamil Nadu MPs A Raja and Dayanidhi Maran were seen smiling in the House.
"It means just a few mounds of rice from paddy that is harvested from a small piece of land, would be sufficient for an elephant," explained Niramala Sitharaman. "But what if the elephant itself enters the field and starts eating? It would eat far less than what it would have gotten, as it will trample on most of the field with its feet. The advice given to Pandian Aruvudai Nambi is valuable advice that this government appreciates," concluded the minister.
Explaining the context, Sangam Literature enthusiast and translator Chenthil Nathan says the verse is apt for collection of tax. "Here, the minister means – collect taxes judiciously, don't overdo taxation. If you do, it will not be of use to the ruler and at the same time country too will be ruined," he elaborates.
In his blog, Chenthil translated the poem thus:
If mature rice is harvested and consumed,
a ma’s* yield will last many days;
even a hundred sei** (goes waste)
if a single elephant enters it to eat,
as its legs trample more than what it eats;
if a judicious ruler collects as per rule,
his country yields a lot and prospers;
if ruler becomes weak, surrounded
by fawning ignoble kith and kin,
hankers after wealth mercilessly,
like an elephant overrun field,
neither does he consume,
but his country is ruined too.
The minister in line with the verse, then went on to explain that while direct tax revenue had increased, the government remained committed to reducing the tax burden on small and medium income-earners. "This includes self-employed as well as small traders, salary earners, and senior citizens. Only when their annual taxable income exceeds 5 lakh, they are required to pay any income tax," she said.
Nirmala Sitharaman is not the first minister to use Tamil literature as part of the budget speech.
"In the past, former Finance Minister P Chidambaram has often quoted the Thirukkural in his speeches," says Chenthil, "But never the Purananooru."
The Finance Minister who is originally from Trichy received shouts of praise from the House, soon after she read out the Tamil verse. The usage of a poem from the Sangam era has special significance at a time when the BJP is being accused by the DMK of attempting to suppress the Tamil Language and impose Hindi on the state of Tamil Nadu.