On February 28, Palaniappan Chidambaram presented the United Progressive Alliance's last full Budget before the general elections slated to be held next year. Now, he is reaching out to the masses to answer their questions about the budget. Later today - at 8 pm to be precise - the finance minister will participate in a 'Google+ Hangout, answering questions about the Budget and the state of the economy .
Hangout is a video chatting feature of Google+, Google's social networking site.
The virtual town hall is a bit unusual for Chidambaram, now in his third term as finance minister. A lawyer by training, he is known to be a man who measures his words carefully before speaking and who likes things to go by the script. Still, it is unlikely that Chidambaram will face any wrong'uns today. The questions have been trickling in since last week and the finance minister should have some indication of the kind of posers that will come his way.
If all goes well, it should be a minor public relations coup for the minister.
Apart from fielding questions from the public, Chidambaram will also discuss the budget and the state of the economy with a panel that includes Mahindra & Mahindra Chairman and Managing Director Anand Mahindra; JP Morgan's Senior Asia Economist and India Chief Economist Jahangir Aziz and Google Inc Senior Vice President Amit Singhal.
Although he is the first union finance minister to participate in a Google Hangout, Chidambaram is not the first politician to do so. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi did it in August 2012. That Hangout was hosted by Bollywood actor Ajay Devgn and was delayed by an hour, apparently because of technical difficulties caused by the overwhelming response. According to the website narendramodi.in, the event received over 20,000 questions. In January last year, Barack Obama became the first US President to take part in a 'Hangout'. He did so again last month, a couple of days after his State of the Union address.
While there hasn't been a flood yet, the questions and comments are slowly building up for Chidambaram. Many express angst, some want action on grievances and some are just banal. Here are some edited excerpts:
"What are the steps taken in the budget to increase domestic investment?"
"Does India have the potential to become one among the top five countries with the best standard of living in the world?"
"Will high duty not encourage the black market, which is the bane of the country?"
"What measures are you taking to widen the tax base and give some relief to the salaried class?"
"Our nation is turning into a giant slum with garbage bags and polythene bags floating around. This was not the case 30 years back, when people used paper bags or took bags from home. How do you propose to reverse this?"
There are tons of comments, as well:
"Let's have a deal. Roll out GST (goods and services tax) and take my vote for the 2014 elections."
And this: "Really cool to see that India is going online!"