An all smiles finance minister posing with a shining briefcase in hand as he enters the Parliament is a long-established image of the budget day. It is not a heritage, rather a tradition, a carryover from the British legacy of around three-hundred years.
It is worth noting that the word "budget" comes from the French word "Bougette" which means "little bag" or "purse".
Robert Walpole, who was the finance minister and the de facto prime minister from 1725 to 1742, received proposals round the year for either reduction or scrapping of taxes on different sectors. He also received suggestions from both public and private sectors for imposing new taxes and restructuring the taxation. He kept all the proposals and suggestions in his purse. After the end of the financial year, he drafted the budget for the new financial year based on the proposals and suggestions and thus ensuring the people's participation in formulating the budget.
But after the industrial revolution that resulted in an explosive growth of the British economy, Walpole started to receive more proposals on taxation. It was not possible for him to keep all those in his purse. Then he started using a briefcase to hold all the proposals and suggestions.
His successors have continued the practice since then.
One of his successors, prime minister William Gladstone, who also served as the chancellor of the exchequer in the 1850s, used a red suitcase to carry speech scripts during his 12-year tenure. Thus the color became a part.
His successors now carry a replica of that Gladstone box, a leather briefcase now. It has become a ritual for finance ministers in many countries including Bangladesh. The briefcase, containing budget documents, has become a symbol of the secrecy and confidentiality of the financial documents—the other name of financial bureaucracy.
Failure to maintain the secrecy can have consequences. Take former British finance minister Hugh Dalton, for example.
In 1947, London School of Economics' professor Dalton was entering the House of Commons to present his budget with his briefcase. On the way in, journalists questioned him about the coming tax proposals. He answered frankly, thus disclosing the upcoming tax proposals. Journalists did not delay in calling their offices with the news. The British media outlets promptly informed their readers of the coming tax ups and downs before Dalton even had time to place his budget in the parliament. When he took the floor to present the budget, the opposition MPs refused to hear him as they had all the information from the newspaper beforehand. Dalton admitted his mistake and resigned.
In the era of digitalisation, technology, however, may bring change in the briefcase legacy.
Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman broke the tradition in February this year as she carried a tab to make a digital presentation of a paperless budget in the parliament.
A pair of new shoes has become a budget day fashion for the Canadian finance minister. Almost every year, before delivering the budget speech to the House of Commons, the finance minister buys new shoes that excite speculations about the content of the new budget.
Unlike many parliamentary traditions, the "shoe fashion" has not come from the British. Tradition has it that Canadian finance ministers don a new pair of shoes to deliver the budget since 1950. This year the finance minister chose her "budget day shoes" from an Iranian-origin woman entrepreneur. The $295 pair of leather shoes was designed in an Italian factory. The price, colour, and design of the finance minister's new shoes give enough fodder to the media during the days before the budget is placed. And being the first ever woman to present the federal budget, Chrystia Freeland's feet were always going to be watched more closely than those who had walked before her.
Finance ministers of Bangladesh, which was a part of Indian sub-continent under British rule, inherited the briefcase legacy. Like his predecessors, AHM Mustafa Kamal will enter parliament on 3 June carrying his budget speech and other documents in a black briefcase. He will bring out them and present before the House seeking its approval.
Does the financial year matter?
As many as 143 countries of the world follow the Gregorian calendar year as their financial year.
India is among 18 countries which have chosen a different fiscal year, from 1 April to 31 March.
Like ours, 13 more countries have the financial year starting from July 1 to June 30. Nine countries including the USA follow 1 October to 30 September as the financial year.
At least six countries are there whose financial years are unique and match with none. Afghanistan follows 21 December–20 December; Nepal, 16 July–15 July; UK 6 April–5 April and Iran 21 March–20 March. Countries may have strong points, history or tradition for their choices of the financial year.
Does it have anything to do with the economy? Certainly not.
Economy takes its own course; no matter whether the financial year starts in the summer or the winter. Even then some people argue that Bangladesh should set January-December fiscal year to end the so-called "June syndrome"—a flurry of development works towards the end of the fiscal year which coincides with the monsoon and results in poor quality. Some add to the argument, saying the January–December fiscal year will make global transactions easier as most economies follow the same. Will it really benefit our economy? There is no valid reason to believe so and that is why the debate is not heard more often.