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Things happen by accident and not by design...

“The government lives from moment to moment. There is hardly any thinking in formulating policies. The finance statement in the budget papers appear like a Chinese menu card. Hundreds of files pile up and there is a series of meetings to attend. Where is the time to think? Therefore the Government of India doesn’t think. Things happen by accident and not by design!”

Such candid views can come only from a seasoned politician with deep insights into the working of government. Yashwant Sinha, is a 1960 batch member of the IAS and later Finance Minister during the crisis year of 1991 and during 1998 -2002 in the NDA 1 when the economy flourished. Delivering the first G  Ramachandran Memorial Lecture in Chennai, Sinha illustrated this maxim describing the course of the liberalisation of the insurance sector.

Sinha referred to P Chidambaram as Finance Minister piloting a bill to reform the insurance sector during 1996-97 when Deve Gowda headed a fragile coalition government supported by the leftists (the CPI was part of this government). But when the alliance partners opposed, the bill was withdrawn.

“In 1998 N Rangachary (Chairman-Insurance Regulation and Development Authority) came to see me. A member of IA&AS and of my batch, we were old friends and I had great faith in him. NR convinced me on permitting private players and foreign partners into the insurance sector. But for NR, this opening up would not have happened.

“The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance was headed by Murli Deora. We were personal friends. We worked to manipulate the committee to open up the sector. A new version of the bill was presented to the Parliament. We had several meetings. The Congress Party agreed to support the bill but wanted foreign direct investment limited to 26 per cent. He had no choice and agreed to this.

“In 2004, Chidambaram wanted to raise this to 49 per cent. But, the coalition government supported by the Communists from outside, did not agree and threatened to walk out. So, the bill could not be taken up until 2008 when the Communists were out of the go

vernment. It was introduced in the Rajya Sabha. I was the Chairman of the Standing Committee. The Congress leaders reminded me of the NDA government initially opting for a 49 per cent limit. But, we wouldn’t then agree! And the matter could not progress.

“The NDA is today in favour of increasing the limit to 49 per cent. Of course, the Congress is still hesitant and the bill is still pending!”

Sinha described GR as an icon to be emulated for his brilliant administration. GR had the unique experience of working with several giants and commanded their respect and attention. These included Rajaji, Kamaraj and C N Annadurai in Tamil Nadu and Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, R Venkataraman and Manmohan Singh at the Centre. Known for rich contributions to finance administration at the Centre and the state. With his invaluable inputs, especially to Indira Gandhi, for many of her socialistic initiatives like bank nationalisation and ‘stray thoughts’, GR, in a sense, contradicted Sinha’s dictum that “the government didn’t think, things happened by accident and not by design.”

I have had the opportunity to interact with Sinha at the Economic Editors’ Conferences during 1998-2002. I remember the smooth manner in which he piloted the rather complex move to introduce uniform sales tax for states. Remember his party was leading a loose coalition of over 20 parties, most of these regional and BJP did not have control over most of the states? His ability to convince the leftists, involving Jyoti Basu as head of the committee of a group of state chief ministers and later the West Bengal Finance Minister Ashok Mitra as the head of the empowered committee of state finance ministers was a master stroke in the implementation of the uniform sales tax.

 

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