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The reform, transform, perform speech

It was a welcome change, to hear the finance minister at a public meeting just 12 days ahead of the budget.

Remember FM Nirmala Sitharaman articulating her best as the spokesperson of the BJP during 2013-14? Her advocacy of the BJP platform in the news television channels won wide acclaim for their alacrity and logic. These attributes catapulted her into Narendra Modi’s first cabinet. Her yen for details and administrative acumen saw her meteoric rise from a Minister of State handling multi-portfolios to getting promoted as the first woman minister of defence and, in a short time, as the first, full-fledged woman minister of finance.

Truely a pan-indian…

Sitharaman, born and brought up in Tamil Nadu, migrated to Delhi, and now represents Karnataka as a Member of the Rajya Sabha. In recent months, she has been spending several weekends in Tamil Nadu, well-articulating in Tamil and English, the policies, programmes and achievements of her government.

Remember her revamping defence production by the ambitious policy for indigenous production of defence equipment and an impressive target for export of defence products? She is remembered for her initiatives in setting up two defence corridors, in Tamil Nadu and UP, and to organising the first-ever large defence expo near Chennai. Along with liberalisation and opening up of the defence sector, there has been great enthusiasm to invest in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu in the defence sector.

Sitharaman’s confidence and assurance were again in display when she accepted to deliver the centenary memorial lecture for the Palkhivala Foundation, Chennai, on 19 January. As one covering the budget for close to five decades and interacting with finance ministers and senior officials of the finance ministry, I used to notice a thick cloud of secrecy shrouding North Block, the headquarters of the finance ministry and its senior officials. Almost from December end till the Budget Day. The FM and senior officials would dig deep the like a seasoned cricket batsman playing for a draw in a test match.

It was, therefore, a welcome change to notice the FM agreeing to address a public meeting just 12 days ahead of the budget. Sitharaman was listed to speak on the Road map to a $ 5 trillion economy.

The missing $5tn road map

I can understand the pressure on her amidst budget preparations that should explain her forgetting almost the topic of the lecture. For a Tamil audience resisting Hindi, her explaining Prime Minister Modi’s euphonical expectation, Sarkar ka abhaav nahi hona chahiye, prabhaav hona chahiye; dabhaav nahi hona chahiye was like Greek and Latin. It had its rhyme richness as actor T Rajendar’s addresses.

Sitharaman was more comfortable explaining the government’s policies ranging from demonetisation to GST, IBC, UPI (Unified Payment Interface) difficulties of land acquisition, Make in India, disinvestment, the professionalism of banks, CAG, CVC and CBI, tax reforms, allotment to infrastructure, et al. She did remember the topic from time-to-time and tried to link the reform efforts with the goal of a $5 trillion economy.

The livelier of the fairly long presentation related to the Q&A session. Responding to the plea of business leader Suresh Krishna, she assured the stability of tax administration.

I wished Sitharaman titled the topic of the lecture with a bland State of the Economy or Prime Minister Modi’s rhyming reform, transform and perform. Our other T Rajendar in government, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu, may agree.

Applaud risk-takers

A couple of days earlier, on 17th January Tata Group Chairman, N Chandrasekaran, delivered at Mumbai the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Lecture at the renowned jurist’s centenary of birth.

Chandra pointed to the many obstacles that impede businesses suffer from micromanagement and suspicion. “we don’t need suspicion. All our rules start from suspicion,” he said.

The Tata Group chairman referred to a massive risk aversion, with businessmen opting to adopt a safe route avoiding or delaying decisions: “achieving growth inherently involves risk-taking. We need to applaud the risk-takers,” he said.

Chandra pointed out: “90 million people will be attaining the working age in the new decade. We should ensure jobs to these by developing an educated, skilled and vibrant workforce.” He listed construction, real estate, infrastructure, power, banking and tourism as sectors that would demand policymakers’ attention. He also suggested a reduction of state ownership in public sector banks. He commended the efforts of the government addressing issues of public delivery, corruption, and non-performing assets of banks. In her address in Chennai, the FM referred to Chandra’s observations by pointing to efforts at decriminalising company law: “we don’t want a law that would treat every business house with suspicion,” she assured.

Goddess Saraswati resided at his tongue

The FM released the book Palkhivala Memorial Lectures – 2003-2019 with well-edited versions of 21 selected speeches. Sitharaman had delivered one of these lectures on Revisiting Centre-State relations on 17 September 2011.

The foundation was set up in February 2003 by a few admirers of Palkhivala. The introduction mentions: “during his time Nani Palkhivala, through his highly-acclaimed speeches and writings, had taken to the public many issues he felt strongly about. He particularly championed the cause of free enterprise, advocated de-control and de-regulation, and tirelessly spoke about the need to have a fair, equitable, and simple tax system. His annual public talks appraising the Union budget became the cynosure of the nation’s attention. His address at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai, with attendance exceeding a lakh of people, has entered the record books for the highest at any public meeting.

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