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December 10, 2002
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Jaswant Singh's 'maharaja' principle

P Vaidyanathan Iyer

North Block, after Finance and Company Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh took over in July, has been transformed.

Finance Minsiter Jaswant Singh. Photo: ReutersBesides the cosmetic changes that Jaswant Singh brought about soon after assuming charge, his work-style also reflects the new power equations in the ministry.

During Yashwant Sinha's tenure, the bureaucracy had an authoritative say on various issues. A former bureaucrat himself, Sinha acquired first-hand information on all subjects and dealt with them after elaborate discussion with his officers.

He entertained joint secretaries and additional secretaries and called them over to take briefings.

Singh, on the contrary, appears to be operating on the 'maharaja' principle. He addresses the people's concerns directly, but within North Block, he prefers to interact only with secretaries.

With February 28 approaching, Singh has, however, started holding meetings with key officials coordinating Budget-related work.

How have the power equations changed? After the advisor to finance minister Vijay Kelkar presented his consultation papers on direct and indirect taxes, the revenue department made it a point to stress that, one, it was not a final report and, two, even then, it is not as though all the recommendations would be taken on board in the Budget.

While the consultation papers were discussed and debated in many fora and dumped by many political parties including the BJP, Jaswant Singh sought to distance himself from the recommendations of the task forces on eliminating direct tax exemptions.

This made many in the ministry happy!

While all this is fine, what is startling is the finance ministry's official reaction to the more recent mid-year review of the Indian economy, prepared by chief economic advisor Ashok Lahiri and presented by Jaswant Singh in Parliament.

The Mid-Year Economic Review, besides dwelling on the macro-economic parameters and trends during the first eight to nine months of the current financial year, also set the agenda for the government.

Lahiri, in a press briefing the day before the review was to be presented in Parliament, made it clear that 'the review was not a Budget, not even a substitute to the Budget.'

In fact, he said, the review was done at the behest of the finance minister himself.

Finance Minister Jaswant SinghSingh has consistently maintained that the Budget-making process would be as transparent as possible and presenting a status paper on the economic situation fitted well in his overall scheme of things.

A detailed reading of the review suggests that the Mid-Year Review is a warmed-up version of earlier recommendations. The prescription for higher economic growth has been made several times before.

The two-year old Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council report is one document that says it all. And then came the voluminous tenth plan document, cleared by the Cabinet and now scheduled to be discussed by the National Development Council on December 21.

The review, in keeping with its promise of being a status paper, drew attention to the need for cutting farm, cooking gas, kerosene and food subsidies, recommended the abolition of all the 21,000-odd posts identified by the Expenditure Reforms Commission, and also called for bringing the interest rates on small savings instruments in line with movements in market-related rates.

Coming as it did just 12 weeks ahead of the Budget, the review's recommendations, one would fairly assume, would be considered while the Budget for 2003-4 is being formalised.

And, not surprisingly, the newspapers said so the next day.

Jaswant Singh, however, had other ideas. He asked finance secretary S Narayan the next day to call the media and emphasise that there was no proposal to cut farm subsidies nor was there any move to lower interest rates on small savings.

And Narayan and Lahiri hurriedly convened a press meeting to say so. This was a classic case of a defence where none was required.

All this suggests that Jaswant Singh not only knows how to handle his political constituency -- the middle class, the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and allies -- but also his key officers.

He maintains a distance from his bureaucrats and yet keeps a check on all of them.

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