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Jaswant Singh's meeting phobia

A K Bhattacharya | December 17, 2002 17:51 IST

Jaswant SinghIn the past five-and-a-half months that Jaswant Singh has been in charge of North Block, the consumption of tea in the finance minister's office has declined.

Finance ministry officials explain that this could be due to a perceptible fall in the number of meetings Singh holds in his chamber.

Singh is said to be less fond of meetings than all his predecessors. Even if he has to hold a meeting, he prefers to restrict it to a few of his senior officers.

In fact, the long conference table that his predecessors had acquired was moved out of his chamber many weeks ago because he had no need for it.

More importantly, not all his meetings have to be served with rounds of tea and biscuits. Tea would be served only when the finance minister called for it.

Earlier, it was customary to have a round of tea and biscuits in all the meetings the finance minister would hold in his chamber.

And now comes the biggest departure. Singh has done away with the practice of holding pre-Budget consultations with representatives of different sections of society.

These meetings would have industrialists, labour union leaders, farmers, economists, small industrialists and even economic journalists advise the finance minister what he ought to do in the Budget and what he should avoid.

No one, though, should blame Singh for having departed from this practice. There are good reasons why he chose to discard this convention. Manmohan Singh had started the system of holding pre-Budget consultations with different pressure groups. It did serve a limited purpose during those days.

P Chidambaram continued the practice, but Yashwant Sinha decided to expand the coverage of these meetings and changed the rules of the game. Earlier, the finance minister would be only a patient listener. There were no comments from the finance minister.

With Sinha, these meetings became an occasion to find out what was on the finance minister's mind on various Budget-related issues. This was possible because Sinha would be more open.

He would make an opening statement on what he thought were the main priorities for the Budget. He would also react to suggestions made by participants at the meeting.

Over the years, participants at these pre-Budget meetings also began taking liberties with the rules that had been framed for such consultations.

No participant, according to these rules, was permitted to brief reporters on what the finance minister or the individual participants stated at the meeting. But many participants flouted this rule.

The pre-Budget meeting with economic journalists was virtually reduced to an on-the-record meeting on the Budget. Journalists had the rare pleasure of advising the finance minister on what he ought to do in the Budget. This often reduced the meeting to a farce.

So, if anybody is to be blamed for having devalued the importance of pre-Budget consultations with different pressure groups in the economy, it is Sinha.

Jaswant Singh was quick to recognise the problems the overall framework of pre-Budget consultations were suffering from.

Temperamentally too, he was frank enough to realise that he was unsuited to such meetings.

North Block mandarins took advantage of the finance minister's earlier pronouncements that the Budget-making exercise had been made more open with the taxation reforms report of Vijay Kelkar being put on the web. 

A mid-year economic review had also been presented. Thus, the argument ran, why should the finance minister hold the pre-Budget consultations?

An open discussion, however, has many advantages. It brings out the complexities of issues in a way that the most elaborate explanation in a note, even after being put on the web, fails to achieve.

It is true that the system of pre-Budget consultations had been devalued over the years.

But Singh could have easily taken steps to ensure that these meetings serve the purpose for which they were originally planned.

After all, what was the need for insisting on confidentiality about the discussion that took place at these pre-Budget meetings?

Since Singh is such an unabashed advocate of open budgeting, an open discussion on the Budget, freely reported in the newspapers the next day, would not have been out of tune with his overall approach.

Or was Singh's distaste for long meetings on Budget-related issues (the pre-Budget meetings do indeed run for several hours every day for a week) the real reason?

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