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October 9, 2002
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Jaswant Singh's first 100 days

What has Jaswant Singh achieved in the first 100 days of his tenure as finance minister?

The media is understandably a little disenchanted with him. Unlike his predecessor, Mr Singh has kept himself away from the media glare.

Television correspondents do not get an easy byte from him on the state of the economy. Nor has any publication so far managed to extract a full-fledged interview from Mr Singh.

Worse, the finance minister has made even his ministry officials more inaccessible to the media. Senior officials in North Block are not as easily available as they were during Yashwant Sinha's tenure. A new information order has been put in place.

Four joint secretaries have been made the nodal point for dissemination of all information that needs to be shared with the media.

The ministry's press officer can access these officials to know what is happening in North Block. It is a new system ostensibly aimed at facilitating a smooth and orderly flow of information. But critics say that this is nothing but a ploy to block information leak from North Block.

North Block has been spruced up. New red carpets have been rolled out, connecting the main gate of North Block to the finance minister's office. Along the corridor leading to Mr Singh's office, there are beautiful plants.

The watch and ward staff on duty outside his office is now smartly attired in their new uniform. Security concerns have ensured that the ministry's press office has to be relocated. Not everybody, however, is happy about all these changes.

Several officials, who sit on other floors and in other parts of North Block wonder why their offices too should not get a facelift.

Surely, these cannot be counted as achievements of Mr Singh in the last 100 days. These are developments that have set him apart from his predecessor and have left no one in doubt that he would run the finance ministry in his own style.

You may not always agree with that style. But he seems to be the least bothered by such views. That ability to run the ministry in his own way is perhaps his first big achievement in North Block.

Of course, Mr Singh can claim credit for many other achievements. His second big achievement is to put in place his own team of secretaries to assist him in running the ministry and presenting the next Budget.

He has already finalised his core team - a new finance secretary in S Narayan, a new revenue secretary in A V Singh and a new expenditure secretary in C S Rao. Assisting them would be his advisor, Vijay Kelkar and the chief economic advisor, Ashok Lahiri.

Critics, however, point out that Mr Singh's core team is not likely to remain intact for long. The revenue secretary may have to be changed as the present incumbent is not keeping well. A proposal to offer a foreign assignment to the finance secretary is doing the rounds.

This might mean that Mr Singh might have to put together a new team before presenting the 2003-04 Budget. If indeed that happens, Mr Singh would be considered to have fared no better than his predecessor.

Yashwant Sinha had presented all his five budgets with five different secretaries in charge of the economic affairs department.

There is now a distinct possibility that Mr Singh might have to look for a new secretary in charge of the economic affairs department even before he presents his first budget.

Mr Singh's biggest strength, of course, is his advisor, Dr Kelkar, who has already been entrusted with the responsibilities of reforming the direct and indirect taxes. So, as long as he can have Dr Kelkar by his side, his budget exercise would not face any problem.

The finance ministers third big achievement is his proposal to introduce complete transparency about taxation proposals of his Budget. According to his plan, all the major taxation proposals would be placed on the Internet by November.

This would allow industry associations, companies and experts to give in their suggestions to the taxation proposals. Thus, the Budget that he would present to Parliament in February 2003 would in effect incorporate the suggestions and comments on his original proposals.

The first finance minister, who talked about introducing openness in budget making was V.P. Singh in 1985.

He had then unveiled a document on the governments long-term fiscal policy. But it did not refer to any specific tax rates that the government would like to introduce through its budgets.

Last year, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, placed his budget proposals on the Internet. With the benefit of suggestions received from industries and experts, Mr Naidu presented the final budget proposals after modifications in the assembly.

If Jaswant Singh can replicate this at the Centre, it would be his biggest achievement.

The media may still have many complaints against him. But it should lap him up for taking such a giant leap towards an open budget making system.

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