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Room at the top on Mint Street

A K Bhattacharya | July 08, 2003

The race for the top job at Mint Street has hotted up.

And the manner in which it has sparked off a chain reaction involving senior bureaucrats shows how nothing has changed in the government as far as appointments to key positions in Central ministries are concerned.

It all started with reports that the Reserve Bank of India Governor, Bimal Jalan, is likely to get a nomination to the Rajya Sabha by the end of next month.

There is no official confirmation of this yet, but it is now reasonably certain that the next busy season credit policy, due in October, will not be presented by the current incumbent. The fact is Jalan's nomination is being endorsed by both the Prime Minister's Office and the Left parties in Bengal.

No one knows exactly why Jalan will be accommodated in the Rajya Sabha more than a year before his current extended tenure as RBI governor comes to an end.

But with finance minister Jaswant Singh reportedly itching to get back to South Block and the prime minister reluctant to entrust the finance minister's portfolio to Murli Manohar Joshi (another swap between North Block and South Block will be seen as a farce and hence ruled out), anything is possible -- including a nominated Rajya Sabha member donning the finance minister's mantle.

Not surprisingly, the competition among the three contenders for the job has become intense. So intense, that hectic lobbying in New Delhi's Raisina Hill has effectively scuttled the chance of one of them.

The person who has all but lost the race is Y Venugopal Reddy, currently executive director on the board of the International Monetary Fund. Ironically, Reddy was the strongest contender given the fact that he had a five-year long unblemished record as deputy governor in the RBI before he moved on to Washington last year.

Worse, Reddy's health is being cited as the reason the government is not considering him for the top job at the central bank. True, Reddy, at  60, is not in the pink. But then his health is certainly better than many of our ministers. And if they can run the ministries without a problem, surely Reddy's diabetes cannot hamper his steering the RBI.

But with Reddy out of the race, there are now only two contenders -- Vijay L Kelkar, advisor to the finance minister, and S Narayan, secretary in the PMO. Kelkar certainly would have been number one on the shortlist.

But his reported proximity to a certain industrial house may come in the way of bagging the coveted job. Also, he is not being favoured by the current incumbent, although that is a view to which the government may not give much weight.

Narayan's chances, on the other hand, appear to have brightened due to some fortuitous developments. It seems Narayan's entry into the PMO has been resented by a senior and powerful government official who is now on a sabbatical. And the only way to redress the grievances of this official is to eject Narayan.

But that is not easy. Narayan has also proved to be a useful officer during his stint in the finance ministry in the last few years. As soon as his retirement day approached, Narayan was given more than one option as his post-retirement job. Initially, he was asked to succeed N Rangachary as the new regulator for the insurance industry. Narayan said no, because he was in no mood to shift to Hyderabad.

There were two other options for Narayan. One was to become another advisor in the finance ministry, which Narayan declined, and the other was to take charge of economic policies at the PMO, a job which N K Singh used to do before moving to the Planning Commission. Narayan chose the latter as an interim posting, in the hope that if Jalan moved out of RBI and Reddy succeeded him, he would opt for the IMF job.

But since Reddy is not being favoured as Jalan's successor, the post of the IMF executive director in Washington will not fall vacant. This will leave the RBI governor's job as the only option for Narayan. In the government, there is no argument stronger than that of precedence. There are many former finance secretaries, who have been made RBI governors after their retirement. So, Narayan may have a strong case.

In the finance ministry also, Jaswant Singh has not yet put in place his "A" team for next year's budget.

D C Gupta has been named the finance secretary in charge of the expenditure department. He has already strengthened his control over the budget-making exercise by shifting D Swarup, the budget officer, to his department. N S Sisodia has been brought in from the defence ministry as secretary for the banking and insurance division.

But there is as yet no secretary  for economic affairs. The two additional secretaries in the department of economic affairs, B P Mishra and Prodipto Ghosh, are both eyeing that job. If lobbying power is any indication, Mishra may pip Ghosh at the post.

Clearly, the transfer season in North Block is not yet over.

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