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Cricket, Holi and the Budget

March 19, 2003 16:37 IST

On Holi some years ago, Yashwant Sinha, who was then the finance minister, was asked by a television journalist to comment on how he would like to compare the festival of colours with the Budget that he had presented a few days earlier.

Mr Sinha has never been averse to giving his comments on  television. And this was a question that he was expected to answer on Holi.

So, taking advantage of the festive spirit, Mr Sinha came out with a one-liner: Both are colourful and both have become a joke.

No one took that comment of Mr Sinha seriously, coming as it did on Holi, when even senior people in authority have the latitude of making carefree and irresponsible observations.

But the fact of the matter was that Mr Sinha was inadvertently letting out his frustration over the manner in which his Budget proposals were being politically hijacked by opponents within and outside the party.

In his Budget, he had proposed a cut in subsidies for fertilisers and petroleum products. But there was a strong demand for rolling back the proposed reduction.

A rollback had become more or less certain by the time Mr Sinha was confronted with that question from the television journalist.

The reason for raising the Holi episode involving Mr Sinha now is that a similar joke has been played with an almost  similar Budget proposal made by Finance Minister Jaswant Singh.

Presenting his first Budget last month, Mr Singh had proposed to reduce subsidy on fertilisers.

It was a small cut. The finance minister seemed confident after presenting the Budget that he would not have to meet the same fate that his predecessor had met. His argument had logic.

The subsidy did not actually benefit the poor farmers. So, why should the subsidy continue?

And it seemed that Mr Singh had managed to silence the opponents to the move. Several rounds of meetings were held among senior ministers. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee too was roped in.

Till the day, the finance minister was scheduled to give his reply to the Budget discussion, it seemed certain that the fertiliser subsidy cut would stay. This view was endorsed also by newspapers, which  are an accurate barometer of the political temperature over such sensitive proposals.

But while in Parliament, Mr Singh surprised everybody with his rollback announcement. Why did he have to do it when there was no apparent pressure? His predecessor had to roll back only after heavy pressure  was brought upon him.

The rollback by Mr Singh was surprising for another reason. While agreeing to the withdrawal of the move to reduce fertiliser subsidy, Mr Singh made it amply clear that he was doing so at the instance of his prime minister.

In other words, he was telling everybody that he was not keen on the rollback. But he was doing it because the prime minister had asked him to do so.

Now that is not what Mr Sinha did.  He did roll back his Budget proposals on more than one occasion. And it is naive to believe that he withdrew his own proposals without any pressure or directive from the prime minister.

So, Mr Singh ensured that the blame for the rollback did not come to him. And by quietly accepting the demand for withdrawal of subsidy cuts, Mr Sinha acquired for himself the sobriquet of a rollback finance minister.

But if you use a cricketing analogy, what Mr Singh did was not cricket. Imagine Mohammad Kaif explaining that he got out while trying to force the pace of his innings to rattle up some quick runs, because he was told by his captain, Sourav Ganguly, to improve the run rate!

Just as in cricket, a minister also should not take a decision and say that he did so because of his prime minister's advice. That's obvious. In a team, a member always goes by what his captain wants.

Similarly, the captain always stands by the players. If the Indian cricket team has shaped up so well in the ongoing World Cup, it is largely because of the support each player has received from his captain.

In the case of Jaswant Singh, Mr Vajpayee has backed his finance minister to the hilt. The irony is that Mr Sinha played cricket and yet did not get his captain's full support. And Mr Singh did not play cricket and yet received the captain's support.

Mr Vajpayee, who completed five years as India's prime minister on Wednesday, should take a close look at himself and how he has dealt with his colleagues in the Cabinet. Was he a good captain? Did he insist that all his players should follow the same rules? Or has he continued with a player in his team even though he is not completely satisfied with him?

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A K Bhattacharya