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What about the deficit, Mr Sinha?

June 21, 2007 09:02 IST

Since the publication of Yashwant Sinha's memoirs of his days as finance minister, a debate is raging over whether due credit is given to the man who presented five Budgets in a row under two governments led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and deepened the process of economic reforms.

What Mr Sinha did between 1998 and 2002 dispelled fears of a slowdown in reforms by a Swadeshi government and was, therefore, commendable.

Indeed, long is the list of what he initiated through his Budgets: the introduction of Cenvat as the first major step towards a value-added tax regime, reduction and compression of different levels of Customs duties, incentives to attract more foreign direct investment, reduction in interest rates for small savings, privatisation of public sector undertakings, dismantling the administered price structure for fertilisers, sugar and petroleum products, opening up the life and general insurance sector, steps to introduce the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Bill on fiscal prudence, capital market reforms like the launch of the rolling settlement system, introduction of a legislative Bill to bring down the government's equity in public sector banks to 33 per cent, reduction in the size of bureaucracy and labour law reforms.

It is true that some of these initiatives did not work. The dismantling of the administered pricing mechanism (APM) for petroleum products was introduced in April 2002, but its implementation was half-hearted and, thanks to the United Progressive Alliance government's reluctance on this front the entire move has been rolled back.

Similarly, the Bill on reducing the government's equity in public sector banks to 33 per cent failed to get the nod of Parliament and no headway was made either in reducing the size of bureaucracy or in reforming the labour laws because of stiff opposition Mr Sinha faced from his own ministerial colleagues.

So, where will Yashwant Sinha rank among the four finance ministers that reigned North Block in the post-reforms era. Of the four, Jaswant Singh cannot be counted as a serious contender since he produced only one regular Budget.

Forget also Yashwant Sinha's claim that he was the "original reformer" since the Budget that he had planned to present in February 1991, but which he could not because of Congress pressure, would have raced ahead of Manmohan Singh's July 1991 Budget in terms of the path-breaking reformist measures that were contemplated.

That leaves Manmohan Singh, Palaniappan Chidambaram and Yashwant Sinha in the race. The fact is that all three have done a lot by introducing reform measures in handsome doses. Each of them has had successes and also a few failures. But then success or failure in this respect depends not just on the finance minister, but largely on the support he enjoys from his ministerial colleagues in the Cabinet and most importantly the prime minister.

Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram have enjoyed full support of their prime ministers. Yashwant Sinha was distinctly unlucky in that respect. Apart from being his prime minister's second choice as finance minister, Mr Sinha was always unsure of his position in North Block.

Thus, many of his proposals did not get full backing from his own colleagues when these were to be implemented. What difference a good equation with the prime minister makes became obvious when Jaswant Singh succeeded Yashwant Sinha in 2002.

Since the success of reform measures initiated by finance ministers is not just a reflection of their own performance efficiency, it is perhaps more relevant to look for criteria that correctly evaluate a finance minister in a role where he can function independently without being at the mercy of any of his ministerial colleagues. It is in this context that judging finance ministers by the manner in which they reined in the fiscal deficit offers an interesting perspective on the three finance ministers.

In this respect, Manmohan Singh stands head and shoulders above all. He took charge of the economy when the central government's fiscal deficit had crossed 8 per cent. In his very first Budget presented for 1991-92, he managed to slash the deficit down to 5.9 per cent. By the time he finished his five-year stint as finance minister the fiscal deficit had declined to 4.1 per cent in 1995-96.

Mr Chidambaram has a mixed track record. In his first stint, he brought down the fiscal deficit to 4 per cent in 1996-97 but allowed it to widen to 4.7 per cent in 1997-98. But in his second and ongoing stint, he has improved by reducing the fiscal deficit from 4 per cent in 2004-05 to 3.5 per cent in 2006-07.

What about Yashwant Sinha? In each of the four Budgets he presented, the fiscal deficit number kept rising from 5.1 per cent in 1998-99 to 5.4 per cent in 1999-2000 and further up to 5.6 per cent in 2000-01 and to 6.2 per cent in 2001-02.

In his last Budget for 2002-03, the fiscal deficit declined to 5.9 per cent. But this was much higher than the 4.7 per cent figure achieved by Mr Chidambaram in 1997-98. For a man who claims to have introduced the concept of fiscal deficits in Indian Budgets, this surely is no good and places in perspective the several forward-looking reformist measures he had initiated.

A K Bhattacharya