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January 07, 2004

Finance Minister Jaswant Singh should be on a high. In his current form, it seems he can do no wrong.

Even if he does not present a regular budget this February, the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership will remain beholden to him for having overseen the rise of the Indian economy, the surge in the Sensex and the jump in corporate profitability with the elan and effortless ease of a seasoned captain.

Indeed, in BJP's poll armoury today, the successful management of the Indian economy is a key weapon that will be used to great effect during the forthcoming general election. And there is little doubt that Jaswant Singh is seen as instrumental in converting what looked like a liability a year ago into a trump card that may assure the party of a thumping victory.

Cut to July 2002, when Mr Singh took charge of the finance ministry. His predecessor, Yashwant Sinha, had to swap positions with Mr Singh and packed his bags to go across Raj Path to take charge of the external affairs ministry. The Indian economy, the stock markets and the corporate world -- none of them seemed to show any promise. Mr Sinha was attacked from all quarters for having failed to revive the economy.

He was also seen as a finance minister who made tall promises in his Budget speeches, but failed to get many of them implemented. In the end, however, Mr Sinha was the fall guy as his ministerial colleagues went back on the decisions taken earlier.

There were many bold and reformist budgets that he presented between 1998 and 2002. But the opportunity provided by many of those fine budgets was lost as the country was either engulfed by controversies like the Tehelka expose on corruption involving BJP chief Bangaru Lakshman or the economy had to withstand the shocks of either the nuclear tests at Pokhran or the terrorists attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.

So, what most people unfortunately remember him for is the stock market scam or the UTI fiasco. He emerged unscathed from the Ketan Parekh-led scam, but on UTI he lost popular sympathy as he was seen as a finance minister who failed to act promptly and decisively.

In sharp contrast, Jaswant Singh began his innings on a low key. Unlike his predecessor, he hardly gave sound bytes to the media. At the same time, he coined some unconventional and new phrases to capture popular imagination. 'Grihini Ke Tukiya Me Anna Aur Garib Ke Ghar Me Dana' was a new slogan but it showed that here was a finance minister who was not obsessed only with the stock market or India Inc.

His slogan struck a chord with the common man -- BJP's equally important constituency. Aiding such sentiments was Mr Singh's other message that apart from increasing gross domestic product he was also keen on improving the people's gross contentment index.

The only Budget Mr Singh presented in 2003 was devoid of tall promises. He eschewed announcements of schemes that pertained to other ministries.

And when he sensed that the markets have begun to recover, the corporates are clocking higher profits and the Indian economy is growing at a faster pace, he launched what is now a hugely successful India Shining campaign. He may be a lucky finance minister, but he also knows how to grab an opportunity with both hands.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Jaswant Singh today has become perhaps the only post-reform finance minister on whose strength of having achieved an economic turnaround, a political party will fight a general election.

This is not to underestimate the work done by Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram or Yashwant Sinha. But what they achieved was not something on the basis of which a victory at the hustings could be planned. Things have changed in the case of Jaswant Singh, not because what he achieved, but for the manner in which he packaged his achievements and exploited the positive sentiments.

Like Mr Sinha, Jaswant Singh also faced the problems of a scam and the embarrassment of rolling back Budget measures. But he did not allow himself to be cowed down either by the Telgi fake stamp paper scam or the roll-back of the fertiliser price hike proposal or the postponement of the value-added tax regime.

While Mr Sinha got a new finance secretary for each of the five budgets he presented, Mr Singh has consciously de-emphasised the role of bureaucracy in his ministry. His adverse comments on civil service in general have not made him popular in North Block, but his style has remained unaffected.

The biggest source of Mr Singh's strength is of course the full confidence of the prime minister that he enjoys. His predecessor, on the other hand, was always made to feel insecure on this front.

No matter how brilliant or lucky you are, success in a ministerial job can be ensured only when you have secured your leader's full confidence in you. Apart from luck and style, therefore, this was another crucial difference between Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh.

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