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An Indian banker with a difference

September 11, 2006 12:32 IST

Exactly a decade ago, in September 1996, on the eve of his retirement as Reserve Bank of India deputy governor, Savak Soharab Tarapore was asked by a colleague how he'd like to evaluate his innings at the central bank.

His self-appraisal? As advisor-in-charge of RBI's credit planning cell, unparalleled. As executive director, good. And as deputy governor, satisfactory.

This is quintessential Tarapore - modest to the core, and yet never shy of speaking his mind. To many, he's still an enigma. A stickler for perfection with a passion for writing short stories and sher-o-shaiyari.

A monetary economist with strong views - and a stance too firm for some. A gentleman's sense of humour too. He was "no no" Tarapore more than "yes yes" Tarapore to commercial bankers, he once quipped, referring to his initials - and bankers' unhappiness with his refusal to pay them interest on their cash reserve ratio wads stacked with the RBI.

So: is he the same no no Tarapore on capital account convertibility too?

As head of the expert committee that has just made its report on the subject public - and it has cautious gradualism writ large on it - the man has attracted much flak for its recommendation on banning participatory notes as an instrument of investment in Indian equities. Yet, he's unfazed, and unwilling to discuss the report - lest he gives an impression that he is "in a hurry to sell the product".

That's just him. Whether he's investigating financial sector scams or working on India's approach to CAC, you can be sure he will have much to say about the structural changes he'd like to see.

In 2001, as chairman of a committee to inquire into the activities of the Unit Trust of India, Tarapore was accused of going beyond his brief in recommending structural changes to the institution. True to character, he defended the report resolutely.

The first convertibility report under his charge, in 1997, had laid down a three-year road map with a checklist of conditions. This time, it has stretched it to five years. Cautious gradualism at work.

The surprises have been the recommendations of reducing the government's stake in public sector banks to 33 per cent and allowing private corporations to set up banks. "Even Tarapore can change," quips a banker who's known him for decades.

What doesn't change is his sense of commitment. Tarapore has spent 8-10 hours, Saturday after Saturday, with the other panel members, poring over reams of papers and dissecting the finer points of a full float rupee. He went though each sentence of the 52 observations and recommendations in the 213-page report with a toothcomb.

Critics contend that his zest for the nitty-gritties clouds his view of the big picture. But to be fair, he has never been one to muffle anyone's voice (proof: two notes of dissent).

And he remains a man for details - odd, you might think, for someone who once dreamt of being a concert pianist (though he'd wanted to be a social worker at one stage too).

It was a chance meeting with an RBI official, the late J S Ahluwalia, that made him opt for an RBI job. He joined the department of economic analysis and policy, as a research officer, in 1961. He was made the deputy governor in 1992.

Tarapore was once asked who the "real Tarapore" was: a perfectionist and terror within the RBI, or a  gentle, chivalrous, charming, old-worldly man? His answer was: "None of these attributes fit the 'real me' - who is timid, slow, inarticulate and unsure."

As Zarathustra's words have it, "He who learns nothing from the past will be punished by the future", and Indian bankers have long learnt the man is anything but that.

Tamal Bandyopadhyay