I worked with Mr Jaswant Singh for the first time when he became Finance Minister in 2002, with Mr Yashwant Sinha moving to the external affairs ministry, in a swap. He was unique and remarkable for his old world charm, the dignity that he exuded, and the measured way in which he articulated his mind. I was Revenue Secretary then, hoping to fill the vacancy of Economic Affairs Secretary and to be made Finance Secretary, but it was all up to the new FM.
I am sure he made his own enquiries before the posting got notified, and that gave me the best and most productive year of my entire career.
Jaswant Singh was not a finance man, but he had his ear to the ground, knew what was going on, had multiple sources of information, and was a true patriot.
Jaswant Singh Instinctively Understood Power of Liberal Economics
He wanted India to grow, to be reckoned with for its economic growth, and match the advanced democracies of the world on a horizon of 25 years.
The earlier year had seen the SARS epidemic affect growth in several countries, including India, and he was determined to bring in policies that would help the country grow.
He instinctively understood the power of liberal economics, with a policy philosophy of welcoming private sector and external investment, and encouraging capital markets.
Atal ji, the then prime minister, had great confidence in him, as also Mr Brijesh Mishra, the all powerful principal secretary to the PM. So, once Jaswant Singh started feeling that I was alright, there was no stopping all of us in North Block. CS Rao was Revenue Secretary, Ashok Lahiri was Chief Economic Adviser, and we had strong support from the then RBI Governor, Bimal Jalan.
Our brains trust included Rakesh Mohan, UK Sinha and Ajay Shah. It was a golden age in the Ministry of Finance, and I really wished that I had more years of service left. I used to go to him every morning with a small piece of paper with a to-do list for the day. He would run through it and tick off items that he felt were okay.
Others, he would give me reasons for waiting, because he had the right pulse of the government, friends across parties, and knew what would go through.
Thus, I ended up each day with a considerable list. He would never get into implementation details, but was a taskmaster in the sense that once he had cleared it, he expected it to be done, and done right.
Jaswant Singh’s Role in Realising Delhi Metro Rail Project & New Pension System
We did a lot. The Unit Trust of India was collapsing due to bad managerial and financial decisions, and he was clear that the retail investors should be saved. The team of UK Sinha and Ajay Shah worked with Bimal Jalan to put together a structure whereby the good assets got parked in an SPV, the bad assets were got rid of, and the investors were given an exit at par.
The union government made a lot of money from the good assets in later years, but at that time it was a risk, and I helped him pilot it through Cabinet, though some of the partner parties were not very enthusiastic. There was the Metro Rail project for Delhi that needed fiscal and monetary concessions, and he was farsighted enough to see the merits of it, and we worked to put together a package.
And that is how we got the Delhi Metro, which has been an institutional model that was replicated by numerous other cities in India.
We pointed out that pension expenses were growing hugely, and were being funded from current revenues, and that the present path was truly unsustainable. He was bold enough to consider contributory pension schemes instead of fixed pensions. This was a huge change, but he left it to us to navigate the different stakeholders and to get cabinet approval. That is how we got the New Pension System (NPS).
‘One Could See Jaswant Singh’s Pride in His Country And Its Progress’
Jaswant Singh cared about the fiscal health of states, regardless of party politics. He approved restructuring of the debt of all states, by which they could borrow at lower costs to repay higher cost debt, and saved up to 2 percent in interest commitments. There were many such big reforms, including the SARFAESI Act (the first step of the journey that ultimately led up to the IBC), the loan restructuring for the Steel, Textile and Cement sectors – all done without fuss, and in a very short time.
He was really in his element in the budget of 2003, and one could see the pride he had in the country and its progress.
He funded the Chandrayaan project for ISRO, increased allocation to the Department of Atomic Energy, did away with aid from a number of small aid-giving countries, wrote off loans to impoverished African nations, and announced a fund for external assistance.
He had deep insights into external affairs, and for the first time started bringing that kind of thought process into economic policy.
He was an ideal boss, and was quite my hero. Many years later, in 2009, when I had long retired, he asked me to accompany him on his Lok Sabha election campaign in Darjeeling constituency (which he won) and I gladly did, attending several meetings with him. His going away is a big loss for me.
(Dr S Narayan was Finance Secretary when Jaswant Singh was Finance Minister. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)