Budget 2021: Dear FM Sitharaman, Swing It Like ‘Singh & Singh’

“Here’s what FM Nirmala Sitharaman can learn from former Union Finance Ministers Dr Manmohan Singh & Jaswant Singh.”

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Raghav Bahl (centre), Jaswant Singh (extreme R) and Dr Manmohan Singh used for representational purposes.
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Every year, for one day, India’s finance minister hogs more limelight than the incumbent prime minister to become the ‘first among equals’. That solitary day among 365 is Budget Day, now usually on the First of February.

India’s had seven powerful finance ministers in the post-liberalisation era, but only one among them, Dr Manmohan Singh, became prime minister. So, he’s experienced both emotions, putting former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in his shadow, but also withdrawing into the penumbra of politically savvier finance ministers, Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram.

Except for the current finance minister, Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, who I am yet to meet in North Block, I’ve had the privilege of several tête-à-têtes with all her predecessors since 1991.

In this short trip through memory lane, I want to recount two of the most yaadgar (that is, dramatic, memorable) moments.

So, whom do I recall with an exclamation mark? Until I had begun to re-choreograph my memory, I would have imagined it would be Manmohan Singh or P Chidambaram or Arun Jaitley, because of the sheer heft and length of their stints in office. But lo behold, I surprised myself by picking on the man who had the tiniest tenure of less than two years through these three decades — the late Jaswant Singh!

Jaswant Singh: The Non-Economist Who Wanted To Liberate With Military Precision

Jaswant Singh was first appointed finance minister on 16 May 1996 in the ill-fated 13-day government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. I remember a breathless engagement where he was charmingly caustic, throwing a military greeting at me.

Jaswant Singh: Aaah, Mr Bahl, the cheerleader for M/s Rao and Singh (for those who may not know, he meant Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh).

I (mildly on the defensive): Not a cheerleader sir, but I do support, ideologically, the free-market reforms they authored. In our statist, bureaucratic set-up, it was a breath of fresh air until, of course, they got scared and stalled their own momentum.

Jaswant Singh (dismissively): Those were very grudging, faltering ‘reforms’ (he virtually spat the word). I have very little time for two-handed economists, you know those who say, “on the one hand this, but on the other that” (ahem, clearly a jibe at Manmohan Singh and his protégé, Montek Singh Ahluwalia). You will now see what real reforms are…

Why I Attach An Exclamation Mark To Jaswant Singh’s Memory

Alas, destiny had other things in store just 13 days later as the government resigned. But when he became finance minister again in the third Vajpayee government in July 2002, he dazzled the economy with truly light-touch reforms.

Union Finance Minister Jaswant Singh (centre) entering Parliament to present Interim General Budget in New Delhi on February 3, 2004.
Union Finance Minister Jaswant Singh (centre) entering Parliament to present Interim General Budget in New Delhi on February 3, 2004.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

He pushed for the government to withdraw from everywhere except social and infrastructure sectors — gosh, that was music to my ears. He did an audacious bail-out of the bankrupt Unit Trust of India, cleverly privatising the State-controlled behemoth. He was convinced taxes should be linked only to productivity.

“I want to put money in the hands of consumers to increase demand in the economy. For that I must cut taxes”.

I especially remember his sweeping, unconventional pre-Budget tax cuts of January 2004: customs duty hacked by five percentage points, air-travel tax eliminated by 15 percent — which pulled the economy up to an 8 percent growth trajectory, creating the perfect take-off which allowed the successor UPA government to ride three years of 9 percent GDP growth.

Now I understand why I attach an exclamation mark to his memory. I resonated so completely with his plan that private consumption/investment, outright sale of public sector companies, and lower taxes were the underpinnings of a resurgent economy.

Jaswant Singh giving final touch to interim budget on February 2, 2004.
Jaswant Singh giving final touch to interim budget on February 2, 2004.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But Before Jaswant, There Was Another Singh Who Was King!

A lot of people will be shocked, perhaps justifiably, that Manmohan Singh should feature ‘below the spine’ in this piece. After all, he defanged the debilitating economic crisis of 1991 with breath-taking policy moves.

Dr Manmohan Singh, Union Finance Minister in a meeting held on 3 November 1995
Dr Manmohan Singh, Union Finance Minister in a meeting held on 3 November 1995
(Photo: Bihar Chamber of Commerce & Industries)

Recall that India had to pledge 67 tonnes of gold to stave off a default on sovereign debt. We were downgraded to junk status, with barely any foreign exchange left to pay for critical imports or service foreign debt.

Now just imagine the usually restrained Manmohan Singh doing a ‘hop, skip, and jump’ (which is what the reckless operation was code-named).

On Monday, 1 July 1991, India’s pegged rupee was devalued nine percent by a government order — yes, I will say it again, nine percent in one chop to the neck. It was a straw-clutching move to stop a run on rapidly dwindling foreign currency reserves. But a nervous market began to panic even more. So, two days later, on 3 July 1991, the rupee was devalued another 11 percent — yes, another eleven percent — but with a promise to stop. That calmed the market and stanched the outflow.

Dr Manmohan Singh.
Dr Manmohan Singh.
(Credit: Photo Division/PIB via Livemint)

Eventually, two years later, India put its tightly controlled currency on a ‘managed float’. As economic shocks go, this one had turned out to be bold & beautiful

(PS: We are holding nearly USD 600 bn of foreign currency reserves now)

Manmohan Singh Saved A Sinking Ship

Dr Singh also took another uncharted action to harness the American dollar and create an equity cult in the country. India’s closed, clubby, and scam-prone stock markets were thrown open to foreign investors.

The sheltered, fragile rupee was made partially convertible on the capital account. Two new institutions, the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and National Stock Exchange (NSE), were empowered and inaugurated to clean the Augean stables. Soon, India’s remarkably digitised stock market, perhaps the most modern in the world at that time, won over the foreigners.

Dr Manmohan Singh at his office in 1991 after presenting the Union Budget
Dr Manmohan Singh at his office in 1991 after presenting the Union Budget
(Credit: Image Instragrammed by INC India / via NDTV)

India’s equity cult was born.

Yes, Manmohan Singh did a million other things to liberalise our hopelessly controlled/trussed-up economy, but he did it to save a sinking ship. He was forced to act by a fatal crisis.

As finance ministers go, his impact was infinitely greater than anything Jaswant Singh could have done. But on the other hand (he will hate me for using a ‘two-handed phrase’), Jaswant Singh was keen to liberate a healthy economy out of conviction. That’s why I remember him with an exclamation mark!

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