Confessions of a Swadeshi Reformer: My Years As Finance Minister
Author: Yashwant Sinha
Price: Rs 450
Yashwant Sinha's account of the time he spent in North Block is significant not only for what has been stated but also for what has not. His three stints as Finance Minister in Chandra Shekhar’s shortlived government and two governments led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee were marked by many controversies.
In these memoirs, he predictably gives himself a clean chit, pats himself several times on the back and outlines his views on many things under the sun, especially on all subjects related to the Indian economy. He does not shy away from describing in detail how he was hurt by the personal attacks that were mounted on him by his ministerial colleagues and ideological compatriots.
Not surprisingly, he believes he was unfairly trashed as ‘Roll-back Sinha’ because he had to reverse so many of his budget proposals. Words like ‘shock’, ‘humiliation’ and ‘aghast’ to describe his reactions have been used innumerable times in the book.
The teacher-turned-bureaucrat-turned-politician has, however, been less than candid, contrary to what the liner notes would have us believe. He has chosen not to mention certain facts (deliberately?) or has understated them or has avoided identifying individuals in his account of the times he served as one of the India’s most powerful persons. What Sinha’s book does reveal is the functioning of a government that was rife with petty politicking, personality clashes, bitching and backbiting — in this respect at least, he has not pulled his punches.
One example of an understatement: the phrase ‘India Shining’ finds mention only once in the book that runs into more than 250 pages, that too, in the last chapter. The relevant sentence on page 242 reads: “Though the slogan ‘India Shining’ was ridiculed, there is no doubt that the NDA left behind an India which was shining like never before.” Perhaps one should not expect it, but there are not even a couple of lines on why the NDA lost the 2004 elections or even a sentence refuting the argument that the ‘India Shining’ campaign may have actually contributed to the electoral defeat of the BJP-led coalition.
There are more than a few revelations. Immediately after the 1999 elections, at two meetings that were attended by Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Jaswant Singh, Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh besides Sinha, unsuccessful attempts were made (by whom, we do not know) to first break the Ministry of Finance into three ministries and then, to bifurcate it. The book’s blurb says this was an attempt to cut Sinha down to size.
In 1998, just as he was finalising his reply to the debate on the Finance Bill, Sinha says he received a phone call from a “very senior colleague considered close to the Prime Minister” who told him that Vajpayee had instructed him to tell Sinha to “change the import duty rate on a certain product” that would have “exposed” the government to criticism that it was “was favouring one industrial house”. Sinha immediately rushed to Vajpayee who told him he had not authorised anyone to make such a suggestion.
One would have liked Sinha’s to name names, but this episode clearly highlights the infamous nexus between big business and politics (mentioned only in passing in the book). Sinha’s “very dear friend”, the late P Rangarajan Kumaramangalam had during a cabinet meeting “suddenly flared up and started shouting” at him, saying it would be “impossible” for him to work as Power Minister with Sinha as Finance Minister. Sikandar Bakht helped cool tempers that day but Sinha cites this example to highlight the unenviable aspects of the job of an FM.
As for his much-publicised spat with his advisor Mohan Guruswamy, Sinha discloses that he had been appointed against his wishes at the instance of Advani. “I must confess that here I showed weakness in handling the issue,” he writes.
On B.P. Verma, chairman, Central Board of Excise & Customs, Sinha claims he did not know about his arrest on corruption charges in April 2001 until it had already taken place and that the PMO had kept pending for weeks a proposal to shift him. He also acknowledges that his government was unfair to “an extremely competent” officer, Expenditure Secretary E A S Sarma, when he was abruptly transferred.
Writes Sinha: “He left the service in a huff. I would have, perhaps, done the same.”
There are other ‘confessions’ in the book that do not exactly show Sinha in the best possible light. Much has been written about the UTI scandal and securities scam of 2001 — including a voluminous report by a Joint Parliamentary Committee. Sinha’s account contains no revelations.
“The whole UTI affair is a very sorry chapter of my tenure as Finance Minister,” he concedes, adding that he “made a mistake” by not cancelling a meeting with Vajpayee on July 2 that year. He should “in retrospect” have instead met his officials before the UTI board took its decision to freeze transactions in US-64 instruments — a move that started a chain of events that eventually blew up in the government’s face.
Sinha recounts how “greatly hurt” he felt when it was alleged that the Central Board of Direct Taxes had issued a circular relating to tax concessions granted to corporate bodies registered in the tax haven of Mauritius because he wanted to favour a firm that had employed his daughter-in-law. He will “forever regret” the fact that he could not explain his position to the RSS ideologue, the late Dattopant Thengadi, who had described him as a “culprit” in a public meeting.
Sinha says he put in his papers thereafter but was persuaded by Advani to hang on. He insists he did nothing wrong by getting posters printed by Flex Industries headed by Ashok Chaturvedi (who, he says, had been introduced to him by an important Congress functionary) or by renting out his personal home to an employee of the company. (Chaturvedi had incidentally been accused of bribing a top Finance Ministry official and both had been arrested.)
Sinha says a disgruntled and corrupt member of his personal staff had leaked this story to the Indian Express. There are more nuggets of information, too many to recount in a review. He describes how he walked out of Rashtrapati Bhavan because V.P. Singh had offered him a post of a junior minister.
Sinha clearly sees himself as the ‘original’ reformer and lovingly quotes economist I.G. Patel and Congress MP Arjun Sengupta in his support. In short, he would like us to believe he is no sinner, if not exactly a saint. Agree with him or not, the book is certainly highly recommended reading for all those interested in the contemporary political economy of India.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is director, School of Convergence, New Delhi