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A man who could never become a minister

The year was 1995. I was a beat reporter covering the Planning Commission and the finance ministry. The big story was the eighth five-year plan's mid-term appraisal, which was critical of the government's economic liberalisation programme. Rajesh Mahapatra writes.

india Updated: Oct 12, 2010 22:06 IST
Rajesh Mahapatra

The year was 1995. I was a beat reporter covering the Planning Commission and the finance ministry. The big story was the eighth five-year plan's mid-term appraisal, which was critical of the government's economic liberalisation programme. A tussle was on between the Commission and the ministry, the latter not wanting the report to be published without suitable amendments.

That's when I first met Arjun Sengupta — a tall, dark-complexioned man in his late 50s, whose impeccable record as an economic administrator could be matched by few in India.

An MIT-trained economist, Sengupta was just 34 when Indira Gandhi picked him as an economic counsellor to Bangladesh. Sengupta's deft handling of this sensitive job won the Congress leader's confidence. His left-of-centre leanings had made him a perfect fit.

When Pranab Mukherjee took charge of the Commission in 1993, Sengupta became its member-secretary. Politically, Mukherjee had come to be seen as a rallying point for those in the Congress who were dissenting the market-opening policies of Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. Sengupta's brief could hardly be different. He put together a group of somewhat left-leaning economists to prepare a critical mid-term appraisal to highlight the downside of liberalisation.

With that act, Sengupta ended up on the wrong side of history. The finance ministry prevailed over Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to stop the mid-term appraisal from being printed in its original form.

I met Sengupta several times during that period. He never gave out news, but the interactions helped me gain valuable insights into policy making in India. He had an unmatched ability to break down complex things into simple modules. I always thought the man deserved more than he had received.

The United Front government appointed Bimal Jalan as member-secretary of the Commission in 1996. Sengupta was retained as a member. A year later, Sengupta became a hopeful for the job of Reserve Bank governor. The other contender was Montek Singh Ahluwalia. A last-minute phone call from V.P. Singh to Deve Gowda, we were told, changed everything. Jalan was picked for the job. Sengupta could not bring himself to working for a BJP-led government and returned to teaching.

When the UPA came to power in 2004, his nomination to the post of deputy chairman of Planning Commission was widely expected. But the job went to Montek. Sengupta became chairman of the National Commission for Unorganised Workers, working to highlight the widespread poverty in India. It brought Sengupta close to Sonia Gandhi and many believed he stood a good chance to become a minister in a Cabinet reshuffle.

But his health did not stand by him anymore. On September 26, Sengupta died of prostrate cancer. He was 73.
Rajesh.Mahapatra@hindustantimes.com