February 20, 2020
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A Few Good Men

Some moderates, some hardliners—they are some who will have an effect on economic policy

A Few Good Men

Ramakrishna Hegde

The suave Lok Shakti leader's influence will extend far beyond the Commerce Ministry that he has been put in charge of

A long-time Hegde watcher feels that the former Karnataka chief minister has carefully developed a slow unhurried speaking style so he can gauge the listener's response to every word that leaves his lips and make mid-sentence corrections. That canny trait, along with his knowledge about global trade systems, should serve Hegde well when he goes out to negotiate for India at multilateral fora.

But Hegde isn't satisfied with the Commerce portfolio, no matter that just by being Hegde, he will place his ministry firmly in the limelight. He could, in the days to come, move on to a far more important job, to be India's first Minister for Infrastructure. India's infrastructure is perhaps the most crucial bottleneck to its economic growth, and the new government is committed to moving swiftly on this (see Yashwant Sinha interview). One of the first things the Vajpayee government does after—if—it proves its majority on the floor of the House may be to set up a separate Infrastructure Ministry, an overarching and powerful entity.

Whether that happens or not, Hegde could bring a strong dose of pragmatism to the government's policies. Though pro-industry—it was Hegde, who, during the early 1980s, pursued investment aggressively and put Bangalore on the global electronic map—he has always shown a keen sense of proportion, never going so far as to do anything that could lead to labour unrest or social tension.

He is also the great decentraliser. As deputy chairman of the Planning Commission during the V.P. Singh administration, Hegde pushed for greater devolution of funds from the Centre to the state. In Karnataka too, he decentralised dramatically from the state government to the village panchayat level. But above all, he is the shrewd pragmatist, unhampered by ideological small print. In the Vajpayee Cabinet, he could be a very necessary moderating influence to radicals like George Fernandes and Murli Manohar Joshi.

George Fernandes

How do you handle a firebrand who’s so sure of his opinions that he wrote a book titled ‘George Fernandes Speaks’?

WHO else but George Fernandes would have had the gumption to launch his seventh Lok Sabha term with a slew of controversial statements on multinationals, reimposition of hard taxes on the rich, and raising subsidies? The irrepressible George has been a major source of embarrassment to his coalition. His advice to cola companies to beat it forced BJP general secretary Govindacharya to hastily assure everybody that existing companies will not be asked to go. But both George and the BJP’s national agenda have remained firm on discouraging MNC entry into the consumer non-durables sector, where relatively small companies operate and make things of everyday use like soap or butter.

Says Fernandes: "I’m a socialist in an alliance government in  which the BJP is the biggest party." Implying that his criticisms will ensure that the party keeps to its track in economic policy and not forsake the interests of the poor on the plea of national interests.

Can he ever stop playing Robin Hood? After all, he’s also chairman of the editorial board of a Hindi journal called..."Pratipaksha" (Opposition). And no one loves a fight better than George. The unknown trade union activist who shut down Bombay and won his first Lok Sabha seat defeating Congress heavyweight S. K. Patil, is the veteran of many battles: the (failed) 1974 rail strike he spearheaded as president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, his re-election in 1977 from jail, the ouster of IBM and Coca-Cola during his stint in the industry ministry in the late 1970s. Ironically, the striker was also the railway minister for a year in 1989-90.

Returning to the Cabinet after eight years may be quite an experience. Says a top industryman: "Only after joining the government does one realise that there is a wide gulf between saying and doing."

S. Gurumurthy

The RSS will try to get the Swadeshi Jagran Manch chief to lay off for some time, but that may be difficult

LONG-TIME RSS member and convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, S. Gurumurthy, shot into prominence during the Emergency for his vocal criticism of Mrs Gandhi’s authoritarianism. He worked closely at this time with the Leftists who were also opposing the Emergency. This could actually have influenced his economic thinking. For, on a range of economic issues, Gurumurthy’s views could well be those of the CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat or Sitaram Yechuri.

A man who loves going after Goliaths, Gurumurthy was in the front ranks during The Indian Express’ crusade against the Ambanis. In the early days of the V.P. Singh administration, he played a key role in the Bofors probe. In recent times, his has been an increasingly strident voice against MNCs, pro-Indian small industry and for renegotiating the WTO. He was deputed by the RSS as an observer in the committee that drafted the BJP manifesto, and many saw his hand in the politically dangerous harshness of that document.

Gurumurthy is emphatic that his is the only way India can swim with the sharks of the global economy and survive. "Behind the curtain of global free trade, massively managed trade is taking place. Politics, business, military and diplomacy have all converged in making or unmaking trade. So every country rightly looks after its own interest. And India cannot be an exception," says he. He is also totally opposed to foreign majority stakes in any company. "Japan and Korea does not permit controlling equity. FDI in the consumer sector must go. However, methods can be worked out in such a manner that it’s not prejudicial to our economic interest. During the nationalisation spree of the 1970s, Unilever was permitted to hold more shares. Something on that line can be worked out. And I don’t want any FDI in the food sector," Gurumurthy told Outlook.

Jaswant Singh

He hasn’t made it to finance ministership, but with Vajpayee’s backing, he will remain a powerful influence on policy

THE man who caused all the uncertainty about the finance min-istership by losing the elections, was FM for only 13 days in 1996, but did and said enough to both enthuse Indian businessmen and allay multinationals’ fears. Vajpayee wanted him as FM anyway, and put his name on the list sent to the President. But the RSS intervened, cautioning that if Singh was given a ministry, other BJP leaders who had lost may press their own demands. Could his loss also have been a bit of a relief to swadeshi hardliners? Says Jay Dubashi of the BJP’s economic cell: "Singh does not believe in swadeshi. It would have been wrong for the BJP to make someone finance minister who doesn’t believe in swadeshi." Finance minister he may not have become, but Singh will be a powerful force. Industry trusts him, and so does the prime minister. He could become an important voice for moderation within the government.

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