May 25, 2020
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Grand Tale, Lame Ending

This engaging history of the RBI—rich in events and tales of conflict over policy—effectively ends in 1981. What brings up the rear is biased, tepid stuff.

Grand Tale, Lame Ending
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Grand Tale, Lame Ending
Dialogue Of The Deaf: The Government And The RBI
By T.C.A. Srinivasa-Raghavan
Tranquebar Press | Pages: 289 | Rs. 599

People familiar with T.C.A. Sri­nivasa Raghavan’s writings know he writes engagingly, a trait uncommon even among journalists. For several years, TCA was a consultant with RBI, in the course of RBI chronicling its off­icial history. Specifically, this volume covered 1967-81. That apart, he was associated with an RBI/IGIDR project on monetary history between 1900 and 1950. Hence, from the preface: “I had, for several years, been inf­ormally suggesting to the RBI that it should produce an abridged volume of its history.... The four volumes tog­ether weigh several kilos and mostly adorn library book shelves. But no one at RBI seemed interested and so I have done it on my own, which means every single minor error is mine.” This pinpoints the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It isn’t merely a hist­ory of the RBI, it is an account of monetary policy too, beginning with antecedents of global central banking, reinforcing the point that nowhere in the world have central banks been allowed to become truly independent. Two of the eight chapters (plus two appendices) are for the pre-Independence period, these chapters are rich with anecdotes.

The anecdotes become juicier in the third chapter, taking us to 1970, with the account increasingly interwoven with planning and development goals. In the fourth chapter, we traverse the same trajectory, through 1970s and early 1980s. In terms of RBI governors, this is the per­­­iod from L.K. Jha to Manmohan Singh, and TCA chronicles the wrangling between the RBI and the finance ministry. “The RBI did try...but was usually sla­­pped down and asked to behave. One of the worst culprits in this aspect was none other than Manmohan Singh.... This was to have very interesting consequences two years later in a skirmish between fin­ance minister Pranab Muk­herjee and RBI Governor Manmohan Singh.”

TCA recalls the wrangling between the RBI and the finance ministry: “The RBI was usually slapped down and asked to behave. One of the worst culprits...was Manmohan Singh.”

If you haven’t caught the drift, in the Union finance ministry, wearing one hat, a person would adopt a certain position on wrangling between the ministry and the RBI. However, having moved to the RBI as governor, wearing another hat, the same person would adopt a different position. Manmohan Singh was the ‘culprit’ as chief economic adviser. But the tables were turned in 1983 (over a BCCI bank license issue). “According to one senior RBI insider, Manmohan Singh responded with fury.... He wrote out his resignation and flew down to Delhi. That was the first of several threats to resign made by Manmohan Singh over the next 30 years, only to never act on them. It was interesting how national interest and self-interest could coincide when he wanted them to.” As I mentioned earlier, TCA had access to material for the 1967-81 period. While the style is the same, the book weakens bey­ond the fourth chapter (till 1984).

TCA writes, “This book depends alm­ost entirely on the first three volumes of the RBI’s official history, which come up to 1981. I have not touched on the post-2008 years because the institution has been diminished in too many ways since then, not least because the government has wrested back the autonomy the RBI had begun to enjoy after 1992.” That’s only partly true. Beyond 1981, TCA had no access to any interesting material. Therefore, from the fifth chapter, the book has little interesting information. In the absence of relatively objective information, it becomes more subjective and biased. For instance, TCA clearly doesn’t like Bimal Jalan or D. Subbarao, but is considerably fond of Y.V. Reddy. There can be debates about who were good/bad governors. But, when it comes to the recent past, I think TCA loses his objectivity. Rather oddly, the last chapter, the eighth, also suffers from bad editing. D. Subbarao is a case in point. Subbarao has B.Sc. and M.Sc deg­rees in physics and a Masters and Ph.D. in economics. Therefore, it is correct to say that he studied physics; it is also correct to state that he studied economics. But why confuse the reader not fam­iliar with such details by mentioning physics in one place and economics a few pages later?

On Subbarao, TCA writes, “Not to put too fine a point on it, despite his best intentions and efforts, it must be said that Subbarao failed to do his job.” He avoids any such assertions about Sub­ba­rao’s successors, Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel. Urjit Patel became RBI governor on September 4, 2016. Gauging his tenure may have been premature. But by not saying anything on the Raghuram Rajan years, TCA has ensured the book ends lamely. It just tapers off, having started with a great deal of promise.

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