March 31, 2020
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New Conscripts For Two Generals

Montek wanted to think and write. Now he can wield the pen. N.K. Singh isn't much of a writer, and he will continue to wield power. In economics, that's called comparative advantage.

New Conscripts For Two Generals

NETAS and babus come and go in North Block, but the rhesus monkeys remain forever. When the evening sun disappears behind Rashtrapati Bhavan, these vicious simians relocate from the trees and lawns of Raisina Hill, and from dusk to dawn lay permanent claim to the corridors for power. Viewed in this context, there is little to be excited about the transfer of two of the building’s long-lasting human inhabitants – revenue secretary Nand Kishore Singh and his boss, finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia. They came and went.

Pseudo-simian philosophy aside, why is there so much brouhaha over Montek’s, and lesser so NK’s, transfer? After all, civil servants hold transferable posts, and their political masters have the right to send them anywhere. Unlike M.K. Bezbaruah of the Enforcement Directorate, the North Block duo were hardly in the thick of any politically inconvenient escapade. Besides, it’s not as if Montek has been sent off as the chairman of the Inter-ministerial Committee on Human Waste Disposal in the National Capital Region, or NK as the curator of the Cellular Jail Museum in the Andamans. The rank of a minister of state – even in that den of antiquity called the Planning Commission – is better than that of a finance secretary; and a secretary-level posting at the Prime Minister’s Office carries more political clout than being India’s chief khazanchi (treasurer).

Yet, those two transfers have captured the imagination of South Delhi’s salons. At a simple level, when well-heeled people like us get shunted by khadi-clad people like them, chatterati tribe loyalty comes into play. In Montek’s case, this is buttressed by his long innings as a highly visible secretary in North Block – two years as secretary (economic affairs) and five as the head honcho. For a non-IAS to become the youngest finance secretary and hold the post for five years under three finance ministers is not something to trifle with, and won’t be repeated in the near future. If Dev Kant Borooah were alive to say "North Block is Montek, and Montek North Block", Ahluwalia would surely protest, but would probably accept the kernel of truth.

After all, Montek was the continuing face of whatever economic reforms that we have seen in the last seven years. It is easy to use superlatives to describe Montek. A razor-sharp economic mind, the perfect turn of phrase, Oxford Union debating skills, the ministry’s most elegantly occidental face to the rest of the world-all these and many more attributes created an aura of indestructible permanence.

Nevertheless, intelligent man that he is, Montek surely suspected that his term was coming to an end. Contrary to popular opinion, he did get along fairly well with Yashwant Sinha and thought of his new minister as an intrinsic reformer. But the BJP ideologues had serious problems. They were troubled by Montek’s brand of reforms, wary of his sway over the North Block mandarins, suspicious of his World Bank antecendents, and distrustful of his close personal ties with Manmohan Singh. Besides, even Montek would admit that he was getting jades. Seven years of thrust and parry on the margins of countless files were taking their toll. It became that much more tempting to acquiesce to politically softer and economically flawed options – which were then justified via debating finesse. To be sure, there was still the reforming fire in Montek’s belly. But it was more like glowing embers than the pure crackling blaze of 1991-93.

A change was vital for Montek’s intellect. He had to be evacuated from the bloody trenches, and leave the punishing, zigzag bayonet sorties across ministerial minefields to a fresh conscript. The shift to the Planning Commission should be an undisguised blessing – an interregnum to charge his batteries and prepare for the battles ahead. Unfettered by interest groups and parliamentary questions, Montek can now rethink about economic policies, write papers, and create a framework to tackle the unfinished agenda for reform.

NK’s quite another story. He has been unambiguously promoted to a position of very high power and will surely leverage the office to become even more powerful and pivotal. Nobody in the civil service has a greater genius for adroit networking between the IAS and the politicians. Nobody has a finer tuned political antenna, and if NK sets his mind to it, he can deliver the impossible time and time again.

Shrewd political intermediaries like Pramod Mahajan and trouble-shooters such as Jaswant Singh know these qualities of NK, and have placed him in an office where they can get the best out of the man. Which, of course, makes mockery of the story that the BJP was livid at NK’s gaffes in the Budget and was determined to send him to purgatory. Maybe Yashwant Sinha was angry. If he was, the finance minister was clearly no match for his fellow Bihari. NK has more powerful supporters within industry than Sinha in the cabinet. And, like Montek, he will deliver. Only differently.

Two last points. It would be stupid to assume that Montek’s successor, Vijay Kelkar, isn’t a reformer. Anyone who knows how he rammed home the plan for deregulating the petroleum industry and introducing market-determined prices realises that Kelkar is no less a reformer than Montek. Don’t count on him being a ‘case-by-case’ softy. And, finally don’t write off Montek or NK. The former will one day be the governor of the Reserve Bank; and the latter either the finance or the cabinet secretary.

(The author is an economist and a former editor of Business India)

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