PM locks first love in hug
New Delhi, June 27: A day after he wrote a fond “will-miss-you” paean to Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned swiftly to demonstrate what may have been missing in the finance ministry with Pranab as boss: Manmohan Singh himself.
India’s best-known finance minister is back at the job, hands on the wheel, foot on the pedal of a vehicle rattling perilously off course.
“We are passing through challenging times economically,” the Prime Minister told top finance officials and policy mandarins grimly. “The growth rate has taken a dip; the industrial performance is not satisfactory; things are not rosy on the investment front; inflation continues to be a problem. On the external front, I am concerned about the way the exchange rate is going. Investor sentiment is down and capital flows are drying up.”
The essence of his message, though, lay in finding urgent cures, not naming known malaises. It was terse and it did not make it to the formal statement issued late evening by the Prime Minister’s Office. There is very little time to deliver, but we have no option but to, Singh told the team that he said he was happy to head once again, let’s get cracking and demonstrate we mean business.
Barring a short caretaker spell in 2008, this is the first time Singh is heading the finance ministry since he trailed off in 1996 with the first set of liberalisation regime under P.V. Narasimha Rao. The Congress, desperate to gather steam before the 2014 general election, must now hope that the wizened Yoda of economic reforms will deliver oracle remedies to an economy in tailspin.
But if Singh was underlining hard economic imperatives today, he was also sending out a strong political message. Having resumed command of the nation’s most critical sector, he was betraying no sense that he was conducting a holding operation.
Aspirants to the finance minister’s job may have to wait longer than most believe; on the evidence of today’s atmospherics, the Prime Minister has resumed chancellorship of the exchequer with renewed gusto and doesn’t intend to relieve himself of the job anytime soon.
The circumstances surrounding Mukherjee’s voluntary — and happy — departure in the direction of Rashtrapati Bhavan may, in fact, have left Singh firmer and more assured in the saddle. The very fact, political observers say, that the Congress leadership has to flay suggestions of Singh’s candidacy for President and reiterate he will last his current term in office has served to strengthen his position. With the finance portfolio in hand, Singh is more firmly ensconced.
“It is very clear he wants to helm the economy, at least till he has set it back on course, that clearly is a challenge he has set himself,” a top official told The Telegraph this evening. “There are going to be no political appointments, he and his office are the new engines of the economy.”
It is perhaps of note that the presence neither of the two junior ministers in the finance ministry — Namo Narain Meena and S.S. Palanimanickam — was thought necessary at the meetings the Prime Minister took. “This is an economy wonk resuming his tryst with economy wonks,” said an officer emerging from the meeting. “This is the Prime Minister’s original club, he is happy to have politicians out of it.”
Officials said Singh never violated the turf of senior ministers like Mukherjee but that didn’t necessarily mean he “entirely endorsed” the direction and speed of measures taken. “The very fact he has summoned back-to-back meetings and demanded new energy and sense of purpose should be read as a comment on what has been happening in the finance ministry hitherto,” a senior official said.
“It could be said his first priority is to establish a sense of leadership at the top which he thought missing. He wants to cut what had become a drift. We get a sense he is thrilled to be back. On the other hand, his presence there is newly assuring for us,” the official added.
Top of the Prime Minister’s agenda, officials said, was to “throw off psychological cobwebs of policy stagnation and pessimism” and revive market and investor confidence both at home and abroad. At the administrative level, principal secretary Pulok Chatterjee has been put in charge of devising mechanisms to revive what one official called the “animal spirit” of the economy.
New policy thrusts, which remain tied into political compulsions of a coalition, will get priority attention at the Prime Minister’s desk. Some of them came up today in meetings Singh had with the chief of his economic advisory council, C. Rangarajan, the chief economic adviser, Kaushik Basu, and the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Meetings with the full complement of the Planning Commission and the Reserve Bank brass are scheduled for tomorrow.
There is a sense emanating both from government and Congress quarters that “hard decisions” must be taken in order to end the economic gloom, even in the face of political opposition.
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