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Crises and cherries
June, 14th 2007

Yashwant Sihna begins his Confessions of a Swadeshi Reformer (www.penguinbooksindia.com) with a narration of `the dreaded moment' that left him with no option but to sign a proposal to mortgage gold to save the country's honour and prestige.

"The RBI (Reserve Bank of India) had to keep a tab on all foreign exchange transactions, almost on a 24/7 basis, to ensure avoidance of any mishap," he writes, recounting those crisis days.

One of the sources for emergency aid then was Japan; $500 million was, however, released only after Sinha's meeting with Japan's Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. "I remember the Tokyo trip for the back-breaking schedule that the embassy had prepared for me, the feeling that I had gone there literally with a begging bowl and my very brief meeting with Hashimoto. The cherry trees were in full bloom, especially in front of the Indian embassy. Alas, one did not have the leisure or the mood to enjoy the splendid sight... "

It is again on a bitter note that Sinha mentions the intra-cadre rivalry, `at its worst in the Central Board of Excise and Customs'. This is how it worked: "The officers here did not mind cutting each other's throats to reach senior positions. They filed anonymous petitions against each other (unfortunately many were often also true). In many cases, the careers of promising officers were spoilt or brought to an abrupt end as a result of those internecine wars."

Engaging read.

`Callous misgovernance'

With Sinha outside the Finance Ministry, now, you may like to read the current incumbent P. Chidambaram's memoir, A View from the Outside. The worst period, `in purely economic terms,' was the second half of 2000-01, he writes. "Every indicator was headed south, and the year recorded a gross domestic product growth rate of 4 per cent." As if by miracle, the following year saw all three sectors registering growth rates in the four quarters, he continues.

Yet there was `callous misgovernance', Chidambaram wrote in one of his columns in December 2002: "Yashwant Sinha presented a disastrous budget. His proposals hit savings, hit investments and hit the hard-working (and tax-paying) salaried middle class. On the same day, a horrendous crime was committed at Godhra in Gujarat... "

In a chapter on taxation, he says that on the excise side far reaching changes are necessary. "Excise falls only on 1,00,000 to 1,50,000 points of assessment in the whole country. With the country's vast capabilities in information technology and software, a radically different system of levy, assessment and collection of excise duties can be put in place."

Chidambaram comes down heavily on the Kelkar Report.

"The task force has rubbished all that was said and done in 12 years," he fumes in a chapter titled `Try to sit, he'll tax your seat... '

Insightful views for the rank outsiders, like most of us.

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