The Buck Stops At The Finance Ministers Desk

Updated: Sep 14 2003, 05:30am hrs
Finance minister Jaswant Singh has broken his vow of silence to claim that there is a feel good factor sweeping the country. Thats wonderful, I said to myself, but I checked myself to ask Who feels good.

Mulayam Singh Yadav undoubtedly feels good, but Ms Mayawati does not. After another debate on his stewardship, Mr George Fernandes does not. Ms Mamata Banerjee felt good on Monday, but not so on Tuesday. Mr Gingee Ramachandran feels good but also feels slightly uncomfortable. Mr Venkaiah Naidu always feels good when he speaks, but not when he reads the next day reports of his speech, and certainly not when he denies having uttered those words. Neither Mr Karunanidhi nor Ms Jayalalithaa feel good for too long and, any way, not at the same time. One mans feeling is another womans failing or vice versa.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, however, is lucky. He always feels good no matter what happens around him. He feels especially good when he is watching a movie or reciting his poems or indulging his fondness for sweets. On the contrary, Mr Advani always does not feel good, he is perpetually worried (have you seen him wring his hands while speaking), and his worries have only multiplied after the fall of the Mayawati government.

There are, of course, others who feel good: Ms Hema Malini, Dr Bimal Jalan and Mr Dara Singh. They have to feel good in each others presence, because that is the distinguished company they will keep for the next six years.

There are also others who dont feel good at all. There is Mr SM Krishna who has to confront daily reports of suicide by farmers in Karnataka. There is Mr Narendra Modi who has trouble finding enough lawyers to defend him. There is Mr Togadia who has to find an airline that will take him to places without touching down at any airport in 15 Congress-ruled states. And there is Mr Singhal who has to find even more vituperative words to attack the Prime Minister.

Finally, whether Ms Jaya Jaitly feels good or not will have to wait for the first issue of Tehelka to hit the news stands. And whether Mr Arun Jaitley feels good or not will have to wait for his return from Cancun.

Obviously, the finance minister had only some of these people in mind or perhaps others when he claimed to have discovered the spread of the feel good factor. I write this from the town of Tanjavur, the centre of Tamil Nadus once-famed rice bowl. The banks of the river Cauvery saw lush-green paddy fields, mighty kingdoms, generations of great musicians, the finest temple architecture and the rise of a great civilization. All that seems in the past. The present is a picture of waste, hopelessness, poverty and despair. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of land lie fallow.

Four successive crops two kuruvais and two sambas have been lost. In some parts of the erstwhile Tanjavur district (now divided into three), farm labourers are reported to be killing rats for food.

Technically speaking, Mr Singh is right. After five cheerless years of the BJP-led government, there seems to be an upswing in the economy. This year, the GDP promises to grow at over 6 per cent. That is good, though partly it is a statistical illusion, because the high growth rate is upon last years (2001-02) abysmally low growth rate.

The finance minister lists the pluses, and they are indeed positive signs: large foreign exchange reserves, splendid external management, a booming stock market, rising imports, a satisfactory export performance and low inflation. But why is my Tanjavur farmer not feeling good as he should be Because he and his wife have no use for any of these except perhaps the low inflation. And even low inflation means nothing to her because there is virtually no income to keep the choola burning.

In the face of so many positives, Mr Singh is perhaps justified in dismissing some worrying negatives. I admire the panache with which he did so. When asked about the fiscal deficit he said, Why do these wise men and women not worry about the fiscal deficit of France That was a revelation. I did not know that France had a fiscal deficit or that it was something that we should worry about or that it was the cause of Indias fiscal deficit. Thank you Mr Finance Minister, we always live and learn. Another question was about investment or the lack of it. Mr Singh said that he was also wondering why there has been so little investment in the past five years. I take comfort in the fact that those of us who have been complaining about lagging investments have found a kindred soul in the Finance Minister. We can continue to worry or wonder with Mr Jaswant Singh leading the pack.

Another tricky question was thrown at him by those heartless interviewers from The Financial Express. Why cant you put together a stable team in the ministry of finance The finance minister came back with a mind-boggling, heart-stopping answer: Where do I find capable officers, I am part of a system Shame on the Indian steel frame.

But please pause and reflect. Is there not a connection between the three issues on which the finance minister responded so dismissively He must find capable men and women to run the ministry of finance for a reasonable period of three, if not five, years. Only if there is a team in place will there be good economic management. Policy will replace ad-hocism. Then, the fiscal deficit can be curbed and, as any economist will tell the finance minister, unless the fiscal deficit is sharply reduced there is no hope of a rise in investment. The thread which connects these three issues is called good governance. All good feelings are relative. After successive years of poor rains, if there is a good monsoon, there is bound to be a feeling of goodness. But one monsoon does not make an economy. The finance minister is not a solo player. He is the conductor of an orchestra. He must take charge and conduct all other players to play the same tune. The buck, so for as the economy is concerned, stops at his desk.