God Help Us: We now have three finance ministers

India Inc is pinning its hopes for an economic recovery on an unusual bunch of people with new job descriptions.

A sort-of Prime Minister, aided by a sort-of Finance Minister, and backed up by a sort-of Policy Advisor-cum-Personal Confidante-in-Chief of the sort-of PM. And all of it is monitored by a sort-of benevolent Feudal Madame Chieftain.

That, in case you were befuddled by all these new titles, means Manmohan Singh, C Rangarajan, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and Sonia Gandhi, in that order.

We shall not speak of the last and first-named, for the roles of Manmohan Singh andSonia Gandhi have been well known since 2004. Singh is Sonia’s Regent in the PM’s job till Rahul comes of age. (We don’t know if that’s going to be a long wait, though).

However, thanks to the exit of Pranab Mukherjee, there is a new dispensation in town, and this includes the duo of Rangarajan and Montek. Let’s call them India’s two sort-of FMs. Add Manmohan Singh, who is actually holding the finance ministry directly, and you could say we have three FMs for the price of none.

If, in the initial few days after Manmohan Singh took charge at the finance ministry, industry leaders were schmoozing with Montek, whose official designation is Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, now it is C Rangarajan who is getting their attention.

Reason: it is widely accepted that Montek is too controversial and too disliked by Sonia Gandhi’s jholawallas at the National Advisory Council to make it any farther in his career. Kaushik Basu, the Chief Economic Advisor, is on his way out, or else he could well have been the sort-of PM’s sort-of FM.

So with Montek and Basu ruled out, it seems C Rangarajan is the sort-of Finance Minister who will play an active role in macroeconomic policy. This, of course, is not quite the entire job of the finance minister, but then it is Rangarajan’s boss Manmohan who is the nominal FM for now – till Sonia decides otherwise.

Rangarajan, as Chairman of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC), is the obvious sort-of FM we will have in the near future. It is worth recalling that in 2009, Rangarajan almost made it to FM, but was asked to cancel his trip to the swearing-in ceremony due a change of plans at the instance of the Congress high command. (Readhere).

But there is no bar on his playing sort-of PM, for he does not raise hackles like Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

Little wonder, businessmen are beating a path of Rangarajan’s door in Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, which houses the PMEAC.

According to BusinessLine, Rangarajan’s days are packed, with Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Duvvuri Subbarao, and LIC Chairman DK Malhotra set to meet him next week. As a former RBI Governor himself, it is quite clear that Rangarajan’s voice will be heard louder on Mint Street than even Pranab Mukherjee’s.

As a known monetary conservative, Rangarajan is sure to back Subbarao’s hawkish stand on inflation, which has meant RBI holding rates high despite the economic slowdown.

But Rangarajan’s role will extend beyond guiding monetary policy. His recent visitors include Analjit Singh, Chairman of Vodafone, which is hoping it will be let off the hook on retrospective taxation, and Arvin Boolell, Foreign Minister of Mauritius. Boolell called on Rangarajan on Friday, obviously to lobby against any drastic changes to the Indo-Mauritius Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement, which makes that India-facing African island a tax haven for investors in India.

Even as industrialists made a beeline to Ahluwalia after the change of guard at the finance ministry – Vedanta chief Anil Agarwal, and the Ambani brothers being among his early callers – the same lot is also doing the rounds of Rangarajan’s Vigyan Bhavan now.

What this suggests is that India Inc is not quite sure who, between Ahluwalia and Rangarajan, will wield more power in the short run with Manmohan Singh at the helm in the finance ministry. They are just covering all their bases.

However, it seems pretty clear that Sonia Gandhi ultimately wants a true-blue political loyalist in the finance ministry who will steer her welfarist agenda even while ensuring the economy does not sink in the process.

This is the only thing that can explain keeping the finance ministry without a full-timer, and why P Chidambaram, at any other time an obvious shoo-in for the job, is heading the spectrum empowered group of ministers (eGoM) and North Block.

For the time being, India has two sort-of FMs – Rangarajan and Ahluwalia. One is there because he is non-controversial, and the other because he is close to Manmohan Singh. And of course, we have the PM-cum-FM. Is three too much of a crowd?

(curtsey : first post)

Rupesh Yatesh Dalal
Head Research Department

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