Parties must declare their finance ministerial candidates along with the economic election manifestos
Who will be the next Union Finance Minister? That’s the hot topic of discussion in New Delhi now. The question is being discussed in bureaucratic circles — especially in the Finance Ministry — among corporates and economists, and in political circles. So much so that it seems to be attracting more interest than the subject of who will occupy 7 Race Course Road. Strangely, hardly any one seems to have even a hint, forget a credible answer.FM, a vital cog
For an election that is ostensibly being fought on the sole plank of ‘growth and development’ to not have a list of Finance Minister (FM) probables is odd.
Not that Indian elections ever throw up finance ministerial candidates in advance; the difference this time is that the economy has slowed down to a decade-low growth rate of sub-5 per cent. No Prime Minister will be able to bring back India’s economy on the high-growth path without an able Finance Minister (FM). And so, who this man or woman will be is the single most important question begging an answer.
There is almost a bankruptcy in India as far as suitable finance ministerial candidates go: two former FMs have bowed out of the 16 Lok Sabha elections. The National Democratic Alliance’s Yashwant Sinha and the United Progressive Alliance’s P. Chidamabram are fielding their respective sons from their respective constituencies.
It is almost like a new restaurant is to be launched but without adequate thought to who the chef would be. Some would argue that in the case of the Bharatiya Janta Party at least the question doesn’t arise. The restaurateur himself is the chef!
The BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is positioning himself as the poster-boy of growth and development, aggressively tom-toming the ‘Gujarat model’ in his campaign. It is, however, unlikely Mr. Modi is the BJP’s Prime Minister-cum-FM candidate. Five Indian prime ministers have also held briefly the finance portfolio — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, I. K. Gujral and Dr. Singh. None was a full-time FM.Race of the Aruns
At this stage, the front-runners for the post are the BJP’s two Aruns — former Union Commerce and Industry Minister Arun Jaitley and former Telecom Minister Arun Shourie.
It is firmly believed in the circles that tend to know these things that the BJP has tentatively short-listed the two for the FM’s job. If Mr. Modi becomes the Prime Minister, Mr. Jaitley will have an edge over Mr. Shourie, owing to his working relationship with Mr. Modi, say sources closely watching these developments.
The Aruns have held closed-door meetings in Delhi and Mumbai with disparate groups of corporates and people with experience in policy-making, exchanging policy ideas and gathering feedback on what could be done about the ailing economy.
At least one of them is said to be scouting for and compiling a list of NextGen reform ideas that could be “carried out without the complications of Parliament approvals”.
Mr. Shourie received his doctorate in economics from Syracuse University, New York, and has been an economist with the World Bank.
A few weeks ago former Commerce and Industry Minister Subramanian Swamy’s name was doing the rounds as a potential FM candidate. Mr. Swamy did his Ph.D in economics from Harvard University. His advisor was Nobel Laureate Simon Kuznets.
Mr. Swamy seems to have lost out to the Aruns for the time being. The dark horse in the BJP stable could be former Bihar Finance Minister Sushil Kumar Modi. His experience of chairing the Empowered Committee of State Finance Ministers on the Goods and Services Tax and Bihar’s economic turnaround during his tenure lend merit to his candidature, say the sources.
Growing at a rate slightly in excess of 15 per cent at the peak in 2012-13, Bihar became the fastest growing State under Mr. Sushil Kumar Modi.Possible technocrats
The BJP could also rope in technocrats — whether as the Finance Minister or the Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission or in some other policymaking role — Jagdish N. Bhagwati, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, and Arvind Panagariya, former chief economist of the Asian Development Bank. Dr. Panagariya got his Ph.D from Princeton University. In 2008, the Congress party too had nominated Dr. Singh’s confidante and former Reserve Bank of India Governor C. Rangarajan to the Rajya Sabha with the hope of appointing him as the FM. The party, however, could not overcome the internal resistance to a non-politician being appointed as FM.
Dr. Rangarajan resigned from the Rajya Sabha a year later. Similar resistance had earlier scuttled the chances of another technocrat and Dr. Singh’s first choice for the role of FM — Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia. However, former IMF chief economist Raghuram Rajan’s smooth appointment as the RBI Governor last September shows political parties have greater tolerance for technocrats.
None of the regional politicians in the fray for the Prime Ministerial race — Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav — has yet declared their FM candidates. Even the new kid on the block, the Aam Admi Party, does not have an FM candidate yet.Freshly-minted politician
The Congress party politicians keen on the finance portfolio include Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh. However, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is said to favour the freshly-minted politician, Congress candidate from Bangalore South and Infosys co-founder, Nandan Nilekani, for the job.
Mr. Nilekani will, of course, be the first preference of the corporate sector. If political parties are serious about fighting this election on the promise of fixing the broken economy, it is important that they declare their FM candidates along with the economic election manifestos.