A tribute to a quintessential finance man

B.P.R. Vithal’s traits, of professionalism, pragmatism and an open mind, were what made him a colossus

Intellectual bureaucrat — an oxymoron? Perish the thought. B.P.R. Vithal (BPRV), who passed away at 93 last week in Hyderabad, was a stellar example of a true blue Renaissance man whose scholarship straddled a host of disciplines — economics, philosophy, theology, physics, history, literature, and political science, just to cite a few. And he had the erudition to combine all that into a worldview that was at once humane and pragmatic.

BPRV was a quintessential finance man. He was the Finance Secretary of Andhra Pradesh for over a decade (1972-82). In some sense he defined the job and the job defined him. In a career in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), where flitting from one job to another and one department to another is the norm, that BPRV had such an extended stint as Finance Secretary was a testimonial to his exceptional personal and professional traits.

Having been Finance Secretary myself, both in Andhra Pradesh and at the Centre, I know that an occupational hazard of a finance job is having to say “no” most of the time. Ministers and colleagues approach the Finance Secretary with projects and initiatives to seek funding. Charged as the Finance Secretary is with balancing the government’s books, saying “no” becomes unavoidable, no matter your inclination to be positive. But how you say ‘no’ makes a difference. It is here that BPRV stood out. He heard out everyone’s proposal with an open mind, gave them the benefit of the doubt and took a final view balancing the merits of the proposal and the finances available. And even when he said “no”, he did so in such an agreeable way that the other party left his office possibly disappointed but never disgruntled. It was these traits — professionalism, pragmatism and an open mind — that earned him the confidence of stalwart Chief Ministers, the respect of colleagues and made him a role model for junior officers posted in the Finance Department. And he was such a colossus that even Finance Secretaries of other States looked up to him for advice and guidance on critical public finance issues.

A balancing act

BPRV was a member of the Tenth Finance Commission (1992-94). As many might know, the Finance Commission is a constitutional body appointed by the President every five years to make recommendations on sharing of taxes between the Centre and the States. It is an unenviable job, having to balance between the genuine and decidedly vociferous demands of States for a higher share and the plea of the Centre to leave enough for it to take care of critical national needs including defence and security.

Recall that was also a time when stalwart Chief Ministers like NTR, Ramakrishna Hegde and Jayalalithaa rode into office on strident anti-Centre platforms. NTR even famously said “the Centre is a conceptual myth”, meaning that if you looked at the map of India, it was filled completely with States; so where was the need for any money for the Centre?

I was the Finance Secretary of Andhra Pradesh at the time and had occasion to interact with BPRV quite frequently as we had offered him office space in our premises to facilitate his work. I suspected, and honestly even hoped, that BPRV would be biased towards the States, especially as he was steeped in State finances. I was proved wrong. I was impressed by how he was able to combine his appreciation of the States’ needs with his firm nationalistic outlook that you cannot have strong States without a strong Centre.

For a full day last week after I got the sad news of his passing, I was engrossed in going though our e-mail correspondence going back over more than two decades. It was nostalgia but it was also an intellectual tour de force — a reminder of his sharp intellect and wisdom. As goes with wise people, he also had remarkable wit. Here is just one example.

The bank seal

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), set up in 1935, celebrated its platinum jubilee year in 2009-10 and I was privileged to be the RBI Governor at that time. To mark the occasion, the RBI brought out a special edition of Without Reserve, its in-house magazine, pulling together snippets from its history. One of the items there was about the RBI seal which was adapted from the East India Company’s gold mohur, with the lion there changed to a tiger. Sir James Taylor, the Deputy Governor at the time of RBI’s establishment, was unhappy with the tiger on the seal which did not quite look like a tiger! “The Tiger,” wrote Sir James, apparently inclined to be a bit ribald, “looks like some species of dog, and I am afraid that a design of a dog and a tree would arouse derision among the irreverent.”

I sent a copy of the magazine to BPRV and he sent me the following e-mail reply:

“A dog and a tree on the RBI seal! The Governor should get a sketch of a dog actually doing what Sir James was thinking of and leave it to the viewers to imagine what the tree stands for, the dog — watchdog — being the RBI, of course! Whenever the dog is upset with its master, this is the least it can do!”

When news of his passing came, I was not surprised; age had been showing up on his health for the last few years. But there is a deep sense of vacuum for having lost a teacher, guide, well-wisher and someone who had genuine affection for me. A remarkable man in many respects, BPRV will be long remembered for the dignity and distinction with which he served the government, society and the nation.

Duvvuri Subbarao is a former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 1:10:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-tribute-to-a-quintessential-finance-man/article31901180.ece

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