Book review: Standing Up to be Counted

In this collection of essays, P Chidambaram carries forward a reasoned public discourse on the present government’s politics and economic policies

Written by Saumitra Chaudhuri | Published:March 5, 2016 1:06 am
Book cover of Standing Guard: A year in opposition Book cover of Standing Guard: A year in opposition

Palaniappan Chidambaram wields a deft pen. His incisive observations and sharp responses, sometimes close to caustic, was a byword in North Block; where he scoured files in fine detail, causing trepidation in some senior officials and delight amongst junior officers who felt rewarded for their application. In the Opposition, the first time during the Vajpayee government and now in Modi sarkar, he has taken to writing columns for The Indian Express to publicly air his thoughts. The set covering the first period came out a decade ago; the second, consisting of 51 weekly columns starting January 2015, forms this collection.

The volume has two eminently readable forewords, one by YV Reddy, chairman, 14th Finance Commission and former RBI governor. The other, by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, since interred. The job of the finance minister — or for that matter any economic portfolio or charge in government — is not a matter of knowing economics, but much more. Reddy observes in this context that: “For the practitioner, particularly in India, on a real-time basis, not merely the future but even the past is uncertain.” Ahluwalia correctly underscores the importance of writings by seasoned politicians, in the hope that the printed medium offers some salvation for reasoned public discourse, in an age where television has made a habit of raucous, accusatory, often abusive language, unburdened by logic, leave alone evidence.

There is a short introduction by the author which is interesting for the anecdotes. The columns are not arranged chronologically, but around seven themes, with an opening section termed ‘The Beginning and the End’ containing two pieces — the first written in January 2015 and the second, almost a year later in end-December. They are amongst the best in the collection, in particular the second.

Newspaper columns have a drawback when packaged as a book. They are topical; and topicality derives from perceptions of seriousness at that moment and is, therefore, inherently transient. This becomes even more problematic when the economy is involved. By the time you are done citing the numbers (and caveats that inevitably accompany), the word limit is rising on the horizon. Reflections are thus a necessarily curtailed luxury. The problem is less acute when it comes to politics and law. It is, therefore, not much of a surprise that the sections that shine most brightly in this book are that on ‘Governance’ and ‘Politics’, where the subject matter and argument has greater continuity and the vintage holds well.

Chidambaram, as an active practitioner of economic policy, principal funder of development programmes and a politician with a constituency, has much to share from his experience at the helm of the finance ministry. The many promises that Modi made on the campaign trail were always brief and unambiguous. That is what the voting public seemed to find attractive. However, unambiguous phrases or a sentence or two are difficult to parse away even for the most skilful economist or wordsmith. Chidambaram seizes on many of them and effectively shows that either they were hollow; or that programmes of this government were bodily lifted from UPA initiatives without acknowledgement and re-packaged.

The Indian economy is in some difficulty: notwithstanding, what two gentlemen who Chidambaram cites approvingly, have to report about the headline growth rate. It is not expanding at a pace that answers to the aspirations of any section of the populace — be it youth in search of jobs or companies in search of profitable investment. That certainly was not the case in the years Chidambaram was finance minister in UPA-I. In the first several years of UPA-II it was also better. If the rural economy was stronger, it was not because of MNREGA or MSP alone. Investment in rural infrastructure, especially in roads and micro-irrigation, mechanisation of farms through hired-in services, better education and healthcare — all played a role. Yes, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) and the investments made in left wing extremist affected districts were great successes, but why? Especially, compared to other programmes, that had much larger allocations.

Ben Bernanke’s comments of 22 May 2013 became an obsession with Chidambaram; he felt that he had got the Indian economy almost to an even keel, before the storm following the comments washed it away. In fact, the storm had been building up for a year before it broke and the comments were only the trigger. Chidambaram fixed our yawning current account deficit by administratively clamping down on gold imports in early May 2013; in hindsight we should have done this six months earlier and saved us a lot of trouble.

Chidambaram has barely touched on the issue of natural resources, pricing, allocation and auctions. Coal auctions are losing interest and it is unlikely that the hoped for lakhs of crore of rupees will be received by states. The “scams” around these allocations were the principal charge against the UPA-II. In the years ahead, Chidambaram would do a great service, using the benefit of hindsight, to assess the various perspectives of the “fog” of natural resource pricing. It should make for splendid reading.

Book: Standing Guard- A Year in Opposition

Author: P Chidambaram

Publisher: Rupa

Pages: 206

Price: 500

Saumitra Chaudhuri was a member of the Planning Commission and PMEAC.
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