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Saturday, June 19, 2021

The insider’s view

NK Singh’s anecdotal account of his eventful career in policymaking is laced with self-deprecating humour and an insight into India’s economic history.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
November 8, 2020 6:05:28 am
NK Singh receiving mementoNK Singh receiving a memento from Pope John Paul II during PM Vajpayee’s visit to Italy. (Courtesy: Rupa Publications)

I have submitted the report of the Finance Commission for the financial year 2021 to the president, which is now in the public domain. We have commenced work for the main report to be submitted by October 2020 for the five-year period thereafter (2021-26).” NK Singh has worn several hats and gloves, since he has not only been at the ringside, but inside the ring. In a striking coincidence, unless it is by choice, publication of this autobiography and submission of the 15th Finance Commission Report are synchronised (though NK does say he has been working on this autobiography for more than three years). But it will be unfair to only correlate what this book says with views of the chairman, 15th Finance Commission; Rajya Sabha MP; deputy chairman, Bihar State Planning Board; member, Planning Commission; Revenue, Expenditure, DEA secretary; or secretary to PM Vajpayee. These are various hats (and there are others) NK has worn during his public career. One can date this career from 1964, when he joined the IAS. That explains the sub-title of “half a century”. In his foreword to this book, Pranab Mukherjee writes, “This autobiography is a valuable contribution to an objective analysis of India’s economic history over the past 50 years.” Yes, it is that. But for me, the more interesting bits are the personal, the roots, his father (TP Singh), the anecdotes laced with wit, the ability to laugh at oneself. The profound public policy bits are an add-on. After all, this is a man’s autobiography, not a history of policy making in independent India.

nk singh, Morarji Desai, Dr Zakir Husain A young Singh (centre) with his father TP Singh (first from left), Morarji Desai and Dr Zakir Husain (first from right)

“Is this autobiography a wholly truthful account?…To view the past with a sense of optimism and generosity in judging people’s conduct is a course that I have preferred”. Therefore, if you expect skeletons to tumble out, your hopes will be belied. Mirroring the man, the book is also a gentleman. But there is plenty of humour. “In 1964, at the age of 23, I was successful both in the IFS and the IAS exams…Having qualified in both the exams, the ordeal commenced. Various rounds of debate ensued in our house, between Team IFS and Team IAS. Dada (his grandfather), who was already advanced in years, felt both these services were terrible ideas and that I should go for the legal profession…To compound the problem, my father, who had been recently transferred to Delhi, was allotted a house adjacent to the Supreme Court; Dada felt that this proximity would save me the hassle of commuting”; “On one occasion, she (his wife) asked me what my take-home salary was. When I replied that it was then a princely sum of Rs 750, she was stunned. She muttered with some astonishment that even her junior managers in Jodhpur were paid a multiple of that”.

nk singh book Portraits of Power: Half a Century of Being at Ringside By NK Singh, Rupa Publications, 472 pages

When NK was with the commerce ministry, KB Lall was the commerce secretary. At the time, NK was asked to organise a lunch. The food and wine had to be excellent. “When I enquired from the restaurant manager about the available wines, he said everything was available — French, Italian and even fresh Swiss wine. Thinking that anything fresh, like fresh orange juice, was the most preferred drink any decent human being could have, I promptly ordered fresh Swiss white and red wines. The lunch turned out to be an unmitigated disaster…He (KB) laughed and said my father should have taught me more about food and wines…He also presented me with a book on wines, which I read with great interest”; “One day, while gardening in Patna, Balbhadra Prasad (the advocate) jokingly asked me the name of a rose. To his horror, I replied, ‘That is a red rose while the one in the next row is pale orange.’ He sarcastically remarked that my father would scarcely have been happy; if not, lamented that his passion for roses had not been passed on to me…Thereafter, I started intensively reading botanical and horticulture books, garden journals and rose catalogues”; “During one of my visits to Nikko, I remember that while coming down the mountain on a perfect autumn afternoon, the light play was beautiful. Unmindful of the huge pileup of traffic, I just got down from the car, fixed my tripod and took several shots of the autumn colours”.

It is such anecdotes that make the man, and the book, come alive. You also realise how much of an influence TP Singh (though he died early) had on NK. This book, with 14 chapters, has plenty of photographs, typically, of NK with such and such individual. I wonder why no one thought of including NK’s photographs from Japan. They have been exhibited and they are wonderful.

But there are also interesting nuggets about how PM Deve Gowda pushed for the dream budget direct tax rates, the discovery of silver horses in the course of the voluntary disclosure of income scheme, the inadvertent raid on the house of the then home secretary, PM Vajpayee’s reactions to complaints by Jayalalithaa, the aborted attempt to reduce number of ministries/departments, Arvind Subramanian’s professorial air when lecturing members of the FRBM Committee. These ensure there isn’t a dry discourse and add to chronicles of policy making. In two parts of the book (1991 reforms and legislative work in Parliament), when there is a deviation from the anecdotal style, the book does become dry.

Moving beyond the nuggets, the book also raises serious issues that warrant debate and discussion — the relative increase in importance of PM’s Secretariat (dated to Lal Bahadur Shastri), role of the Planning Commission/Niti Aayog, centrally-sponsored schemes, union-state fiscal devolution and parliamentary procedures. Hence, it doesn’t only chronicle past policy, it also shapes future policy. As is mandatory with every book published now, there is a concluding chapter on the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic. Anyone who knows NK will describe him as charming, erudite and entertaining. Books authored also maketh the man. Rather, they reflect the man.

The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.

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