WHEN VAJPAYEE appointed me as the Finance Minister in 1998, I was taken by surprise. I had been told that I would certainly get a place in the Cabinet, perhaps the portfolio would be the Commerce Ministry and I was very happy about it because Commerce was a ministry I knew very well and I welcomed the opportunity to be the Commerce Minister of India.
But by a quirk of fate, I must say, I was made the Finance Minister and those were very difficult times. I think it is my fate that whenever I took charge of the Ministry of Finance, India was passing through very difficult times. So that is what happened in 1991 and in 1998.
As you would recall in 1998, the East Asian crisis was at its peak. There were all kinds of challenges that were posed, including a sharp deterioration in our balance of payments and as if that was not enough, Mr Vajpayee decided to go for the nuclear test of May 1998. And the economic sanctions that followed added massively to our problems.
A modern economy, as I was to realise, runs more on sentiments and not necessarily on fundamentals. Despite the fact that the fundamentals of the economy were strong, sentiments got ruined as the result of the nuclear tests and economic sanctions and that led to again all kinds of problems.
So the Budget of 1998 was prepared in that context. Most people would have forgotten. They would have no idea what we went through in 1998. We did our best to meet the challenges because we had been told by Mr Vajpayee that India will not bow before any country. If they have imposed the sanctions they will lift it themselves as India is not going to plead with them, he told me.
When I was preparing my very first Budget, I went to him for guidance and despite all the challenges on the economic front, Mr Vajpayee told me that I must take care of the farmers. And therefore in my next meeting with him, I went with my proposal of the agricultural sector. And he was very happy that we were thinking of the Kisan Credit Card.
I introduced the concept of Kisan Credit Cards in the 1998 budget. He was very very happy about it and now 12 crore kisan families have these credit cards which has helped in meeting the financing needs of the agricultural community. And then Budget after Budget, we took a number of steps, including the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana.
Similarly, he was very keen that our infrastructure should be of world standard and we should do it as quickly as possible. That is what led to the national highway programme. And a part of the money that was reserved for petroleum products was used for the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana because he did not want to neglect the rural areas and that today has been the most outstanding programmes in independent India’s history.
When I moved to the Ministry of External Affairs and I asked him for guidance, he told me to pay greater attention to the neighbourhood. Both in the Ministry of Finance and MEA, when I used to join his delegations at home or abroad, I was struck by the fact that Vajpayee was a highly respected statesman and everyone looked at him in that way. And he didn’t speak much. But whatever he spoke was taken note of by world leaders. This was also when we became members of G20, G8 outreach.
Everywhere that Vajpayee went he would be seated on the high table at global meets. So that was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, great statesman, great leader, the like which India has not seen in recent years. And he was a great PM and truly the voice of India. The voice, which was sane, reasonable, was full of humour and a voice which did not hurt anyone.