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Men who held the nation’s purse-strings

Sunday, 5 July 2009 - 9:48am IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: dna

DNA goes back in time to look at how finance ministers in the past left their mark in India’s economic history.

The ‘ordinary’ CD (1951-1956)
Sir CD Deshmukh, a technocrat much like Manmohan Singh, was a key member of the Indian economic team and was handpicked by Nehru to head the Finance Ministry in 1951. According to Deshmukh, the budget was “framed with the main purpose of securing the orderly implementation of the [Five Year] Plan.” Accordingly, his budgets were primarily instruments to raise funds for implementation of the Five Year Plan via taxation. In 1957, he introduced two new levies called the wealth tax and expenditure tax. Although a distinguished technocrat, experts opine that Deshmukh was ‘ordinary’ as finance minister. Among the more significant decisions taken by Deshmukh was the ad-hoc ‘treasury bill’, which allowed the government to easily print currency. Deshmukh also piloted the bill that nationalised life insurance and laid down the objectives of the LIC.

Businessman-turned-FM (1957-1958 & 1964-1965)
Popularly called TTK, Krishnamachari was a successful businessman who later turned his attention to politics. TTK pushed the IDBI Bill through Parliament, facilitating the formation of the bank.

He also conceived the idea of forming ICICI Bank in 1953, when he was the Minister for Commerce and Industry. The bank was finally stablished in 1955.

He worked hard to reform the tax structure in the budget he presented in 1957. He argued that, with the gradual elimination of top income brackets in the structure of direct taxation, its base had to be broadened by bringing in lower income groups in order to support that structure.

MD who nationalised banks (1959-1964, 1967-1970, 1977-1979)
Regarded as a no-nonsense leader, Morarji Desai was the first full-blooded politician to hold the position of the finance minister — prior to his appointment, finance ministers had either been bureaucrats or part-businessmen.

Never a favourite of the industrialists, Desai hiked tax rates and reduced import quota. Amongst his most controversial decisions was the Gold Control Order, under which only 14-carat ornaments could be made. Desai was also the finance minister in 1967 when banks were nationalised. This move, piloted by prime minister Indira Gandhi, was seen as a political manoeuvre to remove Morarji Desai (who opposed the move) from the finance minister’s post.

He made smokers feel better (1971-1975)
YB Chavan presented his first budget in 1971 months before the general elections. As a finance minister, Chavan primarily carried forward Indira Gandhi’s agenda. A lot of money was directed toward the Garibi Hatao Abhiyan. He introduced the Incidence of Wealth tax and also increased indirect taxes. In his budgets,

Chavan famously brought perfumed hair oil, shampoos, lipsticks and playing cards under Central excise taxation because “most of these commodities constitute the appurtenances of high living; excise levies on them will have little effect on the level of living of the overwhelming mass of the community.”

Defending an increase in the tax on cigarettes, Chavan justified the increase in rate on duty on cigarettes by saying, “For those who cannot shake off their consuming passion, there is at least the consolation that the more taxes they pay, the more they serve the common cause.”

Yashwant ‘Rollback’ Sinha (1990-1991), (1998 - 2002)
Yashwant Sinha was the first finance minister to break the 53-year tradition of presenting the budget at 5pm local time, a practice carried on from the days of the British Raj when the budget had to be presented at a time convenient for the British Parliament.

However, he also earned the nickname, ‘Rollback Sinha’. Sinha’s 1998 budget was ‘spoiled’ by the Asian financial crisis: huge devaluations by competing Asian neighbours made it impossible for him to cut taxes as merrily as his predecessor Chidambaram had.

The situation became worse when economic sanctions were imposed after Pokharan II. And when coalition partners criticised several of his measures to reduce the fiscal deficit, he had to roll them back, earning him the nickname ‘Rollback Sinha’. When the economy improved, so did his reputation. But global recession struck again in 2000-01 He was once again forced into humiliating rollbacks in his 2002 budget.

Father of reforms (1991-1996) (2008-2009)
With his first budget (a time when India was facing an economic crisis), Manmohan Singh earned the moniker, ‘father of the reform process,’ as the budget marked a shift in the orientation of India’s economy: from a ‘ mixed,’ socialist system to a clearly capitalist one.

The highlight of the economic reform package was the dismantling of the ‘License Raj’ that had made life difficult for private businesses. He had memorably concluded his landmark budget speech with the words of French novelist Victor Hugo. He had said: “Let the whole world hear it loud and clear. India is now wide awake. We shall prevail. We shall overcome.”

The Thiruvalluvar-spouting FM (1996 - 1998) (2004-2008)
During the televised budget speeches, P Chidambaram has never been found wanting in showmanship. In his very first budget, he had revealed a soft corner for Tamil poetry when he quoted Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar’s famous couplet, “Iyattralum, eettalum, kattalum, katta; Vakuthalam Vallath Arasu (To be able to increase wealth, to lay it up and guard; And also well to distribute it, marks a royal lord).” Chidambaram is credited with presenting a dream budget in 1996 which introduced a voluntary disclosure of income scheme to bring tax evaders into the net.

The long and short of Pranab Mukherjee (1982-1984)
When Pranab Mukherjee presents the union budget on Monday, he will be returning to it a quarter century after he presented his first budget (1982). In a landmark decision, he allowed NRIs to invest up to 40 per cent of capital in a new or existing company, and helped evolve a sustained strategy to woo NRIs.

At the end of his budget speech in 1982, which had taken one hour 35 minutes, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi remarked, “The shortest finance minister has delivered the longest budget speech.” To which speaker Balram Jakhar quipped, “This is a long and short story.”

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