Some great men are known for their modesty. The prime minister is a prominent man of that genre. There are some who have much to be modest about, but are unaware thereof. And then there are others who are best known for the lack of this quality. There cannot be much doubt about which category the outgoing finance minister belongs to. But that is a comment about his opinion of his person. It was not known until recently that he had the same opinion about his office. He expressed the view that the government was sovereign, and that he was implicitly the embodiment of the sovereignty. It followed without question that he was master of all he surveyed, including the Reserve Bank of India, and that he could therefore command the governor to obey.
It is a unique opinion. Till recently there was no occasion for questioning it, for it was the sovereign government’s practice to appoint as governors such civil servants who had served it loyally in Delhi for long enough to stamp out any rebellious inclinations. But then, the lordship appointed a governor who did not fall into the usual civil-servant class. Raghuram Rajan had made a name as a brilliant academic, and could have picked any international institution to work for. When the prime minister picked him for the Central government, it seemed that he had decided to depart from the tradition of unquestioned obedience, and to seek independent expertise. And when Mr Rajan was appointed governor, it was assumed that the government had decided to make the Central bank independent of the lord of North Block, as has been the practice of advanced countries for quite some time. But it was not long before P. Chidambaram let the cat out of the bag: that while the office on the 16th floor of the RBI may be occupied by an economist of global prominence, the finance minister in his first-floor office in Delhi was nevertheless higher. Luckily, the norms of India’s democracy require him to step down, while the governor stays in his perch.
There will be another government in a couple of months; and if opinion polls are any indication, the said finance minister is unlikely to return to his office. His successor will certainly be less experienced, and is also likely to be more clueless. He may be as full of himself as some of the new-born politicians in the field; he may well come with as favourable an opinion of himself as his predecessor. That will be a pity, for the RBI is the best run part of this country’s bureaucracy; and now that it is headed by a competent economist, it can do a good job if left alone to do so. Whoever may be the next prime minister, it is to be hoped that he will appoint a sensible finance minister.