February 1991 when the Congress withdrew its support to the Chandra Shekhar
government, it appeared that Yashwant Sinha would have the dubious distinction
of being the only finance minister (FM) never to have presented a regular
budget. Since then Sinha has come a long way. On February 28, he will
present his fifth budget in a row. Last year, he surpassed T.T. Krishnamachari's
(TTK) and Pranab Mukherjee's tally of three. This year, he will cross
Y.B. Chavan's mark of four. Next year, he could equal Sir C.D. Deshmukh's
and Manmohan Singh's record of six consecutive budgets and reach seven
in 2004. Morarji Desai would, however, still be on top with eight budgets
though in two separate terms.
Free India's first FM was Sir R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, chosen by Jawaharlal
Nehru even though he had opposed the Congress. However, Chetty resigned
in May 1948 following a furore over his role in protecting a Coimbatore
industrialist from investigation for income-tax evasion. Chetty has immortalised
himself as the father of the daughter of pioneering dancer Balasaraswati.
was succeeded by John Mathai, an economist who had worked with the Tatas.
Mathai also went prematurely in May 1950 in protest against the creation
of the Planning Commission. His son, Ravi, was to later make the IIM Ahmedabad
a premier institution. Mathai's successor was Deshmukh who had earlier
been the first Indian governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Deshmukh
had a distinguished six-year tenure and liked to pepper his budgets with
Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu, reflecting his erudition. Ultimately, he too
quit in a huff over the future of Bombay. His most enduring legacy is
Delhi's India International Centre.
Among the politicians who followed this technocratic trio-a remarkable
tribute to Nehru's eclecticism-TTK and Desai stand out. TTK's budget of
May 1957 was a watershed. It introduced the expenditure tax and other
taxes recommended by the eminent Cambridge economist Nicholas Kaldor.
These were to be accompanied by lower rates of income tax. This did not
happen and tax rates zoomed to almost 100 per cent, earning TTK, one of
the great builders of industrial India, the sobriquet "Tax, Tax and
Kill". Desai was workmanlike, with his February 1967 offering being
the only budget to propose a zero deficit. Desai selected H.M. Patel as
his FM in March 1977, a vindication for Patel who had quit the ICs over
the lic-Mundhra share controversy which had also claimed TTK almost two
Some prime ministers have also presented budgets as stop-gap FMs-Nehru
in February 1958, Indira Gandhi in February 1970 and Rajiv Gandhi in February
1987. Ironically, Mrs Gandhi proposed clubbing the income and wealth of
husband and wife for purposes of income and wealth taxation saying "those
who are united in heaven should not be put asunder by a mere tax collector".
And one of Rajiv's promises which has relevance today-a White Paper on
the public sector-never saw the light of day because of great resistance
although a reforms blueprint had been prepared by some public-sector CEOs
headed by V. Krishnamurthy, then chairman of sail.
Till the mid-1970s, the budget focused on financial management. It was
C. Subramanian who changed its entire complexion in February 1975 and
March 1976 with his emphasis on agriculture, rural development, energy
and science and technology. The 1976 Budget was unusual in another respect-it
was the first and last to see the direct involvement of a minister of
state for finance, Pranab Mukherjee. The March 1985 budget presented by
V.P. Singh and reflecting Rajiv's bold views and L.K. Jha's advice signalled
a revolution. Alas, political turbulence aborted this turnabout two years
Manmohan's budgets of July 1991, February 1992 and February 1993 unveiled
a whole new vision for India. Reform fatigue set in thereafter, although
tax corrections continued. Incidentally, Manmohan, who loved quoting Iqbal,
almost didn't make it. Noted economist I.G. Patel, who as an official
in the Finance Ministry during 1953-1972 had helped prepare a staggering
14 budgets, was P.V. Narasimha Rao's first choice as FM. But he declined.
P. Chidambaram, who was managerially the most capable and who recalled
the poet Tiruvalluvar in his speeches like TTK, was also the unluckiest
FM. But he left a mark with his February 1997 budget. Sinha's earlier
budgets have brought about major changes in excise duties, apart from
revealing his penchant for using film titles in his speeches.
Five FMs have come from Tamil Nadu, four from Maharashtra, three from
Uttar Pradesh (not counting the PMs), two each from Gujarat and West Bengal
and one each from Bihar, Kerala and Punjab/Assam. But nobody has been
parochial. The FM's job is the toughest, loneliest and the most thankless.
On the whole, North Block has been served well by men of great distinction
(The author is with the Congress party. These are
his personal views)