There is something about Yashwant Sinha and controversies.
When he was a child, economic hardship afflicted his family when an ailing father was unable to make ends meet, even as the country dealt with raging inflation in the aftermath of World War II, eventually forcing the family to mortgage and sell some assets to raise money.
Decades later, owing to a travesty of circumstances, he found himself anointed the finance minister and staring at one of the worst economic crises of modern India—that eventually forced India to mortgage 20 tonnes of gold to raise $400 million (Rs1,647 crore); in 1998, when he returned as finance minister for the second time, the country was hit by a sudden crisis of onion shortage leading to an unprecedented spurt in prices; the Kargil war of 1999; the two Unit Trust of India crises that led to a plunge in the stock markets; a severe cyclone that struck the Orissa coast; the devastating earthquake that struck us in 2001; and, finally the 9/11 tragedy.
Whether it is because of this or something else, the former finance minister has never really acquired the gloss that was his due. A tragedy, because he was a critical part of the quartet (if we also include Jaswant Singh) of finance ministers who have walked India through 17 years of economic reforms.
An assessment of their records will show that despite political differences, often very petty, the country has witnessed an unprecedented continuity of economic thought, which no doubt has led India to the threshold of becoming a trillion dollar economy.
Popular history only sees Manmohan Singh as the prime architect and makes us believe that there has been an abrupt volte-face in economic thinking in the country since July 1991, when the Congress government took charge. But the fact is that it was just one more point in a transformation that was initiated actually way back in 1980-81, when India availed of a loan from the International Monetary Fund and committed to dismantling the dreaded licence raj—a process that Rajiv Gandhi accelerated when he took charge in 1984.
Now, Sinha has sought to correct these perceptions in his debut book, Yashwant Sinha: Confessions of a Swadeshi Reformer. Does he succeed? In part, yes. Mostly, he’s missed the opportunity to objectively tell the most fascinating tale of economic reform in modern history.
All the more, since he was there right at the beginning and then returned in two separate stints to see the economy go through the hoops. Few know that he was the first person to recommend divestment from public sector companies as a strategy in his interim budget in March 1991; also, that it was largely thanks to him that the housing boom, which has led the economic resurgence, took wind—when he systematically pushed down administered interest rates in the economy and then rolled out tax incentives for house building.
Too much of the book has been used to set the record straight about himself, rather than tell a larger story. While it contains fascinating vignettes on critical policy decisions, which only a minister would possess, it leaves one thirsting for more. It is almost as if Sinha has approached the book like the trio of Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon did in the 1990 classic, Flatliners, as they sought to make peace with their past. But then, that was fiction and Sinha’s confessions are fact.
Written in staccato fashion with zillions of subtexts, it is easy to read for those who love to flip through books. For those who like to delve into issues, soak up the polemics of policy making, in a polity that is so diverse, this book would be a disappointment.
Yet, those looking for potential controversies in memoirs will not be entirely disappointed. The former finance minister has lashed out at his critics, both within the Bharatiya Janata Party and outside—especially Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He also hints at how a big industrial house had conspired to undermine his position when he was finance minister. But he stops just a little short.