Garg’s memoir is a narrative of dissonance and dissent

Garg is comically disdainful and understandably joyless about what landed him in the finance ministry in the first place.
Garg is comically disdainful and understandably joyless about what landed him in the finance ministry in the first place.

Summary

  • This insider tale reads reckless in parts and may even remind readers of the ‘unreliable narrator’ genre

An effective device in fiction writing is that of the unreliable narrator. Quite unusually for a memoir, former finance secretary Subhash Chandra Garg ends his We Also Make Policy: An Insider’s Account of How the Finance Ministry Functions (HarperCollins India; 520 pages) with: “I hope you found the book truthful." This is an unusual book. For one, it isn’t completely unimpeachable; some of the stuff in it about the late Arun Jaitley, for instance, could be questioned for accuracy. The drama over the Economic Surveys narrated, on the other hand, seems accurate, going by a few incidents I witnessed while covering the finance ministry as a reporter.

Power struggles and ego battles aren’t unusual on Raisina Hill. A finance minister in a previous government accused his Cabinet colleague of bugging his office. The then prime minister relied on an aide to carry files and messages to him after a complete breakdown of communication between them. But all that pales in comparison with the intrigue that Garg has recreated with great effect. His portrait of unbecoming behaviours makes for hair-raising reading even for those familiar with Lutyens’ Delhi. In his raw and often-reckless narrative, Garg isn’t shy of spilling the unsavoury details of his serial fallouts with his bosses—two finance ministers, the power minister and eventually the prime minister—and the power centre in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). He hardly seems to get along with anyone. Much of this memoir reads like a self-indulgent account of his disaffection rather than a sincere reflection on what went wrong and why. That makes it easy to overlook that Garg isn’t out to reinvent his public image. This doesn’t read like the outpouring of someone who feels wronged and must offer his side of the story. It isn’t tinged with regret or sentimentality. He sounds neither embittered nor dispirited.

Yet, he has managed to profile a government in apparent chaos. The book recounts a great deal of back-biting and browbeating of officials, including regulators and the top brass of public sector enterprises. Inquisitions against Reserve Bank of India (RBI) officials are ordered and allowed to languish on file. A minister “bullies" state-owned banks to lend to the government; the banks’ chiefs “did not have the courage to object or even raise any doubts." Trojan horses are used. Tempers fly. Ministers and senior officials speak gruffly without courtesy for colleagues in meetings. That policy gets made at all seems like a miracle. Garg has neither held back names nor been challenged by those he has named. The memoir is inconvenient for the government, but also challenges its critics who say it can’t stomach unflattering accounts of itself.

According to the author, top-level decisions change quickly. A prime ministerial decision made after a briefing by the finance secretary is overturned once the finance minister meets the Prime Minister, and then a go-ahead is given to a conflicting view presented after that by a top official in the PMO. In one chapter, a quick closed-door meeting with a Japanese businessman results in a policy proposal getting changed.

Unlike in previous governments, secretaries are hardly ever called in to brief ministers during Cabinet meetings, which don’t last long. In one such meeting, by Garg’s version of events, the Budget is approved in less than 10 minutes, as the “prime minister said don’t go into details."

The economic fallout of demonetization, Garg writes, “put the government in a bother" as it unexpectedly found itself without the spending power to pump-prime the economy. This “deteriorating fiscal math" split its top brass. At one point, the joint secretary in charge of the Budget proposes shifting the salary payment date for government employees from the last working day of a month to the first of the next, which Garg overrules.

In this book, the fount of much disorder is the PMO’s power centre, a rehabilitated bureaucrat no longer in government who Garg assesses as “socialist" in outlook, unpersuaded by fiscal caution, “not very enamoured with markets" and a believer in a “mai-baap sarkar". He writes of his own free-market inclination, showing a keenness for a smaller government role in the economy as well as an understanding of market failures. He is dismayed over the government’s low interest in privatization and other critical reforms done by earlier regimes getting reversed. A habitual dissenter, he’s nearly always at odds with the government. That interim budgets should be free of big-buck vote-catcher schemes is a part of his dogma, which doesn’t endear him to the government. He takes voluntary retirement, rejecting sinecures in return for silence.

Garg is comically disdainful and understandably joyless about what landed him in the finance ministry in the first place: The UPA government had found him “lacking in diplomatic skills" for a job and its NDA successor unsurprisingly assessed him to be the best suited of four shortlisted candidates. Garg can almost be heard chuckling at some of his wink-wink breathers: such as a clever scheme devised by the PMO—perhaps in cahoots with RBI, he leaves us guessing exactly what transpired—to avoid giving out the full truth in reply to a Parliament question about former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan’s note cautioning the Centre against demonetization. After severely criticizing him in public, a member of the selection panel that must urgently find a governor for RBI goes on to recommend Garg as the best choice. Maybe on the logic that dissenters serve India better than deal-makers.

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