Manmohan Singh may be the best suited to take charge of the finance ministry after Mr Chidambaram’s shift to the home ministry. The problem is that Dr Singh already has a full-time job. In the best of circumstances, a Prime Minister is stretched to the limit in co-ordinating between his Cabinet colleagues on the one hand and between the administrative and political establishments on the other. Some might say of Dr. Singh that he has been occupied less than fully on both fronts, having limited room to manoeuvre on the former and ceding the latter role to Sonia Gandhi. But even if that were true, the finance minister’s too is a full-time job and these are hardly the best of circumstances. The Mumbai attacks have put enormous pressure on the government to act decisively, even as the global economic environment is embroiled in its own turmoil, posing significant threats to the Indian economy. Both sets of issues require the full-time attention of competent individuals. Mr Chidambaram’s move to the home ministry was certainly consistent with this objective. Now, it is imperative that a similar priority be put on appointing a person of stature as a full-time finance minister.
The ministry is amongst the largest and most complex in the government, and it takes effective leadership just to keep it running, let alone designing and implementing a reform agenda. Even though the outgoing government is likely to present only a vote-on-account in February 2009, leaving the full Budget for the next government to prepare, a finance minister will have his or her hands full dealing with the domestic and global environment. The volatility in financial markets puts pressure on financial institutions, increasing the risks of bankruptcy. Sectors like real estate, which have strong linkages to the financial system, pose systemic risks, which need to be closely monitored with high-level engagement. The fiscal situation also raises concerns as the slowdown in economic activity, particularly in the manufacturing sector, causes revenues to fall short of Budget estimates. With the backlog of subsidies needing to be dealt with, the finance minister will have his or her hands full in keeping the fiscal deficit from rising to dangerous levels, leaving the next government an unwelcome legacy. There are also numerous policy issues on which the finance ministry’s inputs are critical, which simply cannot be delayed or disregarded because the Prime Minister has too many other things to do.
If Dr Singh takes this advice to heart, he is not short of people who can be entrusted with the responsibility. Among the possible candidates for the job, Montek Singh Ahluwalia has been actively involved in the economic policy-making of the government, and is familiar with the workings of the ministry as he has been the finance secretary. His not being a member of parliament can be addressed. If that proves impossible to do in the short time left to this government, C. Rangarajan has just been nominated to the Rajya Sabha and is someone who enjoys Dr Singh’s trust and confidence. Bimal Jalan too is an MP who has been both finance secretary and RBI governor. Although he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the NDA government in 2003, he is politically independent. All three have the international credibility and domestic experience to give the portfolio the kind of leadership and the stature that it deserves. As laudable as Dr Singh’s willingness to extend himself is, the economy would be better off with a ful-time finance minister.