Some market talk, some gossip – learnings over tea at RBI

Alpana Killawala’s memoirs offer an insider’s view of how the central bank functions

GN Bureau | June 12, 2024


#Economic Reforms   #Finance   #Reserve Bank of India   #C Rangarajan  
Former RBI governor C Rangarajan, as the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the PM, in February 2010.
Former RBI governor C Rangarajan, as the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the PM, in February 2010.

A Fly on the RBI Wall: An Insider’s View of the Central Bank
By Alpana Killawala
Rupa Publications, 248 pages, Rs 595
 
When Alpana Killawala, then a journalist, joined the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the central bank’s communication department was in its nascent stage. “Evolution of communication function in the RBI is in a way Alpana’s story,” remarked one of the then executive directors of the central bank. Over the course of a career spanning more than two decades, she skillfully navigated the challenges of managing the central bank’s communication, including handling communication during some of the major crises, such as the Harshad Mehta scam, and reforms like the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s.

‘A Fly on the RBI Wall’ is a repository of anecdotes from Killawala’s time at the RBI—a no-holds-barred account of her journey at the central bank. She doesn’t hesitate to call out her limitations or the institution’s, but also never forgets to give credit where it is due. At one level, the book talks about the RBI as an institution and how it evolved in the last 25 years as India undertook its journey into economic and trade reforms. At another level, she gives a peek into the minds of the governors, all eminent scholars, under whom she worked. Students of communication can glean valuable lessons from Killawala’s narrative.

Here is an excerpt from the book, from a chapter on RBI governor Chakravarthy Rangarajan who held the office between 1992 and 1997 – the period when economic reforms set in:

Learnings over Tea

Rangarajan and [deputy governor S.S.] Tarapore, both being monetarists, focussed on reforming the monetary policy area. Rangarajan was a man of few words and believed in hierarchy. Tarapore was quite savvy with the media. He used to often meet media representatives. As a journalist, I once used to be one of his regular visitors. I owe my understanding of the monetary policy and money markets entirely to him. He would call me at around 6–6.30 in the evening. At times, some colleague of mine from Business India, where I worked, would join me at these meetings, which would be held in Tarapore’s office. Whenever we would visit him, we would be treated to tea served the English way—on a tray, in a kettle, with milk and sugar served separately. And yes, a plate of Bourbon biscuits. It was only after I joined the RBI that his secretary told me that I was among the very few journalists who sought meetings with him. More importantly, I was the only one among those few journalists for whom he ordered the Bourbons! And tea he would serve to us himself. It was a ritual and he followed it to the T.

We would chat for several hours—some market talk, some gossip. This practice continued even after I joined the RBI. He would call me and chat with me often. As a journalist, I could freely talk to him; but after joining the Bank, I became rather conscious and started to politely decline his offer of tea and take his leave as soon as I was finished discussing work with him. Once, he admonished me for this and told me in his typical bass voice, ‘Never say no when a deputy governor asks you to have tea with him.’ After that, I stopped declining. Obviously. Nonetheless, every sitting with him was a learning experience—either about markets or the way the RBI functioned or even human behaviour, for that matter.

Around this time, I also pleaded with him to allow me to sit in committee meetings. He specifically permitted me to attend committee meetings involving outsiders. Then, on his own, one day, he asked me to attend the meeting of bankers in which monetary policy was being announced. I was to also be part of the press conference announcing the monetary policy. And yes, other colleagues looked at this with envy, making me aware that it was some kind of privilege granted only to me.

I would generally be an observer at these meetings. This immensely enhanced my understanding of the subject, helping me articulate the issue before the media. I was able to respond to media queries effectively, and that gave the media confidence that they could get someone from the RBI to explain what was happening. Misinformation or disinformation got reduced, as I could confirm, deny or give the right perspective to what the media would get out of other members of the committees. That is where, perhaps, the hypothesis of giving communication a seat at the table must have started taking shape in my mind.

As I started attending such meetings, I noticed that the seating arrangement was identical in all meetings. Around a large oval-shaped table, the RBI officials sat on one side and the invited officials from banks, financial institutions and research organizations, as the case may be, sat on the opposite side, both sides facing each other. The chairman of the committee from the Bank’s side—usually the governor—sat on a chair with a high back, and the leader on the guests’ side sat right across but on a normal chair. Initially, I thought the high chair was meant for the governor but I later realized that it was meant for the Chair of the meeting, even if they happened to be an outsider. The rest of the officials on both sides sat according to hierarchy, flanking the chairman or the leader of the meeting on both sides.

Normally, tea, cashews and biscuits would be served at all the meetings. I observed that, funnily, tea-boys, who really were middle-aged men, would bring tea in the room. The liveried tea-boys even tried to emulate five-star service by wearing gloves! They would head straight to the Chair of the meeting who, normally, would be the governor or a high-level RBI official.

The tea-boys would serve the entire row of RBI officials and then start serving the opposite side comprising the invited high-level banker guests. By the time the tea reached the guests, the RBI side would have finished drinking theirs! This was strange for someone like me who had come from the world of journalism where everyone was treated equally.

One day, when I got a chance to chat with Tarapore, I mentioned this irony to him, that the guests were being served last and the hosts first. The deputy governor understood but could not laugh at it as it was a system which he had been part of for more than 30–35 years. He told me with a straight face and a baritone voice, ‘Change it if you can.’ I scooted to the in-house chef and broke the good news. The chef, Brian Pais, was a professional and was happy at this news. He told me that he, too, considered the practice to be embarrassing but could not get out of this age-old norm. He had been working at the RBI longer than I had and must have been apprehensive about introducing the change, that too in the governor’s meetings.

[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]

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