His arguments lose weight given his flip-flopping political positions
Ajay Singh | September 29, 2017
Some people are born with silver spoon in their mouth. Some tend to acquire it. Former finance minister Yashwant Sinha is neither.
He belongs to a unique genre of career bureaucrat-turned-career politician who are not content with merely acquiring silver spoon for themselves but try to ensure its perpetual possession for their progenies. It would not be wide off the mark to read Sinha’s fulmination against the Narendra Modi government’s economic policies in his personal context.
Sinha’s has politics always revolved around his own personal interests. Look at his career graph, and one would understand how cleverly he got close to those in power to palm off the best positions for himself. He cultivated his image as a poor man’s bureaucrat in his initial days as private secretary to legendary Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur.
His cycling down to the office in Patna became a stuff of legend. After a long stint in the bureaucracy, he found a political mentor in Chandra Shekhar and took voluntary retirement to join politics. Given his association with Karpoori Thakur, he was firmly ensconced in the company of socialists who coalesced to form a united front against Rajiv Gandhi under VP Singh. Sinha was a known acolyte of Chandra Shekhar.
In 1989 when VP Singh became the prime minister, he invited Sinha to take oath as a minister of state. Sinha declined, ostensibly on the plea that he deserved more than an MoS rank and did not attend the swearing in. Of course, VP Singh’s government was toppled and Chandra Shekhar took over as prime minister with the help of the Congress. Sinha was made the finance minister for four months in which he took a critical decision of mortgaging the country’s gold to avoid the balance of payment (BOP) crisis.
Being a career bureaucrat, Sinha was quick to realise after the 1991 Lok Sabha elections the futility of sticking to Chandra Shekhar. And he found his new mentor in the BJP’s then rising star, LK Advani. And then began Sinha’s journey to political stardom on account of his proximity to Advani. In the early nineties and particularly in the post-Babri mosque demolition phase of politics, the BJP was in expansion mode and roped in people from different walks of life. Given Sinha’s experience as a bureaucrat and his eloquence, he was put up to defend the party’s position. In the party headquarters on the Ashoka Road in Delhi, Sinha could be seen diligently attending the office in a manner reminiscent of his bureaucratic days. He was available from morning till late evening to attend to all queries of journalists.
But what has particularly endeared him to the BJP leadership, particularly Advani, and the RSS was his pronounced “Swayamsevak-like qualities”. In Marxist terminology, he declassed himself and literally imitated RSS volunteers. In the party’s executive meets or other functions, he would stay at the party workers’ place and shun opulence. This was the precise reason he found himself in the company of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM). In due process, he emerged as a votary of RSS’s Swadeshi views espoused by the then RSS general secretary KS Sudarshan. And this line paid off rich dividend when in 1998 Lok Sabha election, Sudarshan arm-twisted prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to choose Sinha as finance minister instead of Jaswant Singh who had lost the election.
In the Vajpayee government, Sinha realised the significance of being close to the RSS and played his cards accordingly. In those days of running feuds between the Vajpayee government and RSS-sponsored SJM, Sinha donned many hats. He tried to be a reformer as finance minister by introducing measures like reforms in labour laws, aggressive push for disinvestment and facilitating Mauritius-based companies to avoid double taxation. At the same time, he also pandered to SJM’s world-view. In the BJP, his stint as finance minister was frowned upon by top leaders who decided to remove him.
Just a fortnight before his removal as finance minister, Sinha had stopped going to his office and was operating out of his Kushak Road residence. In one of my conversation with a BJP leader, I was told about Sinha’s “untenable position”. I met Sinha at his residence and asked if he had any intimation of his removal. He said, “Of course, I am not told as yet but I can see the signs and that is why I have stopped going to the office.” He looked quite forlorn and worried. However, Sinha’s worry dissipated once he realised that he would be given the foreign ministry. “Now I have to learn how to pronounce names like Condoleezza Rice (then the US secretary of state),” he told me after the announcement.
Till 2004, Sinha enjoyed his stint as the foreign minister. He lost the Lok Sabha election in 2004 and started looking for a new role. In 2005 Advani took over as the BJP president and leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, and had a run-in with the RSS led by Sudarshan following his visit to Pakistan where he had described Jinnah as secular. Sinha cleverly sided with the RSS and issued statements running down Advani. He found Advani’s mentorship expedient at the altar of the RSS’s proximity. In the changing dynamics of the RSS-BJP relationship, he preferred the RSS over Advani.
At the same time he was clever enough not alienate Advani totally. After his stinging statement against the veteran leader, he went to meet Advani at the latter’s residence and apologised for his indiscretion. “Advani-ji, I would not step in if you are still angry with me for what I have done to you,” he told him in his first meeting after that statement. This story was recounted to me none other than Advani himself immediately after the episode. Sinha survived within BJP as a Rajya Sabha MP by managing power centres quite deftly. He again assumed prominence while steering the BJP to oppose the nuclear deal in company of Amar Singh, Sitaram Yechuri and (the late) Digvijay Singh. In this whole issue, the BJP ultimately had egg on its face.
Sinha found negotiations of his future politics quite tricky soon after Narendra Modi emerged as consensus choice as prime minister candidate in the party’s Goa national executive in 2013. Like Advani, he did not attend the executive which endorsed Modi’s candidature. Though he was close to the then BJP president Rajnath Singh, Sinha could not perfectly read the writing on the wall. He, however, tried to make up for it by negotiating with the new BJP leadership a ticket for his son, Jayant Sinha, who was made a minister of state for finance after Modi became the prime minister.
Sinha was far from being content with that. If senior BJP leaders are to be believed, he was hankering for a prestigious assignment for himself in the BRICS bank. He occasionally struck a note of dissonance with the government to stay relevant in the ongoing anti-Modi campaign launched by the opposition. With the next Lok Sabha elections drawing close, Sinha like a seasoned career-bureaucrat is once again at his favourite game – managing the precarious balance of power centres for his own end. Given his history of the overzealous pursuit of his personal interests, the merit of his arguments on the state of Indian economy loses significance and tends to be viewed as part of his personal agenda.
This article first appeared in FirstPost.com.
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