As another budget day arrives, one would like to pay a tribute to the person to whom goes the credit of executing the maximum number of a particular legislative task mandated every fiscal under Article 112 of the Constitution. This exercise is the presentation of the national budget and Morarji Ranchodji Desai, who went on to become India’s fourth prime minister, presented 10 of them in his two stints with the finance portfolio — a record that remains unmatched.
History has been rather uncharitable to this freedom fighter, Gandhian, anti-corruption activist, nationalist and civil servant, all rolled into one, who had a social-conservative outlook with pro-business and free-enterprise leanings and had missed becoming prime minister on two occasions.
To many, the very mention of this second chief minister of Bombay state, which comprised both Maharashtra and Gujarat before it was bifurcated on May 1, 1960, evokes primarily two memories, again none too charitable:
* His long-time experiment with urine therapy — about which people used to speak in hushed tones, only to term him eccentric when his rather unusual practice came into public domain after he spoke at length on the medical benefits of drinking one’s own urine to a celebrated foreign news anchor.
* His birthday, which fell on that additional day of a leap year, which made people say: Since he was born Feb 29, 1896, and such a day comes only every four years, he is just a quarter of his age. This, since he was 81 when he became prime minister, but showed no signs of ageing – physically or mentally.
But there are several initiatives to his credit, which, in the light of the upcoming national budget Feb 17, will particularly make the corporate world, that watches its presentation with much attention and expectations, appreciate him for his pro-business initiatives.
Today, when the so-called Vodafone tax has become the bone of contention with the investors, notably from overseas, it was Desai who first reformed the tax system in the budget he presented in 1967 to apply such levies prospectively, rather than retrospectively which was the practice till then.
Another reform, which manufacturing industries must thank him for, is the change in the excise duty regime, from physical supervision of goods by inspectors before leaving the factory, which promoted corruption, to a system of self-assessment.
There is also this anecdote — again one that speaks hugely about his pro-reform mind — about how Desai, in his 1969 budget speech, proposed an agriculture tax for the first time, only to be asked to withdraw it by then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Even though the proposal could never be carried through, Desai perhaps remains the only finance minister till date who dared to propose such a tax.
He was also among the first leaders of consequence to realise that economic ties were key to improving relations in the immediate neighbourhood of South Asia. In 1978, he gave his consent to a request made by Nobel laureate and farm scientist Norman Borlaug to export wheat seeds to Pakistan — the same “Green Revolution” seeds that went a long way to eventually transform India from a deficit to a food-surplus state.
A year before that he also contributed significantly to improving relations with Bangladesh by approving the historic pact for sharing Ganga waters at the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, which till then was a major source of conflict between the two countries.
A graduate of Mumbai’s renowned Wilson College set up by a Scottish missionary, Desai was a bit too radical and reformist for his era. Today the government is imposing curbs on gold imports, but Desai had enacted the Gold Control Act in 1962 prohibiting forward trading in the commodity and followed that up a year later with a ban on production of jewellery above 14 carats.
It is a different matter that the proposals — which were eventually withdrawn in 1990 by his successor in finance ministry Madhu Dandavate — did not yield the desired results and a huge black market in the yellow metal flourished in the country. But the fact remained he cared more for India’s economic welfare than pleasing his constituency.
Desai also stood by his convictions. His differences with Indira Gandhi apart, one of the main reasons why he resigned from her cabinet as finance minister and also relinquished the post of deputy prime minister on July 16 1969, was in protest against the nationalisation of banks — a step taken without his consent, as he was strongly opposed to it.
In sharp contrast, successive governments in India’s post-liberalisation era since 1991 have been toying with the idea of undoing that decision by privatising state-run banks, but in vain.
Even in awards, what was due to him perhaps came late. He was first given the highest civilian award of Pakistan, the Nishan-e-Pakistan, in 1990. It was only a year later, in 1991, that his own country conferred on him its own similar award, the Bharat Ratna.
Here again, ironically, Desai courted controversy. That, because his own government had discontinued the award in 1977, terming it irrelevant and highly politicised, before Indira Gandhi revived it in 1980.
The 10 budgets presented by Morarji Desai:
1. February 28, 1959 (Regular)
2. February 29, 1960 (Regular)
3. February 28, 1961 (Regular)
4. March 14, 1962 (Interim)
5. April 23, 1962 (Regular)
6. February 28, 1963 (Regular)
7. March 20, 1967 (Interim)
8. May 27, 1967 (Regular)
9. February 29, 1968 (Regular)
10. February 28, 1969 (Regular)
(16.02.2014 – Arvind Padmanabhan is executive editor with IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)