Op-Ed: Unfair to judge Das even before he has settled down

The appointment of Odisha born retired Tamil Nadu cadre IAS officer Shaktikanta Das as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor a day after the sudden and unexpected resignation of Urjit Patel, who still had nine month of his three-year term left, appears to have riled a lot of people.

Given the unseemly tug of war between the central bank and the Modi government that resulted in the premature departure of Patel, it was inevitable that the choice of Das, the man who steered the demonetization and its aftermath, would not go down well with a lot of people who are concerned about the independence and integrity of RBI or are ideologically opposed to Modi and the BJP. Their apprehension that the premier bank will be in serious danger of becoming a ‘handmaiden’ of the central government was not entirely misplaced. After all, Das, in his capacity as secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), was the face of demonetization in 2016 and was given the unenviable task of defending the indefensible day in and day out by the Modi government.

Even this columnist shared much of the misgivings expressed in public forums in the immediate aftermath of Das’ appointment. There is little doubt that the intention behind the Modi-Jaitley duo’s decision to choose Das for the top job was to make the RBI an extension of the PMO or the Finance ministry and I said so on Facebook. But to extrapolate that and assume that the new Governor would indeed be willing to become a ‘lapdog’ of the Modi government is, in my view, preposterous to say the least.

By all accounts, Das is a man of impeccable integrity. Why should we assume that he would dance to the tunes of his ‘masters’ just because he served in the government not so long ago and steered the mammoth demonetization exercise and its aftermath? After all, 12 of the 25 RBI Governors so far have been career bureaucrats. If IAS officers appointed as head of statutory bodies like Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and Election Commission (EC) immediately after retirement can be expected to stay independent and not compromise their integrity, why on earth should we deny the benefit of doubt to Das?

Two examples – one about a quarter century old and the other from a more recent past – would illustrate the point that I am trying to make. Remember TN Seshan, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), who transformed the EC with his no-nonsense, sledgehammer approach to the conduct of elections? Prior to his appointment s CEC, he had served loyally under the Rajiv Gandhi government. There was nothing in his service record for anyone to believe that he would turn out to be the worst nightmare of every political party, including the Congress of which he was alleged to be a ‘stooge’? [I remember an interviewer asking him on TV if it was true that he had walked, umbrella in hand, with Rajiv for 3 kms during a road show in Kolkata heat when he served in the government. “Look at me,” Seshan said in his inimitable style, pointing to his pot belly, “do you seriously believe I could walk 3 kms at one stretch?” As CEC, the same man cleaned up the Augean stables of Indian elections. Far from becoming a ‘handmaiden’ of the government that appointed him, he beat the living daylights of politicians of all hues. Former Prime Minister Chandrasekhar, who appointed him CEC, was to later rue that “It was the worst decision of my life!”

The other man was former CAG Vinod Rai. Appointed by the UPA government in January, 2008, he had no problem severely indicting the same government on the 2G and coal scams at a time when it was very much in power. The Congress may have gone to town accusing him of working at the behest of the BJP. But the fact that no less than the Supreme Court handpicked him to clean up the cesspool called BCCI proves that the allegation was politically motivated.

Post-independent Indian history is replete with examples of officers, who have served loyally under various governments, acting without fear or favour after being appointed to a statutory body. And there is nothing in Das’ illustrious record to suggest he would not be one such officer. Forget the Seshans and the Rais; let us consider the case of Urjit Patel, Das’ immediate predecessor. Isn’t it rather amusing that the man, who was pilloried day in and day out, called all kinds of names and was the subject of countless jokes and memes on social media for his role in demonetization, has suddenly emerged as a man of impeccable integrity after he decided to put in his papers apparently in protest against the meddling by the Modi government?

What is particularly disgusting is the incessant harping on the fact that Das is a ‘mere MA in History’. As if that in itself makes him unfit to head an organization like RBI! Apart from the fact that he has done a course in financial management from IIM, Bangalore, Das has served as secretary of the Revenue and Economic Affairs ministry and has contributed significantly to the preparation of budgets even during the UPA regime. I don’t recollect any such outrage when S. Venkitaramanan, a ‘mere’ M Sc. in Physics, was appointed RBI Governor in the early 1990s. Nor do I know of any breast-beating over the fact that a ‘mere’ law graduate is the country’s Finance minister of the country (Arun Jaitley) or over the fact that one of his predecessors (Pranab Mukherjee) was a ‘mere’ MA in Political Science. The attack on Das on this score is mean, below the belt – and I dare say – politically motivated.

In my view, it is grossly unfair to judge the man even before he has settled down on his chair.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)