BW-Decode Exclusive: Hall Of Fame
In an exercise that may seem esoteric, a BW Businessworld and Decode survey flags corporate India’s choice of India’s most effective ministers since 1991
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In this cover story, we present you the dream team of post-liberalisation India. They may belong to different political cultures and parties; they may have been active at different points of time; but together, they present a formidable line-up — like the all-time greats, these are our post-liberalisation economy and business champions. All of them have helmed ministries that have an economic imprint — from Finance to Commerce, and Tourism to Defence.
Ranking the top ministers was always going to be tricky. So we tied up with Decode, and reached out to 500 corporate leaders across 12 metros.
To give you an example, the names of all the finance ministers of all the governments — beginning with the P.V. Narasimha Rao government of 1991 to the incumbent government — were given to the respondents, and they were asked to rank the very best. In all, we did this exercise for 19 ministries that have an economic imprint.
The result is that we have an eclectic mix of leaders — ranging from A.B. Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh to George Fernandes to Piyush Goyal. All those who occupy these offices — whether they are dead or alive — have been considered.
To make it a credible exercise, we asked two acclaimed commentators, Gurcharan Das and Mohan Guruswamy whether they agreed with the findings.
We have not changed the survey findings even when there are vigorous disagreements. It’s because, we want you, dear reader, to make your own conclusions based on the facts and the evidence.
Prime Minister: Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Aconsensus-builder and a statesman, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had the capacity to take everyone along. He made coalition running seem easy. His 1999-2004 tenure saw high growth rates and low fiscal deficit. He pushed the liberalisation process forward in telecom and in IT.
He also promoted privatisation. He had the shrewdness of having Arun Shourie as the disinvestment minister. Vajpayee supported him on privatisation deals that were the best we have seen in any government. Similarly, he had a good minister in Pramod Mahajan in Telecom. Brajesh Mishra as his principal secretary also contributed to his success.
Apart from making India a de jure nuclear nation, Vajpayee is remembered for his Kashmir interventions and in the realm of foreign policy, the Indo-US relations is a bright chapter. Corporate India ranks him as the top PM post-liberalisation. The nation, however, ranks, Narendra Modi as the best PM.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “The only question is I personally would have also put P.V. Narasimha Rao, who is the real hero for having started the liberalisation process. For me, it would have been a close tie between Rao and Vajapayee as the PM who did the most post-liberalisation”.
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “I don’t agree with the assessment that he is the best PM post-liberalisation. He only got along with disparate groups.”
Finance Minister: Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh crafted liberalisation under P.V. Narasimha Rao. None can forget his revolutionary de-licencing steps which opened up the Indian economy.
During 1991, when the country was on the verge of financial collapse, Singh was given the charge as finance minister of India. Often remembered for his milestone achievements in ushering in economic reforms, including lowering of multiple taxes, privatisation and, of course, the liberalisation with the end of the feared licence raj, he gave a huge boost to the economy during his tenure. Having a rich experience of academia and governance, he was a perfect fit for the ministry he headed. Experts also accept that he has been the driver of a resurgent India.
While it’s only natural that Singh is hailed as the best post-liberalisation FM, there are others, especially among corporates, who rate P. Chidambaram a notch higher as FM.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I think Manmohan Singh did a lot but I feel that his strength came from Narasimha Rao, without whom reforms would not have taken place. Another person who will share the credit with Singh is A.N. Varma, the principal secretary of PM Narasimha Rao.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “The reforms initiated by Narasimha Rao are attributed to him. Moreover, he was an honest man.”
External Affair Minister: Sushma Swaraj
The External Affairs Ministry is an important vehicle for economic transformation. Under Sushma Swaraj, the idea got a new fillip, and India’s economic ties with Iran, Israel, the Gulf were de-hyphenated. Under her leadership, the Africa outreach, too, was unprecedented. Corporate India, not surprisingly, thinks that she’s been the best external affairs minister following liberalisation.
Swaraj has also been one of the most active users of social media and uses it to further diplomacy and economic engagement.
While it has also been said that it was actually Narendra Modi who called the shots in the MEA, Swaraj, battling illnesses, furthered the economic agenda with aplomb.
It was under her tenure that JeM chief Hafiz Saeed was designated as a global terrorist. India’s ‘Look East’ policy that marked a major shift in foreign policy and originated in the Vajpayee era got new economic wings under Swaraj.
For policies such as ‘Look East’ and improved trade relations with China, credit also goes to Swaraj.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “She deserves a lot of credit although Narendra Modi is the face of our foreign policy. For a lot of behind-the-scenes orchestration, and the quiet work that went in, she certainly deserves a lot of credit.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “I don’t agree with the assessment that she is the best EAM post-liberalisation at all.”
Commerce & Industry Minister: Suresh Prabhu
It is under Suresh Prabhu’s tenure that the ease of doing business index has improved to an all-time high for India. Additionally, FDI inflows were significant during his tenure, while the Startup India mission got a huge traction, except for the contentious angel tax.
Whether it is the launch of ‘IP Nani’, the transport subsidy scheme for Himalayan and North Eastern regions, agriculture export promotion, trade promotion or the new chapters of Metals and Minerals Trading Corporation, Prabhu has been one of the most active ministers of the Modi cabinet.
Some say that not enough has been achieved in the commerce ministry, but Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion has taken a few very good steps — a reason why he finds mention in this list.
The 12 areas that he focused on include IT & ITeS, Tourism and Hospitality Services, Medical Value Travel, Transport and Logistics Services, Accounting and Finance Services, Audio Visual Services, Legal Services, Communication Services, Construction and Related Engineering Services, Environmental Services, Financial Services and Education Services.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I would not like to comment on this.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “No comments.”
Defence Minister: George Fernandes
George Fernandes was an trade unionist, statesman, journalist, freethinker, and a key member of the Janata Dal and founder of the Samata Party. He held several ministerial portfolios including communications, industry, railways, and defence.
Fernandes served as the defence minister in both the second and third NDA governments (1998–2004).He was known for overseeing a huge increase in India’s defence budget as compared to the allocations made by his predecessors.
In May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests in Pokharan in Rajasthan. While he was defence minister, the Kargil war broke out between India and Pakistan in 1999 and consequently the Indian army undertook ‘Operation Vijay’ to push back the Pakistani intruders and regain the occupied territories.
Corporate India ranks him as the best defence minister post-liberalisation. According to a thinker, “The nuclear capacity that we possess must be credited to Vajpayee and Fernandes.”
Fernandes was also known for his extremely polite nature.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I can’t say that he’s the best defence minister post-liberalisation.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “No comments.”
Transport and Highways Minister: Nitin Gadkari
known as the “highways man”, Nitin Gadkari galvanised the sector that had been languishing during the Manmohan regime. Fond of quoting figures, Gadkari often says that his ministry had the potential of adding a percentage or two to the country’s GDP.
With highways construction in the fast lane, Gadkari says his job is far from finished. This incidentally is something that he has always done. In Maharashtra, he is still known for building the Pune-Mumbai expressway.
Corporate India ranks Gadkari among the top for reinvigorating the infrastructure sector.
Elsewhere, his path-breaking policy initiatives include mitigation of the hardships of road users in terms of discontinuation of the fee collection on 62 toll plazas, creation of the National Highway Toll Information System, Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) System, automated camera-based Driving Test System.
A corporate leader says he is the right choice as he has galvanised road transportation that leads to the long-time growth of the nation.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “He is a good choice. He is one of the few reformers in the segment and one of the few people who understands the business. He has delivered the results.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “He is okay. He is very intelligent.”
Civil Aviation Minister: Praful Patel
Many have found this choice of Corporate India a bit surprising. Because, even though during Praful Patel’s tenure aviation scaled up, he had a tainted image.
Patel handled the Ministry of Civil Aviation during the United Progressive Alliance regime, and his supporters claim the he made fundamental changes in the working of the ministry. Whereas bureaucrats called the shots earlier, Patel took the charge in his own hands. For the challenging task of acquisition of new planes, an oversight committee headed by an ex-Controller and Auditor General was constituted.
Patel came under the scanner for “hounding” bureaucrats who raised objections to the fleet acquisition, and ordering CBI inquiries against some of them.
The issue of commercial development of regional airports did no good to Patel’s image as aviation minister. When the inter-ministerial group headed by then aviation secretary handed over the maintenance of terminal buildings to private players, Patel overruled the panel.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I don’t agree with this choice at all.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “No! He ruined the civil aviation sector.”
Heavy Industries Minister: Santosh Mohan Dev
Considered to be close to Rajiv Gandhi, Santosh Mohan Dev, son of a veteran Congressman, was elected to the Lok Sabha twice from Silchar, Assam. He held various portfolios including that of Minister of State, (independent charge) for Steel in 1991. He was also the Union Minister of State for Tourism and Communications from 1986-1988.
As Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises during 2005-2009, he came up with a comprehensive automotive policy that helped to shape up India’s auto industry. His other achievements include rationalisation of wages in the public sector which led to support of government employees, thus reducing the removal of talented managers from the companies.
Strong left allies notwithstanding, he managed to transfer the decision making powers from the government to PSUs.
His other achievements included deregulation of steel which helped the country by providing direct opportunities to small and indigenous steel manufacturers. He also brought a significant reform of freight equalization which removed unequal freight charges between the states. This scheme helped the industry to become more competitive.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I don’t remember much of this.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “I think it’s a good choice.”
Environment Minister: Jairam Ramesh
Many would find this choice of Corporate India surprising as well. While Jairam Ramesh was known as an activist environment minister, he was hardly known for any pro-corporate stance, or business-friendly policy. As someone rightly said, he must have benefitted due to his non-corrupt image which is a rarity today.
Ramesh held independent charge of the Ministry of Environment and Forest from 2009 to 2011.
He is remembered for his handling of India’s negotiations at the 2009 UN Climate Change Programme. Critics say he sat on files and delayed development projects including construction of power plants, dams, steel plants, etc.
As someone who swore by environmental laws, he even stopped projects like Vedanta’s bauxite mines in Odisha. Besides, construction of a luxury housing complex in Mumbai was held up for want of environmental clearances. He also stopped the entry of genetically modified crops in India.
He was widely described as someone who evolved from being an “ardent supporter of economic reforms to an assertive green minister.”
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I don’t agree with this choice at all.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “He was okay, I think”
Science & Tech Minister: P.V. Narasimha Rao
It was a tradition then to keep the science & tech ministry under the Prime Minister. Under P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure, the economy was opened up for global practices in the field.
Considered to be one of the pioneers and builders of modern India, Rao as Prime Minister had a keen interest in science and technology. While driving the economic reforms of 1991, he facilitated India’s first nuclear programme which was further taken up by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. The nuclear test was initially planned for 1995. Many say that even though Vajpayee did the Pokhran blasts, it was Rao who laid the ground for the same.
But other than science, Rao introduced various economic, security and foreign policy reforms to drive the economy holistically.
He also took some very bold steps that, some would say, went against the legacy of the Congress. It was need of the hour where serious and bold measures had to be taken up. He was the master behind the move stop brain drain of skilled Indian youths. He took a lot of interest and pushed IT, BT & BPO revolutions and many skilled youths, who otherwise would have gone abroad, stayed back in India.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I don’t know what he did.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “No comments.”
Steel Minister: Ram vilas Paswan
Ram Vilas Paswan, a veteran politician, has held various portfolios, but as Minister of Steel from 2004-2009, he introduced reforms in the steel industry, making India the fifth largest producer of crude steel in the world.
During his tenure, steel production capacity as well as sponge iron production increased manifold. Also, the capacity utilisation of public sector steel plants went up by 5 per cent. The performance of public sector units increased by nearly four times. He also launched the National Steel Promotion campaign during his tenure.
While the growth of steel production was negative in the European Union (EU), North America, South America, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 2009, India showed a positive growth during same period, thanks to the efforts of the Paswan-led ministry. Also, India’s steel sector was insulated from the negative impact of the global meltdown in the economy. It was the first time that India did not rely heavily on imports.
Efficiencies also improved during the same period laying the foundation for India’s positive image in overall (alloy+ non-alloy) steel production. Experts though believe that Paswan, owing to his regional biases, was not able to ride the popularity charts.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I don’t know enough of him.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “He was fine.”
Agriculture Minister: Radha Mohan Singh
Some are likely to be surprised by this choice of Corporate India as well. For, farm distress has been a recurring theme during the Modi government’s tenure. His supporters, however, would argue that the farm issue did get belated attention with Singh at the helm in Krishi Bhavan.
During Singh’s time, the government pledged to double farmers’ income by 2022, and partly implemented the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations.
The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna was one of the priority initiatives taken by him along with the electronic National Agriculture Market and traditional agriculture practices. Blue revolution for deep sea fishery and co-ordination with the ministries of skill development and food processing were also priority areas for him.
While record food grain production during his time hurt prices, Singh didn’t hesitate to support the state governments in their loan waiver schemes.
With his focus on higher productivity by easy and sustainable availability of irrigation, “Per Drop more crop” became the buzz of the sector.
He did face criticism though — for not being able to address the farm distress. Experts, however, believe that none of the agriculture ministers of India has ever looked at the ministry with the seriousness it deserves.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I don’t know enough about him.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “No comments.”
Petroleum Minister: Murli Deora
Murli Deora had many corporates as friends, most notably Mukesh Ambani. A businessman-turned-politician, Deora was close to the Gandhi family and served as the longest Petroleum Minister — from 2006 till 2011. He is known for leading the oil diplomacy in Myanmar, Algeria and Egypt. He hosted the first Africa-India Hydrocarbon Conference, besides making efforts to “open global markets” for the country.
Policy initiatives during his tenure laid down the foundation for continuous growth of India’s petro sector. His commitment to mitigating challenges in exploration led to accelerated domestic exploration through the New Exploration Licensing Policy (NELP) initiative. Some of the world-class oil discoveries have recently been reported from blocks offered under the NELP regime. Five NELP rounds recently resulted into 110 oil companies signing the sixth round that offered 55 exploration blocks. Besides, India successfully ventured overseas to acquire oil and gas assets and entered into long-term LNG contracts to ensure energy security. Deora’s supporters credit him for this.
There was a flip side though — he was accused of bidding for the corporates.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I have no comments to make.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “He was Mukesh Ambani’s man.”
Coal, Power, Railways Minister: Piyush Goyal
Piyush Goyal, the current Minister of Railways and Coal, was elevated to the Cabinet rank on 3 September 2017. He was earlier the Minister of State (independent charge) for Power, Coal, New & Renewable Energy (2014-2017) and Mines (2016-17).
Goyal’s tenure saw the fast-tracking of electrification of the nearly 18,000 villages in some of the remotest parts of the country as well as the rollout of UDAY — the most comprehensive power sector reform ever. He is also credited with the success of UJALA, the world’s largest LED bulb distribution programme for energy efficiency and massive proliferation of renewable energy through the world’s largest renewable energy expansion programme. His other major accomplishments include the elimination of coal shortages and the successful conduct of transparent e-auctions of coal blocks.
Goyal has also been the Minister of Railways since 2017.
While he didn’t exactly replicate his predecessor Suresh Prabhu’s social media blitzkrieg to connect with the common man, he turned his attention to punctuality of trains across the country.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “In power, he gave special attention to the areas of renewables like solar, wind, hydro power, and was backed by the PM. In coal, too, he did good work and had an able secretary.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “I don’t think he has done anything to merit a mention in this club.”
Labour Minister: Mallikarjun Kharge
During his tenure as the Labour minister, a pet theme of Mallikarjun Kharge was to fix a minimum wage for labour across the country. This move was initially stalled by the Congress’s finance ministry.
When there were calls to dilute the labour laws to aid industry and investments, Kharge, a veteran parliamentarian from Karnataka, put his foot down saying a strong labour was not mutually exclusive to sound industrial and economic growth.
“The UPA government has cleared the National Manufacturing Policy (NMP). We have ensured that during its implementation, all the labour laws are respected. It is nobody’s case that the labour laws shouldn’t exist because the investment coming in the country is not enough,” Kharge had said at the time of the announcement of the NMP.
A competent leader with a clean public image, Kharge is well versed in the dynamics of politics, legislation and administration. He introduced the policy of backlog vacancies for weaker sections to fill up the posts of teachers. He also brought in several reforms in the education department.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I can’t comment on this.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “He is a fine choice.”
Tourism Minister: Gulam Navi Azad
During P.V. Narasimha Rao’s regime, Ghulam Nabi Azad took charge of the Parliamentary Affairs, Civil Aviation and Tourism ministries. In November 1996, he was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha. Under his stewardship, Tourism Synergy Programme for infrastructural development was prepared in 1993, which was followed by the National Strategy for the Development of Tourism in 1996, both directed at accelerated development of tourism.
The strategy was intended to gain a greater appreciation of tourism, a general agreement on the developmental requirements, categorical and decisive contribution of all the infrastructural departments in an integrated form, enlarged plan allocation for the tourism sector and launching of new schemes for the development of tourism industry.
Because of his sincere efforts, foreign tourist arrivals (FTA) which were 1.68 million in 1991 went up to 2.37 million in 1997.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I don’t know of his efforts.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “He is a fine choice.”
Communications Minister: Rajesh Pilot
Rajesh Pilot was one of the closest ministers to Rajiv Gandhi and, later, to P.V. Narasimha Rao. He was the most renowned leader of the Gujjar community.
As Minister of State for Telecommunications (independent charge), he is believed to be the one who laid down the foundation of India’s telecom revolution. It was the golden era of de-licencing and liberalisation which was manoeuvred to improve India’s telecom infrastructure.
In India, there has been a tremendous growth in telephone ownership and use in the last few years. But the foundation was laid back in 1991 when India, like other developing nations, did have a limited telecom infrastructure, focused mostly in urban landscape. One of the major achievements was the National Telecom Policy in 1994. The domestic long distance service was opened up for private sector participation without any restriction on the number of operators. Experts and analysts also believe that Pilot helped clear the bottlenecks of the telecom’s regulatory policies.
Verdict by Gurcharan Das: “I think he was good even though I didn’t follow him very closely.”
Verdict by Mohan Guruswamy: “He was okay.”
The Nation Echoes Corporate India Survey
India echoes the BW-Decode Corporate India survey of top ministers in the post-liberalisation India.
Besides doing a Corporate India survey, the BW–Decode team also did a Nation survey wherein it reached out to 5,000 respondents across the country. The respondents were chosen randomly and the average age of respondents was 45.
The findings were strikingly similar to the Corporate India survey findings. There were five points of divergence, though.
While Atal Bihari Vajpayee is Corporate India’s top PM in post-liberalisation India, for the nation, it’s incumbent PM, Narendra Modi. Corporate India votes for Piyush Goyal as the best Railway Minister, but India votes for Suresh Prabhu for the same role.
While Corporate India thinks George Fernandes is the top Defence Minister, India has opted for Manohar Parrikar. Corporate India has Ram Vilas Paswan as the top Steel Minister, in the Nation survey, Chaudhary Birender Singh gets the top billing.
Also, for the Agriculture ministry, Corporates have chosen Radha Mohan Singh as their favourite, India’s vote is for Balram Jakhar for the same.
Research Agency: The fieldwork, data compilation, and analysis for the BW-Decode survey was done by Decode Research and Analytics — led by Havish Madhvapaty (Founder, Havish M. Consulting).
(With inputs from Prabodh Krishna, Avishek Banerjee, Sheena Sachdeva)