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Communication gap at FinMin

P Vaidyanathan Iyer | August 12, 2003

Finance Minister Jaswant Singh may be roping in London-based Financial Dynamics to sell India in the United Kingdom. He may well engage more public relations agencies to showcase India in other important markets.

But has he done enough to sell reforms in, say, Damonjudi in Orissa's Koraput district where Nalco has a smelter? Or for that sake, did he try and educate Delhi traders on what value-added tax meant?

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Had he done that in good time and good measure, the Nalco union in Damonjudi would not have driven back Hindalco executives who went there for due diligence of the plant.

And Madan Lal Khurana would not have vociferously opposed a pan-India implementation of VAT, outside Singh's very office in North Block.

Jaswant Singh rarely interacts with the media. Except for the customary post-Budget interviews, few and far between seminar addresses, and a one-off informal dinner with media persons, the finance minister has hardly met the press.

His initial excuse that he would like to do things first and then talk, holds less water now. It's over 13 months and it is not unreasonable to demand an audience. Just before the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Dubai in September, could be the right time.

A classic example of a poor communication strategy during Singh's tenure was the bank return of equity confusion.

An official spokesperson denied a news story that the government was planning to charge a premium while buying back its equity in public sector banks.

The spokesperson said that the buy-back would be at par. This was again contradicted a day later by then finance secretary S Narayan who issued a cleverly-worded statement that it was not the intent of the government to buy-back its equity at par for banks whose market price was substantially higher.

During all these days, the public sector bank scrips moved like a yo-yo forcing Singh himself to intervene and ask the capital market regulatory Securities and Exchange Board of India to probe the volatility.

Communication at the right time and from the right channel matters the most in building the desired image. The Unit Trust of India's US-64 crisis could have been averted had former finance secretary Ajit Kumar just picked up his telephone to inform then finance minister Yashwant Sinha about the UTI board's plan to suspend sale and repurchase of US-64 units for six months in July 2001.

Whether Sinha could have done anything is debatable, but Kumar could have definitely avoided the flak from the joint parliamentary committee that probed the stock scam.

If Singh is not talking, his men too seem to have taken a leaf out of his book. All the secretaries of various departments in North Block, are known for avoiding the media. Request for an appointment with any of his secretaries, be it D C Gupta, Vineeta Rai, N S Sisodia or M M Sardana, and the standard reply would be that they are still understanding their domains.

Gupta and Rai have been in the finance ministry for almost a year now. Sisodia and Sardana have, however, joined only last month, but have still not spelled out their priorities to the media.

In fact, during the infamous confusion that led to large-scale volatility in bank stocks, Rai actually said, it would be unfair to ask her anything about it! She was holding additional charge of banking and insurance then, apart from having been appointed the revenue secretary.

When Singh presented the first-ever quarterly review of the economy in Parliament, Gupta did not even give the usual sound bites to television channels. Another senior official D Swarup, additional secretary, budget and expenditure, was seen fielding the media queries.

If the secretaries are getting into the groove, the joint secretaries designated to liaison with the media after Singh took over in July this year, are nowhere to be seen. Three of the five joint secretaries -- Usha Mathur, Navin Kumar and Prashant Mehta -- are no longer in North Block now.

The three were the points of interaction for expenditure, economic affairs and revenue issues, respectively. Of the other two, Shiela Bhide and Shekhar Aggarwal, the latter is still getting over the mayhem created during the bank return of equity controversy.

Bhide and Aggarwal were the point persons for issues relating to company affairs and banking and insurance, respectively.

Nobody is asking Singh to hold Friday durbars with the media like his predecessor Sinha did. But he must communicate or at least let his officers do.

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