The Indian Economy Overview

IEO PROFILE: Finance Minister of India

P.Chidambaram, former Congressman, now Finance Minister

A profile of the man who started as a leftist, went on to be an architect of the Congress government's economic reform strategies as Rajiv Gandhi's right hand man, and has today ascended to the post of India's Finance Minister with the new United Front Government, after yet another affiliation shift. All eyes are upon him for the upcoming Indian Budget 1996-97.

He is the darling of Indian industrialists who were relieved when the United Front government chose him to become the new Finance Minister. But very few know that P Chidambaram, the US educated votary of free enterprise and unbridled economic reforms used to be a hard-core leftist arguing in favor of the command economy in the late 1960s.

Since then he has come a long way. A scion of a prominent industrialist family from Madras, Chidambaram chose to stay away from the predictable path of joining the family business and went into politics. He joined the Congress after it lost power in 1967 and remained with Indira Gandhi when the party split in 1969.

As a young lawyer he boasted an impressive array of clients-even now, whenever he has been out of the government, he has been consulted by top notch firms including the controversial US company Enron which ran into trouble in India because of a power plant project. Chidambaram came to the attention of the youthful prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 and since then has had a meteoric rise to the top. He was Rajiv’s emissary to the Tamil Nadu leadership during the crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees; after Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, Chidambaram was out of power for a short while but came back as Commerce Minister in the new government. He fitted in well with the new pro-reforms lobby and his ministry was responsible for doing away with several red tape regulations which boosted Indian exports. Ironically, though he played a big part in writing the Congress manifesto in the 1996 elections, a disagreement with his party’s decision over political alignments led to him resigning and setting up a new political outfit. He won his parliamentary seat handsomely and now finds himself in opposition to the Congress.

But for many people, especially investors both domestic and foreign, Chidambaram’s presence in the government in such a sensitive post is a positive signal and they are all looking forward to what his budget proposals will be.

Left to himself, Chidambaram will come out with a pro-growth package which will welcome foreign investment. He has candidly invited foreign capital to India and said there would be no barriers to their entry. But this budget will be a political balancing act as much as an economic one-so Chidambaram, for all his suavity and smoothness will not be able to give free reign to his ideas.

Sidharth Bhatia is a senior Indian journalist who runs a well known television program on Indian business and current affairs. A former newspaper editor and foreign correspondent, Bhatia has written for several publications in India and abroad.

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