Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Budget Story

James Wilson
James Wilson arrived in India in 1859 as the first Finance Member of the Viceregal Council, entrusted with the job to establish a tax structure, paper currency and generally improve the fiscal health of the country, which went nearly bankrupt as a result of the Great Revolt of 1857. Wilson, who died of dysentery within a year, was the man responsible for introduction of income tax in India. As Kautilya reminded us, taxation and warfare has a very close relation, income tax or rather the introduction of income tax is closely related to warfare – it was introduced in the UK in 1799 for the first time to fight Napoleonic wars. The word Budget itself originated from French Bougette, meaning purse or leather bag – till date our finance ministers invariably pose with a briefcase on their way to budget presentation.
Liaquat Ali Khan

Since Wilson, successive Finance Members of the Viceroy’s Council were responsible for presenting the annual financial statement of the government, till the role was taken over by an elected Finance Minister. Many believe that it was the (in)famous budget of Liaquat Ali Khan, Muslim League leader and Finance Minister in the Interim Government of 1946, which led the Congress leadership to make up their mind for the Partition. Khan proposed 25% tax on business profits over one lakh, introduced capital gains and proposed a commission to unearth tax evasion. All these scared the top industrialists of the country, most of whom were Congress fund raisers like G D Birla, Jamnalal Bajaj. This budget, however, is hailed in Pakistani nationalist history as Khan’s great Poor Man’s Budget. It was also the daily difficulties in dealing with Liaquat Ali Khan’s strict expenditure control – Patel quipped that he could not even appoint a Peon due to Khan’s objections – that drove Congress leaders to exasperation. Khan, who was born in a royal family in Karnal, Haryana and fought election from Western UP, went on to become Pakistan’s first Prime Minister and was assassinated at the same ground, where Benazir Bhutto was killed in 2007. 1947 budget was largely drafted in his mansion in New Delhi’s Tilak Marg, which is today the official residence of the Pakistani High Commissioner, though it is not known to what extent it was influenced by his wife, Gul-e- Rana, who used to teach economics at IP College.
Gul-e- Rana (nee Sheila Ireme Pant)
[His wife, his second wife to be precise, was a remarkable character herself. Born Shiela Irene Pant at Almora in a Kumaoni Brahmin family, recently converted to Christianity, she was a brilliant student of Lucknow University. While working as a lecturer at IP College, she met Khan when the latter came to deliver a lecture at the college. She converted to Islam while marrying Khan and went to Pakistan with her husband, where she immersed herself in nation building. Later on she served in many prestigious posts, including as Governor of Sindh. Today she is hailed as the Mother of Pakistan!]

Sanmukham Chetty: Independent India's first Finance Minister, like Chidambaram, he also belonged to the small but famous business community of Tamil Nadu, Nattukottai Chettiars
After Independence, Nehru chose R K Shanmukham Chetty as the first Finance Minister for his expertise on the subject. It was a controversial choice as Chetty was known to be pro-British in his political outlook. Chetty had to quit soon as there were allegations that he was favouring certain mills of Coimbatore. On his departure, John Mathai, who had to vacate the post earlier to Liaquat Ali Khan in the Interim government, was brought back. From Chetty to Chidambaram, India had a total of 25 individuals as the country’s Finance Ministers so far. In a rare coincidence, both the present President and Prime Minister are former Finance Ministers of the country. In 66 years of independent India, actually more than 80 budgets, including interim budgets have been presented. Morarji Desai presented the highest number of budget – 10 altogether. Three sitting Prime Ministers – all from the same family – Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi – have presented Union Budget in the Lok Sabha. Two Finance Ministers have become President so far – R Venkataraman and Pranab Mukherjee. Four Finance Ministers have gone on to become Prime Ministers till date – Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V P Singh and Manmohan Singh. The only lady to hold the post till date was Indira Gandhi, who was her own Finance Minister between 1969 and 1971. The most historic budget without any doubt was that of Dr Singh’s in June, 1991, when he formally initiated the process of economic liberalization. Apart from him, in more than two decades since 1991, four other Finance Ministers have presented Union Budget – Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram, who will be presenting this year’s budget too. Chidambaram, like the first Finance Minister Chetty, belongs to the small Nattukottai Chettiar caste, known for their business acumen in Tamil Nadu and across South East Asia.
On his way to presenting the historic budget of 1991
James Wilson, liberal economist and political thinker, is known to posterity more as a founder of Standard Chartered Bank and also, of one of the world’s most influential publications, The Economist. It was in 2007 that a tax official, C P Bhatia, researching on India’s tax history, re-discovered Wilson’s grave in Calcutta’s Mullick Bazaar Cemetery. His grave may remain neglected even today but come the budget day, it would be Chidambaram’s pronouncements on income tax that you and me would wait most eagerly.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Swami Vivekananda at the Confluence of East and West

Shrinwantu vishwe amritasya putra/arya dhamani divyani tashtu/vedamayetam purusham mahantam/aditya varanam tamasa parastath/tvameva vidithvati, mrityu methi/nanyah pantha vidyathe ayanaya

“Sisters and brothers of America!” – this opening invocation of Swami Vivekananda was followed by thunderous applause. It was 9/11, 1893. Chicago Art Institute was the venue for World Parliament of Religions, celebrating 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. The young Vedantic went on to greet the youngest nation in the world on behalf of the most ancient order of monks in the world. At a stage, where every speaker was bent upon claiming superior status for his own religion or sect, Vivekananda humbly submitted that no religion was superior and all the streams would meet eventually in the ocean. He struggled very hard to cross half the world and reach Chicago uninvited. But finally when his moment came, Swami Vivekananda became the cynosure of all eyes. This epoch-making speech would soon open the door for Indian philosophy and religion in the West and help to pave the way for revitalization of Hinduism back home.
Swami Vivekananda at World Parliament of Religions

For the next two years Vivekananda gave public lectures and private classes in the USA on Hinduism, Indian philosophy and Yoga. This was West’s first direct introduction to Indian spirituality. Before him only a handful of academicians in the West were acquainted with these subjects. Through Vivekananda, common people for the first time came to realize India’s great spiritual wealth. Till then India was regarded as a backward colony, where – they thought – the only way of salvation was to send more missionaries to spread the message of Christ. On the other hand, a new generation aware of the strains caused by materiality of industrialization and mass urbanization found solace in Vivekananda’s teachings. As Romain Rolland – the great French writer and biographer of both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda – was to write later, the impact of Vivekananda’s lectures was simply electrifying. From the USA, he travelled twice to England in 1895 and 1896. He met some of the great thinkers of his age in London and also attracted a large number of followers. When he travelled back to India, a number of them came along with him – one of them was Margaret Elizabeth Noble, Sister Nivedita, who would stay back to promote women’s education in India.
Belur Math

On May 1, 1897, when Ramakrishna Mission was formally inaugurated at Belur, it had three units – Belur, Ramakrishna Mission of Madras and Vedanta Society New York, which Swamiji founded back in 1894. Very few people know that almost the entire Belur Math was built through the donation of Swamiji’s select western pupils. Even today Ramakrishna Mission, which has its branches in 20 countries outside India, has maximum number of centres outside India in the USA. Unlike in India, where Ramakrishna Mission centres typically combine education and social service with promotion of Vedantic philosophy and classical culture; centres in the US solely focus on philosophy and culture. Today transcendental meditation, Yoga, Indian philosophy, Hindu and Buddhist religions are some of the strongest points in enhancing India’s soft power quotient in the West. Many Indian religious teachers and organizations have since followed the same path to their Western audiences but it was the pioneering mission of Swami Vivekananda to introduce spiritual India in the West.
A part of Chicago's busy Michigan Avenue is named after Swami Vivekananda
It was his reception in the West, which brought the spotlight on him back home. He sailed abroad at a time, when others were busy in deciding the punishment for kalapani for a monk. When he came back triumphant, a subjugated nation found her confidence in his success. In Sri Aurobindo’s language, Vivekananda awakened India spiritually. This awakening came in the context of emerging nationalism and helped young people of India to find their inspiration in their civilization. Like all great Indians of his generations – Rabindranath, Jamshedji Tata – Vivekananda was greatly inspired by the success of Japan. In Japanese success they saw India’s future. On one side, Vivekananda acknowledged India’s past greatness but on the other hand he was equally pained to see ignorance and poverty all around. He was unwavering in his belief that the only way to rescue this country was through education and science and technology – nanyah pantha vidyathe ayanaya. Impressed by this young sadhu, when his co-passenger Jamshedji Tata offered him a large amount for his math, Swamiji asked him to build a scientific institution with that money – this led to the foundation of Indian Institute of Science, IISc Bangalore.