business sense

Beautiful Minds

Sourav Majumdar was a financial journalist for nearly two decades. He has now crossed over to the other side to get a first-hand taste of corporate life.
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The tradition of brilliance in the corner room at the RBI headquarters has continued down the years.

The tradition of brilliance in the corner room at the RBI headquarters has continued down the years.

One of the perks of being a financial journalist on the markets and banking beat was that one got to watch the minds which framed the country’s financial policies at work rather closely.

My first interaction with a Reserve Bank Governor was by way of a lengthy telephonic interview, an expensive long-distance call just after the 1992 stock market scandal. I had a laundry list of questions I had spent a long time preparing. The then Governor, S Venkitaramanan, answered all my questions patiently, and it made for excellent copy and got very good display in the newspaper I worked for. For a junior reporter, it was a big triumph indeed. Venkitaramanan came across as an astute, confident policymaker, unruffled and in command despite the obvious pressure situation around him.

A couple of years later, I managed to get a meeting with Chakravarthy Rangarajan, feted later as one of the finest RBI bosses of our times. As I excitedly shot off my questions to Rangarajan in one of the huge rooms of the RBI office in Calcutta, the Governor graciously made tea for me and explained his thinking behind some of his monetary policy actions.

I have watched Rangarajan deliver some lectures in Calcutta thereafter, and he has never failed to amaze me. On one particular occasion, I watched in awe as he delivered the MG Kutty Memorial Lecture in Calcutta without referring to the printed copy in front of him—the words, though, were verbatim from the written speech!

Once I moved to Mumbai, I was in touch with the RBI much more regularly. The imposing headquarters of the country’s central bank on Mint Road became a regular haunt. And then, one got to meet Bimal Jalan. Usually clad in a cream-coloured bush shirt and black trousers, Jalan was more in the mould of a Presidency College professor than a central bank type. And true to his style, he brought in refreshing changes in the portals of the RBI. Bankers, including those from private and foreign banks, gushed about how Jalan was one of the more inclusive central bankers they had seen, always keen to engage with the banking community and seek their views before formulating policy.

Razor-sharp in his thinking, Jalan was also one of the more media-friendly central bankers, his off-the-record lunches with editors being a hugely looked-forward-to event for those covering the RBI. In those lunches, Jalan would be disarmingly honest, his trademark wit peppering his explanations of the actions he had taken. Stories did the rounds of how he would shine through at global conferences of central bankers and of how it was important to engage him if one wanted his full attention.

Clearly, Jalan was one of the most accessible governors I have seen in recent times. He would be there for dinners, and even at music concerts, in his trademark attire, mingling with the corporate and financial community, chatting about things far removed from the serious world of monetary policy. And true to his somewhat unpredictable nature, one fine day, he chose to give it up and move into the realms of politics, handing over the baton to another brilliant colleague of his, Yaga Venugopal Reddy.

In many ways, Reddy was quite the opposite of Jalan, though the two had worked very closely at the RBI for quite a few years. While Jalan was someone who would move quickly from one thing to another, Reddy was more theoretical in his approach to policymaking, taking pains to explain with careful contextual backgrounding why he was taking a particular action. He would, like a teacher, sit and explain in scintillating fashion—often using double negatives to prove his point— why he either kept key rates unchanged or moved them up, the latter being mostly the case during the years he was Governor.

As another highly regarded bureaucrat, Duvvuri Subbarao, goes about the task of policymaking at Mint Road now, it is clear that whether one agrees with the policies of the man in the corner room at the RBI or not, the brilliance of these gentlemen is a tradition that will continue at India’s central bank.

These are the author’s personal views. He can be reached at [email protected]