Patel's sudden farewell
The story underpinning Urjit Patel’s departure is less about mishaps and more about missed opportunities
The underlying story around the sudden resignation of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is not about what has happened, but what hasn't.
Dr Urjit Patel did not resign when the tussle had peaked. He had, in fact, dug his heels on one of the points of contention, that is, sharing the spoils of the RBI reserves between the government and the bank. Instead of any impromptu transfer to the government, the matter has been referred to an expert committee which is putting it in the backburner for the time being. Dr Patel did not flood the system with fresh liquidity and instead chose to release money in calculated doses. The two issues of difference were, so to say, papered over.
Why then, did he choose to resign now? It may be remembered that RBI did not have the tradition of promoting deputy governors to the position of the governor whenever the top position fell vacant. Earlier, for example, when the term of an earlier governor, P V Subbarao, was not renewed during the UPA regime, the senior-most deputy governor, Rakesh Mohan, was not elevated. Rakesh Mohan left when Raghuram Rajan had stepped in. Years earlier, Amitabha Ghosh, a former chairman of Allahabad Bank, was brought into RBI as deputy governor and when the incumbent governor left, he was elevated to discharge the functions of the governor but was quickly replaced by a next full-fledged governor.
In the case of Dr Patel, he was elevated to the governor's position straight away. Dr Patel was an insider in more than one sense, in a way. He was with the RBI for a while and, in fact, headed a committee during the tenure of Raghuram Rajan, which set the mechanism to be followed for formulating monetary policy. His professional excellence and abilities beyond doubt qualified him for the high position. He is related to the first industrial family of the country, the Ambanis, and was a fellow Gujarati. Possibly, the thinking was that he could be prevailed over to the dominant point of view. But then, is his departure now also an indication of the changing alignments at these stratospheric levels?
Second, until now, the man who most effectively raised the pitch of the so-called clash between the government and the RBI into a public debate has not left. On the contrary, the departure of Dr Viral Acharya, deputy governor, was so far denied officially by the RBI and he remains in place. That is unfortunate.
In his enthusiasm for advocating the independence of the central bank from the government, Dr Acharya had compared the Indian situation to that of Argentina, when the central bank governor of that country had resigned in protest against the Argentinian government to paw on the bank's reserves. Following the departure of the central bank governor, the Argentinian currency had crashed severely and the country was in a financial crisis.
Not that the resignation of Argentinian central bank governor was the fundamental cause of the country's misery. It was in deep trouble before that event and the tiff between the central bank and the government was only symptomatic of the deeper malaise.
India did not have any similar financial crisis, apart from the sporadic liquidity crisis emanating from the defaults of the largest non-banking financial company, IL&FS. There were admittedly other issues with the financial sector, including the bulging of non-performing assets in the banking sector. But if anything, the government, as well as the RBI, were by and large on the same page on these issues, except some differences in views on the liquidity crisis, which was particularly adversely affecting the small and medium sector.
Fortunately for India, despite these doomsday-portrayals, the economy was not really hurling straight into a crisis and neither was the rupee sinking against other major currencies. If anything, the rupee had gained in strength since then and had even crossed the psychological level of low 60s in between. Even the state election results, which, in fact, give an indication of possible uncertainties and change of regimes at the Centre, did not dent the financial markets so severely, closely on the heels of the resignation the RBI governor.
The surmise is that the Indian economy is not that fragile and investors also admit that. However much the difference, someone as senior as a deputy governor in the Reserve Bank should not have taken such a sharp line in a public speech and he must have been condoled for it.
Now that the governor has left a sudden vacuum, the government will have to step in to fill it. But until then, the essential function of the RBI must go on. The December 14 board meeting of the RBI will also have to be held where some of the thorny issues are to be discussed. It will have to be seen how the interim functioning plays out, particularly because some views would have to be taken on re-setting interest rates.
At the end of the day, Urjit Patel's term as the head of the Reserve Bank of India would surely be reckoned as one of the most tumultuous times. The sudden decision on demonetisation was thrust upon him almost immediately after he took over the reins. Certainly, some of the worst board members of the Reserve Bank were foisted upon to breathe down his neck. Without them around, the governor might not have left peremptorily. GST was introduced and the economy had to adjust to this entirely new and immensely cumbersome system, to begin with. The non-banking financial sector was expanding much too fast for comfort. The bubble had burst, which the RBI is accused of having failed to detect in time. But then, everything was not prickly, there were positive sides as well. After all, he had Arun Jaitley as finance minister and not P Chidambaram.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)