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NEWSMAKER: Asim Dasgupta

Long march of the ideas man

Prodeep Gooptu  |  Kolkata 

Asim Dasgupta, finance minister of and the chairman of the empowered committee on (VAT), is a man walking tall today as 20 states joined Haryana in implementing the new structure across the country.

However, Dasgupta the man is unlikely to be affected by the fanfare and fuss on All Fools Day.

A typical Marxist, and committed member of the CPIM, he is famous for subjugating his persona to the discipline of the party, and refusing to be enthused by anything other that what the party would want him to do.

Kolkata businessmen will no doubt remember Dasgupta's early years when he had emerged out of the shadow of his formidable senior Asok Mitra (more of that relationship later) to take charge of the state's finances.

used to recommend Dasgupta to the chambers of commerce at the time as "my US-trained finance minister who will listen to your new ideas" in the first days of liberalisation in the 1990's.

The new ideas man has come a long way today, masterminding the most ambitious tax reform in Indian history since the introduction of the first industry and trading taxes by the British in early 20th century.

As expected, Dasgupta and his party have been low-key but determined in their refusal to bow to pressure and force through VAT in despite fierce opposition from the state's significant trader lobby.

Facing flak is something that Dasgupta does very well.

Make no mistake, Dasgupta is not a popular man except perhaps among his students at Calcutta University's economics department who remember his excellent lectures.

He has faced scathing criticism over the years, first for his so-called zero deficit budget in his early years as the state finance minister after assuming charge in 1987.

In later years, businessmen criticised his "" and his party's "" natural suspicion of businessmen and refusal to adopt policies that would attract businesses to the state.

So unpopular was he that even when he abolished vexatious levies such as octroi and highway toll, there was hardly a murmur of protest.

In his own way, Dasgupta ran his own crusades.

For example, he decided to target provident fund defaulters in Bengal (the state leads the national list and he himself is elected from the jute belt constituency of Kamarhati) and got all the major jute industry barons arrested.

Later, the chit funds operating in Bengal faced his wrath and a similar crackdown followed.

When public criticism about the large number of road accidents in Kolkata mounted, Dasgupta spent several hours every morning for a fortnight assisting cops in the City of Joy direct traffic and enforce road safety norms.

Just three months ago, he launched a similar crackdown on online lotteries forcing the businesses to shut down through a combination of administrative and judicial initiatives.

So why does Dasgupta not show the same, in-your-face crusading zeal about VAT?

The answer lies possibly in his commitment to party discipline "" if he were to hog the limelight today, it would breach the traditions of the which has always, officially, condemned the personality cult despite throwing up high-profile leaders such as Basu, Somnath Chatterjee and Buddhadev Bhattacharjee.

He has gone along with changing times to help sick units in his constituency to restructure even if it meant change of ownership, but all because his party wanted him to do so.

In this low-profile approach, Dasgupta is perhaps the last in the line of old-time members who refuse to step into the arc lights "" quite the late Binoy Chowdhury, who silently and unsung implemented the sweeping land reforms in that has kept the in power ever since.

As the country wakes up to VAT this weekend, praising or criticising Dasgupta, the one man who refuses to forgive him is Asok Mitra.

Dasgupta's uncompromising party senior has filed a case in the Calcutta High Court against VAT on the grounds that it upsets the tax structure enshrined in

Mitra vs Dasgupta is the unfortunate fallout that the dedicated CPIM warrior would have gladly avoided.

First Published: Wed, March 02 2005. 00:00 IST