If Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan’s statement days before the central bank’s bi-monthly monetary policy review is any indication, tension between the finance ministry and RBI could well be a thing of the past.
Amid speculation that the new government might replace the high-profile central bank governor, following comments from second-rung leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the general elections, Rajan on Friday said he expected to work with the new government to reduce inflation.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed the government at the Centre, following a landslide victory in the elections.
Speaking at a seminar in Tokyo, Rajan said the new government’s plan to curb food inflation seemed sensible, adding he expected the public’s inflation expectations to fall, Reuters reported. “There is a sense of conviction about our plan to bring inflation down to eight per cent this year and six per cent next year. This information has got out to the public. The public’s inflation expectations have fallen and I think expectations will fall further,” the news agency quoted Rajan as saying.
Rajan, former chief economist of International Monetary Fund, is known as an inflation hawk. Rather unexpectedly, he began raising interest rates soon after he took charge as RBI governor, amid a currency crisis in September 2013. Between September and January, he has raised the key policy rate, or repo rate, by a total of 75 basis points. Inflation, particularly retail inflation, has been stubbornly high through the past three years, around double-digit levels. Consumer Price Index-based inflation is double the central bank’s medium-term target of four per cent.
Rajan comments on Friday come days before the central bank announces its monetary policy review, scheduled for Tuesday. He is expected to keep the repo rate unchanged for the second consecutive policy review. Though inflation rose in April, its trajectory was along the central bank’s projection.
A senior finance ministry official said on Friday it is dificult for RBI to cut interest rates when inflation is high.
Rajan said he was worried about non-performing assets in the banking system, adding he wanted to work with the new government to address this concern.
As far as ties between the government and the central bank are concerned, many see a new era being heralded. After Arun Jaitley, a lawyer and a seasoned politician, took charge as finance minister, Rajan was among the first to meet him. Sources said the meeting lasted 50 minutes. After the meeting, Rajan and Jaitley gave separate statements to the media; both mentioned the needed to tackle inflation and revive growth.
“We have to restore the pace of growth, contain inflation and concentrate on fiscal consolidation,” Jaitley had said.
“It (curbing inflation) is absolutely a task the government and RBI are engaged with,” Rajan said after the meeting. “RBI has always maintained a balance between growth and inflation.”
This is in contrast with the ties between P Chidambaram, finance minister under the United Progressive Alliance government, and D Subbarao, Rajan’s predecessor. In September 2008, Subbarao was handpicked by Chidambaram; he was the first bureaucrat to join Mint Road directly from the government. In the initial days, Chidambaram and Subbarao together fought the effects of the global financial crisis on India.
However, ties between the two took a turn when Chidambaram sought a cut in the policy rate to spur growth, but the RBI governor declined to oblige. “Growth is as much a challenge as inflation. If the government has to walk alone to face the challenge of growth, we will walk alone,” an apparently upset Chidambaram had told reporter after the October 2012 policy review. At that time, Subbarao had steered clear of a cut in rates, despite a road map for fiscal consolidation presented by Chidambaram a day before the policy.
“I do hope Finance Minister Chidambaram will one day say, ‘I am often frustrated by the Reserve Bank; so frustrated that I want to go for a walk, even if I have to walk alone. But thank God, the Reserve Bank exists’,” Subbarao had said in his last public lecture as RBI governor.
From walking alone to working together, relationship between North Block and RBI is set to change.