Mantriji looked up from the clutter of financial dailies spread over his large mahogany desk as the Mukhya Aarthik Salahkar strode into his chamber. His face was grave and the samosa and jalebi lay on the table untouched.
The MAS’s excellent rapport with Mantriji was legendary and the whole of North Block knew that he could walk into the latter’s chamber any time with no more than a knock on the door. Late evening meetings, such as this one, based on impromptu summons from Mantriji were rare. And when they did happen, it meant that something troubled him deeply.
“So, do you think he’ll cut?” Mantriji dived straight into the subject, worry writ large on his face. “The financial dailies are unanimous that he’s going to stay pat. BusinessLine ’s editorial argues convincingly that it’s high time he drops rates but it also points out that he’s unlikely to do so.”
“Ah, so that’s what it is,” the MAS thought to himself, “now, how do I break it to him gently that Bhaisaab and his committee of learned men in Mumbai are not likely to oblige?”
“Sir, you know that when the last month’s inflation print came out, I released a note on Twitter pointing out how there’s been a paradigm shift to low inflation in the economy and that the last time we had a similar reading was 18 years ago....” the MAS began but Mantriji cut him short: “ Haan , I do remember that note which was all but addressed as ‘Dear Bhaisaab’, but it seems to have had no effect.”
“I’m at my wit’s end and dread the appointment in the PMO tomorrow,” Mantriji confessed with a sad look in his eyes. “God knows I’ve tried every trick in the book. To ensure no one man could hold an entire North Block to ransom we formed the Mumbai Privileged Committee (MPC) but Bhaisaab and his institution seem to have captured the MPC as well!”
“I agree,” the MAS commiserated with his boss. “I do remember how we strategised to ensure that no one from the south of the Vindhyas would get into that chair now occupied by Bhaisaab after our experience with the last three occupants.” He chuckled quietly as he was a curd rice eater himself.
“ Haan, yaad hai na aapko , but how did Bhaisaab also become like his three predecessors?” Mantriji asked with bewilderment. That brought a smile to the MAS’s face though he hid it quickly. He recalled how North Block had used its soft power in Bhaisaab’s office canteen in Mumbai by overhauling the menu, dropping all dishes from the south, especially curd rice, pesarattu and avakkai, and introducing super soft dhokla, khandvi and thepla. They had even replaced paanagam with chaas, and offered aamras made from the choicest Ratnagiri Alphonsos.
Yet, the culinary changes had no impact.
The MAS realised that Mantriji was getting emotional and he had to bring some realpolitik to the discussion. Mantriji was known to be a no-nonsense person and his takedown of pesky media fellows during conferences was to be seen to be believed. The only thing that could turn the man into jelly was, well, monetary policy. And understandably so. How could he run the economy if his partner in Mumbai refused to play ball?
“I checked with some insiders in the Mumbai complex,” the MAS replied, “I believe Bhaisaab and his friends in the MPC are concerned about the rising prices of tomato in Tiruchirapalli, pyaaj in Patiala and coriander in Kannur. They feel that inflationary expectations among vegetable consumers is rising and today’s BusinessLine has also not helped matters with its screaming front page story saying that tomato prices will not fall until end of August. Bhaisaab is also of the view that the easing of inflation excluding food and fuel may be transient in view of its underlying stickiness in a situation of rising rural wage growth and strong consumption demand...”
“Oh, please, you sound like an MPC member,” Mantriji admonished the MAS.
“So, Bhaisaab plans to hold rates to make tomato and pyaaj cheaper? What happens if aloo prices in Ahmedabad, God forbid, rise or baingan prices go up in Bengaluru next? Will rates never fall in this country?” Mantriji asked plaintively.
The MAS decided to go in for the kill: “That, Sir, is what is most likely. So let’s import tomatoes, aloo, bhendi, baingan, pyaaj and any other vegetable we can think of.”
“Good idea,” Mantriji replied, “but tell me, how long will I have to walk alone to revive the economy?”
“Sir, remember the choice otherwise is to have six learned men from the MPC walking along with you,” the MAS said with a wicked smile.
“Good Lord, no!” Mantriji pushed back his chair. “I’ll go to Lodhi Gardens all by myself. Now.”