MUMBAI (Reuters) - Ex-finance ministry official Shaktikanta Das took charge of the Reserve Bank of India on Tuesday, in a swift appointment expected to ease a dispute with the government as it pushes for looser credit rules ahead of a general election.
The announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration came just a day after Urjit Patel resigned from the post, following months of clashes between the two institutions over lending curbs and how to deploy the central bank’s surplus reserves.
Pressure on the RBI to take immediate steps to boost the economy, including a transfer of the excess reserves to the government, could well rise after Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered likely election losses in three key states on Tuesday.
Das - a high-profile backer of Modi’s controversial 2016 move to scrap high-value currency notes, known as demonetization - will serve a three-year term as governor, effective immediately.
RBI watchers said they expected the 61-year-old, who retired last year as secretary of the department of economic affairs having previously served on the RBI’s board, to put relations between the Mumbai-based bank and the finance ministry in New Delhi on a stabler footing.
Investors will also look closely at his ability to hold up against outside influences after recent efforts by the Modi government to gain greater control over the central bank’s regulatory powers.
“The incoming governor will have to work hard to prove that he has his own independent mind,” said Deepak Jasani, head of retail research at Hdfc Securities.
Investors said any openly political appointee with little macro-economic experience, would not sit well with financial markets that already sold off following the BJP’s election setbacks.
But Ashish Vaidya, executive director and head of trading at DBS Bank in Mumbai, said he expected India’s debt and currency markets to react positively.
“He is a bureaucrat...We expect the RBI to take a pragmatic approach under him, be pro-growth and change its stance going ahead given that inflation has come off sharply,” he said.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Reuters partner ANI that the government acknowledged the bank’s independence.
“Government will fully support the RBI and coordinate with it in areas where consultations of government are required to make sure India’s economy benefits from both government policy decisions and areas which fall within domain of the RBI,” ANI tweeted, quoting Jaitley.
Pronab Sen, India’s former chief statistician, said he was surprised by the speed of Das’s appointment.
“If you have a situation where a position as important as the governor of the RBI is filled within 24 hours of the resignation of the incumbent, that will raise eyebrows,” Sen told Reuters.
“People are going to say, clearly this guy had already been identified. And, the situation was created where Urjit Patel had to quit.”
Das - widely seen as a contender for the top RBI job after Raghuram Rajan’s term ended in 2016 - did not answer calls from Reuters to his mobile phone.
RBI officials who have worked with him closely said Das was likely to be more inclusive in the decision-making process than Patel.
“He has a balanced approach and is good at consensus building,” said a former deputy governor. “...We have had our fair share of differences. But he has always been solution-centric rather than festering on those differences.”
Das worked in the finance ministry under both Modi’s government and the previous coalition led by the main opposition Congress party and was also involved in drafting the Insolvency and Bankruptcy code aimed at protecting small investors.
He came under fire for his pro-demonetization stance and was the most vocal bureaucrat at the time Modi withdrew the high-value bank notes to fight tax evasion.
Das last year criticized the methodology of global rating agencies and sought a sovereign rating upgrade for India.
Reporting by Suvashree Choudhry in MUMBAI and Krishna V Kurup in BENGALURU; Additional reporting by Neha Dasgupta, Alasdair Paul and Aditya Kalra in NEW DELHI and Rajendra Jadhav in MUMBAI; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and John Stonestreet
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