In July 2004, Parthasarathi Shome was at the IMF headquarters chairing a meeting with Venezuelan delegates when he received a call from P. Chidambaram, the newly appointed Finance Minister of the UPA government. PC, as Shome affectionately calls him in his latest book Virtus in Arduis (virtue in hard work), had connected at 3 a.m. Indian time and asked him to join the finance ministry as an advisor on tax matters.
A short conversation followed, sprinkled with Chidambaram's Wodehousian humour, and Shome agreed to pack his bags and shift to India in 15 days. It is one of the few anecdotes that would make you smile. The rest of the book features a detailed account of Shome's tax reform initiatives (mostly as an IMF recruit) across the globe, a short but more personalised account of his alma mater days, descriptions of a few memorable trips and a rare glimpse into his childhood years.
Shome has had an illustrious career as an academic, economist, tax administrator and advisor to governments. So, it is not surprising that in his autobiographical journey, he has made sure to thank all his teachers - from Presidency College in Kolkata, Delhi School of Economics, the University of Rochester and the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He keeps mentioning many of his teachers and colleagues with difficult Lat-Am and European names, but that alone does not make the book a difficult read. It is his area of expertise - tax reforms, public finance and macroeconomy - from which there is no escape.
Those ready to take the plunge will surely find a few gems. Throughout the book, Shome has chronicled his efforts as an IMF expert to reform and change complex tax structures in countries which nurtured even more complex political and social ecosystems. He has worked in Latin America, Africa, East Europe and a host of Asian countries, and often found it tough to convince governments to go ahead with essential tax reforms. Some of these incidents are fascinating and one can relate them to what has happened in India. At times, readers would have liked him to narrate the impact of the reforms but the author has deliberately stayed away from further elaboration and left it to others to pass the verdict.
Shome is an avid traveller and travelled widely from one continent to another in the course of his work. He tries to share some of his travel experiences but does so parsimoniously.
Understandably, a substantial portion of the book covers his work in India in various roles - as an advisor to the finance ministry and many state governments, as director of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy and also as the RBI Chair Professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. But the most interesting bits are from his work as a representative of the finance ministry for rolling out the VAT regime.
He details the intense haggling with the states, their various terms and conditions, their demand for compensation (in case of revenue losses), the ensuing logistics and infrastructural challenges and, finally, the training of tax officers to get them up to speed. All that will remind you of the year-old Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the hiccups it is still facing. Shome has also described what he did in getting the GST ball rolling in 2007, his work on the Direct Taxes Code and the role he played as the chairman of the Tax Administration Reform Commission. The seven-member body came up with several recommendations and the Narendra Modi government later adopted many of those.
Overall, this is not an easy book to read unless one has a penchant for these intriguing but complex topics. The language is lucid enough but you will find tax and economic jargon aplenty, and some old-world vocabulary. Given his close encounters with so many politicians, bureaucrats and academicians across the globe, Shome could have treated his readers with many more interesting anecdotes and titbits. But that could have diluted the depth and insight meant for serious readers who must dive deep to gain knowledge. As the title suggests, there is excellence to be achieved from tough challenges.