Modi’s manoeuvres

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission K.C. Pant at the unveiling of the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-2007) document in New Delhi on October 5, 2002. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

RIGHT from the inaugural week of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in May, a keen discussion on the fate of the Planning Commission was under way within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which heads the ruling coalition, among the NDA’s constituents, and at the level of the government and the Commission. The tone and tenor of the early discussions was more about restructuring or revamping the Commission and did not point towards any plan for its total dismantlement. Two factors were considered to be the basis for the projections in these discussions.

First, there was a case for revamping the institution both organisationally and thematically since the BJP and the NDA had come to power with a big majority. The individuals who held sway over the Commission were by and large considered close to the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. They were expected to be replaced by individuals close to the current dispensation.

The second factor related to the discussions of varied intensity regarding the role of the Commission that had come up in the upper echelons of power over the past several years. They had called for a reorientation of the policy and programme paradigms and the structure of the Commission. All this thinking was not supposed to reach the stage of a total dismantling even though the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) set up by the UPA had actually suggested the disbanding of the organisation and the creation of a new entity (see story on page 23). Even on the question of restructuring and revamping, there were several shades of opinion at different levels in the BJP and the NDA and among Commission officials themselves.

Planning Commission officials primarily studied the BJP’s election manifesto and thought about ways and means of tweaking the perspectives of the 12th Five-Year Plan document so that it tallied with key projections in the manifesto. The early projections within the NDA were that either Murli Manohar Joshi or Arun Shourie would be made the Deputy Chairman of the Commission. This thinking lasted for only about a week, but that did not deter the different camps in the BJP from advancing their own pet theories on the matter.

According to party insiders and sources in the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, the positions taken by the votaries of Joshi and Shourie were markedly different. Discussions within the Joshi camp revolved around a restructuring on the lines advanced by the BJP in 1998, when Jaswant Singh was the Deputy Chairman of the Commission. This plan envisaged enhancing the role of the Commission by expanding its decision-making authority to cover more areas.

Shourie, apparently, did not see much merit in persisting with the current paradigm even when he was being considered for the post of Deputy Chairman. He reportedly wanted the Commission to be converted into a Reforms Commission, with a different set of plans, programmes and paradigms, structured more like an advisory body that would go into questions relating to economic reforms on the basis of international and national best practices and through participatory public discourse.

The 1998 Jaswant Singh model was ambitious in that it sought to bring even non-Plan expenditure under the jurisdiction of the Planning Commission. The stated idea was that the Planning Commission should have the authority to rationalise non-Plan expenditure, taking the overhead away from the Ministry of Finance. It also sought to assign to the Commission policy-making roles in international trade issues with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and enlist international think tanks and research agencies to help the Commission in specific projects and programmes. That plan never took off in the face of stiff resistance from BJP Ministers and leaders of other NDA constituents. By all indications, policy experts considered close to Joshi and who perhaps thought they would have a chance to join the Commission as members if he was appointed its Deputy Chairman were of the view that the 1998 formula could be advanced with some minor changes. While it is not clear at the time of writing what the alternative body would look like, there is a stream of opinion that it could resemble or reflect Shourie’s reported idea of a Reforms Commission in many respects. There is also the IEO report, but indications are that the new dispensation will not adopt it totally. BJP and Sangh Parivar insiders aver that Modi himself is highly impressed with the National Development and Reform Commission of China and in all probability will want to replicate it in India.

Given the style of functioning of the Modi government, nobody in the BJP or the Sangh Parivar knows what will be the exact shape of the institution that will replace the Planning Commission. “All that one can say is that the final picture is in the mind of the Prime Minister and some of his close political and non-political associates. He will unfold its contours as and when he deems fit. Perhaps, he may share it with Amit Shah or Arun Jaitley,” a senior BJP leader told Frontline in New Delhi. He added that the general expectation was that Modi’s important announcement on Independence Day would be granting full statehood to Delhi. “Nobody expected him to announce the dismantling of the Commission.” Interestingly, after Modi’s August 15 announcement, votaries of the Jaswant Singh model or its modified versions have gone silent.

Commenting on the developments, Prabhat Shukla, former Indian Foreign Service officer and a distinguished fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), said that two factors needed to be considered while analysing the proposal in historical, political and practical terms. According to the Government Resolution of 1950, the Commission was set up against the backdrop of war, Partition, and the need to integrate the Indian States. All of this has passed into history. The objectives laid down in that Resolution—of reducing poverty and making efficient use of resources —have not been met. “As the Prime Minister explained in his Independence Day speech, the options were to tinker with the existing structure or to replace it, and he wisely chose the latter.”

Shukla emphasised that these views were expressed entirely in his individual capacity. (This assertion, in all probability, is on account of the growing impression that the VIF and its key members are playing an important role in several decisions made by the Modi government. Academics and other professionals associated with the VIF have reiterated in recent times that the institution has no connection with the RSS or the BJP.)

Shukla further pointed out that the need for a fresh look at the Commission was under review since the early 1990s, when the country moved towards a more market-oriented economy. The developments in both the BJP and the Congress and even in the Commission over the past decade and a half validate this argument. The BJP’s 1998 manifesto had expressly stated that “the Planning Commission will be reformed and reorganised in the light of the changing developmental needs of our country”. It was as a follow-up of this statement that the Jaswant Singh plan had come up. When the NDA came back to power in 1999 and ruled for five years, the Commission was led by K.C. Pant, who had joined the saffron party from the Congress. He, too, advanced some ideas suggesting changing the character of the body. He stated in a Commission speech that “the moot question is whether the Indian state has not overstretched itself” and commissioned private consulting agencies to suggest how the Commission’s role could be revised. During the UPA’s stint in power from 2004 to 2009, Arun Maira, member of the Commission and a long-standing member of the national council of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), pursued the concept of a Systems Reform Commission to replace the planning body. The establishment of the IEO was an offshoot of this pursuit. In Shukla’s view, Modi will not follow any of the plans advanced since 1998. “In my opinion, the new structure will be something altogether different. And I hope it will focus on select issues that require either closer coordination among different Ministries and agencies, or where something entirely new is to be built. I have in mind the proposal on the Mumbai International Financial Centre, which has been languishing for the past several years. All good administrators usually have a clear idea of what they want, and they also look to the best practices around the world before adapting them to their own conditions and needs. I am confident this government will do the same,” he said.

Notwithstanding the hopes of experts like Shukla, there are views even within the Sangh Parivar that decisions, including the one regarding the Planning Commission, are taken without proper consultation or through a process characterised by a lack of internal democracy. According to the BJP leader from New Delhi, there seems to be a huge dependence on a select group of non-political players in the dealings of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and this has led to a secretive kind of functioning. “Even seasoned politicians such as Sushma Swaraj are being sidelined and are not part of the consultative process. The most important question is whether the government can go ahead by virtually nullifying the experience of senior leaders or systems such as the Planning Commission,” the leader wondered, hastening to add that in the present context, these questions would be raised only in hushed whispers.

D.P. Tripathi, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) member of the Rajya Sabha, said Modi’s style of governance was extremely personalised. “The way things are moving, it seems that this Ministry will even outdo a presidential form of government. No Ministers, including the seniors, have the freedom of action or the freedom of expression. Naturally, this militates against the concept of democratic governance,” he told Frontline. Opposition parties ranging from the Congress to the Janata Dals and the Left parties have also criticised the manner in which the Planning Commission’s dismantling has been pursued. However, given the Congress’ own track record on such issues, there are muted voices within the party, including among senior leaders, suggesting that Modi’s move may not be entirely out of place. However, even this section questions the way the decision has been taken forward without wider consultation.

While political discussions on Modi’s move continue in different forms, officials at the Commission wonder as to what their professional fate will be. Will they continue to be listed for work in the proposed institution? Or will their association with the Planning Commission be held against them? Or will there be an administrative process to draft them into other government departments? Perhaps, the political debate on the Commission should address these issues as well before the new body assumes a concrete shape.

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