New Delhi: The choice of venue, though purely coincidental, only added a tinge of paradoxical humour to the entire proceedings: RSS-affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch holding the bi-annual review meeting on the performance of Niti Aayog at the India International Centre.
Niti Aayog is an institution born out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, replacing one of the most conspicuous remnants of the Nehruvian socialism — the Planning Commission of India — with its swadeshi avatar to pursue cooperative federalism in both letter and spirit.
So on Tuesday at IIC, while the Lutyens’s gentry outside soaked in a mellowed afternoon sun on manicured lawns and nibbled atta biscuits dunked in masala tea, Swadeshi Jagran Manch delegates from across the country, sat around an olive-green hexagonal table on the second floor conference room to dissect and debate the Niti Aayog’s second report card.
Invites for the event were also sent to all the Aayog members. Only Bibek Debroy turned up for a while during the pre-lunch session. Vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya sent in a mail expressing his inability to participate in the wake of budget preparations. “I look forward to meeting you in the future to hear about the deliberations,” he wrote.
The absence did not go down well with former Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) chairman Dr RK Tyagi. When his turn came, Tyagi was unsparing. “These members are found more in the media than at Aayog.” Tyagi also took a dig at the incumbent dispensation.
“The Swadeshi Jagran Manch should have quarterly meetings with Aayog to review the working. And commission members should be present,” he said.
Subhash Sharma, Chandigarh-based agriculture economist associated with SJM, was more specific in his criticism. Sharma minced no words while commenting on the Niti Aayog task force mandated to prepare a report on poverty alleviation.
“The committee is headed by Dr Panagariya. Read the document, and you need not watch Kapil Sharma comedy show,” he said as his co-delegates responded with laughter.
“The BJP was unsparing when the then Planning Commission under UPA II pegged the Below Poverty Line at Rs 32 per capita per day. Now, they are speaking like Montek Singh Ahluwalia,” he said.
The threads are picked up by Shivaji Sarkar, professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi.
“Unlike Planning Commission in the earlier days, there seems to be little dialogue with the people now,” he said, underscoring the need for more transparency in the Aayog’s functioning.
SJM has, of late, taken exception to the Aayog’s views on two issues — genetically modified crops and health.
“There seems to be no synchronisation between the aims and policies of the political leadership and the Aayog,” said SJM leader Ashwani Mahajan.
While the government is attempting to provide succour to the poor, the policy papers emanating from the Aayog tell a different story.
“On the one hand, you talk about reducing prices of drugs, and on the other, the Aayog says take away drug price fixing powers vested in the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority,” he said.
RSS has used affiliates like the SJM as safety valves in the past to flag issues linked to its core constituency and ideology.
During the Vajpayee regime, it was RSS stalwart and trade-unionist Dattopant Thengdi who led the charge. Thengdi matched the then BJP leadership both in stature and experience.
These, however, are different times.