Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s statement regarding the scrapping of Niti Aayog smacks of pique rather than prudence. This certainly doesn’t cover him in glory.
He recently tweeted, “If voted to power, we will scrap the Niti Aayog. It has served no purpose other than making marketing presentations for the PM & fudging data. We will replace it with a lean Planning Commission whose members will be renowned economists & experts with less than 100 staff.”
Just because somebody believes that an institution is abused by the government, doesn’t mean they should do away with it. Going by that logic, every institution ought to be dispensed with, for the incumbent regime and the previous ones have been accused of messing up with important institutions.
This is not to say that all institutions, however unnecessary and archaic, should be perpetuated at the expense of the exchequer; they should be shut down, but on the grounds of irrelevance, and not because the big man, or big woman, has developed some kind of aversion for them.
Unfortunately, the Planning Commission was closed primarily because Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t like it. It needs to be mentioned here that his dislike was not because the plan panel was a champion of big state and Modi wanted to do away with all the vestiges of socialism in the policy framework.
Quite the contrary, Modi has proved to be a statist: public sector undertakings (PSUs) and banks (PSBs) continue to bleed the taxpayer; there have been no labor reforms, so essential to galvanize manufacturing and employment generation; agriculture remains a laggard because of the absence of liberalization; price controls are back in the reckoning; an abomination called the National Anti-Profiteering Authority, which militates against the spirit of reforms, was constituted by this government; welfarism is on the rise. In essence, Modinomics is Nehruvian socialism with a saffron tinge and Sanskritized acronyms.
Modi didn’t scrap the Planning Commission because he wanted to open up the economy and do away with everything Nehruvian; he did it because the panel was regarded as the symbol of socialism in the pre-liberalization era; and he wanted to remove every symbol reminiscent of Nehru even though he kept the policy framework of the first prime minister unchanged.
Not many noticed in India that in 2016, after the completion of two years in office, he said to a journalist from Wall Street Journal, “There is no reason to change India’s non-alignment policy that is a legacy and has been in place.” Non-alignment, it may be recalled, was Nehru’s child.
Modi, so fascinated with symbolism and tokenism, dispensed with the Planning Commission because it was symbolic and, as such, gave the impression that he was a post-Nehruvian leader. The reality, of course, was very different, as we saw, but what matters in our country are impressions and perceptions. Besides, symbolism and tokenism are far easier than substantive change.
The Planning Commission, being the embodiment of socialist policy, had become anachronistic and regressive after 1991—this is a myth that needs be debunked. There has not been a single case when the commission play spoilsport in the roll-out of a reforming measure; even the boldest reform, privatization of PSUs, received the fullest support from the plan panel.
In fact, in the last 10 years of its existence (2004-14), it was headed by a votary of liberalization, Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
The critical difference between the erstwhile Planning Commission and the Niti Aayog is that the former was involved in the allocation of development funds to states — a function that Finance Ministry mandarins carry out today. There are many similarities too: the Prime Minister was and is the ex-officio chair of both; both provide policy inputs to the government.
Further, the plan panel website said, “With the emergence of severe constraints on available budgetary resources, the resource allocation system between the states and ministries of the Central government is under strain. This requires the Planning Commission to play a mediatory and facilitating role, keeping in view the best interest of all concerned. It has to ensure smooth management of the change and help in creating a culture of high productivity and efficiency in the government.”
Similarly, Niti Aayog, the official website says, “Acts as the quintessential platform of the government of India to bring states to act together in national interest, and thereby fosters cooperative federalism.”
The Planning Commission website had discussed its own “evolving functions”. It said, “From a highly centralized planning system, the Indian economy is gradually moving towards indicative planning...” It was not just a claim; it did evolve.
In a similar fashion, Niti Aayog can also evolve according to the requirements of the time and the government in power. There is no point in killing an institution just because it was created by somebody you don’t like.(The author is Editor, Power Politics. Views expressed are personal)