Planning Commission Debate

Back to Basics?

Raman Swamy

Soon after coming to power, Narendra Modi abolished the Planning Commission and replaced it with the Niti Aayog. Now, with Lok Sabha elections round the corner, there is an air of suspense within Yojana Bhawan—the feeling is that if Opposition parties form the next government, the Niti Aayog could be scrapped and replaced.

The debate among economists and politicians is beginning to heat up. Some say totally shutting down the Planning Commission was not a good decision; others insist a government think tank like Niti Aayog is exactly what India needs. The critics call it a "Utopian" step and the plan body should have been reformed, not done away with altogether. Defenders describe it as an example of "visionary thinking".

Jairam Ramesh of the Congress says that just like demonetisation, abolishing the Planning Commission was a 'Tughlaqian' move, which has yielded in its place a forum of "intellectually mediocre drumbeaters".

Development economists agree with him—they say it is wrong to say the Planning Commission did not contribute anything since it was set up in 1950. On the contrary, through its Five-Year Plans it helped in ensuring equitable growth in all sectors of the economy and in all States. The body was a counterweight to the Finance Ministry, it was a powerful voice for the States, and a forum to bring different viewpoints to the table.

The Opposition view is that abolishing it in one stroke reflected the shallow Modi mindset that everything must bear his imprint, no matter what's the history and what's the legacy. As Jairam Ramesh said in a recent lecture, 'Planning was associated with Nehru. Vajpayee was a product of the Nehruvian era and his obituary speech on Nehru's demise is a masterpiece. But the present Prime Minister is obsessed with the obliteration of Nehru in every aspect. In my view, the decision to abolish the Planning Commission was as much a Tughlaqian move as was demonetization".

Evidently concerned about the possibility of the NITI Aayog itself being done away with in a one stroke, in case an Opposition-led government is voted to power, the Aayog's vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar has come out with a stout  denial that the new think tank is preoccupied in fantasy schemes like "zero-budget natural farming" "sunset policy for public transportation", 'fast-track closure of all underperforming PSUs", "national health stack", "total education revolution", "end-to-end block-chain technology", etc.

According to him the NITI Aayog has the potential to become the "principal change agent" to realise the Prime Minister's dream of new India in the decades ahead. In his opinion, the people of the country have paid a "very high cost" for democracy in the last 70 years. The NITI Aayog can help in get the "democratic dividend" which would come from States competing for good governance and good delivery of public services.

Rajiv Kumar and his CEO Amitabh Kant view the Aayog as a "complete new entity" as compared to the Planning Commission because it works as "partners to the States" and not as "people who hand out doles to the States".

That is why, they say, "we do not hold durbars in the NITI Bhavan (Yojana Bhawan). We meet Chief Ministers of 21 states in their state capitals".

There is however one major handicap the new body suffers from—it has no financial powers. The CEO has the answer- "We depend on the power of ideas".

The vice-chairman concurs: "Some of my friends tell me that I have come at a wrong time when the NITI Aayog has lost all powers to disburse money. But we have got the power of ideas and the power of implementing those ideas, both at the central level and much more at the state level, trying to get them (States) replicate the best practices".

He adds: "It is my wish and hope if we keep going the way we are going, if we keep getting the support from the Prime Minister, we will become the principal change agents for the whole economy. Our ambition is to bring all the States to think the way we do, then we can make them compete with each other and the entire country will become vibrant".

Congress leaders scoff at this as just the kind of fantasy reflected in most of Narendra Modi's election promises. The Planning Commission they say performed valuable functions "at an arm's-length relationship" with the government in power and even stood up to the government in power on numerous occasions while being part of the system.

What the Planning Commission needed was reform and a "dose of adrenalin". But what was administered to it in 2014 was a "poison pill", the debate is likely to continue even more heatedly before the next elections. ooo


Vol. 51, No.6, Aug 12 - 18, 2018