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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: Quot homines tot sententiae

Had Narendra Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, said that the Planning Commission should be abolished, everyone would have jumped hard on him. What a bounder, they would have said.

But as the prime minister he has actually done it and everyone is saying what a great guy he is. That’s the power of the perch.

Modi’s motives are probably not entirely noble. He had a grudge against the Commission for having played politics with him since 2006 and in victory he is not known to take prisoners. They become marg darshaks.

The Commission had no business to do what it had been doing with him, and it has paid the price. That’s why nobody is shedding any tears for the Commission part of it.

But what about planning? Has Modi got rid of the need for that also? Or has he simply moved it out of Yojana Bhavan to the ministries? As of now no one knows, perhaps not even Modi.

In the meantime, though, “experts” have been putting forth their views like frogs in the monsoon, hence the title of this article. It is Latin and means that there are as many opinions as there are people. (There are other apt Latin sayings as well that fit the context. One of them is “barba non facit philosophum“, which means a beard doesn’t make one a philosopher. The length of the beard, however, is not specified.)

From planning to politics
That said, it is instructive to know that the Planning Commission went through three distinct phases in the last 60 years.

The first phase was roughly from 1955 to 1985, when it did some careful investment planning with one or two breaks in between when the money ran out because of wars, droughts and oil prices. Of this 30-year period, the first 15 were its golden era (some years ago I had proposed that they let me write its intellectual history and we even had one meeting. But the idea came to nought when it turned out that there was nothing to write about by way of intellect after 1971 when, after B S Minhas’ spirited attack on it, the Commission turned its attention from investment planning to distributive justice. That was politics, not intellectual effort.)

Then came the “bunch of jokers” period from 1985 to 2005. During this period, the coalition era emerged. After 1996, the Commission acquired a new role: Atal Bihari Vajpayee sometimes used it to keep coalition partners in check. They, in a manner of speaking, sought, and the Commission ensured that they did not find.

In phase three, this political aspect became much sharper. Manmohan Singh, as someone who was not the master of his own house, needed an agency to keep coalition partners in control and, in particular, Modi. It, thus, went from the being a planner of national investment policies to being a manager of coalition politics, known as “inter-ministerial co-ordination”.

After that, its days were pretty much numbered.

No economics, only technology
India needs technology everywhere. That, says one of my more thoughtful friends, is the only thing the new body should focus on for the next decade. It should forget everything else.

Most sensible people agree. For one thing, it will get Modi’s attention – he loves technology – since at least half of this will coincide with his rule and normal governmental inertia will do for the remaining five.

It is important, though, to distinguish between technology and science. Few realise that in general, all institutions that have focussed on the development of technology as opposed to science – the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Sam Pitroda’s technology missions and so on – have done much better than the ones that have focussed on science, like the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research.

This has important implications for the new body. For one thing, economists must be kept out totally. Only engineers and technology types should staff it, not unlike Nandan bhai’s Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).

The new body should approach problems the way the Chinese and Koreans do: decide on an objective and get it done by funding it fully. In fact, this is what we too have done with UIDAI, ISRO and DAE. There is no reason this model can’t be replicated in other areas.

To revert to Latin, “ad pondus omnium“, which means the last opinion is as weighty as the first. This is mine.

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