ARTICLES FROM THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2018.
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The political atmospherics of India are changing. Modi hate mongers have lost space, and Modi critics, desperately looking for something to whip him for, are finding nothing. They remain just as shell shocked at his whirlwind schedule in the PMO, his travels in India and abroad starting from day one, as they were when he attained his astonishing majority in Parliament. They don't quite know how to handle a Prime Minister who knows his mind, and has thought out a road map of how he wants to take the nation forward in terms of internal governance and foreign policy. A PM who thinks out of the box, emphasises the importance of innovation and action, and makes it clear that he will be watching for delivery and results. So unlike what they have seen during the last decade.
The nation is absorbing this transformational change of governance with great satisfaction and relief. We have got our country back, and have a PM who shows great patriotism, commitment and determination for progress. For too long had India seen only a silent, withdrawn, proxy PM, with commitment not to national interest or efficient governance and results, but only to the Italian branch of the Maino Gandhi family, and their enrichment through the plunder of India in every conceivable manner. The nation has seen first-hand their corruption and economic crimes against India, their neglect of our security, during the last few years. Enough sordid details have emerged from the chronicles of Sanjaya Baru and Natwar Singh, about the pathetic state that the Prime Minister of India had been reduced to by his Italian benefactor.
Well, that chapter for India is mercifully over. We now have a PM tethered by nothing, with no remote or proximate controls. The institutions of governance he has inherited are either non-functional or corrupt. But he is not intimidated, and shows the same indomitable spirit, and determination towards reshaping the destiny of our country that President Roosevelt showed in his first 100 days after he became US President in March 1933, in a country beset with joblessness, homelessness, and with a collapsed economy and banking system.
The first 100 days must be viewed through statement of intent, and whatever initiatives are possible during this short time. In this regard, Modi has not failed India. Enumerate his initiatives during his first 100 days, that have struck his critics dumb, most importantly his phenomenal achievement towards financial inclusion. For a country of 1.2 billion people, and ten years of continuous corruption and subversion, positive results will take much more than a hundred days to manifest. Overhauling takes much longer than creating a new structure. But the right political and governance environment has been created, and even Modi's worst critics are in shock and awe regarding the pace of his initiatives — his overtures to the people, his reform and cleansing of systems, his messages to the bureaucracy regarding work ethic and achievement, his premium on integrity and performance, his transformation of diplomacy both in the neighbourhood, and in the larger strategic context to protect India's security.
Modi's critics cannot stomach the fact that in his very first bilateral visit to Japan, he has become an icon, exuding national confidence, diplomatic strength, energy and charisma. He transformed the idea of India to the world and inspired pride among our fellow citizens. The opposition has become so desperate that they have even stooped to criticising his gift of the Bhagwad Gita, one of the most revered books in the world, to the Japanese Emperor. Modi obviously anticipated this, and puckishly baited his detractors by announcing to his audience that his "secular" friends would be well employed for some time over his gift. And he was right.
Modi has started administrative housekeeping methodically, starting from punctuality and cleanliness, something long overdue. He is trying to weed out obsolete laws that crowd our bookshelves without meaning. I am sure he will do the same with obsolete policies and statutes that no one inside government ever reads or acts upon, and update them to suit present day requirements. He has provided a chance to all his ministers and top bureaucrats to come up with best ideas and plans within 100 days, and this will provide the beginning of his real governance.
As for flagship programmes, the permanent money guzzlers, fountainheads of the gilded pipelines from Delhi to the village, he has made it clear that the effete and defunct Planning Commission will now be put to sleep, and be substituted by a think tank for fresh ideas and innovation. The Planning Commission, though it served the nation's needs admirably after Independence, should have gone a long time ago, but no one has had the guts to shut it up. Besides, its several uses outside Planning were also evolving. Politicians discovered a platform full of berths to accommodate their favourites, whether they were geriatrics, Maoist sympathisers, or friendly NGOs, and least of all whether they possessed domain expertise in the subjects they were "planning" for. Similarly, the Planning Commission also provided a perfect dumping yard for unwanted members of the higher bureaucracy. As years went by, the Planning Commission also managed to acquire a delicious little kitty of Grant in Aid, which provided patronage to institutions and NGOs. Several useful studies were turned out by the Planning Commission, such as one about the Public Distribution System in 2004 that established that only 41% of the grain released by government reached households. But no one really knows how seriously these reports are taken by the ministries or even the vigilance agencies.
The Planning Commission made substantial contribution when it was most needed, just after Independence. It created a template for India's future development, in terms of developing the economy, agriculture, manufacturing, education, health and nutrition, and all other imperatives in a nation newly freed from colonialism, a nation illiterate and poor, with no infrastructure or production base, and limited human resources. The administration and political machinery were still innocent, and did not believe that budget allocations were their birthright, as they do today. Implementation was more honest and disciplined, with role models of honour, who were part of the freedom movement. The Planning Commission operated in unison with the Finance Ministry regarding formulation of programmes, and allocation of Plan outlays and Budgets, there being no difference between the two, for both Central departments and the states. This proceeded smoothly up to a certain point, until Indian politics turned populist, probably around the 5th Plan, and the connect between Plan and Budget allocations broke down.
Gradually, Plan allocations, both to the Central ministries and states became more grandiose, but also more illusory, with no real correlation with actual resources reflected in the Budget. Plan discussions with states and Central ministries became a regular farce, having no relationship with actual budgetary allocations, or justification for actual requirement, resulting in arbitrary percentage increases in the illusory allocations without any rationale.
The Planning Commission by the 1990s had grown into an empire with little connect with the evolving needs of the nation. Instead of discarding outdated systems and spearheading innovation in the new globalised economic environment, it clung to its old lordship role, and became a bureaucratic roadblock, with an unnecessary veto on proposals from ministries and states. It had acquired an army of around 1,200 employees, duplicating roles of the ministries, and further delaying administrative processes. Generally, the story of the Planning Commission over the last two decades has been a repeat of previous Plans, a statement of new or previously unattained targets, equally illusory, and reams of unread paper. No serious questions were ever asked why Plan targets were never achieved.
There is no doubt that this "boxed in" empire that has fallen into rote, precedent and aversion to innovative thinking must go, if our country is to progress on the human resources and infrastructure fronts. It should be replaced with a crisp, nimble and modern system of addressing the nation's needs, not by being hostage to its past Plans, but by thinking innovative solutions and reform.
I am trying to think of some truly unique and innovative ideas that the Planning Commission has turned out in the recent past. I can only think of their novel definition of poverty at Rs 32 per capita per day in urban areas, and Rs 26 a day for rural areas, the cruellest joke of 2013 played on our people. And yes, the Planning Commission has also proved its Midas touch. It materialised a whopping Rs 3,500 crore, for something called the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), an outfit that the Planning Commission attached to itself, making itself an implementing agency, quiet alien to its mandate. Montek Singh, an alter ego of Manmohan Singh used all his clout to make Aadhar compulsory, without any legal or statutory authority, and without any Parliamentary approval.
The Planning Commission has wandered a long directionless way in the last two decades. The Prime Minister's decision to scrap it and replace it with something more useful to the nation's contemporary needs has been very well received. The best expertise of the country must be used to present to government, the best innovative and practical solutions to overcome the chronic, deep rooted problems that persist in our country, and hold us back in the 21st century.
The hundred days are over. Now let the action begin.