PM Modi’s Team India will fail

The proposal for Team India, the body to replace the Planning Commission is a sanitized technocratic proposal, perfectly suited for a game of development bingo – this is my latest livemint column

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his recent meeting with chief ministers, presented a proposal for revamping the Planning Commission. The least we can expect from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) these days is a sleek power point presentation and the PMO did not disappoint with what was termed the “new institution”. The garden meeting, with the Prime Minister sitting in a circle with chief ministers, also created the picture of the much-talked-about Team India, a model for centre-state partnership.

Optics aside, there are several salient points for discussion.

The Prime Minister’s presentation pointed out four areas of institutional weakness: lack of a structured engagement with states; ineffective coordination and resolution mechanisms between centre-state and across ministries; lack of contemporary knowledge links; and weak implementation and feedback loops.

In order to address the first two weaknesses (which seem to be interlinked and overlapping), the proposal is to create Team India, an equal and collaborative platform that brings together the centre and the states. The proposal gets the jargon mostly right (had the meeting been telecast live, it would have been a great candidate for playing governance-jargon bingo), but also positions the Prime Minister as a benign elder who would be “friend, philosopher and guide” to states!

There are some good ideas about rethinking planning cycles, especially at the state-level and of forming groups of states with common challenges/opportunities (demographic, geographic, economic, etc). Understandably, these ideas will take time to crystallize and to figure out implementation, but these are ideas with potential. So far so good.

Where the proposal starts to unravel is at its implementation—how will the new institution improve implementation of public programmes on the ground? To take just one example, look at decentralization. It is ironic that the biggest legacy of the erstwhile Planning Commission is that of being too centralized (epitomized by the prescriptive centrally sponsored schemes), while at the same time, it positioned itself as a champion of decentralization to local governments. In the Prime Minister’s proposal, there is hardly any talk of decentralization and strengthening local governments. There is no one model for strengthening local governments, but amidst the talk of centre-state partnerships, the last mile implementers are overlooked. The risk of the new institution being all about planning and allocations, but not sufficiently about effective implementation looms large.

Further, on issues of limited knowledge links, implementation and feedback loops, it is even less clear how the new institution will break the current mould. The Planning Commission brought together experts from a diverse background, drawing from the private sector as well as civil society. One can imagine that those that might be consulted by the new institution will probably be drawn from a different section of the room, but will that lead to an increase (or qualitative improvement) in the knowledge generated by the new institution? Honestly, it is hard to tell.

Finally, there appears to be a remarkable absence of serious political analysis in the outline of the new institution. The Prime Minister’s presentation is a sanitized technocratic proposal that does not sufficiently capture the politics of administering a diverse country and a divisive polity. The proposed new institution for shepherding policymaking in India cannot be a stand-alone concept—it will be affected by contemporary political developments, every step of its way.

For example, bringing chief ministers around a table is no change from what the Planning Commission already does. Also, the near exclusive focus on chief ministers reflects a strikingly negative trend of state-level governance in India (and one that the Prime Minister himself is probably most comfortable with)—that of state governments being individual-centric. This view does nothing to improve the state-level planning and implementation machinery. If states were to truly own the development process in their backyards, the quality of collaboration between state government ministries need to improve, alongside the strengthening of its finance and treasury systems.

Also, how will the issue of deep mistrust between the Centre and certain states be addressed? Until the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins all states, this will remain a serious obstacle, especially given the social agenda that the BJP and its associates seem determined to pursue across the county. On a related note, the Prime Minister will have to demonstrate that his government and party are serious about moving away from both individualistic and identity politics, of which there is little promise so far.

Cooperative federalism is a worthy goal, no doubt. However, from the discussion around the proposed new institution that is set to replace the Planning Commission, it is not at all evident that we would have an institution that is fit for purpose. Disbanding the Planning Commission was a bold announcement. Disappointingly though, the alternative proposed on the table is technocratic, unimaginative and lacking in the political smarts—and looks set to fail.

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