Demonetisation failed and the economy suffered, unsurprisingly so — as any dispassionate observer with even limited understanding of the economy would tell you. It is time to face up to the fact that the Narendra Modi government suffers from a severe talent deficit. Key sectors that need serious reforms have been languishing, often for lack of good ideas. Instead, big announcements have taken precedence and policy reforms often being confused with the launch and publicity of high-profile programmes. Some of these fizzle out without much consequence, such as Make in India, Stand Up, Start Up India or Swachh Bharat, but others, such as Demonetisation do significant damage and threaten to derail the entire economy. The GST’s implementation woes have added to the overall sense of doom and gloom in the economy.
This is the consequence of the government lacking a credible ‘brain trust’ — a set of competent individuals whose primary motivations are to all-round development of the country; they possess core sector expertise; and enjoy strong reputations as credible, independent voices. If you scan the premier institutions of India today, you will be hard-pressed to find any names of repute — economists, educationists, sociologists, historians — and the ruling dispensation has a distinctly anti-intellectual air about it. This holds true even amongst Union Ministers and Chief Ministers, most of whom are today drawn from the same pool of political talent, where governance is an after-thought, and in the list of priorities, appears way below socio-cultural brainwashing.
Governments in the past have utilised the services of eminent citizens to complement the strengths and make up for the weaknesses of both the political leadership and the government bureaucracy. Narendra Modi too, announced his intention to dismantle the Planning Commission and replace it with the NITI Aayog. While revisiting centralised planning is a worthy objective, what one did not bargain for was a body that neither facilitated planning, nor provided quality advice to government. The NITI Aayog does not even function as an independent evaluator. So while there was clearly a gap that an organisation like NITI Aayog needed to fill, it had neither the requisite mandate, nor the talent to facilitate brainstorming on specific policy measures.
The UPA government had experimented with another option — the National Advisory Council (NAC). While the NAC faced tremendous opposition from both within government, and the then Opposition, it was easy to recognise that a lot of the criticism were just a means to attack Congress President, Sonia Gandhi. However, the NAC experience offers important lessons, and should be considered by any government when designing its policy advisory mechanisms.
The NAC was made up of genuinely credible individuals. Its members were a mix of social sector workers, activists, academics, former bureaucrats, and from the corporate sector, and they contributed significantly to some of the most defining legislations of the UPA-era. Perhaps the greatest proof of individual credibility of the NAC members was the fact that they, on occasion, did not hesitate to criticise the government, and the Congress party.
This government can neither bear a strong RBI Governor, nor can it get a credible expert to head the NITI Aayog. It refuses to listen to its Chief Economic Advisor, and when a rare something goes right, only one man can be credited for it all. With just over eighteen months to go for the next Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi has to set this right. The last cabinet reshuffle inducted three former bureaucrats as Ministers of State — an indication as clear as any, that he is conscious of the scarcity of options amongst his elected members of Parliament. Moreover, as we have already seen, switching out one cabinet minister for another is not going to stop trains from derailing. Shuffling ministers around is also not going to improve border security. Bringing on board a half-economist as an Advisor to the Prime Minister is not going to work either. Modi has to demonstrate that he is willing to call upon credible technical experts and public intellectuals to work collectively with the Union Cabinet, and offer sound inputs into policy formulation and design.
The risks in such a move are minimal. The NAC model was criticised in the past as a cabal of unelected people who imposed their views over the government. Today, we have a “strong” Prime Minister who enjoys an unprecedented mandate, and there is hardly any risk that a group of experts will threaten the massive people’s mandate that he enjoys. A revamped NAC (with a different name, of course) is just what is needed.
India is at a critical juncture of its development journey. The opportunities are many, but the clock is ticking away on our demographic dividend. As the economy flounders, it is getting harder to refute charges of mismanagement and incompetence. The ruling party should worry about social media “propaganda”, but also spend time fixing what it lacks — policymaking and administrative talent. But it is unlikely to. Don’t you know why?