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EGG ON ITS FACE

MONTEK SINGH AHLUWALIA, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, is turning out to be a millstone round the United Progressive Alliance Government's neck. He is the author of the extended controversy over the inclusion of representatives of foreign organisations — actually, multilateral organisations and two handpicked foreign firms, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group — in consultative groups constituted by the Planning Commission. The controversy has finally ended with the dissolution of the 19 groups by a diktat that is apparently the work of Dr. Ahluwalia's king-sized ego. It now transpires that the Commission will revert to the earlier practice of consulting individual experts informally and "separately" in the process of mid-term review of the Plan. There may be relief that this affair is now over but the Planning Commission has to recognise it has egg on its face, not only because it stirred up an unnecessary controversy but also because of the way it subsequently mishandled it. The Left raised the core objections but it is oversimplistic to see this as a Left versus Right issue; there was widespread disapproval of the move even by non-Left economists (such as Dr. A. Vaidyanathan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies) and others.

Now it is important for the Commission to get on with its work but the episode has brought out some important facets. The first is the difference between duly constituted bodies of the Planning Commission (or any organ of the Indian state) and any informal discussions that may take place. The dispute was essentially about the institutionalised presence of foreign organisations in such bodies, not about informal interaction. Though it may appear trivial, the distinction is important because of its symbolic significance in defining the character of the Indian state, and its need to represent only the interests of the Indian people. Also, the issue was not about "foreignness" per se. There should be no problem in hiring a foreigner as an independent expert consultant, but there are certainly problems in including representatives of foreign agencies who come with their own agendas. Interestingly, what this episode demonstrates is that the Planning Commission does indeed need outside advice — but this must be independent and non-bureaucratic advice. In the past, along with wide-ranging informal discussion, the Commission used to constitute working groups comprising outside experts. The difference between those and the consultative groups set up recently and dissolved in pique is that the working groups were small bodies of experts who focussed on the job of producing a report on a specific issue, not large gatherings for more general discussion. The working groups were typically organised by individual members of the Commission who often had disparate ideas; the practice had the virtue of bringing in a diversity of views. One of the problems with the current controversy is that it was shaped, from start to finish, by the views of the Deputy Chairman, which are often excessively adversarial and do not represent the positions held by other members. Openness to alternative approaches and positions — certainly a political requirement for coalition governance — appears to be absent.

This is no minor matter because the present Planning Commission has the important task of reviewing past economic strategy, on which there are serious differences even within the ruling coalition. The National Common Minimum Programme of the UPA Government has made massive commitments that imply a change in the course of economic policy. Therefore, the least that may be expected from the mid-term review of the Tenth Plan is a balanced, competent, and people-oriented reappraisal of past policy. This cannot take place if the bad habits of the past — in terms of motivated and pre-emptive policy assessment and formulation — hold sway.

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