Arvind Panagariya’s innings at NITI Aayog

Arun Srivastava

A running feud with the RSS ideologues and mandarins and his inability to evolve a blue print of economic policies that suited the temperament and political needs of his political patron Narendra Modi dearly cost the Vice Chairperson of the NITI Aayog Arvind Pangariya and forced him to resign and say good bye to his old saffron friends.
Arvind Panagariya renouncing the responsibility of the NITI Aayog may appear to be a personal loss for the Prime Minister. But it is not the case. If the RSS bosses did not approve of his style of functioning, Modi did not have sufficient words to appreciate his efforts. Modi had brought Panagariya as the Vice Chairperson of the Aayog in the teeth of opposition from several sections, including some eminent economists like Amartya Sen. Obviously he had high expectations from the academician. Since the left leaning economists and intellectuals had vehemently opposed his induction, Modi had turned more adamant and determined.
The senior bosses of the RSS were opposed to his style of his functioning from the beginning and sensed the rat that he was running a corporate agenda instead of experimenting with their Swadeshi model of economic policy. Though he endorsed the saffron economic line, the RSS leadership never reposed full faith in him. In recent times, under the influence of some powerful business lobby, a section of the RSS bosses had questioned the NDA government’s closeness to some corporate houses. They even accused Panagariya of promoting the interest of these corporate houses. Co-convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) Ashwani Mahajan in his letter of May 1 to Modi had openly blamed the NITI Aayog and Health Ministry for “colluding” with pharmaceutical companies to “sabotage the drug price control regime”.
Mahajan even accused Modi of not strictly monitoring the functioning of the ministries. He wrote; “departments are acting against what you have promised the people of India. Prices of most essential commodities are too high for the majority of people”. He “strongly protested” the “Aayog’s attempts to deregulate the pharmaceutical market” and urged Modi to “intervene”. A few months ago, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) president C K Sajinarayanan had observed; “major (government) bodies are headed by people imported from outside.” He also accused the Aayog of having no concern for the social sector, BPL population, farmers and micro industries and demanded that it be “reorganised” to suit Indian needs.
What was really insulting for the Aayog and especially for Panagariya was the allegation of the Sangh functionaries that the policies and programmes of the Aayog were not chalked out keeping in the needs of the Indian conditions. The Sangh even put the blame on the Aayog for the failure of the Modi government in creating jobs.
The major task which the RSS and Modi government had assigned to Panagariya was to demolish the aura of the leftist economists, especially Amartya Sen. But the Aayog could not accomplish this task. While Panagariya and his friend Jagdish Bhagwati are for growth, Sen stands instead for poverty reduction and “social progress”. Of course, while both the scholars fiercely attacked Sen, they could not replace his work with credible theories and alternative views. They could never comprehensively counter him. If they are to be believed, Sen caught up with the idea and concept of poverty reduction much later. Interestingly they argue that all economic activity is oriented towards the one great goal of enhancing individual living standards. Even the most macro of all debates eventually deals with the issue of individuals’ lives.
In a document titled ‘Why Growth Matters’, Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya actually defended the reform of the UPA government, dismantling step-by-step various myths about Indian economic and social policy. They called for additional reforms to bolster growth and further improve the lives of Indians. Bhagwati and Panagariya also made a valuable contribution in presenting a reform agenda to extend India’s recent growth record and make it more inclusive. 
Under Panagariya, the NITI Aayog piloted several reforms ideas in both economic and social spheres, but these were not to the liking of the RSS’s think tank. His susceptibility to RSS was the primary factor for his not getting the authority and clout which Montek Singh Ahluwalia enjoyed as the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. Though Panagariya was given a cabinet rank, he did not attend cabinet meetings, unlike his predecessor.
During the first two years of the NDA government, Panagariya is also said to have been unhappy with the pace of reforms undertaken by the government. The draft of NITI Aayog’s three-year action plan, which was prepared under Panagariya’s tenure, had also pointed out several concerns in the Centre’s economic policymaking that needed urgent attention. But unfortunately, the Modi government did not show any urgency.
The NITI Aayog also faced flak from the think tank of the RSS affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch. It criticised various recommendations put forth by the Aayog for sectors such as agriculture and health and criticised its support to genetically modified crops. Panagariya was upset that nobody from the government stood up for him or the NITI Aayog.
Panagariya also had major differences with Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian’s proposal for the launch of a universal basic income scheme. One of the major areas where he was found at fault was his failure to project the Gujarat development model as the prime economic model suited to the prevailing needs of India. He ought to have given more importance to the Gujarat template as the ideal: where people believe in accumulating wealth but also believe in using it, not for self-indulgence but for social good. Ultimately he became victim to the Saffron rage. (IPA)

Sunday, 13 August, 2017