Frustrated with a minister who didn’t get anything done but kept appointing committees, writing reports and talking about problems, Margaret Thatcher turned to him in a cabinet meeting and said “John, you know what your problem is? Your brain is not attached to your backbone”. Echoing Thatcher, the lazy explanation for the gap between knowing what India needs to do and getting it done is the absence of political courage. But I’d like to make the case that in an era of Central coalitions and regional parties, the problem is more complex. The mostly grammatical differences between poverty reduction ideas in various party manifestos for this election show that our problem is not ideas but execution. And that policy execution is largely sabotaged by a dated infrastructure for making trade-offs, resolving conflicts and crafting a shared vision of priorities between the Central and state governments. This requires a radical reboot of the National Development Council (NDC).
The NDC — a body chaired by the prime minister, with Union cabinet ministers and chief ministers as members — held its first meeting in November 1952 with 26 state representatives and three objectives: mobilising the nation’s resources for our plans, promoting common economic policies and ensuring balanced and rapid growth. India’s challenges come through in the wonderful compilation of the minutes of the first 15 NDC meetings. But by the 57th NDC meeting, held in December 2012, the drift had become obvious. It was an underwhelming affair, held in the wrong location, with too many attendees and no substantive discussions. The new government should convert the NDC into India’s top policy-making body, with the single objective of poverty reduction.
The tactical actions to energise the NDC are simple. Its ownership must shift from the Planning Commisssion to the prime minister’s office; unelected officials will never have political legitimacy or street credibility with chief ministers. The venue must shift from Vigyan Bhawan; its auditorium format, with a raised dais occupied by Central government representatives towering over state government representatives, is patronising and not conducive to the equality of a round table. The number of attendees must be drastically cut to only five cabinet ministers and two attendees from every state to improve the discussion and agenda. It must meet every year, with dates published one year in advance. Every meeting should be kicked off by a dinner hosted by the prime minister, meant only for NDC attendees, and some meetings should be scheduled as off-camera.
But the more difficult interventions pivot on making the NDC self-healing, potent and creative. We could start by creating three NDC standing committees in areas where traffic jams are currently hindering poverty reduction: infrastructure and transport, education, employability and employment, and public finance and taxes. These standing committees could meet every six months and continued…