As speculation mounts by the day that the Modi government is thinking of winding up the Planning Commission, this is an opportune moment to reflect on the relevance of the institution in the context of a rapidly changing Indian economy and society.
One way of classifying institutions is in terms of the balance between their potential positive power (PPP) and potential negative power (PNP). Potential positive power may be broadly understood to mean the capacity and power to enforce or facilitate positive change that would hasten the achievement of national goals. Potential negative power, on the other hand, refers to the capacity or power to obstruct, delay or derail positive reform, in cases where such reform threatens entrenched vested interests, status quo or business as usual. The exercise of PNP is often a ruse to foster corrupt practices, but it can also be an exercise of wanton power for its own sake, reflecting a perverse sense of power-induced pleasure.
The two institutions with perhaps the highest quotient of both PPP and PNP in the government of India are the Planning Commission and the ministry of finance. In my five years in the Planning Commission, I saw many instances of PNP and how this became a source of great resentment against the Planning Commission, both among state governments and Central ministries. Of course, at times, the Planning Commission acted with sagacity in checking profligacy of funds and schemes. But there were many cases where in-principle approvals, investment clearances, grants-in-aid and other decisions appeared to smack of bureaucratic red tape more than an application of mind motivated by the broader national interest and effectiveness of functioning. There were also visible vestiges of the old Stalinist command and control, inspector raj mindset.
But it is also true that in these five years I saw innumerable instances of the exercise of positive power. I believe there are at least five broad areas in which the Planning Commission played an extremely positive role: one, pioneering an inclusive planning process; two, facilitating and mainstreaming reform, especially emphasising the principle of subsidiarity, recognising the deep diversity of India; three, co-ordinating across, if not breaking down silos; four, being the spokesperson of the states at the Centre; and five, arbitrating disputes by taking a more long-term and holistic view of issues.
The 12th Plan process saw a completely unprecedented architecture of plan formulation. For the first time in the history of the Planning Commission, the 12 working groups on water, rural development and panchayati raj were chaired by eminent experts from outside government and included the best minds and practitioners from across Central and state governments, academia, research institutions, industry, civil society, and panchayati raj institutions. It was clearly recognised that all wisdom does not reside within government and that the best plans, programmes and policies could be made only with the active involvement of those outside government. This was continued…