Book Review – An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning

Book Review – An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning

An outsider in the Planning Commission during UPA-2, Arun Maira recalls his rocky ride in an institution reluctant to change.

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Arun Maira’s book  ‘An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning’

Title: An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning
Author: Arun Maira
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 236
Price: Rs 500

I do not know whether Arun Maira had a silver spoon in his mouth when he was born, but he made good use of what luck came his way. He was born in 1943 in a plush mansion in Lahore. When he was four, Lahore went to Pakistan, and his family had to escape to Dharamsala. His father started a business, and did well enough to send his son to St Mary’s in Sanawar — yes, the girls’ school: it stopped taking boys almost as soon as Maira left. He went to St Stephen’s, where he met Montek Singh Ahluwalia, another silver-spoon. On graduating, he joined Tata Administrative Service, and set up and ran the Pune factory of Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (renamed Tata Motors in 2003). When he was 46, he went and joined Arthur D Little in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had a nice career there.

In 2009, while he was on holiday in Prague, he got a phone call from Ahluwalia to tell him that the prime minister would speak to him in an hour. Manmohan Singh said to him just what he had said to me a couple of decades earlier: “You have served yourself long enough; it is time for you to come and serve your country.” He did not mean the United States, whose citizenship Maira had taken; he meant India. In a hurry, Maira had to change his nationality and become a member of the Planning Commission. He served there for five years; then the Congress was wiped out, the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, and turfed out the planning commissioners, including Maira. This is mostly a memoir of this rocky ride in Maira’s late years.


On joining the Planning Commission, Maira tried to recruit bright young kids from outside and set up a small executive team like what he would have done in a private company. The Planning Commission had just about 400 rooms, but he could get none. Finally, an entrenched bureaucrat offered him a table, chair and sofa in a room she was not using. He could not get even temporary contract jobs in the commission for the young people he wanted. So he talked to his friends in private companies; they lent him the young people he wanted.


He saw no point in the drafting of huge, unreadable volumes that the Planning Commission specialised in. It made plans for five years; quickly, the ground conditions changed and made its plan obsolete. So it started doing mid-term appraisals; but it did not have the energy to revise its plans continuously.

The situation it faced was normal in big corporations. They, too, had to plan their investments years in advance, but found market conditions shifting all the time. So Shell developed what was called scenario planning: it would make a number of alternative plans, and shift as time passed to whatever fit reality best. After the end of apartheid, South Africa also faced an uncertain future. So it borrowed Adam Kahane from Shell, and he developed scenarios for it. His reputation spread, and he was called to Guatemala and Colombia. Maira got to know Kahane, and applied his ideas.

He brought together people from government, companies and universities. He asked each to bring an object and use it to explain his ideas. N Vittal, for example, brought peanuts, and said that Indians were like peanuts — sturdy nuts that could grow on little water. On the same lines, Maira played around with scenarios, and finally came up with three: the flotilla advances, muddling along, and falling apart. They went into the introduction of the 12th Plan after being translated into strong inclusive growth, insufficient action, and policy logjam.

Maira then created 26 working groups, comprising both insiders and outsiders, to get to the bottom of problems and work out what was to be done. He set up a consultancy or non-government organisation called Indian Backbone Implementation Network, a partnership of the Planning Commission and the companies on which he had called for help.

It prepared a “compendium”. Soon after that, the general election swept away the UPA government, and brought in Narendra Modi as prime minister of the NDA government, which closed down the Planning Commission and renamed it Niti Aayog. Maira handed over the compendium and left.

That is where the book ends. It is an easy read. While it ends with a tragedy, much of it is quite racy and cheerful. It is like a good management book, advancing energetically towards desirable material objectives. It may even inspire some young people who can wait for the passing of the clouds. I am not sure that includes the author; he can go back to Prague, and resume his holiday.

Ashok V Desai is an extinguished economist and an aspiring wordsmith.