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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Dr Manmohan Singh’s different strokes

What does Manmohan Singh really think about the Planning Commission?

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: November 26, 2015 12:07:27 am
manmohan singh, planning commission, indira gandhi birthday, jawaharlal nehru birthday, manmohan, manmohan planning commission speech, manmohan singh planning commission, indian express, editorials, columns For Manmohan Singh, the economist, what bit of the cabinet resolution that set up the NITI Aayog on January 1, 2015, does he disagree with? Or is it an objection only to the name? Would he have been happy had it been called Un-planning Commission, or Planning Omission? (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Recently, former prime minister Manmohan Singh spoke at a national convention organised by the Indian Youth Congress, the occasion being Indira Gandhi’s 98th birth anniversary. He spoke on Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and their legacy. He also spoke about the Planning Commission. Let’s ignore the former and focus on the latter. Among assorted individuals in the country, the person most qualified to speak on the Planning Commission is Manmohan Singh. He was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission between January 1985 and August 1987. The prime minister then was Rajiv Gandhi. The Seventh Five Year Plan (1985-90) was being drafted. An incident occurred. Although that incident was never a secret, it has been documented in C.G. Somiah’s book, The Honest Always Stand Alone, published in 2010.

Somiah was then secretary with the Planning Commission. There were differences between the then PM and the then deputy chairman. Here’s the incident in Somiah’s words: “The prime minister was not impressed and made some hurtful derogatory remarks about Dr Singh’s presentation. A few days later, the prime minister shared his thoughts with journalists, calling us a ‘bunch of jokers’ who were bereft of any modern ideas of development… When this news made headlines in the newspapers, Dr Singh, emerging out of an urgent meeting with the other members, called me to his office. He looked distraught and terribly upset with the prime minister’s remarks.”

For the record, some members of the Planning Commission took umbrage at Rajiv Gandhi’s words and resigned, but Manmohan Singh did not.
According to media reports, at that recent national convention, Manmohan Singh asked party workers to convey to the country the achievements of the Planning Commission. He said, “Economic policy has no sense of direction and this is largely because [the] Planning Commission, with all its deficiencies… was a positive dynamic instrument of steering the country’s economy.” Therefore, the decision to abolish the Planning Commission was “harmful”. Yes, the country, and not just party workers, must remember legacies and possess a sense of history. However, that legacy and history also includes the Rajiv Gandhi incident.

Between May 2004 and May 2014, Manmohan Singh was chairman of the Planning Commission. Between 2009 and 2014, Arun Maira was a member of the Planning Commission. Coincidentally, Maira has just published a book titled An Upstart in Government. Here’s a quote from that book: “The question Dr Manmohan Singh posed to me in 2009 after I joined the Planning Commission was what could be done to reform the Planning Commission, which had resisted many attempts to make significant changes to it.” At a later meeting, “Then he [Dr Manmohan Singh] gave directions for the reform of the Planning Commission. He said that the Planning Commission must become a ‘systems reform commission’ rather than a budget-making body. And that the Planning Commission must become ‘an essay (that is a force) in persuasion’, rather than a writer of long plans.”

If Maira has got it right, in 2009, if not in 1985, Manmohan Singh wanted the Planning Commission to be reformed. Let’s jump to 2014. In Maira’s words, “The disconnection of the top leadership from the transformation of the Planning Commission became painfully evident in the last meeting of the Planning Commission on April 30, 2014. The prime minister, the chairman of the Commission, came to say a ‘thank you’ and a farewell. He concluded the meeting by asking four questions about the Planning Commission: One, are we using tools and approaches which were designed for a different era? Two, have we added on new functions and layers without any restructuring of the more traditional activities in the Commission? Three, what additional roles should the Planning Commission play and what capacities does it need to ensure it continues to be relevant to the growth process? And four, governance issues being integral to economic growth, are these areas for the Planning Commission to delve into? I was completely taken aback. Had he not asked similar questions in 2009 about the Planning Commission’s relevance in the new millennium? Had we not given him the answers to those questions in 2010, which he had approved of? Had we not been struggling to implement the changes required, which he was aware of?” Like Maira, I am also somewhat mystified. What are Manmohan Singh’s views on the Planning Commission? They seem to be ephemeral, changing colours like a chameleon.

If a week is a long time in politics, one- and-a-half years is an eternity. I decided to reread what Manmohan Singh said on April 30, 2014, in his farewell speech to the Planning Commission, vindicating Maira’s account. He asked the Planning Commission to subject itself to a “critical review”. He also said, “With an increasingly open and liberalised economy with a greater reliance on market mechanisms, we need to reflect on what the role of the Planning Commission needs to be in this new world.” This can’t be reconciled with what he said a few days ago. If confusion and lack of consistency are caused by a desire to play politics, nothing more need be said.

For Manmohan Singh, the economist, what bit of the cabinet resolution that set up the Niti Aayog on January 1, 2015, does he disagree with? Or is it an objection only to the name? Would he have been happy had it been called Un-planning Commission, or Planning Omission?

The writer is member, Niti Aayog.

Views are personal

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