A tough life at the Planning Commission: Montek Singh Ahluwalia

09 Oct 2004


He has strong views on what needs to be done and is committed to see that they are taken as far as they can says Chirag Kasbekar

Montek Singh AhluwaliaThere's no question that Montek Singh Ahluwalia brought life to Yojana Bhavan when he became deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. He isn't a bureaucrat-academic content with sitting back and letting things happen. As someone with decades of public-policy experience at the highest levels, he has strong views on what needs to be done and is committed enough to those views and methods to see that they are taken as far as they can be taken. Even if it ruffles his opponents' feathers.

"The dissolution of all consultative groups of the Planning Commission when the Left parties had only sought the exclusion of so called foreign experts from those bodies, reflects the autocratic style of functioning of Montek Singh Ahluwalia," an indignant D Raja, secretary of the Communist Party of India, told reporters. "The government should explain why they were constituted in the first place."

Raja has a point. It may be that the Left's fight with Ahluwalia was more symbolic or even ideological than based on policy substance. It may be that the Left were personally insulting to Ahluwalia in their questioning of his credibility. But to throw out an entire process that could have been of great value to the review of the Plan was a bit peevish.

One possible explanation for Ahluwalia's action is that he was trying to keep an ideological balance in the consultative committees and was not comfortable with the Left's potential dominance of the groups with the exit of the so-called foreign experts.

Yet, it isn't difficult to discern the personal friction between him and the Left. Some find it ironic that he unconventionally ties his turban from left to right.

As an Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar and long-time World Bank-IMF economist-technocrat who has little time or patience for politics, the Left sees him as one of the international jet-setting elite who go about from country to country, alighting only to prescribe 'neo-liberal' poison remedies that put money and profit over people. His having served in various capacities at the World Bank from 1971-79 (before Rajiv Gandhi drafted him into his PMO in the 80s), and as director of the independent evaluation office of the IMF from 2001-2004, makes him a 'World Bank man', in Jyoti Basu's pejorative words.

His image as one of the architects of India's liberalisation process doesn't help when faced with a set of people who oppose the process itself. The Left has consistently opposed his rise to power.

What Ahluwalia's got going for him this time, however, is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's strong support. Both remain convinced that their reforms have had a beneficial impact on the Indian economy. Both share the conviction that India needs to continue its liberalisation and globalisation drive and move even closer to a market-oriented economy. Both are acclaimed economists. Both are Sikhs. Moreover, both have the confidence of the international and domestic business and financial communities.

A measure of the PM's faith in Ahluwalia is the fact that the PM, in an unprecedented decision, chose to include him but none of his other cabinet colleagues handling economic portfolios to accompany him during his recent important US trip.

But what Ahluwalia lacks is the PM's accommodativeness. To add to that, he seems to have retained the traditional economist's contempt for symbolism and politics. This has led him into an unnecessary conflict with the Left that is likely to make his job much more difficult.

It would be a pity if the Planning Commission's regained vigour and importance and its new deputy chairman's vast experience were to go waste for these failings.

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