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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 38

Between Emerging Tiger and the Poor

Wednesday 10 September 2008, by H Y Sharada Prasad

Even the cricket matches in Colombo didn’t wholly eclipse Narasimha Rao’s doings in Tiger-land this month as a weekend topic of conversation. Quite a number of people saw the direct telecast of his lecture to the Singapore Institute. More than the lecture, it is the question-and-answer session that followed which seems to have won approbation, especially the unfussy way in which the Prime Minister put the Pakistan High Commissioner in his place. That gentleman asked for it, by behaving more like a door-to-door salesperson than a diplomat.

The question-and-answer format suits the Prime Minister better than the straight lecture. When reading a prepared speech he has the habit of keeping his eyes closely on the page without raising his head, giving the impression that he is more interested in the text than in the audience. Points register better when there is eye contact.

Narasimha Rao does make speeches, any number of them, without a prepared text and he is vastly more persuasive in them. But at large rallies you don’t need eye contact. You are looking at the collective face and speaking into the mass ear. But within a closed room a speech takes on some attributes of chamber music.

Narasimha Rao is in his element when answering questions, particularly from interlocutors who try to trap him. He draws upon all his reserves of sarcasm in his answers. He knows that side-stepping is a better form of defence than stonewalling. He keeps his replies short. Wit is a better weapon for a politician than scholarship. With wit, you are all there; erudition gives the impression that you wander. How I wish the Prime Minister creates for himself more opportunities within the country to bat against our media spinners and speed-merchants.

Little wonder that the Prime Minister’s deftness in Singapore drew praise from that old fox, Lee Kuan Yew. Apart from the way he handled the Pakistani haranguer, the Prime Minister was good in his reply to a questioner who asked him to compare and comment on China’s success in attracting far more foreign investment than India. “After decades we have just begun to come together; don’t create a rivalry between us on this score,” he said. Not a reply, perhaps, but a smart enough response.

I was heartened by Narasimha Rao’s defence of planning, because I am an old Plan hand, having edited the Planning Commission’s journal for seven years and identified myself with the Nehru vision of social change. It is this old commitment which makes me bristle every time I hear one of our new market Adventists assert that but for Nehru there would have been more economic growth and prosperity in India. (After all, doesn’t another group of Adventists claim that but for Gandhi there would be more social equality?)

SO it was good to find Narasimha Rao explain patiently that the central planning that Jawaharlal Nehru preached and presided over stood for a mixed economy and did not envisage a takeover of all economic activity by the state leading to the extinction of the private sector. From other platforms Narasimha Rao has also been pointing out that Indian planning has left the whole of agriculture in private hands and offered a series of incentives and inducements to farmers. Nor did Indian planning supplant the private trader and businessperson. In Singapore the Prime Minister brought out the major drawback of socialism—that public sector enterprises eat up so much of budget support by being chronically in the red, that not enough can be found for education, medicine, housing and other basic needs. Liberalisation would enable the government to do so.

There isn’t these days the same kind of animated public debate on the role of the Planning Commission as there used to be when planning was still new and shining. Few take the Planning Commission seriously nowadays. The Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission is not even as Abominable as before. Tedious negotiations with the States on development allocations are still left to it. But the Central Ministries have lost their fear of the Commission. Their only worry is how to catch the Prime Minister’s ear through the Prime Minister’s Office.

The Commission has also ceased to be the originator of economic and social ideas and strategies, a role it once played and so brilliantly. As for the general public, the impression is gaining ground that with liberalisation the Planning Commission is a redundancy that can be wound up.

No, it has still a useful function, says an old planner, Dr A. Vaidyanathan, who had for two years worked in the Perspective Planning Division of the Commission. That is why he was appointed a member of the Commission by the V.P. Singh Government.

A recent paper by him brings out all the aberrations of planning in India, but it also maintains that we cannot do without planning. The main reason advanced is that in a fast changing situation within the government which assumes “the longer-term significance and consequences of emerging social, economic and technological trends” and provides detailed information “for taking actions sufficiently in advance to ensure that agreed basic social objectives, particularly the assurance of basic needs to everyone and equality of opportunity” are realised.

To paraphrase him, the temples of the newer age will not be big dams and factories but house and hamlets from which the curse of poverty has been lifted.

Dr Vaidyanathan gives a few further reasons as well for persisting with the planning—the limited endowment of our natural resources, the compulsions of productivity and conservation, and the need to make objective techno-economic appraisals of projects and demands in the face of growing populism.

Unfortunately, debates on planning have become highly technical and limited to the economic journals. There is need for a more widespread discussion on the role of planning in a changed, changing India. For planning can prevent the emerging tiger from eating up the poor. n

(Mainstream, September 24, 1994)

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