Will a New Vice-Chairman Mean a New NITI Aayog?

The Wire, August 09, 2017

By Pradeep S. Mehta & Abhishek Kumar

The success of Rajiv Kumar’s tenure, who has moved from the left of the ideological spectrum to the right, will depend whether he succeeds in moving the Aayog away from being a government mouthpiece and creating a shared narrative around job creation.

Two and a half years ago, the NITI Aayog replaced the Planning Commission in what could be called a vengeful manner. In the same two-and-a-half-year period, the think tank’s vice chairman (VC) has now been replaced. Whatever may have been the reasons behind the former VC’s exit, the fact is that the NITI Aayog will continue to be watched closely not just by policy observers but also by its boss – the prime minister.

After all, it is the success of the NITI Aayog’s performance upon which rests the credibility of the prime minister’s decision to create this new body as a better substitute to the 65-year-old Planning Commission.

Therefore, the vice-chairman designate of the NITI Aayog, Rajiv Kumar, has much to prove. He has also much to establish for the reputation of Aayog as a body that is truly engaged in constructive policy advisory focussing on implementation rather than a body that acts like a mouthpiece of the government.

Given the fact that there is a strong PMO and a powerful swadeshi lobby, Kumar’s position is not an enviable one but an important one nonetheless. Kumar is not only a man who has moved from left of the ideological spectrum to the right but is also an economist with a well-rounded perspective acquired from vast experience in the government, industry and various think tanks. He is also an insider to the policy landscape in India having authored two books that have helped guide policymaking since 2014. These attributes should surely equip him to hit the ground running.

But his real test will lie in how skilled a ‘funambulist’ he will be as he balances the expectations from the PMO, work with other members of the think tank like fellow economists Bibek Debroy and Ramesh Chand, manage complex interest of states and deal with pressures from the swadeshi lobby while pursuing reforms and transformatory ideas for India.

A lot will depend on what he chooses to pick as priority for the NITI Aayog’s three-year work agenda and get everyone’s support. His thinking on creating jobs vs tom-tomming growth as a matter of national economic priority could well be the winning card. It is surely not an either/or situation but the thrust on job creation is central to our poverty eradication agenda, particularly to cater to a rising youth population. In order to do that, which is not an easy task, he would need to focus on an agenda which can capture the imagination of the polity.

The writers work for CUTS International.

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