Rajiv Kumar, Vice-Chair Niti Aayog. Pic: Livemint
The new boss at NITI Aayog Rajiv Kumar has set the swadeshi cats among the pigeons.
Days after taking charge after the choreographed exit of economist Arvind Panagariya, Kumar hit out at the proverbial “foreign hand”. He said the days of foreign-trained economists driving Indian policy were numbered, hinting at more exits from the think-tank.
In doing so, Kumar made it clear that he was batting for the powerful swadeshi lobby. It is no secret that Panagariya was at loggerheads with the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and other RSS -affiliated economic bodies and unions that were unhappy with NITI’s “liberal stance” on many burning issues of the day. These range from introducing GM foods, and the sensitive issues of healthcare, labour and railway reforms.
That’s why Panagariya — who along with his guru Jagdish Bhagwati gave Narendra Modi a clean chit in the Gujarat riots — decided to head back to the cold comfort of a tenured post at Columbia University. The successor body to the Planning Commission has indeed witnessed a downgrade in status — its powers have moved to the PMO and the finance ministry. It’s more than likely that Panagariya saw the writing on the wall: Far removed from its pre-election promise of minimal governance and development, the Modi regime is more statist today while fresh investments have withered under its watch.
Interestingly, some of Kumar’s strongest words were reserved for a venerable bogeyman for Indians: the International Monetary Fund, or IMF.
“Another related problem that was often observed was that Indian policies would have the influence of multilateral organisations like IMF, World Bank, or those universities to which these experts would have incredible reverence,” Kumar wrote in his Dainik Jagran column that was reproduced in the Indian Express.
Funny thing is that just a few years ago, 2013 to be precise, Kumar advocated that a troubled Indian economy approach the IMF for help.
“Rather than delay it, we should go to the IMF (for help) not in terms of getting money but to give a reassurance that the government is serious about reforming the economy. It is a big political step the government needs to take,” economist Rajiv Kumar then told Outlook.
In those days, Kumar was with the influential policy think-tank Centre for Policy Research. In another comment, Kumar explained the rationale behind his prescription to “approach the IMF now than a few months later when the situation will probably be desperate.”
“How do you convey to the market that we have enough ammunition…What are your options…One option is to go the Mahathir way and impose stricter capital controls. But India is very different and you can’t seal the economy now. So, what other options do you have? You have to take steps from the position of strength to send a strong signal to the markets,” Kumar told Economic Times.
“The PM must seriously reconsider liberalising FDI entry in the retail of fresh agro-produce and in multi-brand retail more broadly. It can contribute significantly to reducing the farmers’ plight. Agriculture needs marketing reforms urgently. No need to wait for another round of studies by the Niti Ayog. These are rather well known.”
Both these reforms will attract the charge of selling out to foreign interests. Now that he has been tasked with leading Niti Aayog, Kumar will have to do more twisting and turning to reach out to the swadeshi lobby.