Modi’s two big mistakes

Praful Bidwai
Narendra Modi

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Both reflect prejudice and short-sightedness peculiar to Mr Modi’s way of thinking, says Praful Bidwai.

If the Narendra Modi government wanted to dismay and embarrass many of its supporters even before completing a hundred days in office, it could not have done so more effectively than by announcing two major decisions: Cancelling the foreign secretary-level meeting with Pakistan scheduled for August 25, and abolishing the Planning Commission at home.

These are the government’s first two big blunders of commission, as distinct from its errors of omission. Both reflect prejudice and short-sightedness peculiar to Mr Modi’s way of thinking. And both will cause a great deal of damage to the public interest — the first by creating uncertainties and insecurities in the neighbourhood, the second by destroying a valuable institution and distorting decision-making processes in public finance, development projects and Centre-state relations.

The cancellation of the foreign secretaries meeting totally negates recent efforts to restart the India-Pakistan dialogue process, stalled since January 2013. The stated reason for this decision — Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meetings with leaders of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference of Kashmir — makes very little political-diplomatic sense.

Such meetings have long been routine, and part of the broad pattern of India-Pakistan engagement. They don’t constitute an irritant.

Ever since the Hurriyat was formed in 1993, its leaders have been invited to the Pakistan national day (March 23) celebrations in New Delhi, and have regularly met Pakistani diplomats and visiting ministers.

They did so at least 12 times during the 1998 to 2004 tenure of the National Democratic Alliance led by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, including in 2001, when they met President Pervez Musharraf before his Agra visit. They last met a senior Pakistani official (Sartaj Aziz) last November.

The Indian government also talks to Hurriyat leaders, both openly and secretly. Then home minister L K Advani met them in February 2004 in ‘icebreaking’ talks, and then prime minister Manmohan Singh and then home minister P Chidambaram met them several times beginning in 2006.

The claim that Mr Basit’s meeting with Hurriyat leaders amounts to interference in India’s internal affairs is specious. Under the Simla Agreement (1972) and the Lahore Declaration (1999), India accepts that Kashmir is a bilateral issue and has to be resolved with Pakistan by peaceful means. That is how the ‘composite dialogue’ between the two governments began in 2004.

India and Pakistan have also been engaged in ‘back-channel’ talks on Kashmir since 2005. They almost reached an agreement in 2007. To push the Hurriyat leaders into backing a potential deal, India assented to Pakistani officials’ meetings with them, and allowed them to travel to Pakistan.

The agreement eventually fell through when General Musharraf got into a confrontation with Pakistan’s chief justice, and Dr Singh also became averse to it after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

By scuttling the foreign secretary-level talks, Mr Modi — who reportedly bypassed the ministry of external affairs in taking that decision — has signified a termination of the diplomatic process. This is bound to further weaken the position of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been besieged by Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri, and faces immense pressure from the Pakistan army.

Weakening a civilian leader and strengthening the military, which is hostile to India, cannot be in New Delhi’s interest.

The myopic decision partly reflects Mr Modi’s wish to adopt a tough posture vis-a-visPakistan: ‘Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language’, as he said during his recent campaign speeches referring to the Mumbai attacks, and echoing the Sangh Parivar’s clamour for ‘a fitting reply’.

The decision also partly arises from a domestic political factor: The coming assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir, in which BJP President Amit Shah hopes to win a majority for his party by doing in the Jammu and Ladakh regions what he did in Uttar Pradesh (by winning 73 of 80 seats).

If the BJP can win all the 41 seats in these regions, and somehow bag three more, it can accomplish ‘Mission 44+’: Win a clear majority in the 87-strong J&K assembly, and abrogate Article 370 — a Parivar dream.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Jammu and Ladakh are not UP, and the BJP’s base there is nowhere as strong as in the Hindi heartland. It is hard to see where the additional three seats will come from. So ‘Mission 44+’ is a big gamble. And wise leaders don’t embark on gambles by sacrificing foreign policy priorities to narrow partisan political ends.

By doing this, Mr Modi not only risks wantonly embittering relations with Pakistan; he stands to lose the regional goodwill he earned through the symbolic gesture of inviting all South Asian leaders to his swearing-in ceremony.

This can only have negative consequences for India’s relations with her neighbours — and eventually for the region’s peace and prosperity.

If the Pakistan move panders to the Sangh’s prejudices and plans, Mr Modi’s decision to scrap the Planning Commission seems intended to convey the message that he wants to terminate a ‘Soviet-era’ Nehruvian legacy and give unbridled play to market forces — and thus please Big Business.

This decision is based on a serious misconception. Planning in India was never of the centralised Soviet variety. It has always been indicative planning, with a big role for the private sector.

The Planning Commission does not just allocate resources to various components of five-year and annual plans. It plays other important functions too. These include: Producing a framework for the orderly and balanced development of the economy, based on an assessment of needs and resources; mediating between the process of planning and allocating funds across various Central ministries, and between the Centre and the states; and evaluating the implementation of numerous programmes.

No other official body, including the Union finance ministry, has the capacity or expertise to make such evaluation and thus decide on fresh allocations to central ministries and the states. That is why the Planning Commission enjoyed unrivalled moral authority since it was set up in 1950 despite not being a statutory body. Some of its top officials have been stellar personalities in their own right.

There is not a single instance of a state government having rejected an annual plan for it approved by the Commission. The Commission undertakes wide consultations with NGOs, grassroots-level officials, sectoral experts, economists and administrators, before its five-year plans are approved by the National Development Council. There is no substitute for this process.

The Commission has developed expertise in good-quality research based on cross-cutting multi-sectoral approaches — for instance, to water, education, health, nutrition, women’s welfare, and backward area development. Its state human development reports are of high quality.

Its committees have in recent years produced thoughtful reports on issues as diverse as the mal-development-related reasons for the growth of Maoist extremists, the effects of subsidies and their phasing out, equitable sharing of benefits from official schemes, and most recently, violence against women.

The Commission’s function of socio-economic analysis and appraisal of government expenditure has proved invaluable in providing checks and balances.

Such a multi-faceted institution cannot be replaced by a think-tank, which will probably lack the authority and confidence to talk up to powerful ministers and bureaucrats. It would be even more undesirable to concentrate arbitrary powers in the finance ministry, which undertakes little consultation and is much less publicly accountable than the Commission.

There is a persuasive argument for giving a Constitutional status to the Planning Commission, for inducting fresh talent into it, and for charging it with a clear mandate for promoting equitable development, which private enterprise cannot deliver.

But there is no case at all for scrapping it and creating ‘a new institution’ and ‘a new body with a new soul and new thinking’, which caters to ‘the aspirations of 21st century India’, as Mr Modi announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort.

There seems to be a strong ideological element in Mr Modi’s approach, based on an aversion to the idea of planning per se. But even corporations draw up plans for investment and growth. There is no reason why the government should fight shy of planning, which is essential for balanced and equitable growth in a skewed economy and a hierarchical and unequal society such as India’s.

Mr Modi’s confusion, and the hasty nature of his decision to scrap the Commission, comes through in his latest move to invite suggestions on his website about what the ‘new body’ should do. He has obviously not thought things through.

Yet, Mr Modi has shown a propensity to concentrate powers among a favoured group of ministers, and ultimately in his own office, as he has done in respect of all senior appointments — unlike any other prime minister. This does not bode well for governance.

Abolishing the Planning Commission is part of this same agenda. It will undermine the consultative process of decision-making on economic and social priorities and set the clock back. The sooner the decision is reversed, the better.