As Morgan Housel writes in this week’s Long Read 3, the world is at an inflection point where the factors shaping the future are changing. The last four decades of low interest rates and the relatively cordial and collaborative relationship between the west and the east seem to be a thing of the past. This gives a different global backdrop for the India story going ahead. Furthermore, India’s own soci-economic structure is different today – demographics, financialisation, digitalisation, etc. All of this call for a change in the institutional framework under which the country can progress. Puja Mehra reviews a new book Recalibrate: Changing Paradigms by NK Singh and PK Mishra, both career bureaucrats. The former is known for his multi-decadal role in shaping India’s fiscal management as part of the finance ministry under various governments as well as heading the finance commission. The latter is the current principal secretary to the Prime Minister, also having served Narendra Modi during his stint as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Clearly, the vantage point of the authors makes the book about bringing institutional change a good starting point for debate.
“The book’s chapters, eight by Singh and five by Mishra, originally speeches or writings for specific occasions, straddle a past that is now practically defunct and a future fraught with uncertainty yet full of possibility. The duo, especially Singh, narrate and contextualize the conflicts of the present and offer an agenda for change, a programme for reforms. They go beyond the chattering class tropes of land, labour and farm reforms.”
Most dramatic changes recommended by Singh seem to be for the finance ministry and RBI:
“Singh makes a case for stripping the finance ministry of its expenditure and fiscal management duties to vest these instead in new institutions to be headed by unelected technocrats—such as a fiscal council, a new mechanism for close coordination between the GST Council and the Finance Commission, which, he argues, may need to be made permanent with a mandate for a sustained dialogue with states—and reforming the Reserve Bank of India, given that its role as the government’s debt manager conflicts with its mandate as the country’s monetary authority.
But, paradoxically, Singh also wants the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), even more empowered and personality-driven: “An authoritative PMO, not an accommodative one, is in consonance with the needs and challenges of our times.” To support this case, he retells a conversation with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who he writes confided in him thus before leaving office: “The two entities that [have] remained totally unreformed are the Ministry of Finance and the RBI; Regrettably, I have headed both these institutions.””
“…Mishra uses a different form of narration in which he presents personal anecdotes about personalities, people he has worked with as well as citizens he came across during the course of serving in the field, to reach conclusions on policy prescriptions, while bypassing in-depth discussion of issues or concepts.
He has worked with Prime Minister Narendra Modi since his chief minister days, but stays clear of reporting conversations with prime ministers of the sort Singh has reproduced. “A politician with a vision and commitment can take a country to new heights,” he writes, stating a truism, but doesn’t elaborate on who he has in mind and why.”
In conclusion, Puja writes: “The book’s winning formula is that it comes across as an invitation to start talking, discussing and broadening the conversation as we go along. The interludes in Singh’s chapters on brief histories of the evolution of the PMO and Finance Commission, etc, and Mishra’s nostalgic recollections of the early phases of his career in Tharad subdivision of Banskantha district, Kutch and Mehsana in Gujarat, are delightful. Mishra is self-limiting, perhaps owing to the sensitivity of the office he occupies as principal secretary to the Prime Minister. Still, it’s comforting to know that people like them are thinking about what is needed to deal with an uncertain future.”
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