Modi's two big blunders | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 25, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Modi's two big blunders

Modi's two big blunders

IF Narendra Modi wanted to embarrass many of his own supporters before completing a hundred days in office, he couldn't have done so more effectively than by cancelling the foreign secretary-level meeting with Pakistan, and abolishing the Planning Commission.

These are Modi's first big blunders of commission, as distinct from omission. Both reflect his prejudices and short-sightedness. They will damage the public interest -- the first by exacerbating insecurities in the entire neighbourhood, the second by destroying a valuable institution.

The cancellation of the foreign secretaries' meeting negates efforts to restart the India-Pakistan dialogue, stalled since January 2013. The stated reason -- Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit's meeting with Kashmir's Hurriyat Conference leaders -- makes no political-diplomatic sense. Such meetings have long been part of India-Pakistan engagement.

Since 1993, Hurriyat leaders have regularly attended Pakistan national day celebrations in Delhi. They met Pakistani diplomats and ministers at least 12 times during the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance's tenure.

The Indian government also talks to them, openly and secretly. LK Advani met them in February 2004 in “icebreaking” talks. Manmohan Singh met them several times beginning 2006.

The claim that Basit's meting constitutes interference in India's internal affairs is specious. Under the Simla Agreement (1972), India accepts that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. That's the rationale of the post-2004 India-Pakistan “composite dialogue”.

India-Pakistan “back-channel” negotiations almost reached a Kashmir agreement in 2007. To push Hurriyat into backing a potential deal, India assented to Pakistani officials' meetings with it.

By unilaterally terminating the diplomatic process with Pakistan, Modi will further weaken Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is besieged by both Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri and the Pakistan army. Weakening a civilian leader and strengthening the India-allergic military isn't in New Delhi's interest.  

The decision partly reflects Modi's tough posturing: “talk to Pakistan in Pakistan's language”, as he said during his campaign speeches, echoing the Sangh Parivar's clamour for “a fitting reply” to the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The decision also partly arises from domestic politics: the coming Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, in which BJP president Amit Shah hopes to “do an Uttar Pradesh”. If the BJP can win all 41 seats in Jammu and Ladakh, and somehow bag three more, it can accomplish “Mission 44+”: win a majority in the 87-strong J&K Assembly, and abrogate Article 370 -- a Parivar dream.

But the BJP's base in J&K is much weaker than in UP. So “Mission 44+” is a big gamble. Wise leaders don't gamble by sacrificing foreign policy to narrow political ends.

Modi also stands to lose the goodwill he earned by inviting all South Asian leaders to his swearing-in -- with negative regional consequences.

Modi's decision to scrap the Planning Commission seems intended to convey that he wants to end a “Soviet-era” Nehruvian legacy. This involves a serious misconception. Indian planning was never of the centralised Soviet variety. It was indicative planning, with a big role for the private sector.

Besides allocating resources, India's Planning Commission plays several functions: producing a framework for the economy's orderly development; mediating between various Central ministries and the Centre and states; and evaluating programme implementation.

No other body has these capacities. That's why the Planning Commission has enjoyed unrivalled moral authority since 1950 despite not being a statutory body. Some of its officials have been stellar personalities.

No state has ever rejected a Commission-approved plan. There's no substitute for the wide consultation with NGOs, grassroots-level officials, experts, economists, administrators, and the National Development Council (representing all Chief Ministers), which the Commission undertakes.  

The Commission adopts multi-sectoral approaches to water, education, health, nutrition and backward area development. Its state human development reports are of high quality.

Planning Commission-appointed committees have produced thoughtful reports on diverse issues: mal-development-related reasons for the growth of Maoist extremism, equitable sharing of benefits from official schemes, and violence against women.

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

There's a persuasive argument for giving a Constitutional status to the Planning Commission, with a clear mandate for promoting equitable development, which private enterprise cannot deliver. But there's no case for creating “a new body with a new soul and new thinking”, which caters to “the aspirations of 21st century India”, as Modi wants.

Modi's approach is strongly ideological, and based on aversion to planning per se. But even corporations plan. The government shouldn't fight shy of planning, which is essential for equitable growth in India's skewed economy and unequal society.

The hasty nature of Modi's decision to scrap the Commission comes through in his move to invite public suggestions about what the “new body” should do. He has obviously not thought things through. Yet, he shows a propensity to concentrate powers under himself, as he has done in respect of all senior appointments -- unlike any other PM.

Abolishing the Planning Commission is part of this agenda. It will set the clock back.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.

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