Home / Opinion / Views /  A trove of insights on how to get India’s institutions future-ready

Post-war belief systems and institutions were to have delivered prosperity, health, happiness and social justice. That project has ended. Its templates for thinking about problems and solutions have ceased to serve us. Multiple crises in recent years—the global financial crisis of 2008, China’s challenge to the global economic order, the covid pandemic, accelerated climate change, an unchecked threat from Big Tech and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—have shaken up the staunchest status quoists and reformers alike. For, it’s clear that, as things stand, governments will not be capable of delivering prosperity for all, regardless of whether they’re headed by authoritarian figures, demagogues or progressive leaders.

How should we respond when the status quo is no longer an option? N.K. Singh and P.K. Mishra, career bureaucrats who have worked with successive prime ministers, tackle this question in a new compilation of essays, Recalibrate: Changing Paradigms. 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.

Recalibrate: Changing Paradigms By N.K. Singh with select insights from P.K. Mishra, Rupa Publications (2022), 344 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>995.
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Recalibrate: Changing Paradigms By N.K. Singh with select insights from P.K. Mishra, Rupa Publications (2022), 344 pages, 995.

Writing with his characteristic old-world charm and grace—thankfully, some things don’t change and need not—Singh focuses on the institutions that must be developed for the future. He is concerned with concepts and frameworks for thinking about challenges such as economic diplomacy, fiscal management and federalism, regulation, public health and climate action. Building institutions encodes processes and checks and balances into the functioning of the economy so that individuals, with their brilliance and failings, can influence outcomes only up to a point. 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. His essays suggest that policymaking in the Indian set-up is a bit like hiking in flip-flops.

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.

Clear-eyed analysis of why the feted disaster management record of Gujarat could not be replicated nationwide during the covid crisis is side-stepped. “How do we manage risks that are not yet fully understood, let alone quantified," he writes, sweeping aside the main question that emerges from our pandemic experience. The perfunctory and bullet-points style treatment of this important question leaves readers wanting more.

Climate and fiscal crises can be made predictable, but no amount of recalibration can make the future pandemics- and financial crises-proof. It is possible, though, to put in place insurance against unpredictable disasters and crises. Therefore, the importance of Mishra’s chapters focused on risk, how to assess and then mitigate these, in agriculture, disaster preparedness and other policy themes.

Technology is a tool in the policy kit and Mishra reminds us of the need for care in deploying it. Of the challenges presented by the digital divide, he writes, “It’s important that the use of technology for online and digital education addresses concerns of equity, such that people who are disadvantaged do not become more deprived with the increasing digitalisation of education."

Is this an honest assessment of the many failings of governments from which solutions can emerge? It’s a first draft, a starting point. It will initiate much-needed debate and dialogue about the future we want. That’s the extraordinary contribution of this book’s authors.

For a future of happiness and prosperity, altering one condition is necessary. The world isn’t just fractured, its systems are such that they are rigged by a few. A true recalibration will be to weaken their stranglehold on the future.

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.

Puja Mehra is the author of ‘The Lost Decade (2008-2018)’

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