Commissioning a flexible federalism
As epitaphs to the Nehruvian behemoth crowd opinion pages of various national and international newspapers, we need to look at the decision, that of scrapping the Planning Commission altogether, from different angles in order to truly understand the motivations behind one of the least unanticipated announcement of Modi regime. While misgivings about the future of the Soviet-era relic were being aired even before the results of the last general elections were out, they mostly hovered on a thorough overhaul to bring PlanCom up to date with the demands of twenty-first century aspirational India. Across the board, there was a felt need to invest into the 64-year-old central body a sort of ‘flexible federalism’ to keep pace with the convulsive coalition era. Hence, while the commission has been, and not without reason, subjected to scathing criticism in the past for its one-size-fits-all approach to growth, it is equally true that without its centralised thrust, a balanced and holistic growth would have remained a distant dream for many. Particularly, the poorer states would have suffered inordinately more, and the bigger players, especially the northern states along the cow belt and western and southern states commanding formidable mining zones, would have ensured a far more precariously tilted growth curve than there is now. Let’s not forget how despite its precociously elitist approach to development and trying, often fruitlessly, to speak up for the subaltern, it was the commission that, in the heydays since its inception, bolstered the growth narrative and helped build the heavy industries infrastructure that saw us through the post-Independence uncertainty. The commission also attempted to put in place a socio-economic parity through the fated Five Year Plans, twelve of them in all, even though it fumbled many a time in determining yardsticks as basic as what constitutes being below the poverty line.
Many fiascos later, shedding the bureaucratic flab became paramount as it was beginning to weigh upon the economy and its newfound hunger to expand from the top and the middle. In a ‘Modified’ era, with its unorthodox disregard for institutionalism and conservative mechanisms of development through democratic dialogue, its preference for technocratic solutions to deep-seated socio-economic problems, the commission perhaps had begun resembling a living fossil of ossified modes of governance. While it’s true that the commission needed staggering changes to meet the challenges of an impatient, corporatised India, was dismantling it in one go without putting in place a healthy alternative the right thing to do? Doubtlessly, the commission had long lost touch with the wide base of the masses that it had predicated itself upon and was finding it rather hard to cope with the economic turpitude of coalition era politics. Yet, it is too early to say whether disbanding it at this stage is a sign of a more federal future or continuation of the demolition drive that has become the hallmark of the new dispensation.