Books Reviews

Reviewed by :
Surjit S. Bhalla

The Compulsive Reformer

N.K. Singh
The express group, penguin, Rs 395
The writing of a learned, readable column once a week seems an impossible task — impossible at least in terms of quality. Is there really that much new to say, is there really that much that can be opined upon in an erudite manner, week after week? Seems not, but N.K. Singh (hereafter NK) proves that it is possible. The Politics of Change is an informative collection from a master policy wonk, an inside expert.
There are two reasons why NK is able to pull off a knockout, even from the ringside. First, it is India he is commenting upon, a country in which there is never a dull moment. So, yes, there is something new every day, even if it is retrogression to what happened, and what was believed, just day before yesterday. The second reason is NK himself, an insider par excellence, a person who has been there and done that at the highest levels of government. Finance Ministry, Planning Commission, Adviser to the PM — it doesn’t get higher or more involved than that.

Which is why The Politics of Change is a fantastic selection on a wide range of economic, political, and social issues. Which is why NK’s columns are necessary for any person involved with understanding or being involved with India’s economy and politics. Which, given India’s come-back involvement in the world, is a large audience.
Because NK is so good and so on top of it, “yeh dil maange more”. The Politics of Change is about what happened post 2004 when NK left the government. It would be fascinating to find out about the “politics of change” from when change was most needed and was so slow in coming, the 1980s. Or why was change so possible after the crisis in 1991, and sputtered so soon after just two years? Why was change so possible in a “swadeshi anti-reform” government than in an ostensibly open, liberal, regime of today?
There is one major change that has happened since NK was directly involved in policy making. This change had started to occur during the NDA reign (when NK was adviser to Atal Bihari Vajpayee) and has gathered force since then. This change is the decreasing relevance, and importance, of the politician and bureaucrat. Globalisation means there is no place to hide — especially for those who believe in old flat-footed reasons for not changing. Which means that analysts and outside experts can force the pace a lot more, make the politics of change the reality of a bygone era, an era when policymakers held all the aces. That was an era when a finance minister could get away with imposing differential duties on various items because he himself did not know (or more accurately did not want to know) whether the item being taxed was a solid, liquid or gas. This should not be possible today. Nor should it be possible today to call the Employment Guarantee Scheme a “cash transfer” programme for the poor. For the middle men and women and politicians and bureaucrats and their families a cash transfer par excellence, yes. The EGS is yet another obscene “in the name of the poor” ripoff. Analysts and experts like NK are needed to call this bluff.
If there is a drawback to expert NK analysis, it is that he is too kind. Take the following instance of where bad policies need to be thoroughly exposed, and where the opposition to reform has little to do with any reasonable underlying reality. Once the NDA was out of power, it started to oppose policies they themselves had either initiated or pursued intensively while in office — for example, the introduction of VAT. Once out on the streets, the NDA opposed VAT and NK comments, “the detection of loopholes overnight when the NDA moved to the opposition is inexplicable”.
He is equally kind to the Congress on their multi-faceted attempts to delay or push back reforms. “Urban reforms cannot brook delay”, or that the flat-footedness in repealing the Urban Land Ceiling Act “is not rational”. He is also very kind to his former colleagues. On their systemic underperformance, “civil servants have rarely been penalised for delayed decisions and are never rewarded for accelerated action”. Need more direct recommendations, no?
In his article ‘Time to repeal small cess acts’, NK points out that there are 26 cesses administered under 27 Acts that yield just Rs 993 crore. His recommendation in this lovable article: just repeal all of them. No gentle prodding here. Precisely of what more is needed.
NK is a master of the art of “gentle persuasion”; an artist rather than a critic. A major asset that NK brings in, beside his obvious talent and wisdom and knowledge, is that he knows the insides of the system. Maybe two or three years were necessary to distance himself from the actors and their game. Now that that time is past, and The Politics of Change has been published, he can satisfy the yearnings of several of us by writing, nay exposing, the stupid, selfish, and unnecessary policies that different governments follow. His next selection of articles should prove that the politics of change was really about the politics of short-sighted, possibly corrupt, expediency.
The writer is a Delhi-based economist and a fund manager