On Monday, shortly after Rajiv Kumar was appointed Niti Aayog vice-chairman, the economist wrote a column in Dainik Jagran in which he described his vision of a swadeshi patriot-technocrat.

In the article, Kumar lamented the “Anglo-American” influence on Indian policy making. He gave examples of former Reserve Bank of India chairman Raghuram Rajan and his own predecessor at Niti-Aayog, Arvind Panagariya, claiming that these kinds of people had several failings. They do not understand the Indian ground realities and are not committed enough, so tend to run away from responsibilities before their tenures end. Besides, he claimed, the policies they frame spring from their ideological baggage rather than any real need.

While Kumar’s decision to advocate an insular idea that has little relevance in today’s world is worrying, that seems to be the smallest of the problems. Worryingly, his column reflects his willingness to alter his opinions to suit the prevailing ideological climate. More alarming, it indicates that both the government and Kumar are yet to define the role Niti Aayog ought to play as a premier government think-tank.

A change of mind

These early signals of Kumar’s intellectual flexibility are a cause for concern, considering that he is going to head an institution meant to provide intellectual rigour to policy making.

In the Dainik Jagran piece, he strongly opposes the privatisation of the health sector, primary education and other basic services. He says leaving these functions to the private sector will increase inequality and lead to looting by some at the cost of public welfare. He described this as the Reagan-Thatcher-International Monetary Fund model.

However, only the week before, he seemed to have held a completely different view. In an article in Swarajya magazine, he wrote: “An innovative approach would be to hand over the management of primary health centres and even district hospitals to private providers on the basis of a carefully drawn contract that is strictly monitored and enforced. The central government could design such a model contract for adoption by the states.”

This is exactly what the Niti Aayog had prescribed under Panagariya. But this push for privatisation of health care had drawn loud condemnation from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an organisation that Rajiv Kumar now seeks to align with.

Anglo-American admiration

That isn’t the only instance of Kumar reversing his position. As journalist Sunit Arora recollected on his blog, Kumar had in 2013 advised India to seek help from the International Monetary Fund during the economic trough that year. This is quite in contrast to his newly-adopted criticism of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other Anglo-American’ influences.

In April 2015, too, he flipped from commending Prime Minister Narendra Modi for trying to amend the land laws through central fiat and then, a few months later in August 2015, went on to congratulate him for backing off and leaving it to the states as a federal concern . One can only hope that in coming days he will either show greater cohesion of thought or explain the reasoning behind his change of views. Else, he will strengthen the impression that his intellectual elasticity is a result of political expediency.

What is Niti Aayog?

The article raised questions about more than just Kumar’s intellectual positions. The article creates doubts over the future of Niti Aayog as government’s premier think tank. Rajiv Kumar’s own earlier thoughts on this might be useful for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mull over.

In 2015 Kumar wrote, “As one foreign observer quipped, Professor Arvind Panagariya could hardly be expected to give up his University of Columbia professorship for anything short of regular and intensive interaction with the PM and his senior officials.”

In the same article he explained how that anecdote reflected the uncertain role of Niti Aayog:

“My fear is that, given the lack of statutory authority and the absence of well-defined rules of business, it [Niti Aayog] could continue to be perceived as a fifth wheel by both state government and central government agencies. Its role in government policy formulation would then be restricted to the personal access that the vice-chairman and two full- time members enjoy with the PM and his Cabinet colleagues... I am left wondering at the rational and strategic approach that has underpinned the design and mandate of the Niti Aayog.”

Kumar has repeatedly thought aloud about the confusion over the role of Niti Aayog. He has written several articles imagining various roles for the institution. In January 2015, Kumar, while discussing the nature of the new organisation, lamented that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken small incremental steps that add up to a good beginning. But he added: “These [steps] need to be broadcast much better to remove the perception that his government is suffering from hubris”. In the same article he notes, “One could, therefore, justifiably argue that this government, with its record of delivery, new initiatives and reliance on civil servants did not really require an independent body comprising primarily of professionals and domain experts.” He also suggests that taking over administrative roles from other ministries may not be a good idea for the think tank.

Even to function as a useful think-tank that can shape public policy, the Aayog requires clarity about its space in the government and not just a broad brush-strokes of ideas as guidance. For example, it would be valuable to consider if Niti Aayog is an agency that details and coordinates implementation of the ideas emanating principally from the executive across ministries, agencies and states – such as Skill India? Or it could work as a think-tank at arm’s length to provide the government with out-of-the-box ideas? The latter format allows the government some latitude to adopt ideas that work within the party-in-power’s political-economic goals and disown others as that of the think-tank.

Clear brief essential

Once this role is clear, the government needs to draw clear brief for staffing the institution. It is not just about the top rung. Other layers of the staff have a great deal to do with the deep drill and fleshing out of policy prescriptions that brings ground reality to bear upon big ideas. They are assisted by a host of non-government institutions, besides government officials at the Centre and in the states. Potential technocrats can come in all flavours after all and from all corners of life. Their intellectual moorings should not be dismissed as ideological baggage but valued for providing different perspectives and approaches.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government did well to dissolve the Planning Commission and the command-and-control ideology it represented, shortly after coming to power in 2014. But it will take a lot more to shape an alternative institution, which unlike its predecessor, does not draw powers only from personal proximity of its top rung to the prime minister and one that does not act as the government’s advertising agency.