Policy making and autonomous intellectuals: Who wants genuine debates?
The Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian, speaking at the VKRV Rao Memorial Lecture raised the important issue of lack of independent thinking in the country and its detrimental impact on policy making in the government.
He again mentioned it a few days later at the Nehru Memorial Library Seminar on Indian Economy. So, it was not an off the cuff remark made casually but a serious issue for discussion.
Intellectuals need to respond to it since he has questioned their motivation and their independence of thought.
At the VKRV Rao memorial talk, he stated:
“Before policy decisions are announced, experts tend to express the views they think officials are likely to take. After policy actions, they try hard to endorse the decisions already taken. As a result, we in the government do not benefit from their wisdom. This is a serious problem because high-quality policy-making demands high-quality inputs and high-quality debates...”
He further stated, “They censor themselves, and in public fora are insufficiently critical...”
He also said, analysts find ex-post logic to attribute merit to government decisions. And, questioned the competence of analysts by saying, “That diversity will require both competence and capability. It will require voices that are not silenced, compromised, or conveniently moderated by the lure or fear of power.”
His solution was –
“We need more disinterested voices – especially universities and independent researchers that are distant from and not dependent upon the apparatus of power – to speak up.”
Subramanian is broadly correct but what he says is less than half the story for at least three reasons.
First, what he says is only part of the story.
Second, one needs to understand why the missing part of the story is the correct one?
Finally, who is responsible for the prevailing state of affairs?
The pliable and 'disinterested' set of experts being referred to are from the hallowed circle, close to the powers that be. They could be the favourites of one or the other regime. They not only change their opinions when policies are announced but also when governments change. They know the art of keeping those in power happy and also play the media to maintain their visibility.
What is it that is left out and why it is the more important part?
The set of experts ignored in Subramanian’s statements are the ones who are critical of the establishment. They have criticised the policies that prevailed before 1991 and then they critiqued the New Economic Policies (NEP) which were implemented after 1991.
These people critiqued the policies of the UPA and also of the NDA. These experts belonged not only to some key universities but also to important NGOs.
Why does Subramanian not consider these as independent voices and laments the absence of 'disinterested voices'?
There are critical voices on fiscal policies, like, GST, deficits, subsidies and black economy. Many have critiqued the RTI as implemented, MGNREGS, SEZ and other such policies.
Pressure based on concrete analysis from alternative movements have led to the Right to Education and Food and better provision of basic services. Based on critical analysis there has been a demand for better systems and proper implementation.
But the system considers these people to be outsiders.
Witness the resistance to MGNREGA and RTI from within. These were implemented in spite of the massive resistance from within the system.
Systems: Inside & outside
Clearly, what Subramanian is bemoaning is a lack of critique from within the 'ruling' system and not from outside it.
This is a contradiction in terms. Those who have decided to be in the system are trying to get ahead within it and not to tumble out of it into what they consider as oblivion.
In one instance, an academic who started to write for the Alternative Economic Survey in 2004 was called up by an insider and told that he had damaged his career and henceforth he would be an outsider to the Ministry of Finance.
Recently at a dinner, one analyst, popular with the Ministry of Finance, told this writer that any time he is even mildly critical of the government he gets a call from the ministry.
So, what are the signals being sent by the system to the experts?
Stay within bounds or be ready to be marginalised.
Who does the ministry, in which Subramanian works at, consult? Its favourites and not the independent academics in universities.
At the time of budget formulation who are consulted among public finance economists? Again the favourites, including those who are mildly critical but belong to the system.
In the early 1990s when this writer was called to a few consultations, he found that the press briefing did not mention the critical arguments voiced. The signal is, if one wishes to be relevant, one has to conform. Other ministries too follow a similar model.
In fact, each important ministry has its own institute which feeds policy advice and analysis. Ministry of Finance has the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), Ministry of Commerce has the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT), HRD has the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) and so on.
So, whatever needs to be said is said by these institutes – they give the advice the ministry wants and later present its justification. So is there space for critical voices in this closed circuit?
Go back to Pakistan!
The situation has now deteriorated further since those critical of the government are often branded as anti-national. At least during the UPA regime, one only got marginalised but not branded. The hyperactive social media has made the situation worse with systematic trolling organised by political parties. During Indira Gandhi’s regime, critics were branded as CIA agents but there was a large phalanx of socialists that did not fit the bill.
Criticism of government policies is now characterised as weakening the nation. Critics are not just to be ignored but have to be actively dissuaded.
Take the case of demonetisation – the biggest decision this government has taken. Who was consulted before initiating it and who was consulted when implementation led to huge problems for the vast majority of the public?
There was an outpouring of critical writing on the subject but it was ignored. From within the system also, the consultation was minimal. From all accounts, the RBI had to fall in line and had little role in advising on the viability of the step or in planning its implementation.
The PM took full responsibility for the decision but did not answer questions on the subject in the Parliament. Clearly, criticism was not welcome and debate was avoided.
Experts are no babes in the woods and know which side the bread is buttered. They can read the nuances better than most. If criticism is dissuaded, they quickly adjust.
In the early 1980s, as the economy came under increasing pressure from the IMF and the World Bank policies, the experts quickly changed their tune. Some, then young economists used to say, if I get a 3-month consultancy in the World Bank I can buy my car and if I get a one-year consultancy, I can buy my flat.
These worthies went on to become very successful economists in the system.
So, Subramanian has done great service by raising an important issue but missed the point completely.
Over the last 70 years, there have always been critics of policies, but from the outside. He is consistent in ignoring them just as the system has done for the last 70 years and it is this that undermines policy making in a democracy.
Looking for critics from within the system is a contradiction in terms, given the signals from the system. If that was not the case, there should have been many more resignations from key positions in the government.
The author is a retired professor of Economics from JNU and the writer of Indian Economy since Independence: Persisting Colonial Disruption published by Vision Books.