Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia is a seasoned campaigner. For over 30 long years, he has been part of the government, barring, of course, a short stint of three years with the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2004 when he headed its Independent Evaluation Office. In these three decades, he has doused many fires and resolved many more controversies that threatened to engulf the government.
The tirade launched last week by Road Transport and Highways Minister Kamal Nath against the Planning Commission sparked off one of those many controversies. At a meeting, where Mr Ahluwalia too was present, Mr Nath said the Planning Commission had become an “armchair adviser” and had lost contact with ground realities. He also suggested that the Commission might be very good at writing books but building roads was a completely different proposition.
Any other person enjoying the status of a Cabinet minister would have immediately reacted to Mr Nath with a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges levelled against the Commission, but not Mr Ahluwalia. A few days later, he even told a television channel that the government was all about intense disagreements and there was nothing wrong if such disagreements got sorted out at different levels. Mr Ahluwalia even revealed that Mr Nath’s outburst did not surprise him. Even before the meeting began, the minister had told Mr Ahluwalia about his intention to air his differences with the Planning Commission.
Mind you, this was no ordinary provocation from a minister. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heads the Planning Commission and Mr Ahluwalia is his close confidant. The two enjoy a relationship of trust, built over time. In the early 1990s, Mr Ahluwalia was in the finance ministry initially as the economic affairs secretary and later as the finance secretary while Manmohan Singh as the finance minister was implementing those path-breaking economic reforms under the P V Narasimha Rao government. The attack against the Planning Commission, therefore, was not only against Mr Ahluwalia, but was also indirectly aimed at the prime minister who headed it as its chairman.
Yet, Mr Ahluwalia remained cool and unprovoked. It would be naive to attribute such equanimity to only Mr Ahluwalia’s statesman-like response that Mr Nath’s attack was only a reflection of disagreements within the government, which should be sorted out at different levels. There is something more to this. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that such equanimity is an outcome of Mr Ahluwalia’s growing realisation that the Planning Commission, which had been virtually written off as an institution, had at last begun to make an impact on the way the government and the various central ministries function. Mr Nath’s outburst against the Planning Commission is also a tacit acknowledgement that it had begun to make a difference to the way government projects are being implemented.
These may be early signs of a body that has come back to life, but for Mr Ahluwalia this is the outcome of a long battle that he had launched more than a decade ago. As member of the Planning Commission in the National Democratic Alliance government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mr Ahluwalia had tried very hard to make his voice heard at the policy-making level in the government. He had argued that the Planning Commission was a repository of knowledge and expertise in various areas, but it had no effective say in the way the administrative ministries were framing policies. Thus, his solution was that in all Cabinet meetings where policies were to be decided, there should be representation from the Planning Commission. However, his views went largely unheeded and the Planning Commission remained only an advisory body with little effective power to mould policies.
In the last six years, the Planning Commission has become a little more powerful. Mr Ahluwalia as its deputy chairman is now a permanent invitee to all the Cabinet meetings of the UPA government. What’s more, the Commission’s views on various policy proposals now carry more weight at the Cabinet meetings and with various government departments. Also, administrative ministries can no longer brush the Planning Commission views aside as easily as they could do in the past.
If Kamal Nath launches a broadside against the Planning Commission, it is because his ministry now can no longer afford to ignore the advice that comes from Yojana Bhavan. If Mr Ahluwalia sees Mr Nath’s outburst as a reflection of the disagreements among different arms of the government, it is an indirect admission that the Planning Commission is now part of the government system where it can disagree with a ministry and force a resolution of those differences. That was not so earlier.