Even if you were interested only in politics not economics, Montek Singh Ahluwalia poses a delicious conundrum.
The Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission is one of the most powerful people in India. He pretty much decides the course of the Indian economy. He was handpicked by Manmohan Singh. He has the PM’s ear and though a decade younger he is one of the few who can call him by name.
Since 2004, signalled by Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, social welfare has been the UPA’s key mandate. Farm loan waivers, guaranteed rural employment, education for all, and food security are its flagship schemes. Ahluwalia is the man who must allot funds to the concerned ministries and states. But he is a known dissenter and openly admits these schemes will do no good as they are.
In a government where none blinks unless Madam pleases, why has Montek Singh Ahluwalia survived as long as he has and become as powerful as he has become?
The conundrum of Montek Singh Ahluwalia is the subject of the Tehelka profile. You should read the whole article here. But here is the conundrum in a nutshell as Mohan spells it out: Is it not odd for a self-confessed torchbearer of the free market economy to lead a body that monitors all central and state government spending?
The profile, extensive as it is, is unable to finally find the answer to the question it poses. Instead it traces the many twists and turns of the road that led Ahluwalia to Yojana Bhavan.
His earliest work as a young economist was on poverty, a book called Redistribution with Growth. It is only now that he has gone from a focus on how to divide the pie, to a more single-minded obsession about how to increase the pie. That’s earned him neo-liberal fans while the left disparages him as “Growthwala”.
Development economist Reetika Khera tells Tehelka that Montek does not understand what being poor means. “Poverty means limits,” says Khera. “So many limits that you are hemmed in with no choices.”
No, says Ahluwalia. Poverty is about lack of opportunity.
“The government’s job is not to employ all the poor but to ensure an investment environment that will create jobs, create income, create opportunity,” he says. “The onus is on the person, poor or not, to take advantage of the opportunity. (He did however shoot himself in the foot with that gaffe about setting the poverty line at Rs 32 a day in an urban area leading to activists demanding he prove he could live on that or else resign.)
But that aside, his economic philosophy on poverty, his views about personal responsibility versus a maa-baap sarkar, sounds like everything a food security bill or NREGA is not. So why does Sonia tolerate Montek Singh Ahluwalia?
Is he Manmohan Singh’s line in the sand? Is it to send signals to the IMF or World Bank that the government is open to their ideas even if its messenger is sort of an honorary dissident? Is it to balance out the more populist social welfare policies Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and NAC are in favour of? But even his fans wonder what's the point of having the PM's ear, if the PM's hands are tied? That leads to the bigger question: why is Montek, once rumoured to have wanted the post of UPA’s finance minister, content to play the role of honorary dissident? Is a man as smart as he is not disheartened?
"Sometimes I wonder if Montek Singh Ahluwalia is the right man in the wrong job," says a policy analyst. “There is too much politics that fuels government decisions, too much voter-appeasement an economist like him must hate,” adds an unnamed energy company honcho. Then in a statement that indicates the power of Montek Singh Ahluwalia he says “If you mention my name, I will deny everything.”
You can read the entire extensive profile by Rohini Mohan here.