NITI Aayog's criticism of Rahul Gandhi showcases its descent into political partisanship, casts shadow on its credibility

The vision note on NITI Aayog’s website describes itself as the ‘premier policy ‘think tank’ of the Government of India, providing both directional and policy inputs’. In other words, it is supposed to an advisory body that should exist as a guiding force for the government on policy matters. But, of late it appears that the body has transformed itself as a political tool to further the interests of the ruling party: Either by choice or force. Often, it steps into arenas that aren’t supposed to be its domain; sometimes in violation of the golden rules governing every important bureaucratic entity in India.

Two instances in the recent past point towards the sad transformation of an important office to an extended division of the ruling party. First, is the open criticism NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar directed at Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s proposed plan to assure Rs 72000 per annum minimum income to the poorest 20 percent of the population. The other is NITI Aayog’s unwanted enthusiasm to dominate the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in official data releases, severely undermining the latter’s credibility.

In a series of tweets, Rajiv Kumar spoke more like a BJP spokesperson than the head of a policy think tank to dismiss Rahul’s poll plank outright and even targetted Congress party’s working style when elections near.

 NITI Aayogs criticism of Rahul Gandhi showcases its descent into political partisanship, casts shadow on its credibility

File image of Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman of NITI Aayog. PIB image

"True to its past record of promising the moon to win elections, Congress president announces a scheme that will burst fiscal discipline, create strong incentives against work and which will never be implemented," Kumar said in a tweet. In another tweet, he said the cost of the minimum income guarantee scheme at 2 percent of the gross domestic product and 13 percent of the budget will "ensure" that real needs of people remain unsatisfied.

The merits and demerits of Rahul's minimum income assurance plan is, of course, open to discussion. This Firstpost piece on Tuesday explained why Rahul’s scheme is far from a workable idea in an ambitious economy. But this coming from a serving bureaucrat holding a key position at an important policy advising body is not acceptable for two reasons: One, NITI Aayog is constituted to advice the Centre and states on policy issues and point out problematic areas, not to offer advice or criticism to Opposition political parties.

Two, there is a Model Code of Conduct in place which prohibits the government from using any of the State resources, including bureaucratic personnel, to further its political interests. Logically, criticising the Congress falls within this definition. By targetting Rahul Gandhi and Congress, this is exactly what Kumar did. That is precisely the reason why the Election Commission sought an explanation from Kumar on his statements.

Remember, this isn’t the first instance of NITI Aayog putting down the UPA-regime and praise the ruling Narendra Modi government. At the time of the GDP backseries debate early this year, Kumar dug out a three-decade-old data to undermine the 2006-2007 growth figure. He said the highest-ever recorded growth was in 1988-89 when the economy grew at 10.2 percent under the Rajiv Gandhi government.

This, too, was not quality, sustainable growth, Kumar argued, finally resting his case saying the growth rate under four years of the Modi government is still higher than the growth rate of the last four years of the UPA. That was when there was widespread allegations against Modi government for manipulating data to suit its narrative.

Also, the press conference to announce the GDP backseries numbers too was led by the NITI Aayog, which is essentially a political and economic advisory body, and not the CSO: the custodian of data of Indian economy. This itself was a departure for the first time and showed the CSO in extremely poor light and raised serious questions of credibility.

The NITI Aayog, which replaced the planning commission in 2015, is supposed undertake an important function in the economy: To provide advice and constructive criticism to Centre and state governments on crucial policy issues. It has no business to engage in political partisanship. By falling into that trap, NITI Aayog is losing its purpose; that shouldn’t be the case. The body, before it is too late, should redeem its original purpose and stop being a puppet of power centres.

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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2019 15:44:11 IST