When he took over as vice-chairman of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog a year ago, Arvind Panagariya had been abroad for nearly four decades, writing academic papers and teaching Economics. The Columbia University professor had earned himself a name at home as a columnist much earlier, and in the run-up to the 2014 General Election, the 63-year-old had emerged as a champion of the ‘Gujarat Model’, shorthand for what he and his mentor Jagdish Bhagwati called ‘growth and entrepreneurship driven development’. In a book the duo authored a year earlier, they pitched the ‘Gujarat Model’ against the ‘Kerala Experience’, which had been hailed by Professor Amartya Sen as a successful experiment of a policy framework based primarily on redistribution and state-driven development. Academic rivalry spilled over into politics after Bhagwati and Panagariya argued that Sen was wrong—and that it was the ‘Gujarat Model’ that has delivered benefits even in Kerala, a state known for high social indicators. Panagariya played a pivotal role in the debate that was revived ahead of Narendra Modi’s triumph in a general election in which the BJP prime ministerial candidate was pitched as a moderniser, doer and reformist. In an interview in early 2013, Panagariya and Bhagwati had said they favoured Modi’s economic policies. Months later, Panagariya maintained that he trusted the leader’s political instincts as well, arguing that the ‘Gujarat Model’ was worthy of being replicated at the national level.
Which was why when Prime Minister Modi handpicked the Economics professor last January as vice-chairman of the new entity that replaced the 64-year-old Planning Commission, it surprised none. Panagariya’s name had come up as a probable even earlier when the new BJP-led Government was scouting for a chief economic advisor.
The new institution required a combination of vision and leadership. Panagariya, an unassuming man from academia, was expected to lead the NITI Aayog to fill a gap that the Planning Commission could not. However, disappointment has begun to surface in some quarters. “It may be too early to judge a new organisation, but it seems to me that it is not in good order. The leadership needs to offer much more than it is doing now,” says a senior official close to the matter who doesn’t wish to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Panagariya seems to be aware of sporadic criticism of his leadership, especially over cohesion and interaction within the organisation, but he notes in an interview with Open that things are set to improve with him looking at “creative” ways to improve communication between verticals (see ‘We want greater cohesion’).
Says a senior railways official who interacts closely with the NITI Aayog: “Panagariya’s job at hand is nothing short of Herculean and therefore it is natural that he attracts a lot of criticism. There won’t be much mercy and I am sure Panagariya was aware of the challenges when he took over as vice-chairman last year. After all, though it is a new body, it is one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Modi.” A senior BJP leader notes that Modi is unlikely to treat any delay in putting the Aayog on the fast track. He emphasises, “That the Prime Minister named a high-profile bureaucrat as chief executive officer at this organisation may be an effort to speed up things at NITI Aayog. [Amitabh Kant] has great experience in accomplishing new assignments.” A senior government official, who also asks not to be named, says, “The Prime Minister may be trying to see if he can liven things up, perhaps.”