Book Review: Two bureaucrats outline the evolution of India’s policies and programs

Policymakers NK Singh and PK Mishra diagnose India’s economic policies and suggest prescription for better governance in their book, Recalibrate: Changing Paradigms

While Singh advocates for the functional and fiscal invigoration of local self-government, Mishra recognizes the instrumentality of community level initiatives. File photo

The authors’ intimate association with the establishment, their lingering sense of nostalgia and the immediacy of a ‘Black Swan’ event like Covid-19 – repeatedly referred to in the book – do not bode well in terms of critical objectivity for Recalibrate by NK Singh and PK Mishra – 15th Finance Commission chairman and principal secretary to the PM, respectively. But these limitations notwithstanding, it is a remarkable book for a number of reasons.

One, the book is very contemporary in terms of themes – like healthcare, education, disaster management, federal dynamics and relevant aspects of governance architecture – it wrestles with, and doesn’t shy away from proffering answers and alternatives. Two, it mixes nuts and bolts of policies and programs with anecdotal flashes and intrepid-innovative suggestions. Three, despite seemingly disjointed randomness of the themes, the book succeeds in making a plea for suitable recalibration of the paradigm of governance. Four, for a book of this nature, it is surprisingly free from the tyranny of jargons and a few neologisms that figure in like ‘Federal Romantics’ and ‘Federal Fraternity’ sound very refreshing.

Singh does heavy-lifting while Mishra confines himself to his favorite passions, including agriculture and disaster management. In terms of writing style, Singh shows his enviable ability to write on otherwise dry technical- economic issues with literary flair. Mishra, on the other hand, is more business-like. Their approach to the book is constituted by an interactive dialogue between the past and the present on behalf of the future. Mishra quotes Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. “

The shadow of the pandemic

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The shadow of pandemic looms large: Healthcare, disaster management, the debilitating impact of pandemic on education, as well as the inventive- innovative digital solutions it threw up, and the need to recalibrate relationship between the Center and states in times of extraordinary challenges constitute the bedrock of the book.

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Given the intensity and increasing certainty of uncertainty on the horizon in the wake of the pandemic or climate change, Singh makes a fervent plea for a new social contract that must address such issues as climate change and climate action, increase in agricultural production without aggravating environment , accessible, equitable, and quality healthcare and education and governance architecture based on stability and change. But in view of the uncertain nature of change, Mishra bemoans that while concluding the Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction, there was little or no discussion on ‘Black Swan’ events like pandemic – even though Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who coined the term, himself calls Covid-19 a ‘White Swan’ that could have been predicted. Mishra endorses the instrumentality of Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder”. According to Taleb, an antifragile country would stand for smaller, more local, experimental and self-sufficient entities.

Technology as a force multiplier

Given the above, while Singh advocates for the functional and fiscal invigoration of local self-government, Mishra recognizes the instrumentality of community level initiatives. Both recognize the force multiplier role that technology can play in the delivery of healthcare, education and in the mitigation of disaster-induced risk. But the problem is that while technology could be a force multiplier, it could also be a centraliser and add to regimentation. This aspect does not find mention in the book. May be it lies outside its remit.

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Singh dwells upon the federal question, especially the question of fiscal federalism with insights and authority. His heart lies in fiscal prudence with regard to expenditure and borrowings which, if excessive, could upset the applecart of good governance. He takes federal romantics to task for advocating almost total autonomy to the states and recommends fiscal fraternity during extraordinary crises that require extraordinary solutions when federal government must take the anchor’s role. In less abnormal times, the templates of cooperative and competitive federalism should hold good.

Recalibrate: Changing Paradigms, By NK Singh, With Select Insights from PK Mishra, Rupa Publications

An advocacy for changing paradigms

The book is meant to be an advocacy for changing paradigms and it succeeds in its mission. Having been there and done that, they are eminently qualified to undertake diagnosis, prognosis and suggest prescription. Those looking for grapevine and gossip could be disappointed. Those criticizing the book for being not radical enough should realize that governance is mostly about incremental, gradual changes and in democracies across the world, radical reforms wait for a grave crisis of disturbing proportions to find takers in the government and reaction from people.

All said, the book has its light moments. Singh mentions Vajpayee having announced the idea of ​​golden quadrilateral during a FICCI meeting. Two months after this speech, Vajpayee reminded bureaucrats in his characteristic Hindi, “Maharaj, aap logo ne ghoshna karwa di, ab banwa bhi dijiye.” (You all have made me announce it, now make sure you actually build it).

Sanjay Kumar is a writer based in Patna, Bihar

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