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Can Manmohan deliver on Montek's vision?

October 31, 2006 09:15 IST

"Let Delhi be, you go ahead," was the title of the speech that the late Ganshyam Das Birla gave over 25 years ago. I remember borrowing the transcript from my father's library and reading it and re-reading it at the expense of completing my homework.

In those formative years for me, the speech seemed contrary to Indira Gandhi's socialist beliefs that suggested that the government holds answers to all problems; the business world needs to be viewed with skepticism and distrust; and protecting one's economic boundaries was the right path to development.

Mr Birla's speech was part response to his frustration with the government, part attempt at inspiring people not to be bogged down by the central government's red tape.

I was reminded of Mr Birla's speech as I listened to the erudite Montek Singh Ahluwalia as he presented his 'Vision for India's Future' at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs on October 27, 2006. The subtle similarities in the message from these two eminent leaders -- one a restrained member of the business community speaking in the 1970s, and the other a liberating head of the Indian government's premier planning group today, were noteworthy to me.

Ahluwalia's talk at the Council was expansive. He proposed a higher growth rate for the Indian economy in the coming years, additional investments in education and a strengthening partnership between the government and the private sector. Ahluwalia laid out a vision to enhance the infrastructure and correlated the impending US-Indian nuclear agreement with the needs of the nation's agriculture sector, thus propagating its social benefits to those who may still have doubts about the country's intentions.

Ahluwalia's extemporaneous medley of economic, social and political issues was impressive.

If I had to create a subtitle for the speech, I would call it: 'Delivering 10 per cent growth while being inclusive.' That's right. Ahluwalia presented a vision and paired it up with its inherent challenge. He used an example -- the gains from an 8 per cent or higher national growth rate may be felt in the constituencies of, say, 340 of the 540 Members of Parliament, but in a democracy the remaining 200 MPs left behind would be the most heard from as they loudly voice their disagreement with the government's policies.

Ahluwalia seemed to suggest that the challenge for India is less about delivering growth at a 9 and then 10 per cent clip, which he sees as an achievable goal, but more about being able to deliver growth in an inclusive manner -- such that all constituents benefit, beyond the regional islands that fuel the country's growth today.

This challenge of achieving pervasive growth requires ambitious programmes that address the country's fundamental problems. Ahluwalia confronted the most venerable of those problems head-on: the country's flailing infrastructure.

He laid out a vision for a $100 billion investment in infrastructure, of which he suggested almost 80 per cent should come from private sources and implied that a portion of it should come in the form of foreign direct investment. He saw investments in infrastructure and the nation's ability to sustain a 10 per cent growth rate as a cause and effect relationship.

The Chicago Council for Global Affairs, founded in 1922, is hosting The Year of India series. The Council has good institutional knowledge and is familiar with India's economic reform journey that was started by Ahluwalia 15 years ago. The underlying message to the audience that had gathered to listen to Ahluwalia was around India's public-private partnership initiatives. Tarun Das of the Confederation of Indian Industry followed Ahluwalia in citing ways in which the government is working with the private sector -- both foreign and domestic.

The talk by Ahluwalia infused confidence in the people I was seated with and I would guess the same across most in the audience. This definitely had something to do with Ahluwalia's track record that speaks for itself and leaves little doubt that India's economic planning is in good hands.

Although, there is the other side: the political reality. One does wonder if Ahluwalia's friend, ex-colleague and boss Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has the political acumen to keep together the governing coalition and cajole his parliamentary colleagues such that the economic plan is given an opportunity to become an 'inclusive' phenomenon.

One does wonder if the prime minister can build institutions to support a governance model that can see through a $100 billion investment inflow towards infrastructure, that too most of it coming from the private sector. In spite of all the good news emanating from India, the day-to-day realities of corruption within and outside the government continue to be the country's Achilles heel.

Prime Minister Singh will need to show the government's fortitude to fight this malaise in order to draw large investments in a sector [infrastructure] where corruption has long been omnipresent.

I left the Chicago event with little doubt that Ahluwalia seems to have the right vision. But my skepticism over the realisation of that vision is real as well. In 1991, when Manmohan Singh and Ahluwalia were partnering on the reform process the challenge had more to do with the country's dire economic situation; this time around the challenge to realise the vision laid out by Ahluwalia seems to be more a political one.

So, can the scholarly Manmohan of bureaucratic origins deliver on Montek's vision?

Girish Rishi is a Chicago-based writer. He did his graduate studies in public policy from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Girish can be reached at girishrishi@hotmail.com

Girish Rishi