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Path-breaking ideas? Try reading these books, Mr Modi!

By T N Ninan
January 04, 2016 14:14 IST
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Supporters of Gujarat's chief minister Narendra Modi wear masks of Modi during a rally in Chennai.Prime Minister Narendra Modi might find it fruitful to spare some time to look for ideas in the world of books, suggests TN Ninan

The prime minister has spent New Year's Eve asking his senior-most bureaucrats for new ideas.

We will know soon enough whether this delivers path-breaking thoughts, but don't bet on it.

Bureaucrats are trained to follow rules and precedents; most of them are administrators, not problem-solving managers.

That is why new ideas usually come from politicians, technocrats and civil society activists -- like Annadurai's subsidised rice scheme, MGR's mid-day meals, Rajiv Gandhi's technology missions, Nandan Nilekani's 'Aadhaar' programme, and Aruna Roy's right to information campaign.

Also, senior bureaucrats are usually very overworked people, and therefore, unable to sit back and think of new ideas.

But eight groups have been constituted, and they have been tasked with suggesting new ideas.

So, for all one knows, the government's departmental secretaries might surprise the sceptics.

Nevertheless, Mr Modi might find it fruitful to spare some time to look for ideas in the world of books.

A well-wisher could, therefore, do worse than to send the prime minister a New Year gift of half a dozen books that he could read, and even re-read.

By far the most important book to include in such a gift parcel would be Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson.

This well-known work underlines the fundamental point that the difference between successful and not-so-successful countries is the quality of their institutions.

Traditionally, the Bharatiya Janata Party has tended to focus on selecting its favourite sons (and to some extent daughters) for key posts, giving less, if any, attention to the business of strengthening institutions.

The Modi government has followed this pattern.

All the more reason why it is important for the prime minister to internalise the fundamental importance of well-functioning institutions for shaping our future.

The next most important book that Mr Modi could be offered is Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

India's primary failings have been in its inability to deliver health and education for all; quite a few poorer countries have done better.

It is important for the prime minister (and others) to understand why, and the easily digestible work by Banerjee-Duflo provides many answers.

A third book which should be easily available to Mr Modi, because one of its authors is the vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, is Why Growth Matters -- authored by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya.

Far too many Indian politicians underestimate the fundamental truth of that book's title -- more of them are in the Congress, Socialist and Communist parties than in the BJP, but even the BJP is not sufficiently seized with the centrality of the idea (backed by multi-country experience) that the most important way to erase poverty is to ensure rapid economic growth.

To be sure, there is the issue of growing inequality, and very real concerns regarding those at the bottom of the pyramid.

A companion volume, therefore, should be An Uncertain Glory by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen.

But I would venture to suggest that the Bhagwati-Panagariya volume would be more useful just now, especially since it debunks quite a few myths that have struck root in mainstream Indian thinking.

No one would be surprised by these mainstream book choices.

A newly-published book that should be to Mr Modi's taste is Rebooting India: Realising a Billion Aspirations.

The authors, Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah, look at how best to tackle a dozen specific issues, covering a broad range, by using technology and organisational initiatives.

Finally, since Mr Modi is about to launch his government's start-up initiative in a couple of weeks, he might do well to read a freshly minted, clear-eyed book on the subject: The Golden Tap: The Inside Story of Hyper-Funded Indian Start-Ups by Kashyap Deorah.

Even for a hyper-busy prime minister who does not take any time off, these half-dozen books should not take more than a couple of weeks to absorb.

It may be time better spent than waiting for new ideas from civil servants.

Image: Supporters of Narendra Modi wear masks during a rally in Chennai. Photograph: Babu/Reuters

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