Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of `Politics of Change - A ringside view' by N K Singh

This book review appeared in Business Standard a short while ago.

Politics of Change - A Ringside View by N K Singh Published by Penguin Viking and the Express Group Pages 254 Price 395

The book is a collection of sunday columns in Indian Express. They have been organised by subject. Even though I had read many of these pieces before, I found the book useful and interesting; the whole is better than the sum of the parts. Most of the chapters are valuable summaries of the state of the play in one area. As an example, chapter 8 - `Taking the French connection beyond wine and cheese' - is a compact policy note on what comes next in Indo-French relations. Given the slow pace of economic reform in India, the articles are not out of date when compared with the present state of play.

An entire section of five articles deals with the oft-neglected subject of migration. The author is a pioneer in placing a high importance on the issues connected with migration, along with a few other original thinkers such as Lant Pritchett who recently wrote a prominent book on the subject. The emphasis on migration reflects the enormous importance of this `invisible' pillar of globalisation: while most discussions about globalisation have focused on the free movement of ideas, goods, services and capital, one of the most far-reaching aspects of globalisation is the movements of people.

Thinking about migration in the Indian context has gone through three phases. Initially, this field was focused on the `brain drain', with India as a source of migrants who make up the vibrant NRI community worldwide. This negative perspective on the `brain drain' changed considerably in the second phase, as NRIs have become an increasingly important facet of India's engagement with the world after the economic reforms began. We now see that the child who leaves at age 21 becomes a pillar of strength,and a key mechanism for India to plug into globalisation, at age 41. Finally, a new twist lies in India's increasing import of high skill migrants from all over the world who are coming to some of the top jobs in Indian firms. India now needs a new focus on attracting the smartest people from the whole world, on making it easy for them to relocate and work in India, and go on to citizenship.

Turning to institutional structures, there are three chapters on the planning commission, which clearly draw upon the experiences of the author as member of the planning commission. They relate nicely to the recent M. Govinda Rao vs. Kirit Parikh debate on the relevance of the planning commission in the market economy, which has been taking place on the pages of Business Standard. There is a good piece on reforms of the Ministry of Finance, one which unfortunately does not seem to have utilised the Kelkar report on reorganisation of MoF (a report which has not been released into the public domain).

A series of excellent chapters at the end come to grips with the problems of Bihar. It is hard to see a robust future for the Republic of India without addressing the fundamental State failure in poverty traps such as Bihar. The chapters reflect the extensive experience, and continued engagement, of the author with the problems of Bihar. They serve a valuable role by virtue of both helping to put Bihar on the agenda of the intelligensia, and of shedding light on the unique problems of Bihar. There are also useful pieces on other states - in particular a devastatingly accurate essay titled "The economically illiterate populism of manifestos" about Maharashtra.

The language is readable, and occasionally rises above the ordinary. As an example, the article `When sacred cows block the intersection' has this text about PSUs in the field of infrastructure: These public companies are the sacred cows in the middle of a busy intersection. They cannot be hurried or bothered but at the same time, they are risky customers, unreliable carriers and threatening competitors that clog the flow

N K Singh is a past master at the art of navigating complex political and bureacratic avenues through which fundamental economic reform gets done. The reader anticipates a flavour of that gritty detail of how things actually get done in reading the book. Unfortunately, the author has kept too many of his cards close to his chest. Too often, the book is at the level of lofty ideas and does not descend into the real world aspects of rival constituencies, fractious coalition politics and internecine bureacratic warfare. This book is worth reading, but we will all await the memoirs with great interest!

1 comment:

  1. Disappointed it's not a memoir of N K Singh - that's really what would be most interesting to know. Collection of columns seems to be becoming an easy way out for most policy makers who write (with bold titles, of course). Unfortunately writing memoir still hasn't become a habit for people involved in policy making and who have important things to say. Little is know about who the key players are behind the faces in public when it comes policy making.

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