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Sabbatical Policy Making: Strengths & Weaknesses

Picture Credit : The Indian Express
Picture Credit : The Indian Express

Arvind Panagariya’s sudden exit from the NITI Aayog surprised many in India and the rest of world. His departure escalated an enormous speculation in various hues and the dust is yet to be settled. After dismantling of the Planning Commission, the Union Government appointed Professor Panagariya(Professor of Economics, Columbia University) as Vice Chairman of the NITI Aayog – a newly anointed policy commission. Needless to say that Panagariya was instrumental in shaping this institution. Under his leadership, the NITI Aayog worked with the Prime Minister’s Office, several ministries and state governments. They drafted comprehensive plans for the Indian economy. Before taking over as vice-chairman of Niti Aayog, Panagariya had worked for the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in various capacities.

Indian Express reported that the RSS affiliates, run by veteran swayamsevaks, have accused the Aayog of “running a corporate agenda” and termed it a “job killer” that has little concern for the social sector. Under the leadership of this noted free market economist, NITI Aayog proposed for privatising public hospitals.

Raghuram Rajan meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014/ Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia.


In the public policy domain, if you’re pushing a new thing or proposing something to roll out at the national level, you have to back it thoroughly and religiously. You have to defend it at various platforms. The past experiences show that the first of all one should be determined and confident that his or her idea is going to work. A couple of policy makers who proposed or closely affiliated with new things backed relentlessly. The best example is the Aadhaar. A huge number of people questioned the whole idea of it. Nonetheless, the existing Prime Minister vehemently criticised this Biometric ID during the election campaigns in 2013-2014. But Nandan Nilekeni -who was instrumental in its rollout, backed and still backing at various platforms. After such conviction, the New Government didn’t scrap it but widen its horizon. Now, Aadhaar is an indispensable part of India Today.

In the last couple of years, the Union Government engaged three well-known scholars from Indian Origin in the domain of the policy making. These are  Arvind Panagariya,  Kaushik Basu (Professor of Economics and C Marks Professor, Cornell University) and Raghuram Rajan (the Katherine Dusak Miller Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at Chicago Booth).

Name of Individuals                         Designations  
Arvind Panagariya:            Former Vice Chairman of the NITI Aayog
Raghuram Rajan:                Former Governor, the Reserve Bank of India
Kaushik Basu:                       Former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India

Since Independence, India engages scholars and professors from various global universities. Even three architects of the Modem India, Mahatma Gandhi, Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru were studied and spent a considerable number of years in the countries like South Africa, USA and UK. But once they returned India, they worked locally and shaped various policies of a new nation. Politically, they were more active in India. Unlike these three stalwarts, a new class of scholars and professors work with the government under the rubric of sabbaticals. After completion of the sabbaticals, they grab the next flights and return to their institutions. Despite such efforts, the “sabbatical policy makers” have limitation. Their associations with the government are largely short-lived and many times their recommendations marred with controversies. How the government is benefited after their associations are the big question and hard to find concrete evidence… News Media sometimes write about how the government documents are different from the earlier versions. They gave credit to the Sabbatical Policy Makers who headed the committees or the forums. But one thing is very evident that such engagements enrich them professionally. After leaving the Government, they write memos or autobiographical accounts where they narrate stories and share the lived experiences during the association with the government. The best example is Kaushik Basu’s account. Recently, Basu (Former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India) wrote a book titled: An Economist in the Real World -The Art of Policymaking in India. When Raghuram Rajan was RBI Governor, his several policies were criticised but he encouraged them proactively. In the short time span, Rajan became very popular in youths and a huge number of institutions invited him to give lectures in the annual events and convocations. All above-mentioned professors cum policy makers received the Padma Awards by the Union Government.

The President of India conferring the Padma Bhushan to  Kaushik Basu/Photo Courtesy: www.kaushikbasu.org


In an interesting research, Katherine Leigh Wildman examined the sabbatical purposes and benefits of higher education administration in the USA. Katherine argued, “Sabbaticals are a multi-faceted experience. The leave contributes to the personal and professional aspects of individuals in addition to the organizational components of an institution. As such, sabbaticals are offered for various reasons, including recruitment, retention, and professional development.”  In India, associations of sabbaticants with the government are very erratic and uneven. It’s evident that their many recommendations “nose dived before the take off”. There is no takers for their ideas though initially they grabbed the attentions from various sections.

The success of a policy, a scheme or a programme depends on the philosophy of the relay race. If someone proposes a good idea and functional idea and after sometime chief advocate left then successors should pursue that idea enthusiastically. It’s beneficial for all. There is an inherent weakness in the associating the Sabbatical Policy Makers in a country like India. Frequently, they face the brunt of accusation being a representative of someone from the outside India. It’s popularly known as the Foreign Hand.  Writing on a new public policy for a new India, Shiv Visvanathan –a noted scholar, rightly argued in The Hindu, “What makes public policy exciting and potentially inventive is the contested nature of the public sphere. It is anchored in a diversity of perspectives which challenges the dominance of one subject.”  If you came here for the nation building, one should be determined to deal with a set of challenges from the various hues. Once you efficiently learn to deal with such criticisms for any policy recommendation, you’ll go to help the people as well as the government. In a country like India, people from the outside should be allowed to work in a free and fair manner. But local knowledge must be inculcated in the policy making where locally ingrained scholars should be encouraged to associate with it in various capacities.


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