Nearly a year ago, Raghuram Rajan had decided not to continue as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Rajan’s exit in September 2016 had preceded weeks of sustained attacks on him by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Subramanian Swamy and others.
In his last months in office, outgoing NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman Arvind Panagariya was hounded by Sangh Parivar outfits such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
Both Rajan and Panagariya were attacked for being “foreign-educated” people who either did not understand Indian realities, or were too steeped in academics to come to grips with the government’s workings. Both Rajan and Panagariya were largely left to fend for themselves by the government.
Panagariya’s departure, unlike Rajan’s departure, was significantly quieter. Rajan won admirers for his outspokenness, particularly on issues other than those related to his work at the RBI. Panagariya was equally outspoken, but on issues related to the NITI Aayog’s ambit.
“After predicting that growth in Q4 of 2017-18 will touch 8 per cent,” senior Congress leader and former finance minister P Chidambaram tweeted, “Panagariya has wisely resigned before (being) proved wrong.”
BMS General Secretary Virjesh Upadhyay said the NITI Aayog, under Panagariya, was encroaching on the jurisdictions of several ministers. “We had urged the Aayog to consult stakeholders before making any policy. It used to meet corporate lobbies but not labour unions.” The Swadeshi Jagran Manch had shot off a letter to the prime minister in May complaining the NITI Aayog catered to the interests of the corporates. At a June meeting in Kanpur, the BMS accused the Aayog of working against the interests of workers.
If the Sangh Parivar outfits were exulted at Panagariya’s departure, the 500-plus employees of the government’s think tank were caught unawares by the resignation. Panagariya went ahead with his regular meetings and also had lunch with a group of advisors before announcing his resignation. “I just informed my nearest staff as I didn’t want to make a big news and create unusual speculations about my leaving,” Panagariya told a group of reporters.
The government, however, was far from surprised when Panagariya announced that he has urged the prime minister to relieve him of his duties as his leave from the Columbia University was nearing its end. A source said the government had anticipated Panagariya’s departure nearly three months ago, and had time to find a successor. The government refused to divulge who the new vice-chairperson of the think tank could be. But sources said Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu was a front runner. Panagariya on Tuesday said he has suggested to the PM to find a full-time Sherpa for G20 talks, as India’s role was expanding in the global arena.
Panagariya, who said he will leave on August 31, was appointed India’s Sherpa for the September 2015 G20 talks, replacing Prabhu. With a Cabinet reshuffle in the offing, there is a possibility that one of the Cabinet ministers might be appointed at the helm of the Aayog.
During his tenure of over two and a half years at the think tank, Panagariya led several new initiatives in the organisation formed after the Narendra Modi government scrapped the Nehruvian legacy of the Planning Commission.
A mild-mannered celebrated economist, Panagariya’s advice was always heeded by the top leadership of the government. But he never made a show of it, continuing with his unassuming ways. Though he maintained he was resigning to keep his job at Columbia, the manner of his leaving gave rise to speculation about his not-so-comfortable relationship with the powers that be. Some even pointed to the creation of two power centres at the Aayog as a source of friction between the vice-chairman and the government. But sources close to him rejected this. “In his letter to the prime minister, he clearly said he would lose his job in Columbia if he is not allowed to go and would have loved to continue if the university permitted. Therefore, all these reports of rift between the vice-chairman and the government is mere speculation,” a senior official said.