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Hearttalk: Local Talent

While the Modi government did rely on ‘imports’ such as Arvind Subramanian, Rajan and Panagariya, politically, it relied more on home-grown talent

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Arvind Panagariya returns to academics after his rather eventful stint as the Niti Aayog vice chairman. He is rejoining the Columbia University, after a two-and-a-half year term.

When I broke the news to a colleague, his first response was to get to the bottom of the story — “maybe it was due to the RSS’s Swadeshi Jagran Manch’s relentless campaign against Panagariya”.

When I said Panagariya’s leave at the Columbia was not extended, and that he had to return if he wanted to keep the job, the colleague retorted: “Couldn’t the PM send a letter to the university if he wanted to retain him?”

To a similar question, Panagariya said: “There is nothing unusual in this. Henry Kissinger returned to Harvard after his leave was not extended.”

This is not the first such high-profile exit from the government. Earlier this year, Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan returned to academics in Chicago University after a three-year term.

Rajan was a UPA government appointee. Panagariya, on the other hand, had been appointed by the Modi government.

This propensity to scout for foreign-educated economists and policymakers for key positions in India does raise a question.

How committed are these imports to India and the national cause?

Panagariya’s contention was that he would not find a job here as prestigious as the one in the US.

Three years ago, when the Modi government was sworn in, and it was looking for key people for advisory roles, it zeroed in, like the previous UPA government did, on mostly foreign-educated luminaries.

Many describe BJP MP Subramanian Swamy as a “loose canon”, but he had a point when he last year, in an interview with this reporter, asked whether these imports from Harvard and Oxford truly understand India, and if they have a long-term commitment to India.

It was said that not just the bureaucracy but even the higher echelons of the Manmohan Singh government mostly comprised the Oxbridge elites. Manmohan Singh had a Cambridge-Oxford pedigree. Kapil Sibal was from the Harvard Law School. P. Chidambaram was from the Harvard Business School. What’s more, the new breed of netas, loosely defined as Rahul Gandhi’s Young Turks, had degrees from Ivy League institutions.

A degree from a foreign institution doesn’t necessarily make one intellectually more evolved. That the Congress is in a deep crisis today, is a testimony to that.

While the Modi government did rely on ‘imports’ such as Arvind Subramanian, Rajan and Panagariya, politically, it relied more on the home-grown talent.

The experience with high-profile imports has not been pleasant. Most of them look at the India assignment as a stopgap arrangement to embellish their résumés. It’s time that we reconsidered this policy.

Recently, PM Modi said that “hard work is more important than Harvard”. The context was something entirely different, but the message was clear. Can’t we find leaders with expertise, and more importantly conscience, to handle a subject as vast as India?

Modi, in fact, may have already made a beginning. The man to replace Panagariya at the Niti Aayog is economist Rajiv Kumar, who holds a PhD from Lucknow University (though he also holds a DPhil from Oxford). We must get our universities in Lucknow and Patna, Chennai and Mumbai, to impact the planning process.
India’s problems are best sorted through made-in-India solutions.