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25 April 2017 Editorial


25 APRIL 2017

The best laid plans

On NITI Aayog

NITI Aayog's shift away from five-year plans requires more substance

Narendra Modi is not the first Chief Minister to have gone on to become Prime Minister. But given his well-known disdain for the erstwhile Planning Commission's control-and-command approach towards States and his oft-repeated emphasis on ‘cooperative federalism', there were great expectations from the successor organisation, the NITI Aayog. The Five Year Plans - the last one ended on March 31 - were relegated to history, to be replaced by a three-year action plan. This was to be part of a seven-year strategy that would in turn help realise a 15-year long-term vision. When the Aayog's Governing Council that includes the Prime Minister and all Chief Ministers met, it was hoped that the fine print as well as the big picture of the new planning approach had been worked out. However, all that was handed out was a draft action agenda for the three years till 2019-20, with 300 specific action points. This agenda is meant to be the first step towards attaining the envisioned outcomes by 2031-32. This ‘New India', as NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Arvind Panagariya put it, will ensure housing for all, with toilets, LPG, power and digital connections; access to a personal vehicle, air conditioner and white goods for ‘nearly all'; and a fully literate population with universal health care.

Assuming that the economy grows at 8% annually hereon, the Aayog has presented estimates about the size of the economy and per capita incomes by 2031-32, though juxtaposing these with China's performance in the last 15 years is a bit odd. India's GDP will rise by ?332 lakh crore in the next 15 years, the Aayog reckons. The bare details of the 15-year vision that have been shared seem like motherhood statements with some optimistic numerical guesswork. But even that is more than we know about the seven-year strategy. Without the larger strategy and vision in place, the three-year action plan is likely to be more of an abstract wish list that Chief Ministers will now evaluate and revert on. Effectively, till it is ratified by the Council, there is a vacuum in India's policy framework - similar to the delayed starts of past Five Year Plans. It is not yet apparent if the 12th Plan's innovation of painting alternative scenarios (of actions and outcomes) - a more useful tool for longer-term planning - has been adopted. Meanwhile, the PM's message to States to speed up capital expenditure and infrastructure development is important as pump-priming the economy is not only the Centre's task. All the same, asking the States to take the initiative on switching India's financial year to match the calendar year is unusual as it requires the Centre to take the lead by making public the report of the committee that has recommended this. To make cooperative federalism truly effective, the Council, or Team India as Mr. Modi calls it, must meet more often - a nearly two-year gap in doing so is a recipe for communication breakdown.


A stark choice

On French presidential polls

French voters assert their anti-establishment mood in the first round of presidential polls

The French follow their hearts in the first round, and their heads in the run-off - or so goes the cliché about France's politics. But the first round of this year's presidential election was held in such a highly charged environment that voters did not have easy choices before them. And the outcome was unusual, though not totally unexpected. For the first time in the nearly 59 years of France's Fifth Republic founded by Charles de Gaulle, neither of the mainstream left and right parties made it to the run-off, a clear indication of anti-establishment sentiment running high. All these years, France has been ruled either by a Socialist party leader or a conservative Republican. In the May 7 run-off, the fight is between Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist with no substantial political experience, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right populist leader of the National Front. Mr. Macron, who campaigned on a pro-Europe political platform with promises of economic reforms and better governance, won 23.75% of the vote, while Ms. Le Pen, who during the campaign repeatedly attacked the EU, globalisation and France's immigration policies to drum up support, came second, polling 21.53%. François Fillon of the Republican party finished third, while Benoît Hamon of the ruling Socialist Party came a distant fifth.

Opinion polls predict that Mr. Macron will win the second round as a majority of voters regard Ms. Le Pen and her party as dangerous for France's democracy and its values. This is not the first time a National Front candidate is entering the second round. In 2002, Jean Marie Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen's father, shocked France by making it past the first round, but lost by a massive margin to Jacques Chirac, the incumbent. Large sections of the French political spectrum, from the conservatives to the leftists, then rallied behind Mr. Chirac to defeat the far-right, Holocaust-denying Mr. Le Pen. This year as well, as soon as the results of the first round were out, most of the 11 candidates, including Mr. Fillon and Mr. Hamon, announced support for Mr. Macron. If this support reflects in the popular will, Mr. Macron will repeat history. Still, Ms. Le Pen's chances cannot be ruled out. She has brought the National Front from the dark fringes of French politics to the mainstream by what analysts call "detoxifying" it - toning down the overt racist rhetoric of her father and broadening the party's appeal by mixing a strong anti-globalisation position with extreme nationalism. Her attacks on open borders and immigration resonated with at least sections of the youth at a time when unemployment is in double digits. In the coming two weeks, the political landscape is likely to get more polarised. It is a stark choice for French voters. Their decision will have a profound impact not just on France, but Europe as a whole.

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