NK Singh’s autobiography takes us through his journey over half a century of public policy making in India.
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Review: Portraits of Power by NK Singh – books reviews

472pp, 595 rupees; Rupa

Few people know more about Indian systems than NK Singh (or NK, as his friends often call it). Even fewer have the authority he does, having served in various positions in the central government, in Bihar, in parliament, and in his most recent role as chairman of the Fifteenth Finance Commission of India. I was introduced to NK by my Ph.D. thesis supervisor, Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, and my association with him grew as I worked closely with him as secretary to the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Review Committee (FRBM), which he chaired.

This book takes us through his journey through a half century of public policymaking in India. He begins with an eloquent account of his roots: the migration of his ancestors from Rajasthan to Banka in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar, where his paternal grandfather was a school principal. The difference from his maternal side was marked, as his maternal grandfather was one of the richest zamindars in northern Bihar. The next two generations entered the Indian civil service and the reader learns of NK’s connections through marriage to royalty in Rajasthan. An interesting reflection of how ingrained the civil service was in his family was that a cabinet meeting was once held to decide on the positions of the Singh family. Surprisingly, the civil service was not NK’s first choice; He was content with a teaching job at St Stephen’s University in Delhi, but was forced to take civil service exams to fulfill the quintessential dream of the Bihari parents. He recounts how his wife with her royal lineage once noticed that even his junior managers were paid more than the 750 rupees per month that he received as his starting salary from the government. NK Singh’s beginnings truly reflect his own personality – a unique combination of royalty and authority and a deep respect for education and learning.

This autobiography of an Indian bureaucrat could very well be a vivid biography of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) itself; perfect material for a series like Yes Prime Minister set in India. Indeed, the book beautifully illustrates the complexities of ICS: the author writes about reviewing land records, titles and tenure rights written in Persian during his first assignment in the Madhepura district of northern Bihar; recounts numerous cases of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund after the 1991 BoP crisis and with Suzuki in Japan that led to the creation of the iconic Maruti Suzuki in India. The book is also full of fascinating anecdotes about the interaction of the civil service with politics. A classic is the instruction a superior gave him to create a lot of confusion in the report on trade-related issues for the NAM summit in Zambia: “Until you create enough confusion, there will be little room for me to fix the mess! Another was a statement by former Prime Minister Vajpayee after his announcement of the Golden Quadrilateral, where he noted “Maharaj, aap logo ne ghoshna karwa di, ab banwa bhi dijiye.”

NK’s core tenet of “optimism, optimism, and optimism” flows through the book. I like that he is eternally optimistic about India and believes in solutions to problems. Unlike several of his contemporaries, he is not at all suspicious of markets and the private sector and this is reflected in his long-standing friendships with the elite in the industrial and service sectors of India. He prefers “rules” to “discretion,” as the former can offer support and signal commitment, and he has been a modernizer in his various roles. At the same time, he has always preferred cornerless solutions to allow flexibility and accommodation. This was evident in the recommendation to allow the contentious escape clause in the FRBM Review Committee, and in the fiscal deficit range of the Finance Commission, both of which he chaired.

Several puzzles also arise after reading this book: why has the Indian Civil Service not attracted even a single individual from future generations of NK despite strong family tradition? Does this reflect the fact that the global ecosystem has changed and also the aspirations of younger generations? Perhaps the best and the brightest would no longer mechanically (or by brute force from parents) opt for jobs unless employers are proactively trying to attract them. It is important not only to attract them, but to be able to retain them in a conducive and simulating environment, where they can grow in their careers. In fact, all future generations of NK are very competent.

NK talks about the need for “cheap mandarins” along with “occasional” side participants in the Indian civil service to get things done. One wonders why this distinction, given that the world and Indian economies have become abundantly complicated with increasing liquidity and the depth of private markets. Why not see the role of regulators as allowing labor markets to function efficiently to create a level playing field, supporting an environment for both participants and incumbents to prosper, and promoting a healthy competitive spirit in all levels?

This is something intriguing coming from one of the key architects and believers in India’s drastic import liberalization of the 1990s. If opening goods markets to international trade can increase competition and improve efficiency and offset costs in the short term, the same arguments would also apply to opening factor markets to national and global competition.

Prachi Mishra is an economist at the International Monetary Fund.

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