—“Should have reached Delhi at 10.15 am today. Likely to be 2 am tomorrow...”
—“Passengers very angry, justifiably so. AC 2/3 tier served lunch at 5.30 pm.”
These are just some of the tweets Niti Aayog member and economist Bibek Debroy posted on his way back to Delhi by train on May 26. It was inordinately delayed due to a derailment en route.
The thing is, everyone knows—or seems to know—what the chair of the committee studying the revamping of the Indian Railways is up to. And that’s not just thanks to his frenetic tweeting (some journalists are wary about even calling Debroy for a comment, because he would immediately tweet about it). Actually, the 59-year-old has been an economist-about-town for easily a couple of decades now, comfortably on first-name terms with most that matter in the topsy-turvy policy environment today. Over the years, the man has built himself a fan following of sorts among policy wonks and journalists as a tell-it-as-it-is economist. “A bit unpredictable, but very affable with a good sense of humour,” is how economist Rajeev Kumar describes him. Most agree.
His growing stature in the Modi government makes Debroy the man to watch, economically speaking. Many see his induction into the Modi government as an outcome of his closeness to the prime minister. Modi must have high regard for his capability: why else would he have selected him as a member of the Niti Aayog, the revamped version of the planning commission, just days after he had raised posers on the advisability of the move? In fact, one of Modi’s first public interactions after taking charge was to launch Debroy’s book Getting India Back on Track: An Action Agenda for Reform written along with Ashley J. Tellis and Reece Trevor.
In fact, this seeming closeness between him and the PM is seen to have made Debroy more influential than Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya in the government. Sources in the agriculture and rural development ministries say Debroy is routinely consulted; sometimes even files are sent to him.
There is also considerable buzz about Debroy’s draft report on the revamp of the railways, with the panel’s preliminary report seeking a complete change in the operations of what is one of the largest rail network organisations in the world. It has angered some railway employees, who have trashed Debroy’s suggestions to open the window to more private sector participation, fearing it would lead to privatisation. This is a fear many others unconnected with the railways share though Debroy has sought to dispel it on both electronic and print media.
Author of several books—from the 10-volume translation of the Mahabharata into English to short stories and several non-fiction tomes ranging from labour to judicial reforms, trade policies and governance—his friends and colleagues describe Debroy as a multifaceted personality with varied interests. Going by the speculation, Debroy is also seen to have changed his political loyalties and earned RSS support owing to his Mahabharata translation.
Many pooh-pooh any such political affiliation. Says Seshadri Chari, member of the BJP national executive and former editor of Organiser, “I don’t think he is a member of the party nor does he have any RSS connection.... In government circles, his opinion will be considered given his position.” Chari recalls how while Debroy was the director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, he invited him on a panel discussion on economic planning in India. This raised many eyebrows. Debroy, according to Chari, felt there was no conflict in inviting a known right-wing journalist as the idea was to get “all shades of opinion on economic planning”.
“Unpredictable, but affable.” “Brilliant man with diverse interests, highly disciplined.” That’s Bibek Debroy for you.
People who have known and worked with Debroy are equally dismissive about there being any ideological conflict either now or in the past, when he had courted the Congress-led government’s displeasure for ranking Gujarat as the most advanced in development in a comparative study of states. Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, had used the report to highlight his government’s achievements, while Sonia Gandhi had reportedly issued a directive that all reports henceforth be cleared by her office before publication. Debroy saw this as a curtailment of his power, leading to his decision to quit. He, however, stayed on for a few more months to complete his tenure after Sonia Gandhi withdrew her directive.
“Many in the Congress ascribed wrong motives to what was a straightforward rating of states,” says Laveesh Bhandari of Indicus Analytics, who had partnered Debroy in the study. Given his long association with Debroy, Bhandari is categorical that he is not a person prone to being influenced by political ideologies. “There is a political line of thinking and there is an economic way of thinking. I don’t think his way of thinking will change as he has been consistent in his views.”
Bhandari emphasises that Debroy’s move to the BJP line of thinking on economic matters did not happen in the immediate aftermath of his study of the states or its political fallout but gradually over the last few years after his increasing interaction. Official sources downplay the Debroy factor, pointing to the fact that in the run-up to the general elections too many ideas for economic reforms, particularly on ways to enhance revenue, were floated, but nothing came of them.
For now, Debroy’s main job is at the Niti Aayog. Sources clarify that in its new avatar as a policy and research organisation, the day-to-day operations of ministries are no longer part of its duty as it has no role in funds allocation to the states or the ministries. The two Niti Aayog members are, however, part of the sub-groups or task forces formed to study various issues. Debroy is part of the sub-groups on agriculture and poverty alleviation, and as such, part of the study on revamping NREGA. “We’re still at an ideas stage and don’t have to write on each other’s file. In fact, file movement is discouraged as there is no interaction with ministries on a day-to-day basis,” sources say.
One thing all his former and current colleagues say about Debroy is that he is a very approachable person who is not too much into hierarchy. Rajeev Kumar characterises him as “a brilliant man with diverse interests who is highly disciplined”. He says Debroy hasn’t flinched from trying out new things, whether as a researcher, head of an institute or as secretary-general of the phd Chamber of Commerce. D. Shyam Babu of the Centre for Policy Research, a long-time colleague, affirms that Debroy is a man without ego hassles, but who “is known to have walked out of anything unpleasant” wherever he has worked.
Being in a high-profile position amid power play at multiple levels, many wonder how long Debroy will last in his present position with his vision of reforms. But the way Debroy is positioned today, he would dismiss all this politicking as a “regrettable necessity”.