The NITI Aayog can hardly avoid comparison with the National Development Reforms Commission (NDRC) in China. Is it actually the Bharatiya NDRC?
Structurally, there are substantive differences. The NITI Aayog is chaired by the prime minister and would be run by an appointed vice-chairperson. The buck would stop at the prime minister. The NDRC is structured differently. The Chinese premier does not head it. But it reports to the Chinese State Council—the most powerful agency in the Chinese government—headed by the Chinese premier. But premier Li Keqiang is not the last word on the NDRC, given the large and varied composition of the State Council. Apart from the premier, the Council includes executive vice-premier and vice-premiers, state councillors and heads of major departments and agencies. Total members of the Council are currently more than 30.
The NITI Aayog retains the earlier practice where the prime minister headed the Planning Commission as well as the National Development Council (NDC). It is not clear whether it would continue to connect to the NDC. It might not be necessary given that the NDC was largely for approving the five-year plans prepared by the Planning Commission. It is not even clear whether India will have the five-year plans and whether the NDC is justified to that extent.
What is clear though is the Indian prime minister’s decisive authority over the Aayog, which is in contrast to a greater collective authority for the NDRC. The Chinese premier is officially much further away from the NDRC than the Indian prime minister is from the NITI Aayog; indeed, the distance is hardly there.
The second important structural difference is in the composition of the Aayog. The NDRC is a much larger body with several vice-chairmen, secretary general and deputy secretary generals. Around eight vice-chairmen, five of who are minister-level appointees, support the current chairman, Xu Shaoshi. Xu Shaoshi is a senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) functionary with fairly extensive ministerial experience. Most of the other members have similar political backgrounds and administrative experiences.
The NITI Aayog limits itself to four Cabinet ministers as ex-officio members with three other Cabinet ministers inducted as special invitees. One of the implications of this composition is that the
NITI Aayog’s work is unlikely to directly involve several ministries of the government. The notable omissions in this regard, given the current composition, are the ministries of industry and commerce, foreign affairs and defence. None of the ministers holding these portfolios can be included in the NITI without dropping existing members, as the ex-officio upper ceiling is fixed at four.
The NDRC is far more inclusive. The inclusion comes from the check exerted by the State Council. The Council includes practically all the ministerial and departmental heads in addition to senior representations from the CCP. Thus, all arms of the government courtesy the State Council get to scrutinise the NDRC’s proposals and plans.
Beyond structure, the NDRC does not have as much focus on cooperative federalism as the NITI Aayog has. The proposed bottom-up aggregative approach to national economic policies expected from the NITI Aayog hardly resonates in the NDRC. The latter is much more top-down. It does not have a mechanism for involving the provinces as actively in its decision-making process as the NITI Aayog does. Provincial participation is reflected mostly through the views of the State Council, and finally the National People’s Congress, where the plans and programmes of the NDRC are submitted for implementation.
The NDRC has a far larger mandate with its reach covering practically all aspects of economic, social and strategic policies in China. There is hardly any sector that it misses. Over time, the NDRC’s presence has become gargantuan in the Chinese economy dwarfing other agencies and ministries in the degree of influence it exerts on policy-making. The NDRC is involved in sanctioning of projects too. Its colossal evolution has been accompanied by inevitable downsides with concerns over its diktat and authoritarianism.
These are the very early days of the NITI Aayog, making it impossible to grasp its ambitions and the extent to which it plans to stamp its authority on the country’s economic landscape. It is not clear whether it will have an inter-departmental and ministerial coordination function like the NDRC. The NDRC can do this easily due to the structure of the Chinese polity and government. The State Council is in several ways the last word in the Chinese government and the NDRC is its blessed child. The NITI Aayog too has the blessings of the Indian prime minister, the most powerful individual in the Indian government. But the complex structure of the Indian executive and polity might force the NITI Aayog to play a relatively restrictive role. It is difficult to visualise other key ministries in India relinquishing their turfs to the NITI Aayog and playing second fiddle. The NITI Aayog might, therefore, be closer to the construct of a think-tank than the NDRC is, which has a pronounced implementing responsibility.
The NDRC–NITI Aayog comparison also needs to note a vital difference between the Chinese and Indian policy-making approaches. Notwithstanding its embracing the paradigm of socialist market economy, China has not abandoned planning. It has refashioned planning for suiting its modern needs. Five-year plans continue to remain the overarching policy framework in China.
After creating the NITI Aayog, the bigger question now is to see if India gives up five-year plans. If it does, then the NITI Aayog would be far more sharply distinct than the NDRC.
The author is a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal