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N.K. Singh’s book delights and disappoints in equal measure.

Arnab Mitra | Print Edition: Sept 9, 2007

The politics of change

N K Singh
Viking
Pp: 234
Price: Rs 395

This is an insider’s views on the intricacies and intersections of Indian politics and economics and the fault lines and compromises that finally define policies and actions that affect the nation. N.K. Singh has long been one of Delhi’s “insiders”. In his career as a bureaucrat, he has held important positions in economically important departments and in the Planning Commission. This makes him privy to the inner workings of the corridors of power.

Since retiring from the government in 2004, he has been writing a regular column, “From the Ringside” in The Indian Express and The Financial Express. The Politics of Change is a collection of essays that appeared in those papers and offers insights into the inner workings of the government. But while Singh does write very good copy, the book disappoints those who pick it up expecting details about how important, but contentious and often fiercely contested, proposals translated into official policy. It covers only the period after 2004, when he was no longer in government. So, while we get an insider’s perspective, the insider’s account is sadly lacking.

But, in his own gentle style, he does occasionally chide the political class. “It is ironic that deputy chairmen of the Planning Commission speak one language when they are in Yojana Bhawan and another on becoming finance ministers,” he writes and mentions N.D. Tiwari, Pranab Mukherjee and Jaswant Singh in this context. “The ‘halo’ of any deputy chairman is related to his success in getting Prime Ministers to overrule niggardly finance ministers.” Now, we know why the government takes forever to arrive at decisions.

Singh has always been a vocal proponent of the logic of economic reforms, but he’s not the mindless free-marketeer that some critics make him out to be. In the chapter on the functioning of the public sector, he says the approach to disinvesment “represents the prevalent ideological predilections, not necessarily the dictates of economic logic… Privatisation is not an all-embracing panacea, nor can all public undertakings be privatised in the foreseeable future… their improvement creates gainful virtuous circles”. It is statements like these that prove Singh’s enviable reputation as a man who is able to get along with all shades of opinion without difficulty.

These and other observations and insights whet one’s appetite, but don’t quite satisfy the hunger. Hopefully, Singh will get down to writing his memoirs which will recount the inside story of how this onetime Third World basket case has become the toast of the world in only one-and-a-half decades.

A billion bootstraps

Philip Smith and Eric ThurmanTata
McGraw-Hill
Pp: 224
Price: Rs 495

In the world of finance, one of the most powerful innovations over the last three decades has been the concept of microfinance. In fact, it has proved to be so effective in changing the lives of millions of poor in developing countries that its innovator, Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank (which he founded in Bangladesh in 1976), were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

In India, too, about a dozen microfinance institutions are trying to create a successful industry out of lending small-ticket loans to help the poor become micro-entrepreneurs. A Billion Bootstraps, jointly written by an entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist (that’s Phil Smith) and an expert on philanthropy, is meant to:

a) showcase what microcredit can do to fight poverty, and,

b) urge donors, including individuals, to put their money in microfinance rather than any plain vanilla philanthropic ventures. “A microcredit loan is often the only break impoverished people receive that can move them up the rungs of the economic ladder in their communities,” writes Smith, who got his big break in life thanks to a $50,000 loan.

Citing case studies from around the world, Smith and Thurman go on to argue why microcredit is the best vehicle of philanthropy for anyone who is serious about helping reduce inequities in the world. It’s hard to disagree with them. After all, microfinance isn’t just about giving money out to people, but it’s also about helping them stand on their own feet with dignity.

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