Reviews

‘Portraits of Power: Half a Century of Being at Ringside’ review: Bureaucrat, politician, bon vivant

In 2000, N.K. Singh, along with Professor Anne Krueger, founding Director of Stanford's Center for Research on Economic Development and Policy Reform, were the curators of the Annual Stanford Conference on Indian Economic Reform, a mix of policy, political, and academic takes on India’s economic trajectory. It was invariably a lively gathering, zig-zagging from discussions of regression techniques and soundness of assumptions (thanks to the watchful and exacting eye of the late T.N. Srinivasan), to what could almost be called gossip on current events and contretemps. It was at this conference that we — an economics graduate student from northern Vermont and (at the time) a Deputy Reserve Bank of India Governor — met and started our longer-running and ongoing discussion on infrastructure, cities, and Indian economic policy with each other and NK, as we call him.

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Portraits of Power is in many ways the extension of the same man who orchestrated the Stanford gathering, and brought a theoretical discussion of auction design down to earth with sharp questions. NK has been a ringside observer and player in public policy, in the domestic sphere at both the Central and State levels, in the international sphere representing India at a host of bilateral and multilateral settings, in being an interlocutor between academia and public policy, and also between business and government. His must be a career that is without parallel in Indian public policy circles. NK is equally comfortable in communicating with the best academic minds in the world, with domestic leaders, politicians, with international statesman, heads of domestic and international businesses, musicians and artists. Moreover, along with these substantive interactions he cultivates warm personal relationships with almost all the people that he interacts with.

Personal reflections

The book is well-curated. It provides a comprehensive picture of post-Independence history — a history of momentous events and key international relationships during times of both geopolitical and economic evolution globally — illustrated through stories of particular individuals and personalised anecdotes. The introduction alone, for example, starts with personal reflections on the influences that the long shadow of colonialism and the immediate heritage of NK’s parents had on his youth — then moves rapidly through stints in Bihar, the Ministry of Commerce, Japan, Ministry of Finance, the Vajpayee PMO, the Planning Commission, the Rajya Sabha, and the Fifteenth Finance Commission. What the book documents so well is the enthusiasm he brings to each and every role that he finds himself in, no doubt an outcome of his consistent and boundless optimism. NK is always an actor and leader, never a mere observer. “In writing my autobiography, I have sought to organise my thoughts in symmetry with my career path,” NK notes. The symmetry generates a narrative arc that that rivals any account of India’s modern history.

NK’s warmth and personal style is apparent in the way that he brings the individuals he describes — from ancestors to Prime Ministers — to life with personal details that give the reader something like a ringside view of historic events, with a human twist. At times, the dramatic reappearance of characters from earlier chapters — a friend from the 1980s in Japan, for example, making a cameo in 1991 at a critical moment in Paris — gives the series a near novelistic quality. Except that these are real life events that have shaped history and the present.

The book offers a collection of memories from an individual who, at a personal level, has engaged with some of the most momentous times and personalities in modern Indian history.

Those interested in post-war global economic history will find rare perspectives on India’s engagement with UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), and a chapter on some of the formative years of India’s relationship with Japan. Those interested in the interplay of economics, politics, and personalities in the lead-up to India’s 1991 economic turning point will find a chapter on that too, with details on disputes, decisions, and even some of the day-by-day developments in critical periods. For those interested in how India’s federalism operates in practice, there are ample anecdotes elaborating a history of party politics, federal complexity, and the challenges of managing change across these scales.

Pushing for rational reforms

At a policy level, NK has engaged very closely with most economic policy reforms over the last 30 years. He has been diligent, committed and passionate in attempting to foster well-founded rational reforms based on best academic knowledge and practice, and suited for the needs of the place and time. He is consistently positive: we never hear a word of despair or disappointment through all the vicissitudes of economic policymaking that India has gone through since 1991. That is what explains why all governments during this period have sought his advice and participation at the highest policy levels. He probably stands unique in this respect.

What is remarkable about this book is the level of detail that he invariably provides on each and every activity that he recounts: the tortuous discussions that took place with the multilaterals in the early 1990s; his active role in the fashioning of major infrastructure reforms and programmes covering telecommunications and roads in Vajpayee’s PMO; the intricacies involved in developing the Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme in The Planning Commission; his active involvement as a member of Parliament in the framing of many bills ranging from children’s education to money-laundering, reform of tax administration, human resource development. Similar details are recounted with verve of his innumerable interactions with foreign interlocutors ranging from Michel Camdessus (former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund), Larry Summers (former U.S. Treasury Secretary), Nick Stern (British economist), Tharman Shanmugaratnam (Singapore minister), Klaus Schwab (World Economic Forum), among others. NK’s memory is clearly phenomenal.

Public service

In penning this book, NK has performed a real public service by providing a personal narrative on what is involved in policymaking at its best: the importance of attention to detail married with overall high-level focus on key policy objectives, lubricated by the generation of mutual trust through cultivation of warm personal relationships. Portraits of Power is sure to be interesting for both newcomers and old hands alike — there are details of meetings, interaction, twists and turns along the way to the history that we know, and plenty of insider details that will be new to even insiders, but also accessible, with enough explanation and context.

NK’s commitment to preserving symmetry aside, there are sufficient loops back and reflections to also help connect this saga — in the best sense of the word — of the past to understanding the present. The book offers pragmatic attention to possibilities, grounded in the wisdom of decades. It is excellent reading for this unique time.

Portraits of Power: Half a Century of Being at Ringside; N.K. Singh, Rupa, ₹595.

Rakesh Mohan is President and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress (formerly Brookings India) and Jessica Seddon is Visiting Fellow, Chadha Center for Global India at Princeton University.

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