Grand ideas and gritty detail

Financial Express, 5 August 2007

Book review: Politics of Change - A Ringside View by N K Singh. Published by Penguin Viking and the Express Group, pages 254, price 395

N K Singh has been a key played in India's reform process. His book titled Politics of Change - A Ringside View offers the reader an insight the politics that shapes decisions about economic reforms. The book is a collection of articles which appeared in his column on Sundays in the Indian Express. They have been organised thematically. Given the slow pace of reforms, most of these columns, written over the last 3 years, after the UPA government came to power, are as relevant today as they were when written.

The author's vast knowledge and experience in the field of both domestic and international policy making in an array of fields are visible in the essays on various aspects of reform. The articles are based on the very active life of the author, who clearly attends a wealth of fascinating conferences, official meetings, in addition to encountering many interesting people. Unlike many others who lead such a life, N K Singh has managed to figure out the art of coming out of each of these with a story about the `most important big idea' that he found there. The reader feels like a friend to whom a story is being told of what interesting new ideas were found on the latest excursion.

In most cases, the articles serve as an effective summary of the issues in one field : where are we, what are the difficulties, what should we be doing next. The chapters flit easily between grand ideas and the gritty detail of the functioning of government. The author is obviously a master of the detail, and some of the most illuminating text is found when he talks about fine details about the functioning of government. While many of the chapters appear to superficially reflect what are well known ideas and themes, the strength of the book lies in fine details, where a depth of knowledge and insight is visible upon careful reading.

The two strongest sections of the book are on infrastructure and energy. The book shines in the field of infrastructure, where there are compact and competent pieces on various telecom, electricity, aviation, railways, etc. To me, this was the most valuable section of the book, for these essays exude the hands-on knowledge of the author.

A similar strong section is found in the field of energy, a sector where the policy framework in India is riddled with even more mistakes than is the case with infrastructure. The author diverges from mainstream Indian thinking on the subject with a considerable sensitivity to the issues of global warming, which will inevitably induce a substantial impact upon the direction of Indian energy policy.

The section titled "reforms" is a good survey of the front line of economic reforms in India - covering fields such as banking, pensions, food, patents, etc. I felt that it was excellent and valuable reading, where the reader gets a thousand word summary of the issues in each of these fields, along with the editorial judgment of the author on which are the key fields which must figure in such a rendition. A real gem here is the article `Time to repeal small cess acts', which focuses on an array of laws through which the government collects tiny revenues (e.g. Cine Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1981, which collected Rs.90 lakh in 2003-04). Any sensible Parliament should immediately repeal every one of the Acts mentioned in this article.

In summary, the book is an excellent rendition of the questions and the difficulties of Indian economic policy circa 2007. For me, reading the book was much more valuable than reading the newspaper column which has led up to the book. The ideas come together in a coherent whole in book form, in a way which did not happen with the columns. The book would be an excellent reading for a public policy course giving students an insight into the functioning and thinking of government and policy change. I would recommend it to all those who want to understand policy issues facing India today. It reveals the complexities and constraints of economic policy making in India. NK Singh's simple and clear style of writing makes the book very readable.

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