The PMO should tell its economic advisers to be more discreet - or quit

About ten years ago, a new member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (PM-EAC) rang me up to ask if I knew what the rules were about speaking to the press. I asked him why he wanted to know and after some demur he said he had been asked by the Chairman of the Council not to speak to the press and that only he, the Chairman, would do so.

The time may have come for Bibek Debroy, who is the current Chairman, to do something similar. His colleagues on the Council are shooting their mouths off about the economy, adding to the sense of looming disaster that is already dominating the mood.

One member has been grating on about a fiscal crisis as if we didn’t know. Another says the finance ministry is just an accounting agency. 

This is happening partly because the members in question see themselves as academics and therefore don’t feel bound by rules. They forget that once they have signed on to a government agency their freedoms become circumscribed by government rules. 

If they don’t like it, they can quit, as one member in fact did before the general election. But they can’t have it both ways. Whatever they have to say must be said internally.

Sshhh…

The simple fact is this: as members of the Council their opinions acquire an importance that would not be there otherwise. That’s why they must choose between freedom of expression and retaining their positions, never mind that they are part-time.

Indeed, I have a serious problem with this idea of part-time members. It should be done away with because, as the saying goes, you cannot be half-pregnant. 

 
It is possible that some or all of these part-time members are honorary. But that is no excuse. Either you are a member or you are not. If yes, then be discreet.

 
Nor is it that what these members are saying is so profound that it must be said. Far from it. Much of it is trite common knowledge. 

It is also not as if in the past members of the government or of its agencies have not had strong views. But there has never been an instance when such people aired their opinions in the media.

One could argue, as some people do, not without some justification, that the PMEAC doesn’t matter in the current dispensation. The fact is that it has never mattered to any government. It has always been a piece of decoration used for finding favourites an office and a car.

But that surely is not the issue. The important thing is that the layperson attributes to it an importance that far transcends its actual role in policymaking. It is this perception that is important, not its actual importance.

Et tu, Brutus

Also, assuming that he has been quoted correctly, the Chairman of Niti Aayog, who happens to be a very good friend of mine, has also been quite remiss in saying that India has never before seen a financial crisis of this magnitude. He may well be right, but he is not. 

But did he, of all persons, have to say it? All things considered therefore the PMO would be well-advised to tell its economists to be more discreet – or quit.


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