RAJIV KUMAR CALLS himself “a Naxalite of the 68 batch”. Now a proponent of Sahaja Yoga and Sufism, the NITI Aayog vice chairman’s journey from atheism to spirituality is a compelling story. He gave up a seat at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, to lead a revolution in Bihar. Inspired by Naxal leader Charu Majumdar, he tried to arouse the landless in a village in the state against the landlords. “Charu babu’s idea was that the gory death of the exploiter, whose head you will hang on the bamboo pole, will provoke the anger of those who have been exploited,” he says.
It, however, did not work that way, and Kumar started questioning the whole idea. Later, communist revolutionary Pol Pot’s atrocities in Cambodia and a book called The Secret Life of Plants played a major role in Kumar’s disenchantment with Marxism. “How can a philosophy that denies the existence of God and spirituality be true? I discovered that it was a big lie that was being practised by Charu babu. As the Chinese have realised, it is a false ideology,” he says.
If Marxism was a springtide obsession, Sahaja Yoga is his current love. He calls it an invention and a scientific system. His wife was the first one to get into it. Kumar loved his Scotch too much to relinquish it for yoga. But it was just a matter of time. “One of the great things about Sahaja Yoga is that it asks you to respect every incarnation,” he says. “The Aagya Chakra opens only when you pray to Jesus Christ and Mary. The Guru Chakra opens when you pray to Nanak, Mohammed and Zoroaster. The Moolaadhar is Ganesh, who is the pratham pujya (the first one to be worshipped).”
Kumar was not the first among those in contention for the post of NITI Aayog vice chair when Arvind Panagariya stepped down. But, he was always there on the government’s mind. When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, Kumar was among a group of economists who were called to meet the prime minister before the government’s first budget. The government later included him in the committee for financial sector recruitments. In 2016, a book he wrote on the prime minister (Modi and His Challenges) earned him a face-to face meeting with the man himself.
The breakthrough, however, came in July 2017—a caller from the Prime Minister’s Office asked if he would be interested in the post, as Panagariya was going back to teach in Columbia. Kumar instantly agreed. “At one point, my biggest ambition was to become a member of the Planning Commission,” he says. “This was much more than I could have asked for.”
NITI Aayog is not the first government stint for Kumar. He was an adviser at the department of industrial policy and promotion in the commerce ministry, and an economic adviser in the finance ministry when Manmohan Singh was finance minister.
When asked about the experience of working with two different personalities—Singh and Modi—Kumar said he had deep respect for both. Singh, he says, is a quintessentially western-educated economist. “I feel, at some stage, he could have put his foot down,” he says, referring to the scams during UPA II.
Modi, though not an economist, understands economics from the street level, he says. “His commitment to the national cause goes far beyond ambition. If he was convinced that his not remaining the PM would serve the national cause, he will leave it. He is quintessentially an RSS person, and for the RSS, the nation comes first, then it’s family and then yourself,” he says.
A big supporter of the demonetisation move, Kumar said he had suggested it to Singh, but nothing much happened.
How does he rate the Modi government’s four years? He says it has to be looked at in the context of the economy that was inherited by Modi. In macroeconomic terms, he says, it has been good—reduction in inflation, GDP growth and increase in public capex. “But, more important than that are the structural reforms that have been taken up by this government. The focus on inclusion, on the welfare of the last person in the queue,” he says. Also, there has not been any other four-year period since independence which has seen so many critical reforms—GST, Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, and codification of labour laws.
Kumar firmly believes that the state must deliver essential public services such as health care and education. Hence, he says, Ayushman Bharat is the need of the hour because 67 per cent of the health expenditure is going to the private sector, which only the rich can afford. A lot of these developments are being driven by NITI Aayog, and Kumar is in a hyperactive mode. He has visited 19 states in his nine months in office. The NITI Aayog has drawn up a five-year strategy document. It is working on doubling farmers’ income and is designing a strategy for e-mobility.
Kumar loves reading and writing, and the weekends are mostly dedicated for that. Is there a retirement plan? “My wife has bought a farm near Hapur,” he says. “We built a small house, and there are cows and our organic farm. I will live there. I would like to write about Sahaja Yoga and philosophy. And, as long as there is internet, I can work from anywhere.”