NITI Aayog, the Narendra Modi government’s think-tank, is headless following the resignation of Arvind Panagariya, its Vice-Chairman. On July 26th, Panagariya wrote to the Prime Minister requesting to be relieved of his position. The move followed his failed attempts to get more leave from Columbia University.

Panagariya was Modi’s pick for the pivotal job when the government dissolved the Planning Commission and replaced it with the NITI Aayog, as committed in the BJP’s Election Manifesto of 2014.

The NITI Aayog chief had informed the Prime Minister about his leave position with Columbia University almost two months ago. “The announcement is sudden, but the decision was not sudden. My leave from Columbia University was for two years, and I have already done two years and eight months here. I did try for an extension but it did not materialise,” Panagariya told BusinessLine.

Job dilemma He has sought to be relieved by August 31. Had Panagariya decided to continue, it would have meant resigning from his teaching job at the University.

“There was a general feeling that the University may consider Panagariya’s request and extend his leave for at least another two years,” a person in the know of the development said.

Talk about his possible replacement is already doing the rounds. But will the government, which will now have only one economist in Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Adviser to the Finance Ministry, risk choosing another outsider or appoint a politician? Dismissing such talk, a senior official said: “First his resignation has to be acknowledged, then all these issues will be considered.”

Professor of Indian Political Economy at Columbia University, Panagariya, 64, had been appointed as Vice-Chairman of the NITI Aayog by Modi in January 2015, soon after the think-tank was set up. He was previously Deputy Chairman of the Rajasthan Chief Minister’s Advisory Council and had spearheaded reforms on tricky subjects, such as labour, in the State.

Key contributions Some key decisions of the Aayog include doing away with the Five-Year Plans and preparing three roadmaps for the economy — the 15-year Vision Document, the 7-year Strategy Document and the 3-year Action Agenda.

With no role in allocating funds to the States from the Union Budget, the Aayog worked on reforms in healthcare and education and the Smart City initiative with State governments.

It also coordinated with the Finance Ministry on subjects such as advancement of the Union Budget and merger of the Railway and General Budgets.

“The NITI Aayog has not fully established its role but in most cases it takes time for a new organisation to chart out its own role and characteristics,” noted Pronab Sen, Country Director for the International Growth Centre’s India Central Programme, and former Principal Advisor, Planning Commission.

“The role of NITI Aayog has been mixed to an extent because it has an inherently political structure that works along with the Prime Minister. Appointing a politician or a minister as the next Vice-Chairman may be a better move,” said an analyst, on condition of anonymity.