Two books that can help us Indians understand ourselves better

Kaushik Basu’s journal of a policy maker and Amartya Sen’s memoir provide a bird’s eyeview of their world. While Sen’s memoir is majestic in its sweep, Basu’s is frothy and economical

Two books that can help us Indians understand ourselves better

Uttam Sengupta

What if Indians were as obsessed with economics, mathematics and philosophy as they are with politics? The question kept crossing my mind as I alternated between reading Kaushik Basu’s journal of a policy maker and Amartya Sen’s memoir, both released in July.

Basu and Sen’s books in many ways are similar. They are both memoirs and sparkle with wit and humour. Both provide insights into places and people. Both provide accounts of a staggering number of eminent people they have met, mostly the famous but also the not-so-famous, and Basu’s love for local food, art and culture, and his penchant for combining bus rides and walks during official visits, come as a bonus.

While Sen’s memoir is majestic in its sweep, Basu’s is frothy and economical. Both have scrupulously avoided recalling unpleasant experiences they surely would have had. Both write fondly about friends and family, about economics, philosophy and algebra, about politics in universities and government offices and a lot more.

Two books that can help us Indians understand ourselves better

Sen in his memoir provides a fascinating glimpse of classical, conservative, Marxist and liberal economists in Cambridge and at MIT across the ocean. He also writes affectionately of his stint in Delhi School of Economics and how he was chosen.

When he was offered a position at the Delhi School, he was told that Prof VKRV Rao had retired but had stipulated that he would vacate the chair only when he came across a deserving successor. So, Amartya Sen recalls, on a visit to Delhi he was invited for a South Indian lunch at home by Prof Rao, at the end of which it suggested that Sen could apply for the position.

While the method of appointment may shock Indian bureaucrats (politicians and the people were shocked when Sen as Chancellor picked up Gopa Sabharwal as VC of the Nalanda University during UPA-2. It was pointed out that Sabharwal was far too junior and was not qualified etc. Sen would have laughed at such outrage, I guess, because he himself had been invited when he was merely 23 years of age, to set up the Department of Economics at Jadavpur University. The last seven years have done little to prove him wrong though.)

Kaushik Basu refers to this rigid, hierarchical mindset. There were three Secretaries to the Government of India in the Finance Ministry when he was appointed the Chief Economic Advisor; and a separate and special bathroom was earmarked for the three with three towels marked with their respective designations: Finance Secretary, Revenue Secretary and Expenditure Secretary. The CEA also got his towel in due course, Basu wryly observes.

On a more serious plane he observes that one of the reasons why the Indian Government is less efficient is because of the culture of ‘Permissionism’, the system of obtaining permission for everything from everyone. Everyone, he writes, is involved in every decision. No objection certificates had to be accumulated from a chain of officials before even a casual leave is sanctioned.

Basu, first as Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India and thereafter as the Chief Economist at the World Bank, provides a ring-side view of policy making. A lot less diplomatic than Sen, he blames ‘political consensus’ in the making of poor economic policies. It is like designing an airplane by consensus, he writes, with the majority deciding that the nose should tilt to the left. Such a plane by consensus, he observes, would probably never fly, leaving readers to speculate why the Government in India functions poorly.

What little Basu has chosen to share about his experience in the Government of India—and he has been careful in avoiding controversies---makes for delightful reading.The anecdotes leave the reader chuckling but with a nagging feeling that he is missing out on the complete picture. To that extent, Basu may have lost an opportunity to show us the mirror by choosing to stick to the diary format.

Indian bureaucrats, he notes, would never admit to not having an answer to a question. They would instead come up with answers to questions which had not been asked. Some bureaucrats would pick up the art of making political statements which nobody would follow and therefore nobody would say they were wrong.

Some of his days would be spent attending too many meetings, about some of which he had no clue and for which he had done no homework, Basu confesses. Arriving at a meeting he tried to find out what was on the agenda for discussion. The reply he got was, ‘the usual, useless things’. He then changed tack and tried to find out who would be attending. This time the reply was, well, here, you never can tell. The interlocutor, it struck him, was possibly as clueless as him.

At yet another blind date, Basu is horrified to find that he was not only expected to attend the meeting but that he was actually chairing it. He had planned to sit in a corner and find out the drift. But cornered, he chaired the meeting and apparently asked all the right questions without realizing what they were discussing and what GBS, the term being freely bandied, actually was. GBS, he learnt later, was Gross Budgetary Support. Such ironical and possibly exaggerated anecdotes liven up the book.

His tenure in the World Bank as the Chief Economist was marked by several interesting encounters. Basu recalls how Bill Gates invited him to a dinner at an Indian restaurant close to where Basu lived in Washngton’s Georgetown area. It was not a fancy restaurant but Gates explained that he liked Indian food and this was the restaurant closest to his hotel, Four Seasons. For the sake of privacy and possibly security, the entire first floor was booked for the six of them. At the end of the dinner Basu and Gates walked back to their home and hotel, Basu musing what was special about Gates.

Basu recalls another meeting in the White House where he was invited to a discussion prior to President Obama’s visit to India after 2014. The President also joined the discussion as part of the preparation.

The World Bank assignment took allowed him to meet Presidents and Prime Ministers, one of whom sang ‘Dost Dost Na Raha’ after a few pegs of whisky. He travelled to Samoa, a small island nation in the Pacific, and found there were four people of Indian origin in the country. He could not meet the Bengali Mathematician but visited the Indian restaurant run by a manager from Mumbai’s Kalyan with two cooks from Dehradun.

Walking back from a dinner in Peru, he and his staff saw a girl child crying on the sidewalk. Her mother had asked her to wait while she went back home to pick up something. So, the girl waited with a bag but she was now feeling hungry and also lonely. Basu and his team ask her what was inside the bag and she confides that it had food but she could not eat it because it was for sale. The World Bank team solved the problem by first buying the entire bagful and then offering the food back to the girl to eat.

Both Sen and Basu have contributed more to the country of their origin than they care to point out. But whether the country has made good use of their talent is a different question. The books are a good starting points though for Indians to understand ourselves better.

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