It sounds a cliché, but the death of Ashok Mitra, on May 1, marks the passing of an era. He had been a professor, at Kolkata, Lucknow and Varanasi, a policymaker, in Delhi, Kolkata and Washington, and a politician, having served for long years as finance minister in the Communist government in West Bengal. He had been a consummate columnist, writing in the Economic and Political Weekly, The Telegraph and elsewhere. I don’t know if “obituarist” is a word, but for Ashok Mitra it deserves to be created. He was the master obituarist. His long life of 90 years gave him the opportunity to write many obituaries, for friends and foes alike. Always a gifted writer, on these occasions he rose to a level of poignancy that has few peers.
These varied activities allow us to describe him in many different ways but, above all, he was the quintessential intellectual. Over the years, I met him in many different locales and settings but the backdrop that captured him best was his book-lined home of the last years of his life, in Kolkata. There he would be in his study, the diminutive man, in his starched white dhoti and kurta, with books covering the walls and shelves and coffee tables, ever ready for an “adda” — conversation with no well-defined purpose, that could range over history, politics, economics and the genealogy of people. His home summed up a Kolkata of once-upon-a-time. It was the hub of left-wing thinkers. Like at the watering hole of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, friends came from all over the country, to debate, discuss, bond and fall out.
While mentioning Sartre and Simone, one cannot not mention the public spat Ashok Mitra had with Ashok Rudra over these two famed lovers and intellectuals. The debate was about who among the two was the greater mind. It was not clear that its resolution was of any consequence —for India, for the world, or for anyone. In fact, I have to confess I have forgotten who was on which side, but recall they argued with passion and fury as if their lives depended on it. You did not have to be prescient to predict that Ashok Mitra, undoubtedly one of the great intellectuals of our time, would not make for an effective finance minister. He did not.
One of my first encounters with Ashok Mitra was in the late 1970s, when my friend, the economist Pulin Nayak, and I invited Raja Chelliah and Ashok Mitra to give public lectures on Centre-state relations in India. It was a jam-packed auditorium. My most vivid memory of the event was just before it began: As I waited with Ashok Mitra outside the lecture theatre, he kept pacing up and down and I could hear him mutter the word “nervous”. As he went in to speak, I caught the full sentence: “Delhi’s audience makes me nervous.” The reason this is stuck in my head is because when he spoke he gave no evidence of any nerves.
The two most striking traits of Ashok Mitra were his intellectual honesty and compassion for the poor and the dispossessed. The inequities of the world appalled and angered him and led him to believe in the possibility of the Communist project of a classless society.
Despite my admiration for him, I must point out that his emotions sometimes overcame his reason and this led to some important policy mistakes. The ideal of a world in which people work according to their abilities and earn according to their needs is indeed a magnificent conception. Ashok Mitra’s mistake was to think that there was an easy way to get there and to hold the world in that equilibrium.
This is the reason why his policies as West Bengal’s finance minister did a lot of damage to the economy. For all his idealism and scholarship, the policies he advocated would not and did not take the economy in the direction he wanted it to go. Growth faltered and, more importantly, the state’s higher education was damaged beyond measure during his time. English education in schools had a setback. The destruction of these “elitisms” would have been worthwhile if they led to greater equality or marked a rise in education for the masses. But that did not happen.
Sadly, I got to see little of Ashok Mitra in his last years because of a falling out. When I was Chief Economic Adviser to the Indian government, I had in a paper proposed asymmetric treatment of those involved in cases of bribery. I suggested that in cases where bribery was pure harassment (being used to make citizens pay for things that are their right), bribe giving should be treated as legal; only bribe taking should be punished. Ashok Mitra wrote an angry article in The Telegraph, attacking not just my idea but me.
I was not upset because I knew Ashok Mitra well enough to have known that this would infuriate him. My idea sounded immoral and Ashok Mitra would not have the patience or clarity to see it was not. We exchanged some letters, but it was not the same after that. Also, the fact that I was Chief Economic Adviser to the Indian government and, later, worked at the World Bank, did not help.
But then he was also the Chief Economic Adviser to the Indian government (during Indira Gandhi’s time) and worked at the World Bank (for longer than I did). I was puzzled. Did he erase these from his memory? Did he carry a distaste for himself for these? I do not have the answers. I draw attention to them only to present a full picture of this complex personality.
Ashok Mitra was a person of great human warmth. He was anguished and angered by the poverty and inequality in the world. The anger at times hindered thinking through what should be done to banish them. And he made mistakes. But with all his contradictions, as an intellectual he was a towering figure, reminiscent of the left-wing French intellectuals of the mid-20th century, a person India can truly be proud of. I will deeply miss Ashokda and his writings, especially the obituaries of those who have the misfortune of dying after him.