I had written for newspapers earlier, but serious journalism began in 1982. George Verghese, then editor of The Indian Express, asked Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, senior professor at the Delhi School of Economics, if he would write a column on economics. Mrinal, out of characteristic generosity, and an awareness of his own work ethic, passed the buck on to me and persuaded Verghese. And I took the plunge with my column: “Economic Graffiti”. It turned out to be one of my best decisions. I was 30, more interested in economic theory and philosophy than in policy and politics. The column became my tether to the real world. I came to understand journalism’s critical role in society — that of holding our leaders and policy-makers accountable. I learnt to appreciate the huge responsibility and the commitment to truth that comes with it.
Looking back 35 years is a fascinating experience. On most days, in the ample parking area of the Delhi School of Economics, there would be just two cars, belonging to two professors. All students and most professors travelled by bus; some of the most celebrated researchers and teachers (A.L. Nagar and K.L. Krishna come easily to mind) would arrive on their bicycles.
I used to take the bus from Nizamuddin, jostling to find a foothold, let alone a seat. The bus went through Daryaganj, carts, two-wheelers and tongas rubbing shoulders with poorly-designed cars, the Government of India’s licensing system holding all competition at bay. Shopfronts jostled for space with pedestrians and vendors, and there was the signboard, Asian Institute of Something — I forget what — that added in parenthesis, to guard against the risk of losing any potential student: “(Entrance from the Backside)”.
Those were times when security was of no concern. A few years later, I bought a rickety, second-hand car. Driving to work one morning, close to Kashmiri Gate, I was caught in a traffic jam, a total standstill. Worried I would miss the PhD viva examination I was going to conduct, I got off the car, locked the door, walked out of the jam and took a two-wheeler to Delhi School. After the viva, I rushed back to the place of the jam. There was my car, in the middle of the road, autos and buses unmindfully speeding past it. India is now one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. This would have been unthinkable in my Delhi School days. We were proud of India’s open society, its vibrant media, the culture of free speech and the right to criticise the government, qualities rarely found outside advanced nations. But our economy was not something to be proud of. Over 50 per cent of the population was below the poverty line, illiteracy rates were shockingly high and growth was sluggish.
This has begun to change. Annual growth breached the 9 per cent mark for three consecutive years, starting from 2005. India’s IT sector is a world leader. And try finding parking space at the Delhi School of Economics now. All this is good news — but it is also a time of dark clouds worldwide. There is conflict and bigotry at levels not witnessed since World War II. Journalism’s responsibility is at a new high. It has to speak truth to power; it has to place the best ideas on the table — even though they may not make the writer popular. That is the writer’s predicament.
I believe one’s normative and ethical position should not interfere with one’s positive analysis. Just as a mathematician’s ideology — whether she is a socialist or a conservative — has no bearing on the fixed-point theorem she proves, whether an economist is a communist or a communalist should have no effect on his analysis of the effects of demonetisation.
I will try to keep that objectivity, but, to put all the cards on the table, my ethical sympathies are liberal. Let me explain before the trolls reach for the keyboard. I believe it is better to have an inclusive, tolerant society with individual freedom, so that people can be creative in science, the arts and in business. I believe the level of inequality in the world is unconscionable. A vastly more equitable world is possible and we must work towards that.
I have never been a member of a political party. A discipline of thought dictated to me, be it from a person, party or religious text, is difficult for me to live with. When I was in college in Delhi in the early 1970s, the communist movement picked up among students. I had many friends who were part of it. While, as with all large groups, there were some charlatans, for most of them, the driving force was their conscience. They were from middle-class families disturbed by the unfairness all around and by the fact that they lived so well while India was ravaged by poverty and deprivation. They were not pushing for narrow objectives of their family, their caste group or their community, but had more all-embracing ambition.
Yet, as they took to the streets — many of them gave up college to work among the poor — it was evident to me that it would not go well. They did not have a viable blueprint for what they were trying to build. The idealism would eventually die and a few people would capture power and wealth once again. There is no surprise that, where it was tried, the last stage of communism turned out to be crony capitalism. This is what brings me back to the enterprise of knowledge and the power of discovering ideas (not of asserting that we had them 5,000 years ago). That is what took humankind to the moon, gave us the modern vaccine and the internet. It is human creativity that enabled us to think of viable universal healthcare and social welfare. Politics and policy can be as creative as science and literature. That is our collective responsibility.
The writer, former chief economist of the World Bank, is Professor of Economics and C. Marks Professor at Cornell University