The demise of Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Isher to her friends, has left a deep void in many lives, including mine. I had known Isher for decades. Her warmth, affection and appropriateness on every occasion were, to say the least, overwhelming. It would be fair to say that the academic and research communities have lost a brilliant economist and an institution builder.
I have known her husband Montek Singh Ahluwalia for much longer, having studied with him at St Stephen’s College and thereafter as he pursued his career with the World Bank. I came in closer contact with Isher after Montek’s return to India when he was an important Joint Secretary during the tenure of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Thereafter, my interactions with Isher spanned over several facets of my career.
During the critical years of India’s balance of payments crisis, she was an informal, but very mature advisor to what the Delhi circles often pejoratively described as the Singh Darbar (this meant Manmohan Singh, Montek and, perhaps, me). She never intruded, in any way, with the decision-making process, but her congenital reform instincts greatly contributed in enabling the policy leadership to adopt the changes which liberated India’s economy. She played this informal advisory role with great equanimity and rectitude. Rectitude was also a guiding factor both in her personal and official life.
Looking at Isher’s independent career as a professional economist, there could be no better description than the one she has used in her autobiography titled Breaking Through. In the chapter “The Battleground”, she describes a critical phase in India’s economic reforms when Montek was the Finance Secretary: “He was entering what would become the most exciting phase of his career, with the longest tenure as Finance Secretary. I had reasons to be satisfied that my work contributed to the change in thinking. My challenge now was to avoid becoming Mrs Finance Secretary!”
Her independence of thinking and contribution to institution building has been summed up in this sentence. While providing perfect companionship to Montek and mentorship to her sons Pawan and Aman, she never compromised on her integrity and identity as an academic and serious researcher.
It was during this period that both of us were members of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), which, at that time, was in its formative stage. The late K B Lall had set up this institution and had drawn some people whom he had mentored in the past including Amar Nath Verma, Montek, Isher and myself. When Isher became the director of ICRIER, she soon realised that autonomy of research organisations must be paramount. No research entity would have credibility unless it is independent of governmental interference. At that stage, ICRIER was dependent, in no small measure, on the financial support received from the Ministry of Finance. She felt uncomfortable and embarked on the challenging trajectory of making ICRIER financially independent. She was relentless in her pursuit, seeking endowments and creating a corpus, which did enable ICRIER to become a fully independent and, in the truest sense of the term, autonomous research organisation.
In these complex endeavours, she never allowed the highest quality of research at ICRIER to be compromised. Her eye for the best talent was ever-roving to secure academics and researchers who could contribute to high-quality research. It is no surprise that ICRIER has been rated among the leading independent think-tank institutions, even by the daunting international standards. Institution-building and their long-term financial viability in this country are never easy. Isher realised this challenge first as ICRIER’s director and, subsequently, as the chairperson emeritus of the Board of Governors for the last 15 years. Given her passion, I remained a member of the Board until giving up this responsibility to accept my current office.
Isher was also a great believer in enhancing academic understanding between India and major global economic players. In no small measure, her support was critical to the continuation of the Neemrana Conference where ICRIER became a co-partner with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and at the annual conference of the Stanford University Centre for International Development. Her presence was catalytic in securing an interaction between key US and Indian academics, policy-makers and leading corporates on emerging global challenges. The seeds of many economic reforms were sowed during these conferences. Her legacy in other international institutions as the chairperson of the board of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the chairperson of the High-Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure Services is invaluable.
Isher will be sorely missed. In multiple ways, she has lived up to every expectation she had of herself of not being described as Mrs Finance Secretary. Of her legacy, it will be apt to quote the American philosopher William James. who has said: “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” I have no doubt that ICRIER will fulfil this quest.
The writer is chairman, 15th Finance Commission
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