In his trademark style, Sunil Jain was always first off the blocks. Weeks before the budget, sometimes months, he would request a budget day op-ed for The Financial Express. This year was no different. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to honour his request this time because of work commitments on budget day. So when I wrote about the budget in another newspaper a week later, he shot back in his characteristically witty manner: “Very nice piece… pity it was in the wrong newspaper”. He was, of course, only joking, signing off with a naughty smile. I replied that the next piece would definitely be for him, which he enthusiastically welcomed. Four months later, it’s unfathomable to think that piece would not be for Sunil, but about him. Such is the incomprehensible and surreal reality that has characterised our existence for the last 15 months.
I knew Sunil for a decade, and that too professionally — a shorter and different relationship than his close friends and acquaintances — but, despite that, a 900-word op-ed appears inadequate to do justice to his unique and quintessential traits: A remarkable astuteness about economics and policy, a burning passion about getting to the bottom of things, and an unflinching desire to say what he felt was right for the country, inevitably laced with an uncommon directness. Anyone who knew Sunil would have guessed that his intellectual curiosity and zeal would be in overdrive when faced with an existential crisis such as Covid. True to form, Sunil was in his element over the last year, churning out incisive op-ed after op-ed, on every important issue of the day.
His astuteness was evident in his early recognition that a strong fiscal response was critical not just to hold the economy together during the crisis, but to safeguard macroeconomic stability thereafter. That India’s debt dynamics depended more on medium term growth than they did on the exact pace of fiscal normalisation. That India needed to grow its way out of this crisis and government spending was key to minimise the scarring. That, counter intuitively, fiscal conservatism could be counterproductive to fiscal sustainability. And so he wrote op-ed after op-ed making these linkages and arguing for a strong fiscal response from early on in the crisis. The latest GDP print which showed that government spending was key to propping up growth in the January-March quarter would have vindicated his writings and efforts.
The astuteness was also on display when — contrary to the common perception that India’s intercontinental size should reflexively argue for the primacy of domestic demand — he recognised the criticality of exports. That exports were the lynchpin of India’s growth burst in the first decade of this millennium. That no emerging market had grown without strong export growth. That there was a symbiotic relationship between imports and exports, such that streamlining the former was the key to success with the latter. True to form, he prolifically turned out piece after piece fervently arguing for the urgency of stoking export growth and situating this imperative amidst the broader constituents of GDP: C+I+G+X-M. When I joked that his economic acuity was going to put professional economists out of work, he shot back with characteristic nonchalance and humility: “I’m just a good note taker!”
His passion came through in almost everything he wrote and was particularly on display on the vaccination policy in recent months. One of his last columns entitled, “That little thing called economics”, effectively became a “Microeconomics 101” class, augmented with supply and demand curves and shaded triangles depicting deadweight losses. One could almost envision professor Jain animatedly walking around a classroom pleading with his audience to see the light. Agree or disagree with Sunil, he left everything on the field.
His passion also came through when he occasionally met foreign investors — who were keen to elicit his thoughts on the economy — in person in New Delhi, in the pre-Covid days. Inevitably, a one-hour lunch spilled over into twice the agreed time because a passionate Sunil was reeling off facts and figures that had his listeners captivated. Of course, no such meeting ended without Sunil espousing a strong view on the topic!
Ultimately, his desire to embrace what’s best for the country was reflected in his non-ideological approach to economics. His writings are testimony that he could not be lazily bucketed into a liberal or conservative stereotype. He was equally comfortable calling for increased government spending and income support to prevent scarring of households and SMEs, as he was for sounding a clarion call for privatisation and more market-friendly reforms.
This comes through starkly in his last pre-budget column, “Five things to judge the budget by”, wherein he batted for “expenditure growth to be high, a lot of privatisation, no new cesses, big infra-push and 1991-style sweeping reform”. This just confirms Sunil wasn’t constrained by tying his mast to any one economic philosophy. Instead, always informed by data, he passionately advocated what he thought was best for the country at that point in time.
For the readers of Sunil’s much-followed “Rational Expectations” column, there is nothing rational nor expected about his untimely departure. Whether you agreed with his views or not — and there was sometimes plenty to disagree with — Sunil’s unique combination of remarkable astuteness, passion and frankness is irreplaceable. All that the rest of us can now do is continue championing the many worthy causes that he so passionately espoused.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 4, 2021 under the title ‘Voice that couldn’t be boxed in’. The writer is chief India economist, J.P. Morgan. Views are personal.