I had no reason to get to know Jagat Mehta. He was one of those who came of age during India’s transition to Independence. Had he been with us he would be one hundred this month.
I knew of him of course. From the newspapers. He was the foreign secretary when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the External Affairs Minister in the Janata government of the late 1970s — a committed Nehruvian (he worked as Nehru’s private secretary in his early years in the IAS) who made such a success of his partnership with Vajpayee that Indira Gandhi felt compelled to fire him when she returned to power. These were years of unusual cordiality between India and Pakistan, and key water-sharing agreements were negotiated. Jagatsaheb, as he was widely known, was justly proud of the achievements of those years. He gave a lot of credit to Vajpayee, who despite being ideologically close to the RSS, was capable of genuine warmth and empathy, which goes a long way in diplomacy. But I imagine Jagatsaheb, with his commitment to finding mutually acceptable solutions and above all, an effortless graciousness that extended to one and all, must have played a central role.
That graciousness touched me even before I met him. This was in the mid-1990s. I was trying to start my first randomised controlled trial (RCT). I had contacted Ajay Mehta, one of Jagatsaheb’s four remarkable children through his brother, Uday, who taught political philosophy at MIT. Ajay headed Seva Mandir, a Udaipur-based NGO with a deep commitment to Gandhian ideals and community building. I was going to visit Udaipur to explore working with them. Ajay told me that Jagatsaheb had invited me to stay with them. I demurred, worried about imposing. He insisted. I didn’t resist too much, and it was one of the best decisions I ever took.
I remember very clearly the morning I arrived in Udaipur for the first time and was taken to Jeevan Niwas, Jagatsaheb’s beautiful house just outside the old city in Udaipur. He was waiting for me to have breakfast, and as soon as we sat down at the enormous table in the dining room — as I was to many, many, times more — he began to quiz me about what I was there to do. I noticed immediately there was an intellectual intensity to his queries, barely masked by the slightly old-fashioned politesse that was his second nature, that took it beyond the usual table talk. This was also Jagatsaheb — some of the leading minds of the time, people like Daniel Moynihan and John Kenneth Galbraith, were his close friends — but he offered his full attention to all comers, including young professors with strange ideas. When he asked me about the subject of my study, I remember saying that I didn’t really have one — if there was an intervention that Seva Mandir felt was important enough to test out, that was good for me. He probably found that odd but was too polite to say so.
Eventually, we started what would be a long sequence of RCTs across health and education, and for the next decade and more, I was in and out of Udaipur every few months and almost always, unless there was a large family gathering, I got to stay in Jeevan Niwas. Often, it was just the two of us. I would come back from a day in the field, shower and settle down in his enormous living room with its walls chock-a-block in Rajasthani miniatures with a glass of whiskey soda. And after some small-talk, Jagatsaheb would lean forward, furrow his brows and ask, “So how is Ind-ia doing?”. Ind-ia, with an emphasis on the “d”. Never Indiya.
This was the late 1990s and early 2000s, the economy was speeding up, poverty was falling, and I was mostly optimistic. Jagatsaheb didn’t disagree, but his stance was always that we can and must do better. Because we are Ind-ia. Because we are the children of Gandhi and Nehru, who for him were the greatest idealists of the 20th century. Because we pledged ourselves to the ideals of equality of all, of universal adult suffrage, of tolerance and brotherhood, already in the 1920s, right from when our national movement became a peoples’ movement. This was roughly the time when America only recognised the rights of white (men) and most of Europe was obsessed with race and religion, he would tell me.
It was not because he didn’t see our flaws. Having spent his life working in government, he knew all about the rigidity and high-handedness of our bureaucracy, the venality of our politicians, the greed and cynicism among our leaders of industry. He would often quiz me in great detail about the implementation of various programmes and policies — about what might be going wrong, and how to fix it.
He was particularly harsh about the foreign policy establishment, especially during the years when he was active there. He thought we made a huge mistake by not supporting our Afghan friends during the Russian invasion in 1979, which, he believed, pushed them into the hands of Pakistan and contributed to the disastrous dynamic that led to 9/11 and beyond. He blamed himself, among others, for being too unwilling to read the warning signs to an uncomprehending Nehru, which ultimately led to our Chinese catastrophe. Protocol and blind love (for Nehru) make a bad combination, he once told me.
And yet he remained an idealist; unwavering in his belief that we must try to do the right things for the right reason, internally and externally, while accepting that it won’t always happen. At a time when we seem to be wavering between trying to be powerful and wanting to be good, I dearly miss his voice telling us that we, Ind-ia, can only be powerful if we are good.
The writer a Nobel laureate in economics, is professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology