The Gentle Iconoclast
G.K. Arora
RUMINATIONS OF A GADFLY: PERSONS, PLACES, PERCEPTIONS by Deena Khatkhate Academic Foundation, 2008, 410 pp., 795
July 2008, volume 32, No 7

Deena Khatkhate, a front-rank economist, was Director of Research at the Reserve Bank of India, when he was spotted by the International Monetary Fund. He went on to serve in several high-ranking positions in that institution but threw it all up as he refused to conform to the Fund’s Holy Writ. The decision he then took to do his own thing was a risky gamble because to leave the Fund was like leaving the protection of a benign patron who grants you favours but can also ostracize you, consigning you to a shelterless and friendless existence. That Deena braved it all speaks volumes for the quality of his mind. His academic work prospered and his articles were welcomed by quality journals. This book under review is not about his theoretical and empirical contribution to monetary economics. It is about his passionate commitment to the ‘idea of India’ and what he has felt, experienced and thought over four decades of professional life.

It is a valuable piece of intellectual history, expressed in a language of incandescent idealism, at times cynical, but always full of hope that someday, somehow, something will happen to change the way we think and function to work for a more just and fair society.

His reflections or ‘ruminations’, as Deena calls them, have been organized under five major headings. The first deals with American themes.

Deena has a rosy view of the freedom enjoyed by American journalists and their relentless pursuit of the truth as they see it, to the extent of seriously embarrassing men in authority. He mentions the shocking revelations of the ‘Deep Throat’ at the time of the Watergate scandal. Perhaps he would have occasion to revise his views about journalism in America after what has happened in Iraq, where the government, the entire political establishment, the liberal media, led by the redoubtable The New York Times, colluded systematically to lie and deceive the public about the true state of affairs, confirming the Chomskian theory of mechanisms of ‘brainwashing under freedom’.

Deena is merciless in exposing the seamy side of American social life and organization, refusing to be seduced by the glitter of bright lights behind which lie the despair of the homeless whose shattered lives come not only from poverty but also from the breakdown of moral and emotional cohesion, what he calls in a telling phrase ‘illness of the mind’. He celebrates some of the more promising and healthier features of the emerging American scene, such as the transformation of the blacks, their self-assertion and greater role in American life.

If affirmative action has been misinterpreted to shelter the sleaze and the dubious political misdeeds of black and non-black operators, the word liberal has similarly found its detractors among the aspiring neo-conservative contenders for political office in America who have twisted it to mean the very antithesis of all that is decent and uplifting in America’s history and political experience. What Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy and Johnson endeavoured for, i.e., to ensure a fair deal for the poor, the vulnerable, and the stigmatized, has today become an expletive which people of all political hues are afraid to own. A stranger fate has met the cognate expression ‘liberalization’ in India, that has come to mean, not freedom from vexatious, unproductive, stifling and tyrannical government and bureaucratic controls, reminiscent of Kafka’s allegory of the crushing of human spirit, but exploitation of the workers by capitalists, of the demise of whatever passed for ‘socialism’, of the domination of the national economy by the new imperialists who go by the attractive sounding title of multinational entities. This inversion of thought has forced publicists to look for words that hide the true intent of a concept. Thus a capitalist market economy comes to be described in India as market economy with a ‘human face’. In an age of euphemisms we have few rivals.

In this section, Deena also has a priceless essay entitled ‘Parting with Heroes’. Here he exposes, with remorseless logic, the shaky ground on which the reputation of American icons like John F. Kennedy has been built and fostered by ‘court historians’ like Arthur Schlesinger. Deena shows contempt for the stylized capsule history of the post-Second World War period where Kennedy appears as a great liberal hero who was keen to end the Vietnam War, but for which little evidence exists. Also, as Deena perceptively points out, Kennedy was a ‘prime progenitor of the Cold War and that his loyalty to expansive capitalist interests delineated his approach to American misadventures abroad’. So the ‘age of Camelot’ turns out to be a tawdry, shabby affair under Kennedy who did not hesitate to ask Edward Hoover, the notorious FBI chief, to tap Martin Luther King’s telephone.

As Deena says in his usual pithy manner, once you begin to part with a hero, it becomes a habit. His next hero is Jawaharlal Nehru still regarded as an icon by serious historians, economists and sociologists. Instead Deena finds fault with every argument put forward in defence of Nehru as the architect of modern India. For him Nehru was a democrat who built a dynasty. He did not tolerate dissent. Witness his treatment of Morarji Desai who had an independent political base and differed with him on important social and economic matters. Morever, Nehru’s commitment to democratic values and institutions did not come in the way of ousting a democratically elected government in Kerala in flagrant violation of all principles of constitutional morality. Whenever the government was found wanting, he foisted the blame on his ministers who faced the chopping block. According to Deena, he was a democrat accountable to none.

Nehru’s nationalism was never free from its colonial hangover. Though Deena recognizes Nehru’s ‘monumental’ contribution to India’s freedom struggle and his transparent and unshakeable faith in secularism as the defining principle of India’s polity, he does not fail to point out Nehru’s glaring lapse in not enacting a common civil code that would have cemented the bonds of common citizenship because of the compulsions of the electoral ‘calculus’.

In this reviewer’s view, however, Deena has clearly overshot the mark. He has allowed the revisionists’ zeal to cloud and distort his judgement. There is much to criticize in what Nehru did and what he failed to do. In the list of his failures land reforms should figure high for which, in fact, he led a major struggle in the UP countryside. Deena himself has a nice take on this aspect. ‘The crowning attainment of historical study’, he says on page 102, ‘is not to achieve (like Otto Namier) an intuitive sense of how things do not happen; it should acquire an intuitive sense of how things happen and why.’ He has failed by his own yardstick because the historical complexity of the so-called ‘transfer of power’, and not independence or liberation, should have alerted him to the limits and possibilities of a bourgeois democratic revolution in the India of the fifties, where imperialism still persisted in the form of a neo-colonial legacy in economics, politics and culture. We are still living through the consequences of an aborted bourgeois revolution that could, in the event of success, have led to the evolution of an independent capitalist society. Because Khatkhate does not achieve this intuitive sense, he ascribes an almost superhuman will to Nehru to transcend history as a metaphysical achievement which Nehru was unable to do. Hence the bitterness and cynical tone of his assessment of his one-time hero.

I will draw attention to one more essay from the Americana selection to show how deeply Deena has understood the ethos of American society. In an essay entitled, ‘Wreckers United’, he refers to the puzzle Indians face in seeking to figure out why the Americans react the way they do. American streets are crowded, to take a humdrum example, but the Indian streets are ‘teeming’. He goes back to Alexis de Tocqueville, to learn the secret. As Toqueville wrote: I know of no country indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affection of men and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property—it is the vehemence of their desires that it perturbs their minds but disciplines their lives.

But he who builds may also, as part of his whim, wreck what he has built. Khatkhate makes a devastating comment on the savings and loans crisis of the late eighties, when a whole lot of finance men went berserk. The crux of his argument is that the ‘corporation’ is a metaphor for American society, making profit the sole leitmotif. The government is also run as a business corporation. This is what Deena would call ‘predatory capitalism’ that is the deeper cause of the American crisis and the American dilemma.

When one turns to ‘Indica’, some of Khatkhate’s best essays are about men who have played an important role in shaping or helping to shape economic policy. Jagdish Bhagwati, a brilliant mind who has not been given his due by his own profession in the USA, heads this stellar cast that includes Manmohan Singh, Manu Shroff, I.G. Patel, Krishna Raj, Asok Mitra, V.K. Ramaswami, S. Jagannathan, C.D. Deshmukh, D.T. Lakdawala, B.K. Madan, B.P. Adarkar and Sachin Chaudhuri. I will briefly comment on the contribution and distinguishing characteristics of Jagdish Bhagwati and Asok Mitra.

I have picked out these two not because others have played a less important part in shaping modern Indian consciousness, but simply because they represent, to my mind, the essence of a public intellectual at the present conjuncture. It is the common fate of honest and fearless public intellectuals, throughout history, that they are more frequently persecuted in a variety of ways; in more polite societies this is done by denying them public attention. It is seldom that they are honoured because they prefer truth to the accepted wisdom. Their intellectual integrity and capacity to suffer for their ideas define Bhagwati and Mitra.

Bhagwati refused to accept that politicians were solely to blame for India’s slow growth and hence her lowly position in the community of nations that were doing economically well. He points his accusing finger directly at the economists and says their responsibility ‘for India’s failings cannot be dismissed lightly’. Deena refuses to confine the argument to economists, he thinks that the failure is the failure of ‘Indian intellectuals as a class’ who came to regard discussions of public policy as an occasion to rationalize, endorse, acclaim the policies of the regime and to condemn the critics, numerically insignificant though they may have been, as traitors to the cause of progress. Indian intellectuals, in the face of clear and mounting evidence of stagnation in India’s economy and the failure of economic and associated political and social policies, chose to either remain silent or to swim with the current. Bhagwati decisively broke this mould of conformity in two trail-blazing books, the first in 1970, co-authored with Padma Desai and the second in 1975, with T.N. Srinivasan, in which he exposed the flawed foundations of the Indian policy framework and urged reform in the whole strategy of economic development, by placing more reliance on market signals and individual initiative.

Bhagwati has reason to celebrate now, because after having faced for almost a quarter of a century, hostility and intellectual excommunication, his ideas were accepted in 1991, with results that have proved to be gratifying to authority and general public alike. That the basic conflict was about the crucial question of how to end India’s abysmal poverty came to the forefront after India’s reforms demonstrated that poverty could be significantly reduced by what Bhagwati calls increasing ‘the overall share of the pie’. He has asserted that growth ‘therefore was indisputably conceived to be an instrumental variable, not as an objective per se. This round clearly belongs to Bhagwati.

Asok Mitra, though he dealt competently with issues of economic policy as Member–Secretary, Planning Commission in the seventies, was cut from a different cloth. He was a member of the Indian Civil Service, who set his heart on achieving excellence as defined by Bertrand Russell. He succeeded admirably but it was a personal satisfaction since many in the ICS and those in charge of policy making, during the colonial days as well as after independence, either did not approve of what he was doing or looked on in polite unconcern.

Despite this, Mitra continued to plough his lonely furrow in areas of absorbing interest to him: Demography, population studies, planning in its widest amplitude, Indian art and painting. When this reviewer met him as a junior officer in 1972 in the Planning Commission, he did not show the slightest discomfort at being sidelined but fell immediately into animated conversation about saving some historically valuable buildings in Delhi. A man of exquisite sensibilities and inborn refinement, he defended to the best of his ability the true values of public discourse: objectivity, independence of judgement, absence of prejudice, sedulous attention to facts that were the sole determinants of policies for nation-building. Hence his spat with Gopalaswamy, his boss in the census department, over an outdated census format and the need to reflect the regional diversities and structural changes in Indian society. Mitra paid for his dissent, but his 1951 census report was, as Deena says, an intellectual tour de force that set the trend for future reports.

If there is a flaw in this witty, wise, elegant book it is the post-Berlin Wall essays on international affairs. Many of them are dated. Others recycle the dominant view in the western academia. Even with these limitations, Deena’s originality of outlook shines through with obvious strength. For instance, he says of Gorbachov, that what he laid to rest was not simply a totalitarian system. What ‘he laid to rest was the Russian revolution itself.’ For once both liberals and Marxists would agree. Deena’s non-economic memoirs are an absolute delight. He has a vivacious and capacious mind and he illuminates, both Indian and let me emphasize, American, realities in unexpected ways.

G.K. Arora is a former member of the Indian Administrative Service. 

Review Details

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