Amartya Sen’s new book is called Home in the World. Shankar Acharya’s new book is called An Economist at Home and Abroad. The first is described as a memoir, the second is an autobiography, subtitled “A Personal Journey”. The first refers directly to the novel Ghare Baire (1916) by Rabindranath Tagore, the second, perhaps, does so unconsciously. Who is Shankar Acharya? He is, of course, an economist, as the title suggests. He was an economic adviser to the Ministry of Finance, principal economic adviser (CEA), member of the 12th Finance Committee and of the National Security Advisory Council. He later became a newspaper columnist and several of his columns were published in book form. After his stint in government, he became Honorary Professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations and Chairman of Kotak Mahindra Bank. It’s all part of a standard CV. But I have heard more than one person describe Shankar Acharya as “a complete gentleman”. This description transcends his accomplishments as an economist and professional. What is said behind an individual’s back is rarely what is said about a person when the individual is present. The two coincide is a rarity and Shankar Nath Acharya is one of those rare cases. (The Nath has now been abandoned. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.)
Several people wrote briefs, including those who worked for the government. Several of them are read for juicy information they reveal, divulging what should have been kept private. Considering what I just said about Acharya, if you look for them in any of the 17 chapters, your hopes will be dashed.
As an economist, Acharya was part of a thin slice integrated into the global labor market. But even before entering the workforce, he was part of a global education system, thanks to his father’s profession which explains the global nature of his travels, friends and acquaintances. For me, this personal journey of growing up was much more interesting than the economist part and he writes it with humor and wit. For example, he was offered the role of “Apu” in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), a job prospect that did not work out. “Probably as well, because I may have undermined Ray’s successful career as a director, without establishing my own as a movie actor. The boy who played Apu did a fantastic job.
For a certain generation, Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton were staple dishes. But Biggles? “One member of our literary group was a shy, awkward boy named Nicholas Comfort… A decade later, Alex Comfort gained lasting worldwide fame with his book The Joy of Sex (1972) and subsequent editions! writes Acharya. When his father was stationed in Canada for an international film festival, “at a party given by Baba for them, I remember filling the whiskey glass with a slightly drunk Raj Kapoor! Did you know that Acharya represented Keble College (University of Oxford, UK) in the University Challenge quiz? “I have to admit I was a complete flop there, getting the only question I answered incorrectly.” Back then, when he was finishing his PhD at Harvard, computers ran on the basis of punch cards. “I have to mention that gender sensitivity was not high in college at the time. Otherwise, the “Regression Analysis Program for Economists” would not have been abbreviated as RAPE. This gives an idea of the writing style.
There are also nuggets about economics and economists – for example, about Subramanian Swamy’s refusal of a professorship at the Delhi School of Economics. Back home at the National Institute of Finance and Public Policy (NIPFP) at a time when India was still an economy in short supply, Acharya writes: “The big side benefit was that he (the rented apartment) came with an existing phone connection, something we never had in a few years (or even five) since we weren’t government employees. He bought a Padmini car from Dr Manmohan Singh. “I bought it from him, rather accidentally, because it got me a lot of trouble.” At NIPFP, he worked on the famous study on the black economy. “Two members of my team were particularly helpful. One was Dr Arun Kumar, a former physics student, with whom I had many discussions to clarify my thoughts, although his contribution to the final written report was minimal.
Acharya has been CEA for a very long time. Other CEA would have done well to soak up its principle. “It soon became clear to me that in order to be effective in the service, I had to earn the trust and respect not only of my superiors, but also of my JS colleagues. The CEA’s contribution is not only the long-term fiscal policy document (the 1985 budget) and other policy contributions, the CEA is also the head of the Indian Economic Service (IES). Very few CEA paid attention to it. It also helps keep a low profile, with controlled and low visibility. Of Raghuram Rajan, he writes: “When the head of a prominent government organization makes public statements on matters outside his recognized area of responsibility, he runs the risk of inviting refoulements, criticism and controversy, which can weaken the effectiveness of the very institution it heads. “
Most people will read this book for Acharya’s take on economics. It was indeed prescient about the slowdown in its columns, re-articulated in a chapter on COVID-19 and the Indian economy. It was inevitable that such a chapter would be written and included. How can someone with Acharya’s credentials not write about the current state of the Indian economy? But for me this chapter rocked, not because of the content – it didn’t belong in this book, it didn’t fit the style. Acharya has written and published books on Indian economy and will write more. Despite being 75 years old in the midst of COVID-19, anyone who knows him will vouch for his young age. This chapter belonged to another book. Instead, the well-written and remarkable personal journey, mixed with humor and wit, is the USP of this book.
The writer is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.