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Dinner with BS: Abhijit Sen

Basic instincts

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The Cambridge-educated economist with links to the Left stays true to his non-conformist ways in a bastion of the establishment

Abhijit SenNo, going out for an hour or two for lunch this week is not possible,” said Member with a ring of finality that clearly discouraged further discussion on the matter. Indeed, the Planning Commission was busy finalising the approach paper for the Twelfth Plan last week and Sen had a good reason to refuse a lunch meeting outside the office. A long pause followed and, as though he had sensed the discomfiture at the other end of the phone, he decided to throw the lifeline. “A dinner, of course, is possible,” he added. And so Business Standard agreed to make an exception and met the Planning Commission’s best-known “leftist” advisor over dinner, writes A K Bhattacharya.

Choosing the venue posed no difficulty. Sen grew up in New Delhi, attending Sardar Patel Vidyalaya and then St Stephen’s College for a Physics Honours degree. A restaurant in the Lodhi Colony area would be an ideal choice, he suggested. So we settled for Ploof, a restaurant known for its seafood-based recipes. There was a minor hiccup. Sen was keen to know if the restaurant served liquor. By then I had become desperate and answered him with an emphatic yes. Later, to my relief, I learnt that the restaurant had acquired a liquor licence. And when Sen walked into the restaurant, which had reserved a quiet corner for us, and learnt that he could smoke as well, the setting for an invigorating dinner was almost complete.

Sixty-one year old Abhijit Sen reminds you of a man who has not yet outgrown his youth. His trademark flowing beard matches his long unkempt hair well. He hasn’t been to a barber for more than 20 years. “The last time I visited a barber, perhaps, was when I got married,” he says with a smile. He smokes Charms, a cigarette brand that is popular among students for its strong tobacco. He likes it because he grew a fondness for the French cigarette Gauloises, certainly the closest European thing to Charms, when he was in Cambridge, where he read Economics and later moved to Sussex and Essex for teaching assignments.

His choice of alcohol was also youthfully basic: Old Monk. Ploof, however, prides itself on its trendiness and stocks neither India’s favourite drink nor any other brand of dark rum. A visibly disappointed Sen settles for a reliable Teacher’s and I decide not to add to the waiter’s embarrassment by asking for a Smirnoff and two plates of fish satay to go with our drinks.

As a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) with close links to the Left, Sen’s credentials would appear to qualify him for the pro-aam aadmi oriented National Advisory Council. Indeed, many people were surprised when he was re-appointed to the reconstituted Planning Commission in 2009. So was he, he tells me towards the end of the meal. But he was no stranger to the government, having been in the system for more than ten years.

In the mid-eighties, he was looking to leave Essex, where he was not enjoying his teaching assignment because he did not want to live in a garrison town. An opening in gave him the opportunity to return, not least because he thought it as good as any other international university at the time and certainly better than the Delhi School of Economics. It was also like a homecoming. Krishna Bharadwaj, Amit Bhaduri and Prabhat Patnaik (all with Cambridge connections) were there and teaching there until the early 1990s was fun.

What went wrong with JNU in the 1990s? “With reforms, you see, there was a spurt in the demand for management graduates and we suddenly saw that the best students were going in for these MBAs and no longer coming to JNU to do an MA in Economics,” Sen explains.

We repeat the whiskey for Sen and order the main course. He chooses char-grilled fish and I Sri Lankan fish curry with rice. The food comes quite quickly and Sen approves the way the fish has been grilled. His first job with the government was in 1997, he recounts, when the United Front government decided to appoint him chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). “The agriculture minister then, Chaturanan Mishra, called me and had a long discussion on the state of agriculture,” he says. A few days later, he was offered the job.

I mildly suggest that he is seen close to the Left and Mishra was a member of the Communist Party of India, then part of the United Front government. He does not disagree and argues that accepting the chairmanship was an opportunity to correct the distortions that had begun crippling Indian agriculture. How far did he succeed? “Well, to the extent it was possible, remember I had the problem of dealing with a situation of high stocks and years of high minimum support prices preceding that — a problem Ashok Gulati (the current CACP chief) faces,” he says. Much before his three-year tenure ended, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance formed its government at the Centre. Not surprisingly, Sen was back in JNU, teaching Economics.

Then a few weeks after the United Progressive Alliance formed its government in May 2004, he received three calls in quick succession. The first call came from Arjun Sengupta asking if he would like to be a member of the Planning Commission. That was a strange call and the only way he could justify that offer was that maybe Sengupta hoped to become the Commission’s deputy chairman — an unrealised ambition, as it turned out. The second call came from the Prime Minister’s Office with the same offer. And the third call came from Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India-Marxist. Karat was quite clear that the Left, then supporting the UPA in Parliament, would like him to be in the Planning Commission. So Sen joined the Planning Commission as member.

What is it like working with Montek Singh Ahluwalia as deputy chairman, who certainly has different views on many economic issues? Sen finishes the remnants of the fish on his plate and says, “At the start of my stint, I had asked Montek if he would like to use a collegium approach and my sense is that we function quite well.”

A staunch supporter of the national rural employment guarantee scheme, Sen says this was one scheme that made a big difference and the second big move would be in place when the food security law is enacted. He dwells at length on how the opposition to the rural employment guarantee scheme is misguided and how its critics completely ignore its larger benefits. How did he see his role in the Planning Commission? He looks modest but replies readily enough that he was the contrarian voice and the one who could help take forward the architecture shift in agriculture instead of allowing it to be rolled back. He is a votary of the cash transfer scheme, but it can work only in some situations. In fact, he warns that to use it as a magic wand for tackling all kinds of subsidies may not work.

Does he feel a little disappointed by the government’s functioning in recent months? I find that Sen’s glass is empty and ask for a refill. “The problem with the government now is largely the problem that a government faces in its second term,” Sen says. Would he say the same thing about the Planning Commission. He smiles and says, “Yes, the Planning Commission in its second term suffers from the same handicap. The initiative, drive and the vision that you saw in the first term are not there in the second term,” he says.

For dessert, nothing on the menu pleases Sen, so he asks for some kiwi fruit and ice cream. When it comes I ask him why he thinks he was retained at Yojana Bhavan when several others weren’t. Sen has no clear answers except suggesting that he and Montek have a healthy relationship with mutual respect. Or is it because Montek wanted to retain Sen as a member to give the Planning Commission the kind of legitimacy it needed, I suggest. Sen offers no reaction. That also leaves me wondering if his decision to stay on in Yojana Bhavan upset the Left, since after all he was a Left nominee.

Dessert done, I shoot my last question: Does he find time to read. “Mostly on the Net,” he says. But how does he unwind after a hard day’s work? He smiles and points to the whiskey that he has just finished. We get up and as I watch his tall frame disappearing into the white Ambassador parked at a distance, I realise that despite ten years of government service, he remains a non-conformist to the core.

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