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Lunch with BS: Roberto Zagha

A banker plans 'sanyaas'

Roberto Zagha
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His stint saw a big jump in the development bank’s commitment in the country. Now on the verge of retirement, he remains a staunch votary of its role

A table on the verandah of the rambling bungalow in the heart of Lutyens’ is set for four. Inside, the house echoes emptily. Everything has been packed and shipped to the Washington home of Roberto Zagha, World Bank’s India country director, whose term officially ends in a few months. The Zaghas’ personal effects are leaving earlier because the development bank is giving up the lease for what has been the official residence of its country director for decades, writes Kanika Datta.

Despite the minimal furniture, there’s an air of amiable eccentricity about the place. As I wait for my host, a well-fed cat jumps on the sofa and scrutinises me and a well-groomed stray dog wags her tail in greeting, both obviously much-indulged pets. I’m chatting with his wife Patricia, who is wearing a printed silk sari impeccably tied, when Zagha walks in. He’s not wearing the flamboyantly colourful kurtas and angavastrams in which he’s been assiduously photographed. In deference to the warmer April weather, he’s in a veshti, a shrimp-coloured long-sleeved khadi shirt and shod in the thick, white single-toed slippers favoured by southern politicians.

Most foreigners tend to look like pantomime characters when they dress local, unaccustomed to the folds and pleats of Indian clothing. But both husband and wife – Zagha is Brazilian and Patricia American – carry off their outfits with such consummate ease that it is easy to see that the wardrobe choices are a preference, not an affectation. Zagha attributes his taste for Indian clothes to his wife but says the conversion wasn’t difficult because he loves the colour and variety — he has even worn a dhoti (tied the elaborate Bengali way, at that), though he admits he needs help. Nor is he the Fab India and Anokhi variety of foreign shopper; he and Patricia buy from a variety of outlets that foreigners rarely venture into.

Still, he attracts attention and, as he recalls, “The biggest challenge came when Mr Zoellick [president, still in harness at the time of this lunch] came on his second visit. I asked someone for advice and was told, ‘You should be careful because the attention should be on him, not you!’ But if I wear western clothes then I am no longer myself, so the compromise I found was to wear Indian clothes one day and western clothes the next day.” Indeed, Indian clothes are so much part of his persona that the day he wore western wear Zoellick enquired anxiously, “What happened?”

We’re lunching at Zagha’s home rather than a restaurant of his choice. The venue has been dictated by his schedule; he’s leaving for Washington that night and would not be back for a while. An uncharacteristic April coolth allows us to a semi-alfresco meal. It’s elaborate but vegetarian in deference to Patricia’s preferences — a cold soup followed by lasagna, satay that looks like chicken but is actually soya (unexpectedly tasty, even to my fastidious Bengali palate), a sort of vegetable casserole and rice.

We help ourselves and I switch on the recorder and begin our chat under the watchful eyes of Patricia and Sudip Mozumder, the India office’s advisor, external affairs. What was his next assignment, I ask. He was retiring, he says, surprising me because despite the shock of unruly white hair he doesn’t look near retirement age. What’s more, he is taking it seriously. “I am going to take sanyaas,” he jokes, “the plan is not to have a plan.”

Although he’s been in India for three and a half years as country director, his links go back to 1991. He was part of the team working on the World Development Report. Then he got two offers. One, to work on Turkey with a promotion – “don’t mention the other country,” Patricia abjures; “why not,” he asks, mystified – and on India without a promotion.

He asked Patricia what he should do. “Since she had been coming to India since 1983 [a former World Banker, she retired recently], she said, ‘There is no choice, you have to come to India!’ And I never regretted it.”

On the first day on the job, he remembers, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. From his Washington fastness, he saw more turbulent change: “The rapid turnover of governments, foreign exchange crisis, breakdown of the Soviet Union — it was all at once.”

So, I suggest, the last three years must have been boring compared to the start. Not at all, he counters, it was intense, since it was so soon after the 2008 crisis. “I was always in the technical stream and this was the first time I had to manage a country programme. It’s very different because you don’t have the luxury of thinking and researching. You have to take decisions not knowing what would come out... .”

Certainly, his stint has seen a significant jump in the pace of World Bank’s activities in India. Since he arrived, the bank’s total commitment has gone up to $25 billion, a huge increase from $13.8 billion in 2008. But the mild-mannered Zagha is not inclined to take credit.

He says he was helped by the fact that India is ramping up its response to social challenges such as poverty and education and he is eloquent about the role of Zoellick, who visited India four times. “We have a president who saw the bank as playing a larger role in the international arena and it was very much part of his agenda to sustain and support these types of programmes.”

Would the Bank’s involvement recede now that India has reached middle income status? He sighs before replying. “This is a concern because the Bank is an institution that can speak for the developing countries.”

It is true, he adds, that many countries are reaching that threshold — India, Indonesia, Vietnam. “But the big global challenges – poverty, climate change, AIDS – are concentrated in these countries. So, the Bank’s mandate is increasingly in middle income countries.”

The papers that day had announced the appointment of Korean-American Jim as Zoellick’s successor. What did he think, I ask, urging him to be frank since he was retiring. Zagha hasn’t met him and is careful to hold comment — he is as reticent about his former boss, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, a former Bank MD who was also in the race. I prod him by suggesting that Kim may not fit the bill because he wasn’t a development economist.

Zagha thinks that doesn’t matter. “The Bank has had its ups and downs through previous presidents. “We had a president who was a financier and he took the bank out of infrastructure for 10 years” – he is referring to James Wolfensohn – “because he said infrastructure does not help the poor, only direct programmes do. I remember we once presented him a report on economic growth and he says, ‘Why do we want growth; how does growth help the poor!’ I thought that was a terrible misconception.”

The big challenge for the Bank, he predicts, is size, given the rising demand for its services. “You had an expansion of the Bank’s lending from $20 billion a year to $40 billion a year,” he says.

But “The National Development Bank of Brazil is six times the size of the Bank. It lends $120 billion a year.” Three times, Patricia interjects and Zagha qualifies, “If you take the peak years of the Bank it is three times. If you think pre-Zoellick, it is six times, so clearly there is a need for a larger World Bank.”

We chat a bit about some key Bank projects in India – he relates an amusing story about a mandir that had to be relocated to accommodate a road (it couldn’t, cars have to drive around it) – when he suddenly demands: “Why haven’t you asked me about the Brics Bank.”

I am startled. No one in India thought it relevant because the Brics hardly had common interests, I counter. He agrees but points out, “I always keep in mind that China and India had half of global GDP before the Industrial Revolution and they are going to go back to that, and world global institutions will have to reflect the new order.”

The main course has ended, and there’s mishti doi for afters. We are occupied waving away the flies that descend and I apologetically ask him whether he was a football fan, seeing as he was Brazilian. Naturally, he is! There is much laughter as Patricia shows me a 2010 photo on her mobile of Zagha with a household staffer in front of a big sign saying (in Brazlian): “Towards the sixth!”, the ever-hopeful mantra of every Brazilian football fan.

As the meal winds down, I ask him what he’s reading. He finishing a book by Madhu Kishwar and B K Nehru’s memoirs (“very interesting after a slow start”). He’s read everything by Amitava Ghosh, except the second in the Ibis trilogy, which he intends to do. And, he deadpans, “There are also books by Vikram Seth that I didn’t read… .”

We finish our coffee and I switch off the tape but Zagha expresses disappointment at all the questions I didn’t ask — the world economy, Europe, the rupee and so on. I am not sure if he is serious so I give him the honest answer that I didn’t want this to be a proforma interview. The reason, I could hardly add, was that he wasn’t a proforma person.

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