Hard work, note ban and Amartya Sen: Why PM Modi dislikes Harvard

This is not the first time Modi is using the 'hard work over Harvard' pun to make a point

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Maharajgan district. Photo: PTI
Sai Manish New Delhi
Last Updated : Mar 02 2017 | 12:09 PM IST
Post demonetisation, there were two insightful publications from Harvard’s stables seeking to dissect the ambitious move. One of them was written by Bhaskar Chakravorti, a professor at Tufts University who published his analysis titled ‘India’s Botched War On Cash’ published on December 14, 2016, in the Harvard Business Review. More than a month before Chakravorti vented his ire on Modi’s move, Kenneth Rogoff, a public policy professor at Harvard University had hailed demonetisation calling it “a bold and audacious move to radically alter the mindset of an economy where less than two per cent of the population pays tax and official corruption is endemic.”

Between the publication of these two analytical pieces, Harvard professor Amartya Sen lambasted the Indian PM in an interview to a newspaper calling the move a “complex manifestation of authoritarianism”. Sen further said, “In one stroke the move declares all Indians as possibly crooks, unless they can establish they are not.”

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Harvard University was perhaps one of the first global institutions that dissected demonetisation in much detail in its immediate aftermath. So why has Harvard suddenly caught Modi’s attention and invited his ire?

Chakravorti’s analysis in the Harvard Business Review had this to say about the move, “While I do not intend to demonise the demonetisers, this unfortunate crisis is a case study in poor policy and even poorer execution. Unfortunately, it is also the poor that bear the greatest burden.”

Chakrovorti arrived at this conclusion by analysing that India’s economy was not ready digitally to survive with less cash. His argument was as follows: Despite a billion mobile phone subscriptions, just about 30 per cent of Indian subscribers used smartphones. Two-thirds of the country had no access to internet. Internet and mobile connections were unreliable. Moreover, 70 per cent of those with mobile internet access were in cities. He quoted a Pew research study saying that only 17 per cent of Indian women used the internet.

Meanwhile, Rogoff was more benevolent towards Modi probably because demonetisation looked like a script straight out the book called The Curse of Cash authored by none other than Rogoff himself. Rogoff had advocated for a less cash economy in global economies given the high costs of transacting in cash. But the move had left Rogoff stunned too. In the concluding part of his analysis where he juxtaposes India’s demonetisation with extracts from his own book, Rogoff states, “What is happening in India is an extremely ambitious step in that direction, of a staggering scale that is immediately affecting 1.2 billion people. The short run costs are unfolding, but the long-run effects on India may well prove more than worth them. But it is very hard to know for sure at this stage.”

Sen, who had initially used strong words in the immediate aftermath of demonetisation, further called demonetisation a “despotic move that has struck at the root of an economy based on trust".

Modi, a master of puns, hasn’t used this equivoque for the first time either. He made the same ‘hard work over Harvard’ analogy while campaigning for his party in Tamil Nadu in February 2014. Addressing a rally at Vandalur, Modi’s dig was aimed at Congress' star campaigner in Tamil Nadu, P Chidambaram. A few months down the line, Modi’s “hard work” seemed to have paid off when the NDA swept to power in the elections with an overwhelming majority.

This time around, Modi has been at the receiving end of flak over demonetisation being spewed on him from Harvard’s various platforms. Modi chose to make the statement a day after India’s economic report card was presented that showed a negligible short-term impact of demonetisation on India’s economic growth. Harvard could certainly learn a thing or two on the art of quibbling from the Indian prime minister.

First Published: Mar 02 2017 | 9:20 AM IST

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