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Lunch with BS: Bibek Debroy

Discoveries of India

Kanika Datta 

So, I ask Bibek Debroy, will our next meeting be in, maybe, Yojana Bhavan? He does not pretend to misunderstand, but says, “Save that question. I’ll answer it, but don’t start with it.” That throws me off my stride. I was hoping to get a news break about this respected economist, polymath and translator of the first unabridged version of the Mahabharata, who has been one of the key advisors for prime minister-elect Narendra Modi’s economic agenda.

We’re at Setz, the multi-cuisine restaurant at the upscale Emporio mall, its trendy interior a world away from the turmoil of a riveting election campaign. We order with business-like swiftness: Norwegian salmon steak for him, chicken and wild mushroom risotto for me, washed down with fresh lime sodas. I’m wondering how to broach the question of what attracts Debroy, whom I have always considered liberal by inclination, to a politician of hard-line persuasion.

Debroy, trim in all black, gets the drift of my bumbling next question and rescues me. “Look, there’s a development template in which I believe. That is, that people who are not disabled and in the working age group don’t need doles. The government’s role is to ensure they have access to health, education, roads, electricity and so on. In that sense, nobody is voluntarily poor.

“Second, if you are going to have subsidies, they should be determined on the basis of the poverty line. That is an individual, household characteristic and has nothing to do with whether you are a scheduled caste or Muslim (the exception would be scheduled tribes).

“Third, whatever policy you have must be delivered by the bureaucracy — the block development officer and panchayats. Instead of people going to the government, the government must come to the people.”

Which sounds a bit like Rajiv Gandhi’s agenda, I murmur provocatively. He ignores that and continues: “Which state has policies closest to this template? Gujarat.”

Now, Debroy has an eagle eye for the kind of detail that rarely occurs to other people. As a trade economist, he would winkle out absurdities in trade law and his suggestions for legal reform are so comprehensive that they are still quoted today. True to form, he supplies examples of precisely why he admires Modi’s model: they involved two imaginatively designed schemes to tackle law and order problems and promote women’s rights in rural Gujarat.

These discoveries came after he had started work on Gujarat: Governance for Growth and Development in 2012, the book that placed him squarely in the “Modi camp”. But he had had first-hand experience of Modi’s Gujarat when, thanks to the ads starring Amitabh Bachchan, which encouraged him to visit the annual Kutch Festival. Exploring beyond the government’s luxury tented resort, he arrived at Dhordo, a Muslim-dominated village that borders Pakistan.

“My impression of a border village is deprived, backward.” What he saw was solar street lighting, a solar-powered ATM (that worked, his wife drew money) and 15 guestrooms much more comfortable than the government tents. The village pradhan explained that they had seen an opportunity in the Kutch festival. Being illiterate, he had hired a manager, who had left a job in Singapore to manage them. Tata had installed the solar lighting and SBI the ATM, at the village's request. “I thought, God almighty, is there any state in India where this could happen? And the answer is no!”

He is in a position to compare. First, he had done lots of research on states with the economist Laveesh Bhandari. Second, he had travelled extensively in Jharkhand as head of a committee appointed by then Chief Minister Arjun Munda, to create a development plan for the state. Later, Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool Congress approached him for a critique on West Bengal. This was before the seminal Assembly election that swept Trinamool to power. The study became the subject of much mud-slinging, mainly by the embattled Left Front that dismissed it as Trinamool-paid.

By now, Debroy says he was considering writing a book on a state. Bengal was his first choice. But that would require extensive travel and, therefore, the the state government’s support. “Naturally, the Left Front would not touch me but, I discovered, neither would the Trinamool.” Maybe this had something to do with some forthright criticism in the Ananda Bazar Patrika.

When he wrote to the Gujarat government, there was an immediate response, followed up with a meeting with Modi when the latter visited Delhi. The then Gujarat Chief Minister was fully clued-in on Debroy’s work as he was on his controversial 2005 exit from the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, then loosely affiliated to the Sonia Gandhi-led Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Debroy came under pressure following the publication of a report that had Gujarat leading the states in terms of economic freedom.

Naturally, this was an embarrassment for the United Progressive Alliance. Gandhi sent Debroy a note – “on those green sheets” – saying henceforth any study had to be politically vetted. “I sent in my resignation within half an hour,” he recalls, but given the media storm, Gandhi requested him to wait till the end of the year to resign, which he did.

The food is served. The steak looks large and succulent, but I am dismayed by the small serving of risotto, especially because it is excellent. Debroy is talking about how Modi wanted not a prescriptive book but a critique of why the state wasn’t doing well on its social indicators.

Since this was a pet theme of Modi detractors, I ask him if the criticisms were valid. He points out that most data is too dated to be credible, and his own subsequent co-authored book on Gujarat’s tribals suggested otherwise. “Don’t get me wrong,” he adds, “the human development indicators are not like Switzerland. But there has been a significant improvement under Modi, no question.”

Which brings us to the elephant at the table. How did Debroy, who believes religion is a personal choice and should be outside the realm of public policy, reconcile himself to Modi’s roots? It’s now that the discussion acquires that familiar Manichean feel. In short, we talk past each other. He insists the English media bases its judgement on faulty perceptions.

They haven’t read Modi’s speeches, mostly in Hindi and Gujarati, dating back to 2001 that showed that governance and development were long-held beliefs, not an expedient ideology of a prime ministerial candidate.

“My take is Modi is influenced by Vedanta and, therefore, by Vivekananda,” he says. Surely not? “How do you know,” he demands. “Are you aware that he wanted to join the Ramakrishna Mission when he was 18 but was told they only accept graduates? And that he visited Belur Math when he visited Kolkata to campaign? Also, if you consider the sum and substance of Vivekananda it is, to paraphrase Deng, that wealth creation is good. That’s what Modi thinks.”

But how do you separate him from his record in the 2002 riots in Gujarat? “What about it?” he retorts. There’s much backing and forthing on who said and did what, Manoj Mitta’s book versus Madhu Kishwar’s book… I give up and turn to Debroy’s brilliant work on the as we order coffee.

The origin of his 10-volume translation (the last two will be published together shortly) involves a typically amusing Debroy story. It goes back to his friendship with the Marxist economist Ashok Rudra, then with Vishwa Bharati University, when Debroy was teaching at Presidency College. Rudra, he says, “was very contemptuous of my economics and expressed it. I had a similar view of his but did not express it.” Instead, we talked a lot about the Ramayana and Mahabharata, on which Rudra wrote popular articles.

“Now, each of the five Pandava brothers became experts in different weapons. So I wondered, suppose I did a statistical test and counted the number of times they used them. I don’t know what anyone else would have said but Rudra handed me his copy of the and said, ‘Kodo’ [do it].” Working with the Drona Parva, “in which the most ferocious fighting happens”, he did just that and his paper was published in the Bengali magazine Jigyasha.

Later, teaching in Pune, he approached G B Palsule of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute who, to his surprise, agreed to have the translated paper refereed for the institute’s journal. To his bigger surprise, the paper was accepted, the only stipulation being that the statistical exercise be done from the Critical Edition, the version the institute had amalgamated from 1,200 versions between 1916 and 1996.

Doing so was a “damned nuisance” Debroy recalls, but it also yielded a book that “got good reviews then sank without a trace”. That exercise snowballed into research and translations of the Puranas, Upanishads and the Vedas by different publishers.

It was in the course of studying the Rig Veda and Yajur Veda in more detail that he discovered a reference to dogs. Further research on dogs in Hinduism yielded a book. But it was refused by 15 publishers until Penguin agreed. Penguin also published his translation of the Bhagwad Gita. That proved a turning point because he felt his Sanskrit skills had improved enough to attempt a translation of the full Critical Edition. “Of course, I was put off by the mammoth size of the project. And I was not helped by the fact that Wendy Doniger told me to be careful because the track record of people who translate the is not very good, they die halfway through! She was referring to van Buitenen and P Lal!”

He dismisses as clichéd questions about his favourite characters and the ones he most identified with because, he says, each of the protagonists evolved through the series. But he does talk about a “vacuum” in his life once the project is complete because he’s come to the stage where many of the characters he’d been with from the start are now dying.

We’re almost through a second round of beverages, so I return to the first question of a possible role in the Modi government. He answers slowly, “I don’t think so, because the trade-off in terms of what I want to do is very high. You know, in the last four or five years, I have been offered jobs to heading various institutes but I have turned them all down because I don’t want administrative responsibility. I am happy doing what I am doing and my gut inclination is to keep it that way.” I suspect my question will be better answered after May 26.

First Published: Fri, May 23 2014. 22:23 IST