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Lunch with BS: Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Free radical

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Intellectual freedom lies at the heart of successful academic institution-building, says the head of one of India's most vibrant think tanks

The modest restaurant attached to Assam Bhavan in Delhi’s leafy diplomatic area is a personal favourite but an unusual choice for a guest. But then, my guest on this cold and sunny day cannot be considered the usual sort of think tank head, writes Kanika Datta.

For one, at 45 years (“1967 born!” he replies cheerfully to my awkward query) he’s younger than most of his peers. For another, in the eight years he’s headed the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), he’s successfully managed to apply CPR, to use a weak pun, to an institution that was being strangled by fierce internal politics following the ouster of its founding director V A Pai Panandiker.

Today, few would argue with the 39-year-old CPR’s claim to being a “premier” think tank on public policy — it has vastly expanded its ambit and established a reputation for intellectual rigour, flair and, most critically, independence that makes it the go-to institution for serious social sciences academics. It’s a reputation that is well reflected in the elegantly forthright observations in Mehta’s closely-read columns in the Indian Express.

Not that any of this would strike you when you meet the mild-mannered Mehta. He’s dressed in the regulation informals of the academic — jacket in a houndstooth check and trousers, a slim black-faced watch his only accessory. No mobile phone or flashing BlackBerry interrupts us. We’ve made the five-minute walk from CPR’s offices to Assam Bhavan, chosen an outdoor table and, since we knew the menu, ordered without referring to it — a vegetarian thali for him and Parampara thali for me.

We’ve been chatting about how Delhi has become the capital for think tanks (Mehta is from Rajasthan) and I ask him why he chose academics as a profession. It was an unusual choice for someone coming of age in the eighties when the Indian university system was on a precipitous decline. Less so in his case because, he explains, his father was an academic and vice chancellor of Delhi University in the nineties.

“My instinctive grasp of the profession was probably stronger than most. I had always lived on university campus, and there’s a certain romance to academic life.” Plus, he jokes, “there was this idea that you would actually get paid to read books — what could be more exciting than that!”

Mehta read PPE at St John’s, Oxford but claims he had “two educations,” the being in Economics, because the university at the time had a “remarkable group of economists” — people like Arvind Subramanian, Ejaz Ghani, Urjit Patel. After a PhD from Princeton he taught at Harvard for about nine years before asking himself the question every NRI asks: to come back to India or not.

Though he returned with “no illusions that institutional life in India would be difficult” — he still had a rough two years teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). That was an unusual choice, too, I say. JNU had, he replies, institutional features that he liked. “Most faculty make up their own courses, there’s a semester system — you were in control of the classroom as opposed to teaching anonymous syllabii made by committees.”

So what was the issue, I ask as we are served, was JNU too lefty? On the contrary, “for a university that styles itself as radical and left it was the most conservative place you can imagine”. There was, he adds, “a self-satisfied assumption that this is a great university, nothing needs to change and, frankly, a lot of it is on shaky foundations.”

The biggest difficulty was “getting used to the administrative structure”. Power is “excessively centralised in the hands of the vice chancellor and you had to spend so much time and energy getting the smallest thing done”. Having developed differences with the vice chancellor, Mehta returned to Harvard in 2004 (“it was the only position I still had!”) but with a “clear sense” that he wanted to be in India.

The CPR proposal “came out of the blue”. I recall Mehta’s appointment attracting some comment because of his relative youth and background. As he admits, “I had not done any policy work — most of my core academic work up to that time was on very abstruse topics in political theory and intellectual history. In 2003 if someone had asked me can you imagine yourself in a place like CPR, I would have said you must be joking!” After a month or so of parleys with the board, he decided to take the plunge since – a graceful understatement – “the institution needed rebuilding from scratch at that point”.

Mehta has hardly touched his food though I have devoured with enthusiasm an elaborate selection (two kinds of fish, a peerless pigeon curry plus as many vegetables as Mehta’s thali). To give him time to eat, I comment that the institution has changed radically since he took over and ask how he managed that.

He attributes most of it to an “exceptional board”. In Indian governance, he adds, “we often pay too much attention to the nominal heads but for an institutional culture to flourish and transform, decision makers and boards have to share a basic vision.” Given that CPR is part of the government’s Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) network, how did he manage to achieve a level of academic freedom that many similar institutes would envy? Mehta explains that the base grant from ICSSR is less than 15 per cent of the operating budget and, "most of the time", the government does not interfere with academic production. But, he adds, “we are very clear that autonomy does not just mean from government but also for individual researchers.”

The objective, thus, is to “collect some smart people, and support them in doing what they do best rather than second-guessing the agenda”. As he sees it, CPR’s biggest comparative advantage is a strong signal to all faculty that this place is about developing your intellectual identities. “So often, two or three sides of an argument come out of CPR — there is no party line. If you look at our IR faculty, we have the hawks, the doves, the comrades, opponents of the Indu-US nuclear deal….”

One of the lessons he learnt in institution building is that if “you have people with self-confidence and who can develop their ideas they are much less vested in blocking small things over which big institutions in India come to naught. So we’re quite happy to have people who disagree with us!”

But no-strings funding remains an issue, I persist. It’s complicated, he agrees and one that all think thanks are struggling with. At CPR, no one funding source – private or public – should be any more than eight to 10 per cent of the budget. So the funding base is part-government plus grants from foundations with a history of open-ended grants (Ford, MacArthur). His point, however, is unattached corporate philanthropy for research is still “very underdeveloped”.

But clearly there’s money -- “a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much Indian corporations have given to US institutions this year is staggering. And clearly, they are prepared to abide by those norms of independence. So it’s a question of convincing them.”

As he reasons, a $10-million donation to Harvard is about Rs 45 crore. That’ll get you one chair. “Now, no matter how bad the quality of Indian institutions, if you invested Rs 45 crore in India the marginal utility would be much higher.”

I change tack and ask about his resignation from the Prime Minister’s National Knowledge Council of which he was member-convenor. He’s even more blunt on this subject. Arjun Singh was the HRD minister at the time and the experience was like “beating one’s head against the brick wall — one wasn’t convinced that the government was serious about higher education”. The immediate issue was the decision to expand the quota for OBC reservations to all central institutions.

Not to be misunderstood, Mehta made his resignation letter public. “I have always been a supporter of affirmative action – if anything we need to do more radical things. But the way in which the quota was implemented would have had collateral consequences – if you have to expand seats in an institution by 30 per cent, you will kill it.”

I have demolished my thali and Mehta is still picking at his when dessert is served — a strange but delicious mixture of gur, fresh cream and puffed rice for me, kheer for him. I ask what he thought of Kapil Sibal’s ideas on higher education. “I should probably take the fifth,” he jokes but proceeds with a clinical dissection for which this column lacks the space. His comment, “there’s a plan for university buildings but there’s no plan for building universities” probably sums it up.

The bill arrives — at Rs 800-odd, it’s probably the cheapest lunch Business Standard has hosted in a long while. Mehta’s thali is half-finished (“no more, otherwise I’ll doze off”) but I am grateful for the short walk back to CPR to work off an enormous repast.

First Published: Tue, February 21 2012. 00:30 IST