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A Life of Rare Richness

Prabhat Patnaik (prabhatptnk@yahoo.co.in) is professor emeritus at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jaw aharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

A fellow economist and friend looks back at Ashok Mitra's intellectual contributions and the wide range of his experiences, associations, and interests. 

Ashok Mitra led a life of rare richness. Few people manage to have the range of experiences he had, meet the range of personalities he met and befriended, and pursue the range of interests he cultivated. This was partly, of course, because of his own persona, but partly it was also the period and the setting in which he grew up.

Born in East Bengal on 10 April 1928, he was old enough to follow directly the Red Army’s fight against Nazism, and the Battle of Stalingrad; to witness the last stages of India’s anti-colonial struggle, including the prelude to and the horrors of Partition; to watch the post-war communist revolutionary upsurge in Asia; and to participate in the intense intellectual, artistic, and cultural ferment of the time of which Bengal in particular was a major centre. A sensitive soul and a brilliant student, he was, not surprisingly, drawn to Marxism and the communist movement, to which he remained committed till the very end.

At Dhaka University where he studied Economics, he was exposed not only to the influence of renowned teachers like Amiya Kumar Dasgupta (who had left Dhaka a little earlier, but whose influence lingered) and Samar Ranjan Sen but also to luminaries like Satyen Bose (who was a hostel warden). He became active in the Student Federation in Dhaka and remained active there even after Partition, even representing Pakistan at an international meet of progressive youth held in India. But he had to emigrate to India shortly afterwards, before he could complete his MA examinations.

It was Banaras Hindu University where the grand old teacher from Dhaka, Amiya Dasgupta, had migrated earlier, which finally allowed him to sit for the MA examinations. Not only did he pass the exam with flying colours, but his essay script, which was evaluated by Dhurjati Prasad Mukerji, then teaching at Lucknow, was so outstanding that Mukerji made an effort to find out who the author of the script was, and having located Mitra, offered him a job at Lucknow University.

At Lucknow, Mitra came into close contact with figures like Feroze Gandhi and Acharya Narendra Dev. The latter, a renowned socialist, was the vice chancellor of Lucknow University at that time; he would pick up Ashok Mitra on Sunday mornings to take him home for breakfast and discussions. Mitra used to reminisce that his Lucknow days were among the most pleasant he ever had. He would finish teaching in the morning and then spend the rest of the day gossiping in the coffee house in Hazratganj. Shaking off at last what he would call his “lotus-eater’s existence,” he went to the Netherlands to work on his doctorate with Jan Tinbergen on the theory of distribution. The thesis, The Share of Wages in National Income, was published and brought him much acclaim.

He then did teaching and research stints at a number of institutions afterwards, including the National Council of Applied Economic Research, Delhi; the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in Bangkok (where he interacted closely with Nicholas Kaldor); and the Economic Development Institute, Washington, DC; before joining the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) at Kolkata at the invitation of K T Chandy, a one-time staunch Leftist in London who had become its director. Chandy wanted him to build up the social science division of the IIM; and Mitra, recruiting several distinguished academics, was so successful in doing so that the IIM Kolkata remains to this day, to many people’s bemusement, one of the outstanding social science centres of the country.

From IIM he moved to become chairperson of the Agricultural Prices Commission, which was established in the wake of the acute food crisis of the mid-1960s. He considered that job to have been his most rewarding one, but was soon asked by P N Haksar, then principal secretary to Indira Gandhi and the architect of the “left course” she was following, to move to the Ministry of Finance as the chief economic advisor. Mitra could have settled down thereafter to a cosy and uneventful bureaucratic career, but he resigned within two years, unwilling to function within a regime that was letting loose a veritable reign of terror against the left in West Bengal.

Mitra’s frequent change of jobs, which undoubtedly contributed to the richness of his life by bringing him an ever-widening circle of friends and ever newer experience, has often been put down to a certain restlessness that is supposed to have characterised him. In fact, when he was appointed to the Ministry of Finance, his communist reputation had so frightened that particular bastion of conservatism that several of its officials went to I G Patel, Mitra’s close personal friend, to seek his advice on how they could cope with him; Patel reportedly told them not to worry since Mitra never stayed in the same job for long.

Though Patel was correct in this instance, Mitra’s short stays at various jobs were not due to some peripatetic propensity, but because he was a person of extremely strong principles, who could never put up with any transgressions from those principles. This commitment to principles occasionally came into conflict with his party loyalty too; it contributed to the tense and uneasy relationship which he had with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—all his life.

Following his resignation from the government, Mitra threw himself into writing his column “Calcutta Diary” for the Economic & Political Weekly. He had been associated with this journal from its very inception, when it was called the Economic Weekly, as its founding editor, Sachin Chaudhuri, had been a close family friend from his Dhaka days. Chaudhuri’s quarters in Bombay’s Churchill Chambers were a home away from home for Mitra. He regularly wrote editorials for it, quite apart from his columns (whenever he was not in any government), and served as a member of the Sameeksha Trust for years. Throughout his itinerant life, theEPW remained one institution towards which his affection never dimmed.

In the dark days of the early 1970s when Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism was on the rise, manifesting itself in the unleashing of terror in West Bengal and in the ruthless suppression of the 1974 Railway strike, “Calcutta Diary” played a remarkable role in overcoming despondency and infusing courage and hope in its readers. I know many people, especially in government, who were not particularly interested in the esoteric issues of economics or sociology, subscribed to theEPW just to read “Calcutta Diary.”

Mitra also threw himself into academic work. He used an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) fellowship to write Terms of Trade and Class Relations, which took over from where The Share of Wages in National Income had left off. He gave a series of lectures at the newly established Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which I had just joined, outlining the ideas of the new book. It was a memorable academic event, attended by hundreds of students and faculty, and was remembered long afterwards.

Academic Contribution

The starting point of his academic work was Kalecki’s theory of distribution, which had explained the share of wages in national income in terms of two factors, the “degree of monopoly” that underlay the profit mark-up, and the ratio of raw material prices to the unit wage-costs. Kalecki’s theory, however, had given the impression that the pricing behaviour of oligopolistic firms, which governed the distribution of income, depended on technical considerations. And this raised a basic question: if money wages rose through trade union action, then for a given mark-up (ignoring raw materials for the moment), there would be an equi-proportionate increase in prices, so that real wages would not change; but if trade union action was so singularly incapable of increasing real wages (except when the burden could be passed on to raw material producers), then why were the capitalists so bitterly opposed to trade unions?

Mitra’s answer in The Share of Wages in National Income was to suggest that the mark-up was not technically determined but was itself dependent upon the strength of trade unions. In Terms of Trade and Class Relations he carried this idea further. Different social classes are forever engaged in increasing their share of the total output. Towards this end, they use not only their economic power but the state as well; and their instruments include not only the relative prices, that is, the terms of trade of their goods vis-à-vis those of the others, but also taxes, subsidies, and other policies.

It followed, therefore, that the realm of the economy could not be separated from the realm of the polity, and that prices were determined, not just indirectly by class struggle, as Piero Sraffa had suggested in the case of free competition, but quite directly. It is not Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that determines prices, as the economics discipline teaches, but the very visible process of class struggle.

From this, Mitra drew a corollary for India. The bourgeoisie here, for establishing its hegemony, depended upon the landed interests to mobilise for it the rural votes within our system of electoral democracy. In return, the latter demanded and obtained an increase in the terms of trade for their agricultural products. This entire arrangement, however, leading to a secular increase in the terms of trade for agriculture, tended to squeeze the real wages and the profit-margins of the industrial (or more generally non-agricultural) sector, leading eventually to industrial atrophy and popular anger.

The question was: what exit route could the system have from this cul-de-sac? In the discussion at JNU that followed Mitra’s presentation, it was suggested that one possible exit route could be the jettisoning of democracy altogether. Interestingly, within months of this discussion, an Emergency had been declared in the country!

In retrospect, while Mitra’s general posing of the distributional issue appears powerful, his specific reading of the contradictions of the Indian economy, in terms of a politically determined steady shift in the terms of trade in favour of agriculture, causing both economic atrophy and a squeeze on workers’ real wages, seems apposite only for that particular period. Indeed Sukhamoy Chakravarty had put forward a similar analysis of the contradictions of the Indian economy around the same time. This only underscores the importance of that specific context.

The Emergency itself marked the beginning of a shift in the terms of trade against agriculture. And things have of course changed dramatically since then with the adoption of neo-liberal policies. Neo-liberalism has meant a squeeze on the agricultural sector, taking into account not just prices but a whole range of policy measures, as he had suggested one should do; the landed interests, which have meanwhile diversified their activities away from agriculture to a large extent, escape this squeeze, and can even gain from it in many ways. Taking the Mitra picture, pertinent at the time it was drawn, as reflecting contemporary reality in India, would be stretching things, a conclusion that he himself would doubtless have endorsed.

Emergency and After

Since he had been a fierce and outspoken critic of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism, Mitra was advised by friends to leave the country after the Emergency was declared. He did so and spent the entire period in exile, teaching at various places and writing against the excesses of the Emergency in several journals, including notably in the Economist of London (against which the Indian High Commission there had desperately organised “counter-contributions”). He returned to India after the Emergency and in the assembly elections in West Bengal in 1977, won the Rashbehari Avenue seat in Kolkata as a CPI(M)-supported candidate. That was the beginning of an altogether new career for Mitra; he was inducted as the Minister for Finance, Development and Planning in the first Left Front Government of West Bengal under the leadership of Jyoti Basu.

The principal achievement of the Left Front government in West Bengal was to break what has been called “the agrarian impasse” that had afflicted the entire region for a long time. The impasse was a result both of the agrarian structure that had developed in the colonial period, and the complete absence of any public investment in irrigation and rural infrastructure during that period. This absence of investment was partly because under the Permanent Settlement, where the land revenue for the colonial government was fixed, it would not fetch the minimum rate of return that was demanded on all public investment; it was partly also because of a widely-prevalent misunderstanding that the problem of Bengal was not “too little water” but “too much water” (as the 1926 Royal Commission on Agriculture put it).

The Left Front government resumed the process of land redistribution that had been started earlier by the two United Front governments of the state, recorded sharecroppers through “operation barga,” enforced that the crop was harvested only by the one who had tilled the land, ensured that the landowners gave a receipt to the tenant against their share of the crop, and induced the banks to give loans against that receipt (which was proof of the tenant’s right to land). It carried out substantial devolution of resources and decision-making to panchayats, to which elections had not been held for years but which were now constituted. And it stepped up quite significantly the outlay on irrigation and rural infrastructure despite being extremely short of financial resources, and having to devote much of even these limited resources to the power sector where there was an acute shortage.

Mitra, along with his friend Arun Ghosh, whom he induced after retirement to join the State Planning Board, and Satyabrata Sen, played a major role in all these developments, with the support of Jyoti Basu and Promode Dasgupta. As a result, West Bengal became for a while, the fastest-growing among all the states of the country in terms of agricultural output, a remarkable turnaround from its long stagnation. And this growth moreover occurred within an agrarian structure in which there had been a change in the balance of class forces, with the old jotedars having lost considerable ground. These phenomena in turn generated significant multiplier effects of their own at the local level in terms of employment and output.

Centre–State Relations

The contrast between the resources required by the state government to fulfil its obligations and the resources available to it, prompted him to emphasise the need for a reordering of centre–state relations, especially in the financial sphere. Within the constituent assembly itself K T Shah’s demand that the term federal republic be explicitly mentioned in the Constitution had been turned down. And in practice, there had been considerable centralisation of power and resources since then. Championing the rights of the states came as a breath of fresh air and gave the left a remarkable opportunity to mobilise opposition forces, and state governments run by opposition parties.

Mitra played a major role in organising a series of conclaves of opposition chief ministers, the last one being in Srinagar. In the political sphere that was the height of the influence of the left, Basu was asked in the mid-1990s to lead the United Front government but could not do so because of opposition to the idea within the CPI(M) itself. In his view, however, a more favourable conjuncture for Basu becoming the Prime Minister of the country had been in the 1980s (when Basu himself had also been younger); but the assassination of Indira Gandhi had altered that conjuncture. That assassination also deflected attention from the issue of centre–state relations, notwithstanding Basu’s and Mitra’s dogged pursuit of it.

His resignation as finance minister of West Bengal in 1986 on a point of principle relating to the state’s education policy, pushed the issue of centre–state relations further into the background. And the neo-liberal period almost obliterated it through the simple expedient of deliberately causing a debt trap for the states, and then arm-twisting them into submission. The introduction of the goods and services tax (GST), a supreme act of centralisation that arguably even violates the “basic structure” of the Constitution, was virtually the last straw.

Mitra’s last days were spent in the fervent hope that the GST would be challenged in the Supreme Court as being anti-constitutional; but legal opinion that was consulted at the time was lukewarm, on the grounds that unless some state governments came forward as plaintiffs, litigation only by a group of public intellectuals would carry little weight. No state government, alas, retained by then the spunk to challenge the GST.

A Staunch Public Critic

Mitra’s resignation from the finance ministership of West Bengal was only one episode in the somewhat turbulent history of his relationship with the CPI(M). Despite the turbulence of this history, however, the relationship endured, as each side knew it would. For Mitra, the conflict between his commitment to certain principles he held dear and his loyalty to the party that might ride roughshod over these principles on occasions, was a perennial source of personal crisis. His resignation as finance minister in 1986 was an expression, and a resolution, of such a personal crisis. At the same time, he was clear that any left praxis in India that bypassed the CPI(M), which was by far the largest left force in the country, no matter how well-intentioned it may be, could make little headway. He never therefore parted company with the CPI(M), no matter how deeply he felt about his differences with the party.

Likewise on the side of the party, no matter how critical Mitra had been of it, there was a clear appreciation that he would never go against it. No matter what he said and wrote, he was always considered “one of us.” This contributed to an uneasy and tense relationship, but one that nonetheless endured.

Even after he had resigned from the party and the cabinet, Mitra was nominated by the party to a Rajya Sabha seat in the 1990s when the neo-liberal policies were being introduced by the Narasimha Rao government. He was a powerful critic of these policies in the Rajya Sabha, and was listened to with great respect by all. He played a major role in organising opposition to neo-liberalism all over the country through his writings and speeches, at a time when few understood its import. He also became the chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce and Industry, and in that capacity launched a powerful resistance against the new intellectual property rights regime, which, the United States (US) multinationals were trying to impose upon the world through the World Trade Organization. The report that he authored was a unanimous one, a testimony to his persuasive skills and the respect he commanded among all political parties.

When the Left Front government launched its industrialisation drive, Mitra once again became a strong public critic of that government, taking it to task for the concession it was giving to domestic and foreign big business, and for alienating the peasantry that had stood by it for decades. His criticism, characteristically, was trenchant, since Mitra was never one to mince his words: he once wrote a piece criticising the concessions being given by the Left Front government to the Tatas on the proposed Nano plant, titled “Santa Claus Visits the Tatas.” And yet it did not mean a break with the party. In 2011, when there were assembly elections in West Bengal, he addressed public meetings in support of party candidates. When he passed away on 1 May, the party was actively involved in organising his last journey, a fact that would have cheered him greatly.

A Moral Voice

When India had approached the International Monetary Fund for an extended facility loan in the early 1980s, Mitra, then finance minister of West Bengal, had organised a massive intellectual protest against it. I remember a conversation with Joan Robinson at the time, when she named a couple of well-known Indian economists and asked me if they had protested against the loan. When I said no, her question was: “Who then represents the moral voice at this moment?” I mentioned Mitra, to which she responded, “that is all right then.”

The fact that he acted for years as the moral voice of the country is not a matter of surprise. The surprise is that he was widely accepted as such despite his proximity to an organised communist party. Even the acceptability of Noam Chomsky in the US as a moral voice owes not a little to his anarchist philosophical position and his consequent opposition to communism (though providing practical support to communist regimes against US machinations). Indeed, one of the signs of capitalist development, in the intellectual realm, is the marginalisation of all those who are considered close to the organised left.

Mitra’s standing as a moral voice in the intellectual world arose partly from his refusal to compromise on principles even in deference to party loyalty, and the party’s tacit acceptance of this fact. But it also arose from the fact that capitalist development in India had not proceeded far enough, at least in the realm of the superstructure, during much of his active life. This is a “problem” that neo-liberalism has addressed with assiduity, even to the point of uniting with the Hindutva ideology.

And since what an individual is, is socially determined to a significant extent, it is doubtful if there will ever be another Ashok Mitra. Even a person having his qualities of head and heart, were it at all possible, would not get the same hearing and the same respect under neo-liberal capitalism as Mitra had got in an earlier era. With all his criticism of the Nehruvian era, defined broadly as the pre-neo-liberal period, he was very much a product of it.

Updated On : 18th May, 2018

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