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Renaissance Man

Deepak Nayyar ( is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

A tribute by a close friend and associate of Ashok Mitra reveals the academician, politician, columnist, littérateur, and the affectionate friend he was. Having an equal flair for academia and policymaking, the notable economist and inimitable columnist was also perfectly at home in the world of arts and letters

Some parts of this article, particularly the sections relating to the two books, The Share of Wages in National Income and Terms of Trade and Class Relations, draw upon an earlier essay by the author ("Ashok Mitra: A Biographical Sketch," Economics as Ideology and Experience: Essays in Honour of Ashok Mitra, 1998).

Ashok Mitra passed away on May Day earlier this month, soon after he turned 90. He was not quite 20 when India became independent. The next 70 years turned out to be an extraordinary life in our times, of a remarkable person who contributed to economy, polity and society in so many different ways. He will be sorely missed not only by family, peers, colleagues, friends, and admirers who knew him, but also by readers and citizens who read what he wrote and heard what he said. It has been difficult for me to find the words that would provide a fitting tribute to his life and work because we were such close friends for more than four decades.

Mitra was a man of many parts: academician, administrator, politician, minister, parliamentarian, columnist, littérateur and, above all, a concerned citizen. As an academic, he was a distinguished economist. In administration, he was an influential policy practitioner. In the world of politics, he was an exception for his ideological beliefs, impeccable integrity, uncompromising nature and plain-speaking. As the finance minister of West Bengal, he served with commitment, passion and distinction. In Parliament, he worked tirelessly for good causes and the public interest without fear or favour. As a columnist, he wrote with elegance and wit, but could be trenchant and devastating in criticism. In the world of letters, he wrote extensively in Bengali, poetry and prose, to engage with literary criticism. As a concerned citizen, his voice was always audible and influenced people across the nation. He was, indeed, a renaissance man, always among the few in his time, but now a vanishing breed.

The Academician

He was born on 10 April 1928 in Dacca (now Dhaka), in what is now Bangladesh, where he went to school and grew up. In 1947, he completed his BA Honours in Economics at the University of Dacca. This quiet provincial town was, at the time, a hub of intellectual and creative activities. Mitra became a part of this milieu. It was the beginning of lifelong friendships, notwithstanding the subsequent ideological differences, with A K Dasgupta and S R Sen, under whom he studied economics. Around this time, outside the classroom, he met Sachin Chaudhuri (founder–editor of Economic Weekly as well as Economic & Political Weekly) and Samar Sen (political commentator and founder–editor of Frontier). These relationships blossomed into friendships which went on to span lifetimes. It was also the beginning of his engagement with politics and ideology as he threw himself into communist student activism.

After partition, he stayed on in Dacca for a few months, but then moved to Banaras Hindu University, where his teacher Dasgupta became the University Professor of Economics, to complete his MA in Economics in 1949. Thereafter, Mitra moved to Lucknow University as a lecturer. Lucknow, then, had stalwarts like Dhurjati Prasad Mukerji and Radhakamal Mukerjee. It was a period of learning for the young Mitra which honed his academic talent.

The years from 1951 to 1954 were spent at The Hague in the Netherlands working on his doctoral dissertation under Jan Tinbergen (the first Nobel Laureate in Economics). His thesis, The Share of Wages in National Income, which was first published by the Netherlands Centraal Planbureau in 1954, and reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1980, gained wide recognition as an important contribution. It was characterised by a combination of rigorous theorising, careful sifting of empirical evidence, and a passion for political economy. Mitra set out a critique of Michał Kalecki’s theory of income distribution, which he described as tautological. There was a novel attempt to measure the degree of monopoly for the economy as a whole (as distinct from the usual industry-wise degree of monopoly), based on an empirical analysis of income distribution in the United Kingdom from 1870 to 1938. Introducing a number of other factors, he sought to develop a theory of income distribution in a capitalist economy to reach a conclusion which was the exact opposite of that reached by Kalecki. He found that an increase in the price of raw materials will increase and not lower the share of wages in national income.

The next 12 years were spent entirely on research and teaching. Yet, it was a period that provided the foundations for Mitra’s shift from theory to policy in subsequent years, and from economics to politics later in life. On his return from the Netherlands, he worked for one year in the Ministry of Finance (MoF) in New Delhi and for another year at the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in Bangkok. This was followed by two years at the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi, and four years of teaching at the Economic Development Institute of the World Bank in Washington, DC. Mitra then moved to the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta, which had just been established, where he spent three years teaching economics.

The Policymaker

The transition from the ivory tower of academia to the real world of policy formulation, when it came, therefore posed no problems for Mitra. It was soon apparent that he had an equal flair for both. He moved from Calcutta to Delhi when he became chairperson of the Agricultural Prices Commission in 1966. This tenure of three years, as he was to reflect later, was not only valuable as it yielded close friendships, such as the one with Dharam Narain, but also productive as it shaped his later work on the significance of inter-sectoral terms of trade in the process of economic development. In 1969, he was appointed Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India in the MoF.

During his tenure, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government took two major policy decisions on which Mitra exercised some influence. First, priority sector lending for agriculture and small-scale industries was introduced. Second, a structure of differential rates of interest, which distinguished between borrowers and uses, was put in place. There were such successes. But, there were also problems. Mitra became increasingly disenchanted with the emerging political situation and resigned in 1972. He left Delhi.

Return to Academia

In Calcutta, the next three years were a different incarnation. Mitra began life as a columnist. It was the beginning of “Calcutta Diary,” as AM, in EPW, on contemporary issues spanning an impressively wide range of issues. The style was inimitable, the content was engaging, the message was clear, and it always carried a punch. The column made readers think and became legendary over time. He also returned to academic research. The outcome was a splendid book, Terms of Trade and Class Relations, which came to be recognised as an outstanding piece of work in political economy that sought to explore the relationship between relative prices, income distribution and economic growth. The essential message was that

economic phenomena are determined by political categories and processes: to miss out their interaction is to rob social analysis of its most fundamental content.

The book had three distinct, though closely related, parts. The first part traced the history of ideas about the fundamental role of the terms of exchange between agriculture and industry in the process of economic development: from Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus, through Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, to Yevgeni Preobrazhensky and Nikolai Bukharin. The next part developed an analytical framework: it explored the relationship between relative prices and income distribution to discuss how class forces operating through terms of trade affect the nature and prospects of growth in an underdeveloped economy. It argued that income distribution determines movements in relative prices, while the latter, in turn, are determined by the exercise of monopoly or monopsony power.

The final part, focusing on the political economy of Indian development, put forward a clear hypothesis: the exercise of political authority and state power in India represents an arrangement between the rural oligarchy and the industrial bourgeoisie. While the latter control the industrial sector and the working class, they also need the former who can deliver the votes from the countryside, and help maintain them in power. This alliance of convenience survives on the basis of mutual trade-offs, for even though political interests often coincide, economic contradictions abound. This coalition, he believed, was corrosive of growth and wholly detrimental to the interests of the poor.

I first met Mitra in 1975, when I was teaching at the University of Sussex in England and he came to spend an academic year as a visiting professor at the Institute of Development Studies. Our spouses, Rohini and Gauri, also met at the same time. We discovered how much we had in common. It was the beginning of our lifelong friendship.

Political Activism

The Mitras returned to Calcutta after a year, where he taught economics at the Indian Statistical Institute. It was to be a very short interlude in academia. He had been an outspoken critic of the authoritarian regime in the Emergency. When elections were announced, Mitra decided to become a full-time political activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M), having been an adherent to the communist cause all his life. In 1977, he was appointed Minister of Finance, Development and Planning in the Government of West Bengal. He served in that position for nearly a decade until 1987, a period which saw significant changes in the countryside through Operation Barga. His role in shaping economic policies of the state government was critical. At the same time, in the national context, he was the leading spokesperson for fiscal federalism and emphasised the need for decentralisation and devolution in centre–state financial relations.

I left England and returned to India in July 1980, accepting an appointment at the IIM, Calcutta teaching economics. We spent three wonderful years in Calcutta. The hospitality, warmth and affection of Gauri and Ashok Mitra was simply amazing. It made us feel at home in a megacity where we were complete strangers. The bond of friendship grew stronger as it extended to the family. Our older son, Dhiraj, was just two years old when we arrived. The first words that he uttered in English were “power-cut,” as Calcutta then was without power for at least eight hours a day! Our younger son, Gaurav, was born in Calcutta. Ashok chaacha and Gauri chaachi, who showered so much affection on them, were their favourite people. Even as the finance minister, leading a non-stop life, he found time to visit us at home every other day. The close relationship with our children continued even after we left Calcutta. He would always spend time with us on his visits to Delhi.

The Inimitable Mitra

The next phase of his life began with his resignation as finance minister in the Government of West Bengal prompted by differences on some issues. In the years that followed, he devoted himself to writing extensively in English and Bengali. This was his incarnation as a columnist who wrote with passion about economy, polity, and society. “Calcutta Diary” resumed life in EPW. “First Person Singular” began life in the Telegraph. His ideological conviction, combined with a concern for the poor and a commitment to national development earned him the status of being a moral voice among the literati.

Six years after his resignation as finance minister, Mitra returned to the fold of the CPI(M). In August 1993, he was elected Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha as a CPI(M) candidate from West Bengal. In this role, he was an important contributor to the debate on the economy, as an outspoken critic of economic liberalisation, both inside and outside Parliament. He also continued his role as a perceptive and sensitive commentator in the wider context of polity and society.

We were in Delhi through this entire period and saw Ashok and Gauri regularly. So did our children. Ashok once offered young Gaurav a choice between ice cream and Coca-Cola. Gaurav insisted on both. It led Ashok to write a column on why economists did not understand the concept of choice! The Mitras returned to Calcutta six years later. But our close connect continued. In 2008, when our son Dhiraj got married, we were touched that Ashok and Gauri came all the way from Calcutta by train, for just two days, because Gauri by then was not well enough to travel by air. She passed away soon after. And life was not the same for Ashok Mitra anymore.

The 10 years that followed were lonely for Mitra. Friends from near and far still dropped in to see him. There were fewer as time passed. He would always lament that so many of his friends were being snatched away by death. He continued to write his columns. He continued his interest in politics but distanced himself from political processes. He found the energy to start a new journal in Bengali, Arek Rakam—a literary, social, and political periodical—for which he mobilised financial support, and edited with zeal.

This commitment to journals was not new. In January 1967, he was inducted as a member of the Sameeksha Trust, which had begun life in August 1966 to publish EPW. Sachin Chaudhuri had known him as a young man in Dacca. He served as a trustee for 37 years until February 2004. In this period, almost four decades, he worked diligently for the cause of EPW. He also influenced the evolution of the journal, even if he did not always agree with his fellow trustees or the Editor. Thus, his association with EPW began long before “Calcutta Diary.” I joined as a trustee in 1991. It was yet another dimension of our long association.

In the past five years, after a serious illness, his health was frail. His hearing was becoming worse. And, when his eyesight began to fail, he was frustrated because he could no longer read. It was Arek Rakam and friends that kept him going. But, the loneliness was overwhelming. Towards the end, he had lost his iron will. I would see him regularly on my visits to Kolkata. When I left, he would always say “Deepak, I hope to see you the next time you come to Kolkata, if I am still alive.”

I want to remember the Ashok Mitra I knew. He was considerate, thoughtful, caring, and affectionate as a person. However, on matters of ideas, institutions, or politics, where he disagreed, he could be combative, acerbic, and blunt. I saw and experienced both dimensions. But, this went beyond individuals. And, there were no exceptions. For example, he was absolutely loyal to the CPI(M). Yet, he could be scathing, even devastating, in his criticism of it. There was no malice intended. It stemmed from his strong belief system.

Mitra was a rare person with multiple talents as an academic, policy practitioner, minister, parliamentarian, columnist, and littérateur. He was also a man of many parts whose interests in life extended much beyond economics and politics. He had a passion for cricket, whether test matches or one-day matches (although he was too much of a purist for the T-20 matches, which he described as tamasha), and loved to write about it in his inimitable style. He was perfectly at home in the world of arts and letters. He wrote poems, essays and novels in Bengali. In 1996, he received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his contribution to Bengali literature, with a citation for his collection of essays, Taal Betaal.

Mitra was most unusual in the diversity and versatility of his interests. These attributes were reflected in his wide circle of friends and admirers across the spectrum of professions, ideologies and generations. Behind his restless, almost fidgety nature, there was a warmth and affection that led to close and lifelong friendships. His deep affection for children and close rapport with young people was remarkable for a person who was both shy and intense. In this social dimension of Mitra’s life, he owed much to his wonderful wife Gauri, who kept an open house for decades as friends from near and far dropped in for a chat, a meal, or a weekend at their home.

I will miss him. So will many of us. Even so, it is also time to celebrate his remarkable life.

Updated On : 18th May, 2018


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