Saturday, February 13, 2010

The philosopher of economics

Early in his career Amartya Sen resigned from his post at Jadhavpur University to join the Delhi School of Economics. Simple-minded well-wishers in Kolkata were outraged. “Leaving a university and joining a school! Are you mad?” they asked.

The man who enticed the future Nobel laureate to a mere school was K.N.Raj. V.K.R.V.Rao had founded the DSE but it was Raj who built it into an institution of world renown. He did it by attracting the very best talents to join him. Alongside Amartya Sen were Manmohan Singh, Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhumoy Chakravarty, M.N.Srinivas. It was never an issue with Raj whether a colleague had more star value and could outshine him. The good of the school was all that mattered.

Raj had acquired his own star value with his first assignments in India as a young Ph.D from London. Working at the Reserve Bank and then in the Planning Commission, he quickly became noticed for his out-of-the-box thinking and his ability to see into the future. Raj was astonishingly innovative. He drew up schemes and worked out formulas that were to become part of the new India’s economic foundations.

Facilitating that process was the trust he earned from Jawaharlal Nehru. Two names were recommended to Nehru by Harold Laski, the legendary Director of the London School of Economics. Nehru grabbed both. One was K.R. Narayanan who was pressed into the foreign service. The other was K.N. Raj who became the architect of the first Five Year Plan. Narayanan and Raj were lifelong buddies.

Like Narayanan, Raj too could have ascended ministerial heights and the pinnacles of power. But his love was academia. He believed that his newly independent country was going to need economists and sociologists and planners in their hundreds. So he dedicated his life to building up his country’s intellectual infrastructure. After Delhi, he founded the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum. It too attracted world attention and became an annual pilgrimage centre for wellknown economists from Japan, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Britain.

Only once did he make an exception to his rule of not taking employment abroad. He worked in the West for two years. The intention was to arrange treatment for his second son who had suffered meningitis and developed comprehension problems. The treatment was only marginally helpful and Raj and his wife accepted the reality with exemplary grace. They doted on the boy.

For all his devotion to family and his gentle manners, Raj was a man of unshakable beliefs. He detested communalism, and academics who supported it. In a Delhi speech once he cited Prof. Raychaudhuri of Oxford University to highlight “the vital differences between the ideas of Swamy Vivekananda and the ideas of the Hindutva movement that have recently been flourishing in our country under the intellectual leadership of Dr Murali Manohar Joshi.” He was contemptuous of the caste system (he belonged to a family that campaigned for Ezhava emancipation in Kerala). A Professor once teased him by saying “You are a great economist, Raj, but why are you so modest?” Raj replied instantly: “Ah, don’t you know I’m a toddy-tapper?”

Political interference was anathema to him. When the Steel Authority of India buckled under government pressure during the Emergency, he resigned from its Board of Directors. When campus politics disrupted academic work too often, he quit Delhi University’s Vice-chancellorship. Recalling “the only attempt at interference” in 27 years of CDS in Trivandrum, he referred to Chief Minister Karunakaran by name and said: “Of him the less said the better for him and for everyone else”.

Raj represented an age that combined brilliance with integrity and patriotism. If only to commemorate that age, his beloved CDS should now be renamed the K.N.Raj Centre for Development Studies. We cannot afford to forget a man who, as Bimal Jalan put it, “constantly addressed the philosophy of economics, not just the science of it”.