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An Economist at Home and Abroad – Shankar Acharya

by Venky

(Image Credit: http://www.barnesandnoble,com)

At the time of this review, Shankar Acharya holds the distinction of having served for the longest period (8 years) as India’s Chief Economic Advisor (CEA), and under three diverse finance ministers: Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and Yashwant Sinha. From a reading of “An Economist at Home and Abroad”, we are also provided a revealing glimpse into his extraordinarily peripatetic life adorned by unique adventures and events. Hobnobbing with Burmese politician, diplomat, author, and a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, while studying at Oxford, refilling the whiskey glass of a slightly inebriated Raj Kapoor at a party hosted for a small contingent that was part of an international film festival in Montreal, and renting a room, whose landlady, Lydia Pasternak happened to be the sister of the famous Boris Pasternak, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, mainly for his semi-autographical novel Dr. Zhivago, Shankar Acharya’s life is a rich and fulfilling agglomeration of the diverse and the picturesque. Lydia Pasternak even proceeded to gift Acharya a limited-edition lithograph print of Leo Tolstoy writing at his desk, painted by her father, Leonid Pasternak, as a wedding gift. Acharya in a comical vein explains how many Indian visitors to his house mistook the old man in the painting for Rabindranath Tagore!

The writing of a memoir has the author performing an intricate balancing act. Too much of details, the reader stops stifling her yawns and shelves the book; too little information and she kicks herself for wasting her money on a work that reads unwritten. Shankar Acharya strikes the right balance. Keeping his involvement in the arcane and abstruse topics of economics and fiscal policies to the minimum – he has after all penned numerous books on the subjects – he never allows the reader’s attention to either slack or wither.  Interesting anecdotes, invigorating personalities and inspirational deeds contrive to ensure that the book is vigorously compelling.

When Shankar Acharya was still a young boy, a member in the family approached the child’s father requesting the “leasing” of the boy for a small role in an upcoming movie that was being directed by the member in question. Shankar Acharya’s father politely demurred, “concerned about disrupting my trajectory in school”. The person making the request was Satyajit Ray, the movie “Pather Panchali” and the character, the now immortal, Apu.

Due to his father discharging his responsibilities in the Indian Foreign Service, Shankar Acharya spent a great bit of his formative lives gallivanting between continents. London, Prague, Montreal, Dhaka and even Islamabad were temporarily labelled homes. Acharya followed up stints at Oxford and Harvard universities before being  selected by the World Bank as a Young Professional. In his tenure at the World Bank he rubbed shoulders with some of his famous Indian contemporaries such as Montek Singh Ahluwalia and his indomitable tigress of a wife, Isher Judge Ahluwalia. Isher, a brilliant economist in her own right, later on offered Acharya a distinguished position in ICRIER after his retirement from Government life. Isher, unfortunately succumbed to a virulent form of brain tumour, but not before penning a magnificent and magisterial autobiography.

Acharya takes great pains in explaining to his readers his bipartisan attitude and a neutral perspective while discharging his professional responsibilities under politicians belonging to different stripes and parties. He however has enormous praise and respect for both the Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee administrations. In fact he considers the achievements of the NDA regime under Vajpayee to be second only to Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh’s now epochal era of liberalization. “Seen in a broader perspective and with the benefit of hindsight, Vajpayee’s political achievement in greatly advancing economic reforms was perhaps even more admirable than Rao’s, since the former had to work with a much more unwieldly political coalition, and without the benefit of the urgency and necessity imparted by a grave economic crisis like that of 1991…”

Ending the book in a very evocative and poignant manner, Acharya bemoans the initial lacklustre response of the Indian Government to the second wave of COVID that wreaked absolute and wanton havoc. Acharya identifies four critical differences between India and the rest of the world that acted to imperil India’s crisis response – Half of the population perilously close to subsistence standards of living with little buffer to ride our fluctuations in income; over 85% of India’s 450-500 million strong labour force operating in the economic sector with low and at times below minimum wage earnings; a weak patchwork of welfare reforms which although noble in intent, is inadequate in reach and coverage; and finally, a yet to be ramped up health infrastructure that had people scrambling to lay their hands on critical support services such as provision of beds and Oxygen.

Acharya also in a brilliantly subtle vein, scatters important social messages throughout the book. By reiterating the fact that both his children are adopted, he strives to create an ecosystem of change and empowerment. There are hundreds of thousands of orphans eagerly looking forward to finding a welcoming home like that belonging to Shankar Acharya and his scholarly wife, Gayathri.

Acharya pulls no punches in narrating his escapades. An episode has him chatting with an elderly English gentleman, who had retired from being master of an Oxford college. This chat leads to an invitation for a pre-dinner sherry at the elderly gentleman’s house on St. Giles’. Acharya is more than just a little bit surprised to find that he is the only guest. Feeling uneasy, he prepares to take leave after partaking of a glass of sherry. At the time of bidding farewell at the door, his host suddenly kisses Acharya on the lips before asking, ‘Did you like that?’ Acharya writes, “I was so nonplussed, I recall replying ‘I don’t know’ and retreating swiftly in confusion. That was my only, and unsought, homosexual experience during my three years at Oxford.”

If at all there is some sort of a lacunae in the book, it is the perfectly acceptable and non-significant one involving the invocation of a raft of familial names. Acharya liberally intersperses certain passages with an astonishing roll call of names belonging to his family. The reader struggles to put context to the name and place. But this is an extremely minor facet in an otherwise engrossing elucidation.

‘An Economist at Home and Abroad” – an enthralling read.

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