Inside the Corridors of Power | Book Review — Policymaker’s Journal: From New Delhi to Washington DC by Kaushik Basu

August 22, 2021 12:30 AM

Kaushik Basu’s memoir gives valuable insight into various roles involved in policy making

A file photo of Kaushik Basu Express photoA file photo of Kaushik Basu (Express photo)

By Amitabha Bhattacharya

Kaushik Basu, a professor of economics at Cornell University, is an academic whose foray into the world of decision-making, first with the Government of India as its chief economic adviser (2009-12) and then as World Bank’s chief economist (2012-16), enriches him with a unique perspective that he shares, with rare insight and humour, in this book under review.

Basu’s journal, written in the form of a diary, is different from the usual notes and jottings that fading civil servants write towards the end of their professional life. Firstly, Basu is active and alert, fully sensitive to what is happening around. Secondly, his entry into higher bureaucracy, governmental and inter-governmental, from the academe and return to that world after completing seven years, makes him both an outsider and an insider to the serious business of policy-making— a role he seemed to have relished. Thirdly, the journal is informed by a generosity of spirit with a sense of fun and gratitude, making it eminently readable.

In the government, he held a position equivalent in rank of a Union secretary, but in reality Basu was more important than many of them. This was what he deserved, as anyone aware of his background as a student, teacher and researcher would acknowledge. His direct access to the prime minister also helped him make a mark on what he crafted, as his interactions with Manmohan Singh would affirm. But this is not a book where he focuses on recording his achievements, nor is it one full of abstruse economic ideas. It rather gives a flavour of the kind of work that a CEA does—preparation of the annual Economic Survey, managing the 400-strong cadre of the Indian Economic Service, and advising the government on macro-economic issues like “fighting inflation, unemployment and haemorrhaging finance”, for instance. And he records them with such elan that his account of New Delhi and Washington years does not turn out to be tedious. He combines the personal and the official with ease.

For example, his first brush with administration: “As I got out of my official Ambassador car with my weather-beaten briefcase and cheap laptop, two persons emerged seemingly from nowhere and whisked those out of my hand. My first instinct was to run after them and recover my belongings.” This kind of tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted humour has been deftly interwoven with the more prosaic details of how policies get framed.

His uncanny ability to observe the conduct of some career civil servants and to attempt finding a reason thereof reveals an incisive mind. He notes that “overwork in the top echelons of bureaucracy and the culture of permissionism that pervades the government”, adversely affect its functional efficiency. He admits that India’s top bureaucrats are “exceptionally smart people” in terms of IQ and knowledge and that they work pretty hard. At the same time, he observes, “the senior bureaucrats often work as back-end, on-call workers for their masters…The individuals, though initially very bright, come to acquire a parrot-like quality with the ability to do a large amount of mechanical work. This does hamper creativity in the government.” It also irked him that permission was frequently sought from superiors on insignificant issues and how a surprising amount of trivia went all the way to the top!

Basu narrates how some of his attempts failed and a few even embarrassed the government. His reasoned idea to convert the India Economic Service to an All-India Service modelled on the IAS failed to take off. The fact that state governments, unlike the Centre, suffer from a dearth of skills in the absence of a cadre of bright economists to aid them in planning, did not cut any ice. Basu’s original idea, that to reduce corruption in public life the relevant Act should be so amended as to make ‘bribe-giving’ for legitimate work as legal but ‘bribe-taking’ as illegal, created a furore and was dropped like a hot potato. Even his statement, in 2012, was completely misreported by the press, suggesting that “the government is waiting for the next election to be over and then start the reform…” It caused discomfort, but the interesting part is the cool manner in which Pranab Mukherjee advised him to control the damage. Later, the PM told him,
“Now you know what we face routinely.”

The diary does mention the frequent VIP lunches and dinners, meetings with high dignitaries, including foremost economists of our age, addressing convocations and being awarded honourary doctorates by universities. In lesser hands, such stories would have sounded a trifle tiring, but Basu’s takes from such encounters are always educative, lively and witty. At Dhaka in 2016, after calling on then prime minister Sheikh Hasina and finance minister Muhith discussing serious issues, he addressed a lecture on ‘Bangladesh economy and the World’ when the chairman introduced him as the Shah Rukh Khan of academics! Then Basu adds “I tried hard not to nod but I think I did.”

His generosity gets reflected in his reference to friends: “Nilay was among the two—the other being Rahul Khullar” (who joined the IAS), “…in my batch in college whom I considered the most brilliant students, and by a wide margin.” While adulation and praise for his mentor Amartya Sen and for Manmohan Singh is understandable and often justified, he does not shy away from alluding to his pleasant and frank meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2014. He also shares his belief in determinism, lovingly touches upon his relationship with his parents, considers Kenneth Arrow as the greatest economist of the last hundred years, and reveals many other private anxieties and public concerns.

On the whole, a work of distinction that would be enjoyed by educated readers of every hue.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a former IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP

Policymaker’s Journal: From New Delhi to Washington, DC
Kaushik Basu
Simon & Schuster India
Pp xiv + 375, Rs 699

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