Trip down memory lane | Book Review — An Economist at Home and Abroad: A Personal Journey by Shankar Acharya

September 19, 2021 1:27 AM

An economist in public service recalls the crucial years of the Indian economy

Acharya compares the style of working of Rao and Vajpayee. In terms of economic reforms and policies, he rates Vajpayee’s years second only to Rao’s.Acharya compares the style of working of Rao and Vajpayee. In terms of economic reforms and policies, he rates Vajpayee’s years second only to Rao’s.

By Amitabha Bhattacharya

This is a memoir with a difference. Shankar Acharya had been the chief economic adviser for eight years (1993-2001) during a crucial phase of India’s transition, having served earlier, after a brief Washington interlude, for six years as an economic adviser in the finance ministry. Working in the same ministry almost continuously for 14 years is both a privilege and an opportunity, the account of which forms a substantive part of this book. However, he terms the story of his life as a personal journey since what he narrates is his evolution—primarily as an economist-civil servant and a person at ease with his surroundings, in India and abroad, in the context of his family, friends and acquaintances. What he contributed has been understated, what he gained from life has been graciously acknowledged.

In a charming manner he takes readers through his growing up years. Born in a progressive family as a son of an ICS officer (later inducted into the Indian Foreign Service), he was nurtured in the best of traditions. His father was approached by Satyajit Ray if the young Shankar could play the role of Apu in Pather Panchali. “My parents, concerned about disrupting my trajectory in school, declined politely.” Moving with his parents from place to place widened his world view.

He attended public schools followed by Oxford and Harvard universities and was selected by the World Bank as a Young Professional. When such a person, having worked for years in a senior position in the World Bank, joins the government as a middle-level functionary, and decides to stay on, not vying for more powerful positions, his modesty and motivation evoke admiration. These attributes of his character somehow reveal themselves even though he appears to be somewhat diffident to write about his privileged background. I guess this approach to life made him widely loved and accepted within the government system under different political orders.

While the early phase of Acharya’s life is indeed eventful, what follows when he returns to Delhi to work first at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, and then with the ministry of finance—after spending over two decades abroad—is far more interesting. The way he adjusted to plain living—buying a second-hand Padmini car from Manmohan Singh—and to an altogether different working environment, exudes a kind of decency that Acharya would be noted for.

He was an important participant of India’s economic liberalisation. Working under astute finance ministers, and more importantly, two reform-minded prime ministers—Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee—Acharya has penned down his experiences with an even handedness that is remarkable, if not rare. He has been critical of many moves, but has never displayed any partisan or cynical attitude. He learned how the ‘system’ works and was aware of its limitations, but never sought to be sarcastic in his comments. Acharya highlights the achievements of the governments as also some failures, but has always been careful to project them as of the system as a whole.

Acharya compares the style of working of Rao and Vajpayee. In terms of economic reforms and policies, he rates Vajpayee’s years second only to Rao’s. He also makes an incisive comment, “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…” Of the finance ministers he had worked with, he thinks of Manmohan Singh as the best, followed by Yashwant Sinha as a close second. Acharya also shows the courage of appreciating the successful privatisation programme under Arun Shourie during Vajpayee’s government as among its important achievements.

Acharya explains in detail why “the thirteen years between 1991 and 2004 were the best for India’s economic policymaking, during which there was a degree of coherence and good economic sense, which was perhaps not matched in the years before or after…”

About himself, “…It was extremely rare in the Government of India for a secretary-level officer in good standing to opt for early retirement five years ahead of his normal retirement date. For me, it was an easy decision, guided by two mutually reinforcing and firmly held beliefs: I had only one life to lead, and, second, a variety of lived experiences contributes to a more fulfilled life.”

With “no desire to take on the administrative burdens of secretary-ship or governor-ship of RBI…”, Acharya resigned his job and joined the think-tank ICRIER, Delhi, and started writing for newspapers and journals. He switched roles effortlessly, evidently making his mark in each of them.

Quite appropriately, two concluding chapters of the book are titled Covid-19 and the Indian Economy and Reflections and Premonitions (at the age of 75). There is both uncertainty and hope, and doubts as well. Importantly, he ideates, based on his lifetime experience, on what he thinks should be done. A balanced tale told by a scholarly public servant, not consumed by unbridled ambition.

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

An Economist at Home and Abroad: A Personal Journey
Shankar Acharya
Pp xiii + 299 pages, Rs 599

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