Sunil was always ready to offer uncomfortable truths to those in power. He had perfected the art of doing so in a manner that was relatively easy for those being criticised to read and perhaps accept
Many have already written about Sunil Jain, his wonderful qualities as a journalist and as a human being, and the magnitude of the loss from his untimely, premature passing. But I would like to use my column space to add to the tributes. I think I first met Sunil when I began my current stint of writing regular columns for the Financial Express. Thereafter, our interactions were electronic, and exclusively professional, aside from holiday greetings, and, during the pandemic, expressions of concern about mutual welfare. But throughout all this, there was a feeling of connection that Sunil created, a positivity that imbued all his communications, that made me feel that I was writing my columns for him, and not just all his newspaper’s readers. The shock of his passing is hard to digest—it must be many times more for those personally close to him. Aside from the personal, the loss of someone who could think and write clearly, and with detachment, about the most important economic issues that India faces is a grievous blow to the country’s intellectual sphere. This column will remember Sunil by reflecting on some of his writings.
One cannot go back too far, since there is so much, as would befit the managing editor of a premier financial daily. But I remember how in early December 2020, Sunil wrote a brilliant piece on the farmer protests, going deep into the causes of the agitation, which lie not just in the recent farm bills, but in the organisation and implementation of the foodgrain procurement system. He provided clear recommendations for crop diversification in Punjab, and the need for the Centre to share in the cost of achieving that switch. In subsequent editorials, he continued to push the need for reform, and held both the central and state governments responsible for the failure to fix the problem, while acknowledging the political difficulties. This was just another example of his even-handedness in analysing economic issues and making recommendations.
In his writing on so many issues, Sunil displayed a lack of dogmatism and a willingness to call out mistakes or shortcomings on every side. He argued for a more even-handed approach to liberalisation of retail, giving foreign players a chance to compete with homegrown conglomerates. At the same time, when those domestic giants were being attacked on illogical grounds, he pointed that out as well. He had the ability to sniff out problems with overcomplicated bureaucratic rules and the unintended negative consequences that they might lead to, but also took the politicians to task for their own tendencies to meddle where they shouldn’t—as in retrospective tax demands, which have cast a pall on willingness to invest in some cases.
But Sunil was not a market ideologue either, according to my reading of his editorials. He welcomed the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme as a way to promote manufacturing investment and output growth. But he also put it in the context of global competition, and pointed out some of the weaknesses that might result from adding localisation requirements. In such cases, one often wished that the bureaucrats and politicians could have consulted Sunil prior to their policymaking, rather than having him react to problematic policy formulations. But of course, the job of a journalist is to be independent, not beholden to anyone in power, and never afraid to highlight the truth.
Sunil was always ready to offer uncomfortable truths to those in power. He had perfected the art of doing so in a manner that was relatively easy for those being criticised to read and perhaps accept. He wrote eloquently on the wider implications of the problems that arose at Ashoka University, where it seemed that political pressure was being used to curtail academic freedom. He pointed out that the government overreacting to statements by celebrities on social media could backfire. He noted the failure of the government’s vaccination strategy. These analyses were accompanied by reasoning, they were not personalised, and there was always a better alternative being offered.
Sunil’s last editorial was titled, “Covid is the enemy, not the government.” Writing with a high fever and dropping oxygen saturation levels, he points out the government’s failures, including those right at the top. But he offers perspective on wider problems of social responsibility and institutional failure in India. He holds many people accountable, not just one or two. He also points out how positive responses are still possible, and that more can be done in that respect, rather than just playing a blame game. He does not excuse mistakes and failure, merely says that the priority is to take actions to control the disaster. Sadly, Sunil was a casualty of the multiple failures of India’s response to the pandemic. It seems, that his attitude of social responsibility contributed to him losing his life. It is reported that he delayed checking into a hospital because he did not want to take up a bed that might be needed more by someone less well-placed than he was. The contrast with what others with power and money have been doing in these circumstances leaps out. Throughout his career, and even in his tragic and premature passing, Sunil Jain epitomised the best of India, a positive example for all of us.
The author is Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Cruz