What made me admire Sunil was that he was first and foremost an evidence-based journalist—a relative rarity in India, and the world
Our paths first crossed when Sunil was at the Business Standard and I was one of their regular columnists. I was a wannabe journalist, and he was on his way to become one of the finest journalists India has produced. I honestly don’t remember how our friendship started, but I do know that when Sunil left for The Indian Express in the late 2000s, I moved at the same time to join Express as a columnist. This was painful for me, especially since TN Ninan, chief editor of the Business Standard, was a dear friend from the early 1990s. On my part, the decision was instinctive; I still cannot explain it, but it does say something about the appeal of Sunil as a journalist, and a dear friend.
Possibly it was friendship, but Ninan was, and is, still a close friend. So friendship cannot explain it. It wasn’t political, because most of us were for Manmohan Singh and the vision of technocratic leadership that he offered. So, what was it? I never really thought about it then, but more than a decade later, I can say with introspection, that what made me admire Sunil, and for me to move with him, was that he was first, and foremost, an evidence-based journalist, a relative rarity in India, and the world.
There are journalists, and there are editors, and then there was Sunil. Honest in his analysis, and quite forthright in his criticism. Though it might be too early to tell, but my guess is that all sides of the political aisle would highlight his honesty, and non-partisanship. Don’t get me or Sunil wrong. He had his political leanings, and you have to be living in outer-space to not have political preferences, or biases.
But Sunil said it not only as it was, but also as it should be analysed, and told. He hated political correctness, and intellectual dishonesty that often accompanies some (much?) of this correctness. His last column, “Covid is the enemy, not the government” (bit.ly/2Rdy3tn), was written from his Covid deathbed, and should be a lesson for all, especially those wishing to enter this now severely Whatsapp-Twitter tainted profession, and world. As India struggles to find meaning, explanation, for the Covid tragedy—many of us of us have lost a loved one—and human nature is to find “meaning” via blame. But Sunil was not common. His family had been hit by Covid before him, and this is his postscript to his last article: “Thanks to caring friends, doctors and a politician whose help was invaluable, hopefully my family’s Covid will remain under control. But should things not work out, blaming Modi isn’t going to help”.
On May 2, his communication to friends, who were WhatsApped his articles, he stated (another revealing instance of his honest style of reporting) “I made this list to mail the newspapers but still use it to forward my pieces; Many are horrified by what I put out” and asked friends if they did not wish to receive his missiles!
He was not afraid of calling the bluff of the Western media; one tweet of his (April 26) stated “British/South African/Indian mutant but no one wants to call it Chinese or Xi Jinping Virus.”
I don’t think I can remember a single article of Sunil that wasn’t on the right side of economics. Characteristically, he took up the cause of freeing vaccine prices, an issue that has had stiff political opposition in India. Sunil’s repeated reminders of price incentives are critical.
This “detachment” in the midst of the biggest crisis he and his family were facing is pure Sunil. He managed to explain the problems of not letting the prices of vaccines be controlled through a graphic illustration of dead weight loss—simply put, price controls lead to losses for producers, and consumers.
Ours was a strong bond—and while we disagreed at times on the big political and economic pictures, we were always on the same wave-length. Perhaps a fitting Covid tribute to the Sunil class of forthright, and economically correct and politically incorrect journalism—i.e., telling it as it is but not as social media would want it—is for the government to follow his suggestions/recommendations. First, for the government to get back to centralised procurement of vaccines. Second, free up prices for vaccine manufacturers, so they have incentive to produce. There is a proposal on the world table to waive patent rights on vaccines. This proposal came about at a time when Sunil was fighting Covid. On the basis of my friendship with him, and the numerous jointly authored articles, my guess is that this is what he would say—he was a classic, and classical economist, and came out to be a free-thinker despite, or because of, his education at the Delhi School of Economics. Remember that he graduated in 1986, a time when most Indian economists, and all Indian governments, were deeply suspicious of the market.
On patent rights, surely there is a market solution to the problem. The incentive-preserving profit can be estimated for each manufacturer, and the world governments “buy-out” the patent. This will of course violate every patent-rule that the world has got, but then we cannot claim that these are uniquely unprecedented times, and when the time comes to act, resort to commonly conventional mantras. Covid is not just an Indian public bad problem—Covid is a world public bad problem, and deserving of a world public-good solution.
All will remember Sunil for his liveliness, the glint in his eye as he asked the hard questions of senior politicians, and his sense of humour. A striking example of his wit—and tragically from his deathbed—was this comment on Bombay Oxygen Investments, a firm that had oxygen in its name, and hence catapulted in price to insane heights. The firm had nothing to do with oxygen. And Sunil tweeted: “Bombay Oxygen Investments is locked in lower circuit after ‘Hawa Nikal Gayi’.
Sunil will be more than sorely missed, and his life was cut short too early. The politicisation of journalism, and the accompanying polarisation, is at its peak today, and this is so in most democratic societies. The most important human lesson we can learn from Sunil’s life, and example, is his complete separation of friendship from politics. Too often and again across the world, life-long friends diverge because of political opinion, or opinion on a particular policy. There are dark interpretations of every view, of every divergence in views. Previously, heterogeneity of views, and interpretations was considered an asset to human discourse; today, in this woke world, if you don’t agree with me, you are wrong—and furthermore I want nothing to do with you.
This change has been going on for the better part of the last decade; it laid the foundation for the Covid Kalyug that is upon us today—and which has taken away too many dear souls.
Sunil, a dear friend, soul-mate and fellow conspirator, will be sorely missed, and fondly remembered, by his family, friends, and the profession. It is not goodbye, my dear, dear friend—it is au revoir.
(The author is Executive Director, IMF, representing India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
Views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the IMF, its Executive Board, or IMF management.)