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A day in the life of Kaushik Basu, the public policymaker

Economist Kaushik Basu’s memoirs offer humorous yet thought-provoking insights from his years with Manmohan Singh's government and the World Bank

Manmohan Singh (left) with Kaushik Basu during an event in December 2018 in Delhi. (Hindustan Times)

In early 2011, Kaushik Basu, who was then chief economic adviser (CEA) to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, published a paper on the Union finance ministry website, suggesting that the act of giving a bribe be made legal while bribe-taking continue to be a punishable offence. The radical idea provoked much outrage at the time, with many political parties calling for his resignation, as reported in media and news channels across the country.

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In Basu’s recently published memoirs, Policymaker’s Journal: From New Delhi To Washington D.C., we learn that during this time, journalist Barkha Dutt requested Basu to appear on her show We The People on NDTV to debate the proposal. Since the finance minister was out of the country at the time, Basu called the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to ask whether he should appear on the programme. The prime minister, while not in agreement with the proposal, and despite his own misgivings about the paper and the political difficulty it was causing him, left it to his CEA to decide whether he wanted to speak about it. Basu recounts his feelings that day: “This was a remarkable experience for me. It showed up (sic) a side of the prime minister which was quite extraordinary. It takes a (sic) quiet courage (not the school yard bully’s behaviour, which many voters mistakenly equate with courage) to give others the space that he gave me.”

That is one of the many anecdotes from the Policymaker’s Journal, Basu’s account of his seven years at the forefront of public policy in India and abroad, three of them as the CEA in the Manmohan Singh-led government and the rest as chief economist of the World Bank.

Written as a series of diary entries, the book, particularly the sections dealing with his Delhi years, is an amusing read, interspersed with playful and interesting anecdotes about incidents and personalities involved in the highest echelons of economic decision making. People we otherwise know only from newspapers and television channels take on substance as we read about the author’s interactions with them and his candid opinions of them.

He describes the late Pranab Mukherjee as almost schoolboyish, when, during the official presentation of the budget to the president, Pratibha Patil, he went “on explaining the intricacies of the Budget despite no behavioural manifestation of interest on the part of the listener”. While Basu’s admiration for Manmohan Singh shines through in several places, we learn he is not alone in this regard. One of the senior diplomats, Basu writes, told him that Singh was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s favourite political leader—her “face lights up when she meets him”.

Policymaker’s Journal—From New Delhi To Washington D.C.: By Kaushik Basu, Simon & Schuster India, 384 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Policymaker’s Journal—From New Delhi To Washington D.C.: By Kaushik Basu, Simon & Schuster India, 384 pages, 699.

These descriptions of encounters with eminent personalities is the highlight of this book. In his description of a meeting with Andrew, Duke of York, during a celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, we get an insight into the world of behind-the-scenes lobbying. The prince brings up the Vodafone arbitration case; Basu knew little of it and had no control over it. Soon enough, Basu realises that the prince was only parroting a few lines that were communicated to him beforehand, knowing no more than what he had been told. It is no surprise then, Basu ponders, to the reader’s amusement, “that the sun had to set on the British Empire”.

In similar jottings of meetings held across his career, Basu describes Sonia Gandhi as all grace and charm and praises Rahul Gandhi’s unassuming style and lack of desire for power, perhaps making him the most suitable as a leader. There are many more such encounters—when Basu listens to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates describing Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar as his “favourite person”, debates with economist Kenneth Arrow, lunches with a difficult-to-pin-down economist, John Nash, among others.

Basu repeatedly asserts that he seldom takes life seriously, revealing that his inner resilience comes from a belief that life is ultimately beyond our control. Beside insights into his personality as well as prominent others, there are also several reflections on how the Indian economy should move forward and some of the policy conundrums faced by the government of the day. The way in which his economic way of thinking pervades his everyday life is apparent in several places. There are musings on the immorality of patriotism, the remarkable quality of the Indian Economic Service, and the need to replicate this at the state level, the excessive lavishness of the World Bank life, reconciling the contradictions of being rich in a capitalist society while wanting such a system to be replaced, his opposition to the right to work campaign, and how the latter may erode other rights.

Ensconced in academe till he became CEA, Basu reconciles the realities of practical policymaking with the theoretical concepts of economics. Basu’s insights into the formulation and exercise of public policy show how the process often ranges from the ridiculous to the transformative. The art of political speech, he opines, is to “say things that sound meaningful but are impossible to pin down”. Indeed, during a G-20 meeting in Toronto, Canada, Basu sets out to test this hypothesis by making a meaningless comment on monetary policy with all the “right words” and the “right soundbytes”. In apparent confirmation of his belief, what followed was an animated discussion among the group, with many agreements and disagreements.

Basu sees the Union government being held back, first by overwork, with senior bureaucrats on-call for some minister, and second, by a culture of permissionism

A month into his tenure as CEA, he is “convinced that economic policy is so poorly crafted because it is developed by consensus among politicians”. Basu contends that a lot of policymaking “is groping in the dark”. He sees the Union government being held back, first by overwork, with talented senior bureaucrats working on-call for some minister, and second, by a culture of permissionism. The latter Basu blames for the lack of initiative in some spheres of government work and policy formulation, as much time and effort are wasted in moving papers up the ladder and gaining approvals from various levels even for the most mundane decisions. An unfortunate legacy that remains to this day, despite all the talk of maximum governance, minimum government. Some cold comfort, then, to read similar observations of his time at the World Bank.

In the last year, we have been treated to autobiographies of some of India’s most prominent and pioneering economists—Devaki Jain, Padma Desai, Isher Judge Ahluwalia and, more recently, Amartya Sen. Policymaker’s Journal adds to the mix, offering us humorous, yet thought-provoking, insights into economic policy formulation and a “day-in-the-life-of” type account of a policymaker.

Rosa Abraham is senior research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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