A planner for people

Print edition : March 12, 2010
in Thiruvananthapuram

Dr K.N. Raj at a convocation in the University of Delhi in 1997. He was Vice-Chancellor of the university during 1969-70.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sometime back, in the last years of his life, K.N. Raj asked his elder son Gopal, a senior science journalist in The Hindu, why his bylines were not being seen in the newspaper as frequently as they had been earlier. Gopal recalls telling his father, a bit too proudly, perhaps, that he was now also into writing editorials for his newspaper. But it was Raj who surprised his son, revealing a little-known facet of his early life. He said gently, I remember starting my career writing editorials [in a Sri Lankan newspaper].

The reaction was typical of Kakkadan Nandanath Raj, economist, teacher and one of Indias most well-known public intellectuals, who died at a private hospital in Thiruvananthapuram on February 10, aged 85. His achievements were all always understated, but his teachings, thoughts and counsel, which generations of students and colleagues have benefited from, were forever fresh and enduring.

Raj was respected worldwide for his theoretical and empirical work on development. He combined a remarkable professional life as an economist, planner, policy adviser and teacher with literally a lifetime of spotting and nurturing talent, policymaking, institution-building and, no doubt, conscience-keeping for the nation. His scholarly essays on economic policies, especially on the formulation of Indias Five Year Plans and on long-term development issues in the Indian context, influenced scholars of development policy in many parts of the world.

He began his professional life in his early twenties, briefly as a teacher at the London School of Economics (LSE) immediately after his studies there, and then as an assistant editor in a newspaper in Sri Lanka, writing his very first editorial (To my horror, the editor was on leave that day.) on Mahatma Gandhi on the day of his assassination. But Raj was to make his reputation only a bit later, computing Indias balance of payment for the first time for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and writing the foreword to the First Five Year Plan document, of which he was a co-author, at the young age of 26.

It was a time when economists in newly independent India were not adequately prepared for the enormous tasks ahead of them. The country was still on the lookout for economists and researchers with both technical competence and social awareness. Though many Indian economists had dealt earlier with policy issues, there was as yet no coherent set of policies or plans on Indias economic future. Hence, the First Plan document soon became the most valuable instrument for Indias development.

Of the many tales that surrounded Raj, therefore, the one about a meeting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1950 is interesting. The only professional economist in the Planning Commission, Raj was summoned by the Prime Minister to explain why he had recommended a slow growth rate for independent Indias fledgling economy in the draft of the First Plan. He was barely out of the LSE then. Nehru was initially sceptical of his recommendation in the Draft Plan that new India should hasten slowly for the first two decades. But Raj had famously told Nehru that the choice was really between democracy and a fast rate of development.

Raj told Frontline in an informal conversation once: I asked him, what will you choose? And Panditji looked at me in shock and surprise and said, Democracy, of course. I told him that is exactly the reason why I put it there, a slow rate of growth; because, in the Soviet Union not only was there no democracy, but even with the limited democracy that Lenin and Stalin were ready to accept, even that collapsed and it was Stalinism that followed. And I didnt want that our idea of development should be such that those forces would drive us into that kind of a situation.

According to Raj, Nehru was so happy with his reply that he came around the table, hugged me and said, Of course, you are right. You know, I am too old to know all this. Anyway it is young people like you who know things better now. You should continue to be associated with Indias planning.

K.N. Raj with fellow student K.R. Narayanan, who later became the President of India, in London on Victory Day, May 8, 1945.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

As Raj explained it, India did not have a statistical department then, and ideas about statistics were rudimentary. But the country needed to plan well to raise its rate of savings because, in the post-War period, it did not have any foreign aid but only accumulations of Sterling balances (as a result of Indias war effort). Through meticulous planning, he and his colleagues therefore prepared a 20-year perspective of increasing the rate of savings from 5 per cent in 1950-51 to 20 per cent by 1970-71. And, by the target year, according to Raj, the country had superbly met its projections.

Raj later went on to serve as economic adviser to a series of Prime Ministers from Nehru to P.V. Narasimha Rao. During Indira Gandhis tenure, indeed, Raj played a role in shaping several important policies, including those relating to the nationalisation of banks and the Green Revolution, even though he did not always agree fully with how they were implemented. Of Nehrus daughter, he once told Frontline: Since I had such a relationship with Nehru, I came to know Indira Gandhi also. But she was a very different sort of person. There were things that I thoroughly disapproved of and I said so openly. I also attacked her publicly and she had often been very angry with me for that.

Indeed, Raj was well known to have been forthright with all the leaders with whom he had worked, and for expressing his opinions unambiguously to them. On many issues he even had disagreements with them famously with Nehru for his acquiescing role in the overthrow of the first Communist Ministry in Kerala in 1959 right when it was implementing the land reforms that Nehru had been advocating; and with Indira Gandhi during the liberalisation of imports along with devaluation of the rupee under U.S. pressure in 1966 and later, during the Emergency, for obvious reasons.

There was always much speculation about what Raj said or did not say [to the Prime Ministers], but Raj followed the civil service principle of never divulging what he had advised, never contradicting anyone, said I.G. Patel, a long-time friend of Rajs about his role as a policy adviser, during a meeting in Thrissur in October 2004 to celebrate Rajs 80th birthday.

Economists are not often patrons of ordinary people, but Raj had all along wanted to relate economic theory to practice and therefore had the very same concerns as the common people, on agriculture, education, health-care facilities, small-scale industries, and so on. Like Amartya Sen, a close friend and colleague at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE), Raj said, he practised welfare economics without knowing that it was welfare economics, because, he said, we were anxious that economics should help the poor.

According to many of his peers, the most remarkable professional qualities in Raj were the analytical rigour he displayed and the methodology he used to arrive at his conclusions on planning and economic policymaking. Rajs objective, even at times when he had to revise his earlier assumptions, remained the promotion of equitable development of the country and the welfare of the common man. Unlike many economists, Raj always defined the objectives, including the political ones, of the policies and programmes he was recommending. Some consider his advice on the tools, materials and accompaniments that must be put together before economists proceed to build the edifice as his greatest contribution to economics.

Speaking at the Thrissur meeting in 2004, former RBI Governor Bimal Jalan said: Apart from the cogency, clarity and the power of his arguments, what struck me most in all his writings was his emphasis on detailed empirical work to get the facts right and then in defining the institutional and organisational assumptions underlying the particular model that he was espousing and to relay the policies and programmes and clearly define the objectives, including the political objectives, which many economists fight shy of.

In his introduction to a collection of Rajs essays on economic development that appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) from 1954 (Inclusive Growth, published for Sameeksha Trust by Orient Longman in 2006), Ashoka Mody, one of Rajs students who is now with the International Monetary Fund, observes that Raj would wade through disparate sources to come to disturbing conclusions about the Indian economy for example, about development and income and wealth distribution or the state of rural employment. In seeking policy solutions for these trends, Raj always recognised and dealt head-on with the humanitarian and cultural considerations, but remained resolutely focussed on the economic analysis, identifying the common ground between humanitarian and economic goals and scaling back the space for purely culturally based initiatives, Mody wrote.

The centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, which Raj helped set up. His leadership ensured an innovative curriculum and an open, democratic work culture for the CDS.-S. GOPAKUMAR

History, structure and long-term institutions were crucial to Raj in his economic analyses, according to Mody. He said, Raj wrote from the premise that while growth was central to raise standards of living, growth had to be inclusive to be politically viable. As such, his analytical effort was to find common ground between growth and inclusiveness. It is the case that where common ground could not be found, his analysis suggested that the goal of inclusiveness would trump that of growth. This was a prediction rather than a recommendation ...and was made most forcefully in his celebrated 1973 article, The Politics and Economics of Intermediate Regimes.

Raj believed that development issues were complex and that there could be no ideological certainty about the actual outcome of many of the assumptions. He was therefore always able to revisit his assumptions in the light of subsequent events. But he left nobody in doubt about his primary objective: how to use economic theory in real-life situations to promote the equitable development of the country in spite of the physical and organisational obstacles and vested interests. This particular perspective led him to contribute so many of his central ideas on planning, inflation, work on intermediate regimes, roots of industrial stagnation, and so on.

Raj has initiated several studies on Village India and its agriculture, perhaps a legacy he inherited from Malcolm Adiseshiah, the teacher he admired most during his early education at the Madras Christian College (MCC) and often referred to as the man who kindled his interest in economic research and its application in Indian conditions.

But Raj always said the profession best suited for him was teaching. He considered the days he spent as a professor at the Delhi University as the best period in his professional life. He resigned his job at the Planning Commission and accepted a cut in salary to become a professor at the university and, later, one of the luminaries of the DSE. He joined the DSE in 1953 as one of its only three professors at a time when the Planning Commission was the cynosure of all eyes and much glamour was attached to persons working in institutions like it. Raj brought some of this glamour with him to the school.

His wide interests, youthful enthusiasm and affable personality made him very popular with students and colleagues, recalls P.N. Dhar, one of his early colleagues, in a 1995 volume on the DSE published by the Oxford University Press.

Rajs reputation also attracted a number of very distinguished scholars, the best students from all over India and many distinguished visitors from abroad to the DSE, especially after he became its Director when he was in his thirties. According to another former colleague, Andre Beteille, Raj was a great enthusiast for institutional reform and introduced a number of reforms with far-reaching consequences both at the DSE and subsequently, on a larger scale, in the Delhi University as a whole, when he was Vice-Chancellor for a year from 1969. The DSE itself was at the peak of its popularity and came to be known throughout the world when it had Raj, Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati and Sukhamoy Chakravarty among others in its faculty. Not surprisingly, those who passed out of the DSE were soon in great demand everywhere.

Raj had an uncanny knack for discovering and encouraging talent, finding them opportunities for personal and professional growth, even helping them at times by refusing offers that were otherwise his for the taking.

Among the more famous beneficiaries of this quality of Rajs were Prof. I.S. Gulati, a refugee from Pakistan who popped into Rajs room at the Planning Commission one day in the 1950s seeking a job; Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati, who was being refused a position at the DSE after his stint at Oxford University because he did not have a PhD; K.N. Krishna Raj, an unassuming student whom Raj sent to Sachin Chaudhury when he needed help to run the famous Economic Weekly, which later became the EPW; and, in a way, the Economic Weekly itself, which was about to close down in 1965 because of financial troubles, and Raj (along with Ashok Mitra) launched the only fund-raising campaign in his life to relaunch it as the EPW.

Of course, after Sachin Chaudhurys death, EPW, the staple of economists and social scientists, was run by a trust, with Raj as its leading member.

Raj had adoring students from all over the world, many of whom had benefited greatly from his professionalism, the human qualities he represented, his intellectual orientation, wide range of interests and unique insights. It is not uncommon to hear them say that he taught them economics from a different perspective and something more important than that, how to live a principled life, with conviction, honesty and values. He also showed profound respect for the students who came to learn, never showed any discrimination and always inculcated a spirit of tolerance in them. But he would never compromise on the quality of their research outcomes.

Perhaps the worst period in his career was his year-long vice-chancellorship of the Delhi University, when he got trapped in the communal and political maze of the campus, with the Jana Sangh leading a sustained campaign against him. Raj later said that he could not agree when their politics plummeted to very low levels. Academic standards left much to be desired. The Vice-Chancellors job became one of maintaining law and order on the campus. It was the last thing he wanted to do.

No doubt Raj left the corridors of power with the same ease with which he went in. But no sooner had he resigned the vice-chancellorship, than he got a request from C. Achutha Menon, then Chief Minister of Kerala, to come to Thiruvananthapuram and use his talents for his home State, especially to establish an academic research institution. It was a mere idea then, but it became a challenge and Raj took one of the most important decisions of his life in 1971, when he started building on a barren hill, literally from scratch, another great institution, the Centre for Development Studies.

Indeed, his personality and persuasive skills worked wonders in removing the hurdles, including shrill objections from government departments, in the way of the construction of the first famous low-cost public building in Kerala. Rajs leadership once again attracted a lot of scholars and ensured an innovative curriculum and an open, democratic work culture in the CDS, which, under his leadership, soon acquired an international reputation as a centre for applied economics and social science research, especially with a certain focus on Keralas development dilemmas.

Raj was born on May 13, 1924, in Kozhikode, Kerala, and had become an economist at a time of great confusion and tension. The Great Depression preceded the Second World War. His father, K.N. Gopalan, a judge in the Madras judicial service, was a social reformer, a man of high ideals and a benign, humane gentleman who never used a harsh word. His mother was efficient, firm and tough, a homemaker. Raj, his friends say, had imbibed both their qualities. Raj once told Frontline that his fathers vision and his love for books had a great role in shaping his personality. I belong to a joint family which was not very prosperous but which placed a premium on the education of its children, a tradition which started with my grandfather. I grew up reading Haldane, [Bernard] Shaw and [Bertrand] Russell, Nehru and many of the greats, thanks to my father, he said.

By the time he completed his M.A. from MCC, his father, worried as he was about his son getting involved in politics, had found him an admission at the LSE and was ready with his passport and a passage to London. Raj reached London at the height of the Second World War, when the city was being bombarded with German rockets, and carrying the burdens typical of children who did not belong to prosperous families.

If you come from very rich families you would take too much for granted. As it turned out, my fellow student Narayanan [former President K.R. Narayanan] and I had identical problems and ended up staying together and became very close friends. I am extremely happy that we went through all that, surviving on ration bread and butter and cheap food. We lived like anybody else and survived much better than many others. I have never again been afraid in my life, that I would one day lose all my money. So, when I got the money from my provident fund, my lifes savings, I found [architect] Laurie Baker in Thiruvananthapuram. Mine was the first low-cost house, perhaps, that Baker built, Raj said.

But surely the lecture halls of Cambridge, where the LSE was located briefly during the War, were full of leading British economists, and Raj had been right in their midst, listening to John Maynard Keynes, Harold Laski, Haldane, Nicholas Kaldor and the shilling-a-day lectures of Russell. He said he used to enjoy the Shakespearean dramas at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, buy books cheap from the streets of London, and patronise cheap-food restaurants along with Narayanan with whom he shared a life-long friendship and from whom, years later, he received the Padma Vibhushan.

Raj also became politically active in London, along with Narayanan. He was a frequent visitor to V.K. Krishna Menons office near the LSE and used to accompany the latter to the meetings of the India League and Labour Party and the movement for Indian independence. From his early years, Raj was a fiercely independent man, but he surely had a gift of maintaining good relations with even those he criticised among them Nehru, Krishna Menon, Indira Gandhi, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, and even A.B. Vajpayee, after he apologised to Raj once for the politics that made him quit the vice-chancellorship of the Delhi University in disgust. He was frank with those who sought his professional and personal advice, at times brutally so. He also had the wonderful quality of not losing his objectivity in judging people with whom he had his quarrels, none of them personal.

In his student days, Raj was immensely attracted by communism and the example of Russia but did not feel much affinity then towards Indian communist leaders, as he told Frontline. Later, however, he shared a famous friendship with Namboodiripad, often taking him on, on issues like the connotations of the word productivity and implications of deficit financing for India. I used to criticise him openly and he used to call me in private and say, I agree with you entirely. He used to discuss with me several things about Kerala and the problems in his party. But he will never tell me it was confidential. He assumed that I will never disclose it to anyone and I was quite devoted never to let him down, Raj had said, revealing yet another facet of his personality.

Throughout his life, he remained a ruthless critic of communal politics, once describing those who represent it as despicable political reactionaries who come forth with their phony solutions in the name of the greater glory of ancient and medieval Hinduism. But in the 1998 speech titled Has Communism a Future? where he made those comments, Raj also said: Neither religion nor ideology can take human beings very much closer to a visionary state of perfection. Both religion and ideology can help to some extent if visualised with adequate realism to take humanity forward to a more satisfying state than now. Anything far more perfect is just plain romanticism, reflecting, in fact, a frailty of the intellect.

Raj used to describe himself as a Leftist but would add, Marxists will, however, say that I am Keynes man. He had indeed been accused of being a Keynesian economist, Western-educated and unaffected by the realities of his native India. Raj always dismissed such accusations and used to say he had used both Keynes and Marx in moulding them for Indian conditions. His PhD thesis at the London University was on the monetary policy of the RBI, perhaps among the first such studies about monetary and banking theory from the perspective of an underdeveloped economy.

Raj chose his heroes carefully. He admired the hermit-like qualities of (Nobel Prize-winning Dutch econometrician) Jan Tinbergen; the lectures of Russell, Keynes and Kaldor; the friendship of British economist Joan Robinson; the vision of Nehru; the greatness and richness of Indira Gandhis personality; the candidness of Namboodiripad; the brilliance of Krishna Menon; and the rustic simplicity of Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh, as only a successful teacher could. And, of course, he loathed the viciousness of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the mindless drift of student politics in India, the corruption of the bureaucracy, the increasing laziness in Kerala society, and the elitism among economists and their reluctance to say I dont know.

Raj never really recovered from that instance of cerebral thrombosis in the late 1980s, the progressive dementia that haunted him in his later years, and the loss of his wife, Dr Sarasamma, in 2002. They were a fascinating couple and great parents, and their home had been a great meeting place for economists, teachers, students and their families. Raj had been bedridden with Parkinsonism since late 2008 and had no memory of everyday events or of his own great life. He is survived by his sons, Gopal and Dinesh.

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