I am grieved to hear of the death of Siddhartha Shankar Ray last night.
I was introduced to him by an uncle who had been his college-buddy, and he took up a grave personal matter of mine in the Supreme Court of India in 1990 with great kindness, charging me not a penny, being impressed by a little explicit “civil disobedience” I had had to show at the time towards Judge Evelyn Lance.
He also told me he and his wife had been in London on May 29 1984 and had seen *The Times*’s leader that day about my critique of Indian economic policy. He invited me to his Delhi home where I told him about the perestroika-for-India project I had led at the University of Hawaii since 1986, at which he, of his own accord, declared
“You must meet Rajiv Gandhi. I will arrange a meeting”.
That led to my meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, then Congress President & Leader of the Opposition, on September 18 1990, which contributed to the origins of India’s 1991 economic reform as has been told elsewhere. Rajiv’s assistant George told me Rajiv had said he had not heard more fulsome praise.
In Bengal, he took me as a guest to visit the Legislative Assembly in session when he was Leader of the Opposition; it was the legislature of which my great grandfather, Surendranath Roy, had been a founder, being the first Deputy President and acting President too; Surendranath had been friends with his maternal grandfather, CR Das, leader of the Congress Party before MK Gandhi, and he said to me in the car heading to the legislature about that relationship in Bengal’s politics some seven decades earlier “They were friends”.
He introduced me to all the main leaders of the Bengal Congress at the time (except Mamata Banerjee who could not come) and I was tasked by him to write the manifesto for the State elections that year, which I did (in English, translated into Bangla by Professor Manjula Bose); the Communists won handily again but one of their leaders (Sailen Dasgupta) declared there had never been a State Congress manifesto of the sort before, being as it was an Orwell-like critique of Bengal’s Stalinism.
In a later conversation, I said to him I wished he be appointed envoy to Britain, he instead came to be appointed envoy to the USA.
In Washington in September 1993, he said “You must meet Manmohan Singh”, and invited me to a luncheon at the Ambassador’s Residence where, to Manmohan Singh and all his aides, he declared pointing at me
“The Congress manifesto (of 1991) was written on his (laptop) computer”.
In later years I kept him informed of developments and gave him my publications. We last met in July last year where I gave him a copy, much to his delight, of *Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant*.
I said to him Bengal’s public finances were in abysmal condition, calling for emergency measures financially, and that Mamata Banerjee seemed to me to be someone who knew how to and would dislodge the Communists from their entrenched misgovernance of decades but not quite aware that dislodging a bad government politically was not the same thing as knowing how to govern properly oneself.
He, again of his own accord, said immediately,
“I will call her and her main people to a meeting here so you can meet them and tell them that directly”.
It never transpired.
He and I were supposed to meet a few months ago but could not due to his poor health; on the phone in our last conversation I mentioned to him my plans of creating a Public Policy Institute — an idea he immediately and fully endorsed as being essential though adding
“I can’t be part of it, I’m on my way out”.
“I’m on my way out”.
That was Siddhartha Shankar Ray — always intelligent, always good-humoured, always public-spirited, always a great Indian.
I shall miss a good friend, indeed my only friend among politicians other than the late Rajiv Gandhi himself.
Kolkata, November 7 2010