“I’m on my way out”: Siddhartha Shankar Ray (1920-2010)

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. https://independentindian.com/thoughts-words-deeds-my-work-1973-2010/rajiv-gandhi-and-the-origins-of-indias-1991-economic-reform/

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.

 

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Will the Telangana flare-up awaken New Delhi from its dream-world and into India’s political reality?

Subroto Roy thinks the flare-up of the Telangana issue has one and only one positive consequence: it brings home to New Delhi’s ruling elite that there are real political questions in India, and not everything can be left to spin-doctors and lobbyists to handle.

Important summits in the USA, Russia, Copenhagen can be attended by the Prime Minister of India as he is not a Member of the Lok Sabha

Subroto Roy notes that since Dr Manmohan Singh is the first Indian Prime Minister ever to have chosen with deliberation not to be a member of the Lok Sabha, he has been free to hold important summits at the White House, Kremlin, Copenhagen etc while the Lok Sabha debates mundane matters like the Liberhan Commission report, inflation etc.

“But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last.

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy  is hurt that Christopher Booker says “Not for nothing was Copenhagen the city in which Hans Andersen wrote his story about the Emperor whose people were brainwashed into believing that he was wearing a beautiful suit of clothes” because he always thought Hans Andersen meant it for modern New Delhi.

Is Dr Manmohan Singh the “aam admi” that the Congress Party means?

Dr Manmohan Singh has in a televised meeting with children said about himself:

“I am an aam admi“.

I am afraid this caused me to say at Facebook today:

Subroto Roy  finds disconcerting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s claim of being himself  “a common man”.

In “Rajiv Gandhi and the Origins of India’s 1991 Economic Reform”, I wrote about my encounter with Rajiv:

“I said the public sector’s wastefulness had drained scarce resources that should have gone instead to provide public goods. Since the public sector was owned by the public, it could be privatised by giving away its shares to the public, preferably to panchayats of the poorest villages. The shares would become tradable, drawing out black money, and inducing a historic redistribution of wealth while at the same time achieving greater efficiency by transferring the public sector to private hands. Rajiv seemed to like that idea too, and said he tried to follow a maxim of Indira Gandhi’s that every policy should be seen in terms of how it affected the common man. I wryly said the common man often spent away his money on alcohol, to which he said at once it might be better to think of the common woman instead. (This remark of Rajiv’s may have influenced the “aam admi” slogan of the 2004 election, as all Congress Lok Sabha MPs of the previous Parliament came to receive a previous version of the present narrative.)”

I am afraid I do not think Dr Singh was whom Rajiv or Indira had in mind in speaking of the common man.

Subroto Roy

Kolkata

Finally, a dozen years late, the Sonia-Manmohan Congress takes a small Rajivist step: Yes Prime Minister, our Judiciary is indeed a premier public good (or example of “infrastructure” to use that dreadful bureaucratic term)

I was very harsh and did not beat about the bush in my Sep 23-24 2007 article  in The Statesman “Against Quackery” when I said in its subtitle

“Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms”.

I said inter alia

“WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason. The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc….Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it. …Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991. The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size….Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.”

Days after the article appeared there were press reports Dr Singh was murmuring about quitting, and then came a fierce speech in Hindi from the Congress President saying “enemies” would receive their dues or whatever – only to be retracted a few days later saying that no more had been meant than a local critique of the BJP in Haryana politics!  (Phew! I said to myself in relief…)

Today I am very happy to learn that Dr Manmohan Singh spoke on Sunday of the importance of the Rule of Law and an effective and efficient judiciary. The new Law Minister in the second Sonia-Manmohan Government has been eagerly saying the same.

All this is constructive and positive, late as it is since Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh both became heavy-duty Congress Party politicians for the first time a dozen years ago.

I was privileged to advise a previous Congress President in his last months from September 1990 as has been told elsewhere. And six years before that I had  said:

“….….The most serious examples of the malfunctioning of civil government in India are probably the failure to take feasible public precautions against the monsoons and the disarray of the judicial system. …The Statesman lamented in July 1980:`The simplest matter takes an inordinate amount of time, remedies seldom being available to those without means or influence. Of the more than 16,000 cases pending in the Supreme Court, about 5,000 were introduced more than five years ago; while nearly 16,000 of the backlog of more than 600,000 cases in our high courts have been hanging fire for over a decade. Allahabad is the worst offender but there are about 75,000 uncleared cases in the Calcutta High Court in addition to well over a million in West Bengal’s lower courts.” Such a state of affairs has been caused not only by lazy and corrupt policemen, court clerks and lawyers, but also by the paucity of judges and magistrates. . . . a vast volume of laws provokes endless litigation as much because of poor drafting which leads to disputes over interpretation as because they appear to violate particular rights and privileges…. When governments determinedly do what they need not or should not do, it may be expected that they will fail to do what civil government positively should be doing.” A few months ago was the 25th anniversary of this statement… ! 🙂

Yes Prime Minister, having an effective and efficient judiciary is indeed a premier public good and one that has failed to be provided to India’s people from Nehru’s time and through Indira’s. I managed to persuade Rajiv about it completely. Might I next be so bold as to draw attention as well to the paragraphs of the 2007 article that followed?

“Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.  Government accounts: Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.”

Subroto Roy

Kolkata


Q: What is common to swine flu, a weak monsoon, climate change, America’s financial crisis and Pakistani terrorism?

A: They are all external or exogenous factors that the Government of India’s leaders, spokesmen and other apologists adduce to explain away endogenous economic outcomes arising from bad fiscal and monetary policies, pork-barrel politics, lobbying by organised Big Business and Big Labour, political and bureaucratic corruption etc.  (And the Parliamentary Opposition is hardly any better, probably worse…)

More to come…

Subroto Roy