Economic & Political Weekly: A Little Liberal Storm

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The war over EPW only highlights the question: Does the journal matter today?

The first issue of the Economic & Political Weekly this year had a business-as-usual look about it. The familiar staple of commentary mixed with editorials, data and book reviews was there. What the diehard acolytes of left liberal India’s bible of ideas and arguments wanted were there too—the so-called special articles, with themes ranging from biological markers of ageing India to ‘sacralising’ Dalit peripheries. Jargon is sacred on the venerated pages of the weekly, but for an accidental reader for whom ideas are not necessarily inaccessible arcana, these essays could be pure Greek. For the regulars, there’s nothing unusual here. Not unusual unless one compares the issue, and others of recent vintage, with what was churned out during the journal’s high noon in the 1980s and even early 1990s. The special articles were worth waiting for then. This change to a format where commentary on current topics became increasingly prominent in the last decade made EPW more of an outlet for academic activists.

As the weekly marks its 50th anniversary this year, this is not the only change in it. As 2016 got underway, the journal found itself in a storm with its editor C Rammanohar Reddy quitting under controversial circumstances. Now, after a stormy fortnight, calm seems to be returning to EPW. A new editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, has been appointed. He will take charge in April after Reddy leaves.

The controversy centred around two issues. One, the Trust’s alleged unwillingness to involve Reddy in the selection of his successor, and two, a disagreement between Reddy and the Trust over the 50th anniversary celebrations of EPW. Reddy had planned to bring out commemorative volumes for the occasion, as also a documentary on the journal.

The stand-off became public when 101 academics from India and other parts of the world wrote an open letter on 15 January to the Trust expressing concern at the ‘unusual circumstances in which the incumbent Editor of the Economic & Political Weekly, Dr Rammanohar Reddy, who had decided to step down in April 2016 but had agreed to continue as Editor- in-Chief or in some other position as requested by the Board of Trustees, has chosen to formally announce that he is resigning from his position as Editor and severing all links with the institution’.

Both controversies—that of including Reddy in the search for the next editor and the 50th anniversary celebrations of EPW—have much to do with the peculiar, almost unique, nature of this publication.

It is unusual for an editor to be involved in the selection of his successor in almost any professionally-run journal or periodical anywhere in the world. Key academic journals—and EPW considers itself a part-academic periodical as it publishes lengthy academic papers in every issue— have well-laid out succession plans for choosing editors. Usually, a board of editors and an advisory panel work side-by-side to handle the peer review of articles/papers submitted to the journal and handle any other—non-academic —issue that may crop up from time to time. This formal structure is weak to the point of being non-existent in EPW. Sameeksha Trust has rarely, if ever, intervened in its running. The editor of the journal—through its history—has exercised complete control over all editorial decisions. This organisational informality has been complemented with the strong personality of all its editors—four in all—since the origin of the Economic Weekly, the forerunner of EPW.

Much of the unique flavour that EPW has comes from these factors. Sachin Chaudhuri, the first editor, was legendary for his close relationship with key economic policymakers, especially with those of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). M Narasimham, a former governor of the RBI, knew Chaudhuri from the time he was a junior analyst with the central bank’s research department in 1950. Most of the ‘weekly notes’ were penned by economists of the RBI and the government, often anonymously. So strong was this relationship between official economists and EPW that one of its editors— RK Hazari—later became a deputy governor of the RBI, one of the youngest in its history.

This easy informality between the weekly’s editor and the wider academic and policymaking community continues to this day.

“Why should the EPW have a formal structure of the kind seen in other academic journals globally? The Indian academic community has strongly supported EPW by devoting time and effort. When the editor needs any advice, he can just ask for it, and the best, most professional advice will be provided to him,” says one of the signatories of the 15 January letter that Open spoke to. “All editors of EPW have been very hands-on persons, often devoting long hours to work at the cost of even their health. Two editors (Chaudhuri and Krishna Raj) continued to work almost to the end of their lives. The person best placed to understand the future needs of the journal is the incumbent editor,” he adds.

The other controversy—probably more sensitive, given the journal’s fiercely guarded reputation for independence— revolved around the planned volumes and documentary for its 50th anniversary celebrations.

In the 15 January letter to the trustees, the academics said that, ‘We understand that the Board had questioned the appropriateness of his efforts to produce a set of volumes and a documentary to commemorate the completion in 2016 of fifty years of the journal’s existence, even though he had organised the required funding from outside.’

This is a delicate matter. Another signatory to this letter that Open spoke with says, “Reddy had organised some Rs 50-70 lakh from corporate donations. The Trust was miffed that its approval was not sought before going ahead with this. For a journal that has always worked on a shoestring budget, Reddy has done much to put its finances on a firm footing. For the first time in its history, EPW has its own office. And this is in no small measure due to [Reddy’s] effort and hard work.”

A sticking point, the trustees have been wary of commenting on the issue publicly. But one trustee that Open spoke with, the eminent historian Romila Thapar, confirms this, even if couching it in mild terms. “There was in general no difference of opinion at all between the editor (Reddy) and the board,” she says, “Minor disagreements were only over the anniversary celebrations.” The Trust, as a whole, is in favour of celebrating the anniversary. Says a statement released by the trust on 23 January: ‘There was a constructive discussion and valuable suggestions. The Trust would also be happy to organize a consultation with persons from the wider EPW community on this subject. The plans will be finalized in consultation with the editor-designate, who would commence his work at EPW on 1 April 2016.’

No doubt, the financing issue is a complicated matter. Through its history, the journal has refrained from seeking any financial support from the Government or the private sector that would compromise— or be seen to compromise—its editorial integrity. In fact, Thakurta, the editor-designate, has written extensively on the paid news phenomenon that has hit Indian journalism in the past years. The result has been that EPW does not pay salaries to its editors—and its editorial staff—that are commensurate with their talent. Chaudhuri, the first editor, actually nearly shut down the journal when he felt uncomfortable with too much dependence on a single source of money. At that time—in the mid-1960s— it was the same bunch of RBI analysts who parted with their salaries and personal funds to keep the journal afloat in its new avatar, EPW.

Since then, it is almost an article of faith at the journal, and the wider academic community that supports it, that intellectual independence and financial dependence are mutually exclusive. The current trustees emphasise this point. The chairman of the trust, Deepak Nayyar, says that “The Economic & Political Weekly is an independent, credible, voice on economy, polity and society in India’s vibrant democracy. Indeed, it could be described as one of our most important institutions.”

Whatever be the truth of this Chomskyian proposition, the fact is that EPW has been at the heart of many intellectual and policy debates witnessed in India for the last 50 years. In the Special Number of July 1963, a relatively unknown economist penned an unfashionable idea for reviving economic growth. By that date, the first signs of weakness in India’s strategy of economic self-reliance and abjuring of exports were becoming visible. This young economist, whose name was Manmohan Singh, advocated that India make use of the export possibilities that existed in the world to spur growth. This idea—which needed another three decades to turn into policy—was first championed in EPW.

In July 1973, in a landmark analysis of India’s political economy, economist KN Raj, wrote a lengthy article called ‘The Politics and Economics of Intermediate Regimes’. Using this framework, Raj sought to explain the weaknesses in India’s economic performance and their political reasons. Soon after that piece, no less than the famous communist leader of Kerala EMS Namboodiripad responded to Raj’s analysis—with a furious rebuttal. That debate continued almost to the end of the planning and licensing era of the Indian economy in 1991.

That phase of Indian planning and state-led economic development was perhaps the golden age of EPW. Careful academic analysis of India’s economy— its investment priorities, the structural reasons for slow growth, its remedies and so on—dominated the journal for much of that time. Pieces from other disciplines mixed with the trademark commentaries on culture, politics and Indian public life, in general, were staple fare.

The advent of liberalisation led to a certain dazed outlook for a while. But unlike many intellectuals of the Left, Krishna Raj had a certain degree of belief in the possibilities of globalisation. Under Reddy, the journal has increasingly seen a greater number of commentary pieces—largely a mix of current topics but also increasingly ‘activist’ political commentary. One can almost say that each editor had a unique signature theme. Under Chaudhuri, it was The Economist style short notes that pithily summed policy and other contemporary issues. During Krishna Raj’s time, the carefully deliberated academic ‘special articles’ put EPW on the global intellectual map. Under Reddy, it is the commentary pieces that have come to dominate the journal. This is, of course, not to say that academic analysis—what makes EPW prized—has suffered. But the commentary has an increasingly noisy air about it.

What will be the priorities of the new editor who takes over once Reddy leaves? Does he prefer commentary over careful analysis and where does he think should EPW draw a line in choosing between the two writing formats?

“This not an either-or kind of a situation. The uniqueness and strength of the Economic & Political Weekly is that it combines sharp, analytical commentaries on topical subjects with longer, scholarly, academic and research-oriented articles. The challenge is to make both kinds of articles in the publication as well as the website accessible to more readers, especially young Indians, in order to reach out to as wide an audience as possible,” Thakurta tells Open.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the number of papers in EPW that deal with economic theory—especially a Marxist economic riposte to mainstream economics or even papers on economic theory in general—has seen a decline. The issue is important and is linked to global developments since at least 1991. But here again, Thakurta demurs, saying that, “I do not go along with your perception. The EPW has carried a very wide range of articles covering all the social sciences and all aspects of a particular discipline such as economics, and sub- disciplines within it, including economic theory and microeconomics.”

In the final analysis, no intellectual journal can be divorced from the intellectual culture it finds itself in. If there are few papers on economic (and political) theory, it is because Indian academia (as compared to Indian academics in Western universities) probably do not prize theory as much as they did in the 1960s or 1970s when the times were more hopeful—from a Leftist perspective. The dominant commentary pieces largely reflect the nature of academic thinking prevalent in India today, which is largely activist and perhaps— even if this sounds unfair—less interested in matters of theory.

Will this trend change at EPW? “The lines that divide economics and politics, academics and activism, scholarly writing and sloganeering, profound philosophy and polemical pronouncements, are often thin and frequently get blurred. These lines can also be imaginary. There is no reason why a so-called intellectual journal like the EPW cannot mean, or should not be, different things to different people at different points in time,” is the tactful reply the editor-designate gives on the subject. He adds that he would not like to change the outlook and coverage of the journal too much.

In this, and much more, Thakurta is in conformity with what the readers and writers of his journal seek. It is not the Economic & Political Weekly that has changed from the 1960, but India’s intellectual culture.