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The Indomitable Dr Panagariya

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The newly appointed vice-chairman of the NITI Aayog is a scholar with patriotic zeal

Sixty-three-year-old Arvind Panagariya, the newly appointed vice-chairman of the National Institution for Transforming India, or NITI Aayog, the Central institution that has replaced the Planning Commission, a relic from the Stalinist era of five-year plans, is a mild-mannered man of academia. In personal conversations, his voice is often subdued, much to the disadvantage of anyone who underestimates his vigour in debates. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had a taste of his aggression in a TV debate in mid-2013 when he snapped at the unassuming Panagariya, alleging that he didn’t understand India because he lived in New York. Panagariya, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, a position he still holds, shot right back saying that Sen lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that he visited India more frequently than Sen did. Sen was visibly shocked at Panagariya’s splendid gift of repartee.

But then it wasn’t the first time Panagariya was taking on Sen. Off TV talk shows, he had played a pivotal role in a debate that has long raged between Sen and Panagariya’s mentor, co-author and Columbia colleague Jagdish Bhagwati. At no point was the rivalry—Sen and others on one side with Bhagwati, Panagariya and their supporters on the other—more intense than in the run- up to the General Election of 2014. In a January 2013 joint interview with me, Bhagwati and Panagariya admitted on record that they were in favour of Modi’s economic policies. In fact, in the book that they co-authored in late 2012, India’s Tryst with Destiny: Debunking Myths that Undermine Progress and Addressing New Challenges, they revived the debate over the Kerala versus Gujarat models of development and attacked economists like Sen for their ‘anti-growth assertions’. In their book, the ‘Kerala Model’ signifies a policy framework based primarily on redistribution and state-driven development, while the ‘Gujarat Model’ stands primarily for growth and entrepreneurship driven development. They went on to argue that, contrary to claims by economists like Sen, it is ultimately the Gujarat Model that has delivered benefits even in Kerala. “Contrary to common claims, Kerala has been a rapidly growing state in the post-Independence era,” they said.

The debate soon acquired a larger political halo. Panagariya went on to commend Narendra Modi’s growth-focused policies in many public forums despite the stigma that was associated with the BJP heavy- weight following the Gujarat riots of 2002. After going through the full text of the Special Investigation Team report by former CBI director RK Raghavan, Panagariya later told me in early 2014, “I told you in an interview that [Bhagwati and I] were in favour of Modi’s economic policies. I said that before I read the report. Now I am also in favour of Modi’s political standpoint.”

By then, Professor Sen made no bones about his opposition to Modi’s candidacy for the Prime Minister’s post. Months earlier, in early May 2013, Sen slammed opposition lawmakers bent upon “disrupting” Parliament and stated that they were guilty for the deaths being caused by the non-passage of the Food Security Bill, suggesting that the then UPA Government take the “ordinance route”, which it subsequently did. Panagariya lashed out at Sen for his economic perspective and told me in an interview that he was taken aback by Professor Sen’s “relying on estimates that are on such shaky ground that every serious analyst should at least question rather than regurgitate them”.

Sen, who threw his weight behind the UPA, soon attacked Modi, a favourite of the likes of Panagariya and Bhagwati, saying that he would like a more secular person to be Prime Minister. “I would not like a Prime Minister who generates concern and fear among minorities,” he had said in July 2013.

That was perhaps a case of academic rivalry spilling into the political arena. What ensued was a riveting contest indeed. But all through, Professor Sen seemed to have underestimated Professor Panagariya, who, unlike many others, refused to yield to the argumentative Sen.

It isn’t just Sen who seems to have underestimated Panagariya. Bhagwati concedes that he also did so. “Panagariya has grown beyond my wildest dreams,” says Bhagwati. Recalls the great globalisation buff, now in his eighties: “I met him when he was teaching at Maryland University and I was visiting the World Bank on my sabbatical at the time, almost a quarter of a century ago. I was already familiar with his important research in the theory of International Trade. When I and Professor Padma Desai, my wife, successfully got him appointed as the first holder of the Jagdish Bhagwati Professorship in Indian Economic Policy at Columbia, we were aware of his growing reputation on Indian policy.”

Bhagwati says that Panagariya’s great strength is that he has excellent training from Princeton and combines it with a fine grasp of policy relevance. This, he notes, is almost unique in India where we have many Oxbridge types who never get down to the ground and are content with ‘broad’ principles and ideological pronouncements.

A relentless fighter at debates, Panagariya is also a fine human being. Dr Pravin Krishna, a young professor of Economics at Johns Hopkins University, vouches for that. “I don’t remember the exact words (we spoke when I met him first in 1993), but I do remember feeling surprised and grateful that a senior and established scholar like him was willing to engage with me (I was about 23 years old then) at length on the topic and indulge me then, and subsequently, with his time and encouragement. I had just begun working on my thesis research and this is a rather anxious time for most people. It certainly was for me. I was struck by his openness and by his intellectual energy. More generally, Panagariya, like Bhagwati before him, has been extremely encouraging towards the younger group of scholars.” For Krishna, Panagariya is an extremely energetic and impressive scholar, deeply motivated by his patriotism and imbued with a highly informed and pragmatic sense of what appropriate economic policies can achieve.

Of course, the Rajasthan-born Panagariya knows where he comes from, and he is proud of his humble beginnings. It has been a long journey for him. Hours after the official word on his nomination as vice- chairman of the NITI Aayog was out, he told Open, “It is a huge responsibility but also an exciting opportunity.” Indeed, he is self-effacing, but much to the disadvantage of all those who still underestimate him.