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Gita Gopinath: Global Mind

Gita Gopinath
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Gita Gopinath becomes the first woman of Indian origin to be appointed chief economist of the International Monetary Fund

FORMER FEDERAL RESERVE Chairman Ben Bernanke, known to be economical with praise, speaks of Gita Gopinath as “one of the strongest and most promising students I ever worked with”. Gopinath, who has several firsts to her credit, did her PhD at Princeton under the guidance of Ben Bernanke and Kenneth Rogoff, a former IMF economist who now teaches at Harvard. She is the first Indian-origin woman to be appointed full professor at Harvard’s Economics Department. A few days ago, she also became the first Indian-origin woman to be named chief economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), created after World War II to prevent economic disasters such as the Great Depression. She is the second Indian- origin economist, after Raghuram Rajan (2003-2006), to be appointed to the coveted role in an organisation that lends money and offers technical assistance to needy nations, besides monitoring economies.

“I am excited to start this new role in January. I was in India with my parents when I received the call [from the IMF],” says Gopinath, a cricket buff and Sachin Tendulkar fan who was born in Kolkata in 1971 to a couple originally from Kannur, Kerala, and was raised mainly in Mysore and later Delhi before she left for the US to pursue higher studies.

She stood first in BA Economics (Honours) in 1992, which she pursued at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College. An alumnus of Delhi School of Economics, University of Washington and Princeton, Gopinath taught at University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business from 2001 to 2005 before joining Harvard, first as assistant professor of the academic discipline and then rising rapidly to become the University’s John Zwaanstra Professor of International Studies and of Economics in 2015. She has also been an advisor to prestigious entities such the US National Bureau of Economic Research and Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Noted economist Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, Gopinath’s doctoral advisor at Princeton, is upbeat: ‘‘Gopinath’s research on the dominant role of the US currency in international trade and finance positions her very well to understand [new] challenges and provide helpful guidance to the IMF’s managing director and its board of administrators.’’

She is currently economic advisor to the Chief Minister of Kerala. She had earlier advised the Union Finance Ministry on G-20 matters. An expert on currency fluctuations and macro-economics, she has earned a reputation for her incisive comments and papers on various subjects, from monetary policy to emerging markets. She once told Open that when she isn’t busy with economics, she spends time reading novels, her favourite being JK Rowling’s. As with India in general and Kerala in particular, she has emphasised the need to enhance skills and sharpen competitiveness to tackle macroeconomic challenges arising from a dip in exports.

When she was named advisor to the Kerala Chief Minister, Gopinath incurred criticism from some quarters for being a ‘neo-liberal’. She responded by saying she didn’t understand what that term means and that it is usually reserved for people you don’t generally like. In an earlier interview to Open, Gopinath had praised the NDA Government’s first Budget, saying it placed a lot of emphasis on reviving manufacturing. But she had added that she was anxious there was little said in it about labour laws. A votary of market-oriented policies and good governance, she was recently scathing in an attack on demonetisation effected two years ago, a surprise move by the Centre made high-denomination notes illegal tender overnight. She, however, has been appreciative of GST.

Married to economist Iqbal Dhaliwal, who topped India’s civil services examination in the mid-1990s and works at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab in the Economics Department of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gopinath is now an American citizen. She will assume her new role at the IMF on January 1st at a time when the Fund faces grave challenges amid global tensions on the trade front.