NEW DELHI: It’s only in the fitness of things that Ashok Mitra — economist, scholar, avid reader, non-fiction and fiction writer, columnist, former finance minister of Bengal, bureaucrat, a teacher with a difference, and above all a Leftist thinker, perhaps among the best the country has known — died on May Day.
His fans and admirers, who were legion, and who he retained till the last breath of his 90 years, even when India’s political milieu had changed, and came to be dominated by the Right, would have seen a certain poetic sense in that.
Contrary to what he once said about himself, Mitra was a typical Bengali bhadralok besides being a die-hard Communist, with deep interests and wide-ranging knowledge. It’s not as if he did not make mistakes in his evaluation of situations. He was of the view, for instance, that the Mamata Banerjee phenomenon has to be allowed to play itself out, that her administrative ineptitude would make the people clamour for restoration of Left Front rule. Things panned out differently. Maybe it was his belief in the core ideology that made him think the way he did.
He was not a hidebound Marxist though and he fell out (not at a personal level though) with the Left’s biggest icon in West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, after being his FM for a decade, from 1977-1986. A decade marked by feisty arguments with the ‘wretched’ Planning Commission and the Centre for keeping eastern India, particularly Bengal, suppressed; in the state, those years saw the landmark Operation Barga, land distribution, devolution of decision-making to panchayats, increase in agriculture outlays, irrigation and rural infrastructure.
Pushed into Delhi politics as a Rajya Sabha member thereafter, he gave scathing reports as the chairman of the Standing Committee on Industry and Commerce. He was highly critical of the shift in economic policy effected by then FM Manmohan Singh.
Singh and Mitra, however, were good friends from their days in the Pandara Road Friday Club of economists—all legends in their own right. Also from the time when he was Chief Economic Advisor to the GOI from 1970-72, where MMS, a known socialist at that point, succeeded him.
For the uninitiated, over the expanse of his career Mitra would appear to be taking contradictory posts—the above-mentioned slot in Indira’s government, a teaching post in IIM Calcutta, a stint at the Economic Development Institute in Washington DC (while always being critical of the World Bank/IMF), to FM-ship under Basu, to a columnist of EPW and The Telegraph, his Calcutta Diaries and his fiction-writing.
Mitra was a specimen of a now-endangered kind—a public intellectual. Born in 1928, he studied in Dhaka University till 1948 and later in BHU, after failing to get his Calcutta University admission confirmed, and then at the University of Rotterdam, Netherlands, under Nobel laureate Jan Tinbergen.
His stint in her regime does not mean Mitra did not have to face the brunt of Indira’s Emergency, post her dalliance with Left politics. His articles faced censorship. An article he wrote on the excesses of Emergency for the Economist led to a ban on the issue in India. He was very much part of the era of pro-poor sloganeering and formulated the calculation for Minimum Support Price—a bone of contention these days—for the Commission on Agriculture Costs and Prices.
Any evaluation of Ashok-da, as he was fondly called, will be incomplete without mentioning that he was perhaps the only economist to have got a Sahitya Akademi award for his writings in Bangla. He was prolific in English and Bengali. Which shows the real expanse of the person who lived a rich and vast life. He may have died a bit lonely and dejected, in a nursing home, a world he was finding difficult to come to terms with.
Friend and Critic
He was critical of the shift in economic policy effected by then FM Manmohan Singh. Singh and Mitra, however, were good friends from their days in the Pandara Road Friday Club of economists.