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The Bongo-fication of a Nobel Laureate

Irreverent, provocative, opinionated... Shobhaa De has been challenging status quo for four decades... and is at her best when she punctures inflated egoes. Readers can send feedback to www.shobhaade.blogspot.com
Published : Oct 19, 2019, 4:40 am IST
Updated : Oct 19, 2019, 4:40 am IST

To make matters worse, Banerjee is also Amartya Sen’s protégé. Oh dear! Amartya babu, also a Bengali Nobel Laureate, is not on NaMo’s speed dial.

Abhijit Banerjee
 Abhijit Banerjee

There is a huge tussle going on across India to totally “own” Abhijit Banerjee (no need to qualify — the world knows his name now). But leading the pack are vociferous Bengalis who believe the Nobel Prize for Economics has been given to their state, not just Banerjee. The average Bengali chest has grown dramatically during the past week, and has beaten our Prime Minister’s declared 56-inch. The Prime Minister, you must have noticed, has been most economical in his praise of the 58-year-old professor, which is understandable given that Banerjee is identified as Dr Manmohan Singh’s pet. Singh saab is not the most loved person on NaMo’s limited list of loved persons. To make matters worse, Banerjee is also Amartya Sen’s protégé. Oh dear! Amartya babu, also a Bengali Nobel Laureate, is not on NaMo’s speed dial. That Sen is not on our PM’s top of the pops charts has been established many times over. Now, the dreaded word “economics” itself is causing enormous “takleef” to the government du jour. With Banerjee charmingly, graciously and candidly thanking Manmohan Singh for his congratulatory letter, it is as if all the highly respected global economists of Indian origin are ganging up against the current lot just to show India in a bad light. Banerjee, who has been upfront about his views on the dire state of India’s economy at present (“tailspin”), is seen to belong to the “other” side of the political divide, and therefore cannot be enthusiastically or publicly feted by netas in power. This frostiness from the Centre suits West Bengal’s Didi perfectly. She has gone all out to heap generous praise on the illustrious “son of West Bengal”, and will, no doubt, greet his arrival in Kolkata with a grand victory procession. Please note: Esther Duflo, Banerjee’s wife, who, along with Michael Kramer, shared the honour of winning the world’s most prestigious prize, is hardly mentioned in India, either by our male chauvinistic netas, or an equally blinkered press. The French have also behaved shabbily, but in reverse — they headlined Esther’s win and made a supercilious reference to “two other men” who won along with Ms Duflo. Nicccceee! Tres charmant.

The best thing I read in all the Abhijit gush came from his immediate family. His younger brother Aniruddha praised his cooking, suggested Abhijit compete in Masterchef, and talked about the ease with which Abhijit whipped up four course meals in his kitchen, while Nirmala Patankar, his economist mother, spoke like a well bred Maharashtrian lady of a certain class and vintage (my turn to be chauvinistic!) without going gaga over her genius son. The overall picture that emerged was of a well brought up, grounded man who, along with his equally brilliant second wife, was pursuing a passion with commitment, scholarship and dedication. Their area of research (the alleviation of poverty) is unique in terms of the solutions (if one can call them that) offered in a realistic manner. Their extensive fieldwork in Africa and India, which has been recognised by the Nobel committee, will, hopefully be paid more attention to, especially in India, which is dealing with alarming statistics related to abject deprivation and disease. Despite overwhelming international recognition coming his way, Banerjee has been pilloried by an army of trolls back home, with nasty insinuations that question all that he and Ms Duflo stand for. I was bombarded with mails from the usual right-wing sources stating absurdities such as Banerjee being a “deep state actor”, a plant, put there by dark, evil forces out to destabilise India. Right. I tried to visualise the mild-mannered professor as Darth Vader, but even with my wild imagination, this was a bit much.

Now that his second book (Good Economics for Hard Times), co-authored with Ms Duflo, is all set for release in New Delhi, it will be interesting to see the power dynamics at play — who will show up, and who will leave on a sudden, unscheduled trip. Had Banerjee been less of a gracious gentleman and only thought about immediate glory, he would have refrained from publicly acknowledging Manmohan Singh as his mentor, and confessing Dr Singh’s letter was no less than the Nobel for him. As of now, there are strenuous efforts on to discredit anybody who was an important player during the Manmohan years. Fair enough. Political vindictiveness is not a BJP invention. But instead of focusing on the sins of personalities from that period, why not address a far more urgent crisis? When even Parakala Prabhakar (political economist, LSE-JNU guy), the loyal and loving husband of Nirmala Sitharaman, our finance minister, decides to take a “punga” with the way the economy is sliding into a vortex, surely it is a bit silly to discount his opinion and pretend everything is hunky-dory. Think about it — this may be the first time in recent years when the Reserve Bank of India’s role in the 4,355-crore Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank mega scandal is being questioned by authorities. If the RBI finds itself directly implicated in the ongoing investigation, it sounds like we are in deep trouble! Today it’s the PMC and all the criminals from the HDIL group actively supported by the likes of managing director Joy Thomas and others who are facing the wrath of depositors. Tomorrow it could be some other scamsters who functioned happily for years while regulatory authorities, auditors and associates looked the other way. Can all the blame be shifted to Dr Manmohan Singh and friends? Five years from now, we may unearth even bigger frauds committed during this government’s term. It is something another world-renowned economist, who goes by the name of Raghuram Rajan, has been cautioning against. He should know. Remember, he was the RBI guv who tried his best to do the job he’d been hired for. Forget it. At the moment, Amit Shah’s top priority is to rewrite Indian history — from “our perspective”, he insists. Who are the people assigned to undertake this job? Do we know their qualifications? Is “our” perspective truly “ours”?

Meanwhile, folks, it’s time to do a bit of serious plogging! Whaddya mean you don’t know what that is? Let’s ask our Prime Minister, as he goes about his next beach clean up of strategically placed “rubbish”.

Happy Diwali, readers!

Tags: abhijit banerjee, nobel prize