by Pranab Bardhan
Even though I arrived at Economics with the aim of interpreting history, it soon gave me a more general perspective. First, it showed me the value of precision and empirical testing in thinking about socially important issues. This immediately appealed to me, as two of the first courses I liked in college were on Deductive and Inductive Logic. More importantly, Economics gave me a deeper understanding of the incentive mechanisms that sustain social institutions. It made me think why some of the glib solutions suggested by my leftist friends were difficult to sustain in the real world, unless based on motivations/norms and constraints of people in that world. Why are cooperatives and nationalized industries, suggested as substitutes for private enterprise, often (not always) dysfunctional? Economics asks the question: if there is a social problem, why does it not get resolved by the people on their own, and if your answer is that it is the ‘system’ that is to blame—which was the main message of many leftist stories I read and plays/movies I watched—Economics teaches us to go beyond and look into the underlying mechanism through which that ‘system’ is perpetuated or occasionally broken.
Fortunately for me in Presidency College those days Economics was combined with Political Science, as I have always looked at the two subjects as intertwined. I found that classical economists of the 18th and 19th century looked at economics as political-economy, and analyzed some of the major questions of distributive politics.
Aristotle in his book Politics (which was one of our textbooks) describes man as a ‘political animal’. In some sense I have been a political animal ever since childhood. My mother told me that by age five I was a regular newspaper-reader; now-a-days I read about ten newspapers (including news websites) of different countries every day.
Looking back, my early interest in politics might have something to do with one of my maternal uncles who was a political prisoner of the British. He was a member of a revolutionary group that tried (without success) to assassinate a notorious British Governor of Bengal. After arrest the leader of his group (Bhabani Bhattacharya—now Kolkata’s Bhabani Bhavan is named after him) was hanged in 1935, and my uncle got life imprisonment, which he served until shortly before Indian Independence in 1947. He had served in several jails (including exile to jail in the Andaman islands), and one time when he was transferred to a jail near Kolkata, my parents took me to visit him. My father lifted me up on his lap and even then it took me a while to find the small hole through which he was barely visible. I think he loomed quite large in my thoughts as a boy; as an adolescent I wrote a Bengali novella (for a magazine brought out by some friends) with its beginning loosely based on what I’d heard about him from my mother and grandmother.
After release from prison, he used to visit us almost every day, told me many stories of his prison life (including torture and beatings), not in a complaining way but in what-else-do-you-expect-from-the-imperial-authorities way, but most of the time we discussed current politics. He continued political activities with the socialist group led by Rammanohar Lohia (when I was in college he even made me write an article for the Lohia-edited magazine, Mankind). Around that time he once took a trip with a non-violent resistance group to protest against Portuguese rule in Goa. The Portuguese police instead of imprisoning them took them up a hill and threw them down the hill back to Indian territory. I still remember the morning in our house, my mother dressing his several horrible-looking wounds, while he, undeterred, kept on talking to me about the political situation in Goa.
Not surprisingly, in the early part of my youth my politics was full of patriotic zeal. A big change happened in my thinking when I borrowed from the College Library and read Tagore’s book titled Nationalism, his 1916 lectures in Japan. In it Tagore was trenchant in his criticism of the western idea of the nation-state, “with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, …its mock thunders of patriotic bragging”, and of how it stokes a national conceit that makes society lose its moral balance. The date being 1916 amazed me, he was going against the current in India’s freedom struggle (although later I realized that Gandhi had a not-dissimilar view of the nation-state). It also made me understand better Tagore’s three novels on related themes (Gora, Ghare Baire—on which the Satyajit Ray film The Home and the World is based, and Char Adhyay) which I had already read in high school. This book on Nationalism led me to Tagore’s other essays (until then I had read mostly his fiction and poems). I started thinking of the complexities in the issues of nation, state and society, and their interrelationships—themes which have preoccupied me ever since. It’s an irony of history that given Tagore’s above-mentioned view on nationalistic ‘pious hymns’, today whenever Tagore’s song adopted after his death as the Indian national anthem is played, if you don’t stand up, you may be arrested by the Indian police or harassed by the over-zealous nationalists.
My early views on left politics have been shaped by my coffeehouse days of discussion and readings (and College Street agitations) described earlier, but also by two of my father’s classmates from Dhaka University who were influential with me. One was Binod Chaudhuri (my father’s closest friend since their school days), and the other was Sachin Chaudhuri, the legendary Editor of Economic Weekly (EW) and later Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). Both Chaudhuris—no relation—were tall, graceful and handsome elderly gentlemen who took me under their wings.
Binod uncle lived near us, came with his family penniless from East Bengal, found a low-paying clerical job, and toward the end of each month had to borrow money from my father even for his groceries. Transcending the sweaty struggles and pettiness of daily life he had the amazing capacity to switch off to a world of intellectual wonder, curiosity and learning. Many mornings he’d come and sit down with me and get involved in an intense discussion on some books we had both read, some op-ed article in the newspaper that morning or some other political issue, always on equal terms with this teenager, never condescending. One time we were rapt in arguments on the matter of some Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, I strongly criticizing it and he somewhat defending it referring to various CIA machinations—suddenly he asked me what time it was (he could not afford a watch). When I gave him the time, he jumped and realized that it was long past what he had promised his wife about returning from his shopping, and then going to his office. He referred to his wife with a sweet pronoun in his Comilla district dialect; the nearest equivalent term I can think of is what much later I heard in the British TV series ‘Rumpole of the Bailey,’ where Rumpole the elderly barrister used to refer to his wife as ‘she who must be obeyed’.