For several years now, Pramit Bhattacharya has been writing outstanding pieces for Hindustan Times and Mint. His latest column is about one of India’s greatest economist’s, KN Raj. Raj’s son, Gopal Raj allowed Pramit to go through some of Raj’s correspondence (much of it has been destroyed) during a trip to Thiruvananthapuram last year, and the column draws on some of those letters.

KN Raj was a giant amongst India’s economists in the first few decades after Independence: “Kakkadan Nandanath Rajan, popularly known as KN Raj joined the Reserve Bank of India in 1947 soon after finishing his PhD from the London School of Economics, and prepared independent India’s first balance of payment estimates.

Raj then moved on to the newly created Planning Commission, helping draft India’s first five-year plan. Raj’s forecast of India’s savings trajectory turned out to be quite prescient, and he was called upon to firm up India’s official savings and investments data decades later.

Raj’s student, KP Kannan, credits Raj with shaping three important economic institutions of the post-Independence era: The Delhi School of Economics (DSE), the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies (CDS), and the social science journal Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). DSE was founded by another economic giant, VKRV Rao. It reached its peak during Raj’s long stint as its director. Raj left Delhi in 1971, at the height of his career, and set up CDS in Kerala. Raj’s presence helped attract global scholars to the new institution. Raj was also closely involved in setting up the Mumbai-based Economic Weekly (which later became the EPW) founded by Sachin Chaudhuri. He became a trustee of the Sameeksha Trust (which publishes EPW) soon after it was set up in 1966, and remained on its board till his death in 2010.”

Living as we do in an era where economics has almost become an extension of politics, we were surprised to learn that KN Raj had fans on both sides of the political spectrum: “A doyen of Left-Keynesian economists, Raj found admirers even among economists who leaned Right. The free trade champion Jagdish Bhagwati who disagreed with Raj on many policy issues still found much to learn from him. “You are India’s most valuable resource, and you should consider it a social obligation to take good care of yourself,” Bhagwati wrote to Raj after the latter had fallen ill in 1986.”

Those of us who are trained economists are accustomed to economists being used by politicians as, at best, hired guns or, at worst, stooges. KN Raj was different: “Raj had the ear of several Prime Ministers (PMs) from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh and several chief ministers (from EMS Namboodiripad to C Achutha Menon). Yet, he didn’t shy away from taking a stand against them when the need arose. When a part of Raj’s interview with All India Radio was censored in 1974, Raj complained to the then information and broadcasting minister, IK Gujral and the then PM, Indira Gandhi. Gujral justified the censorship while Gandhi claimed she was completely against censorship, “even mild forms of it”. Raj pointed out the contradiction between the two in a letter to Gujral. After failing to receive a satisfactory response, he publicly aired his concerns.

Later, Raj would share the entire set of correspondence on this issue with the Shah Commission that examined the excesses of the Emergency years (1975-77). Raj argued that the authoritarian abuses did not start during the Emergency but had been growing over time. “The middle and upper classes of our country had been generally acquiescing in such abuses as long as they were not directly affected very much… and similar things could happen again unless we viewed such abuses of power not merely as the aberrations of particular individuals but as part of a larger phenomenon reflecting a deeper malaise,” wrote Raj in his letter to the Shah Commission secretary.

Nonetheless, Gandhi still consulted Raj on economic matters when she returned to office in 1980….”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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