Raghuram Rajan's impending US return is the biggest irony of our times

 Raghuram Rajans impending US return is the biggest irony of our timesThe author is a journalist in Delhi. His novel The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and is available in bookstores

 

 

The departure of Raghuram Rajan from the Reserve Bank of India, and eventually from the country as well, is arguably the most telling irony of our times.

This is so because for now nearly 30 years, Indian leaders have been feting Non-Resident Indians, particularly those in the US, for their brainpower and stellar achievements, and holding out an open invitation to them to contribute to the Great Indian Story. But when one who belongs to the breed of brainy Indians, such as Raghuram Rajan, decides to return home to assist in its rise, he discovers the system deeply frustrating. It allows little autonomy for creativity, places premium on machinations, and is stuck in the rut made by the political bosses.

Rajan’s exit from the RBI, and India, is voluntary only in form. He has been hounded into returning to academia in the US. To NRIs, his experience sends an ominous message — you can return to India only at your own peril.

Obviously, many of us will say who wants these NRIs to return, overbearing as they are, having a sense of entitlement, lacking in empathy for and patience with the Indian way of managing affairs.

We will say the professional American ambience has spoilt and made them querulous. That having earned their dollars, they have descended on us in a show of condescending charity.

To these familiar cribs, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has added his own — that Rajan, not having the Indian mindset, was unsuitable for the post of RBI governor!

These arguments are hypocritical given India’s history of wooing NRIs.

For nearly three decades, as some in India began to speak alarmingly about the phenomenon of brain drain, our leaders took to pointing to its benefits. In 1985, on his first official visit to the US, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi said the migration of professional talent from India wasn’t a brain drain but ought to be looked upon as a brain bank. The implication of his statement was that no matter where the Indian professional was located, or whichever country’s citizen he might be, he or she could be relied upon to contribute to India’s progress.

Rajan fitted Rajiv’s definition to a T: A top-notch economist, he was willing to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring the Indian economy didn’t go off the rails.

Rajiv’s redefinition of the brain-drain theory has been built upon over the years, not the least by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On his tours abroad, Modi often delineates to NRI crowds the steps has taken to usher in a style of governance which they could take pride in. It is Modi’s way of telling NRIs that he is addressing issues that “push” Indians to settle abroad.

File image of RBI governor Raghuram Rajan. Reuters

File image of RBI governor Raghuram Rajan. Reuters

Rajan’s departure shows we are still far away from reaching that goal.

It can always be argued that the RBI governor ought not to flout the wishes of a democratically-elected government, which is answerable to the people. Rajan was deemed to have gone on a course in defiance of the government’s preferences.

Regardless of the tenability of this argument, what is unbecoming of the government — and, therefore, by extension, India — were the underhand tactics employed to pressure Rajan into throwing up his hands in frustration. You had Swamy and other BJP ministers firing tweet-missiles against Rajan almost daily, calling him R3, and suggesting the RBI’s decisions were motivated because it was headed by one who has a non-Indian mindset. As far as Swamy goes, the defining feature of the Indian mindset is to show fervour for demolishing mosques.

The Modi government neither wished to grant Rajan an extension nor did it want to become the first-ever dispensation to deny a sitting RBI governor a five-year run. This is perhaps why the prime minister never unequivocally expressed his disapproval of these attacks on Rajan, hoping he would lose his nerve and leave.

For NRIs, though, the government’s tactics of getting rid of Rajan will only reinforce their fears of India’s political class. It is a dominant tendency among NRIs to blame it for the ills plaguing India. In their eyes, the Indian neta lacks vision, nurtures corruption, promotes cronyism, serves his or her interests than the society’s, and expects officials to toe his or her line.

Those who don’t are summarily shown the door or, as has been the case with Rajan, left with no option but to leave.

Rajan’s refusal to adhere to the government’s line on the economy was just one problem. The other was that it wasn’t imagined that he would air his views on the rising social conflict in India, or bat for free speech and importance of tolerance, or invoke Adolf Hitler to warn against the disastrous consequences of authoritarian tendencies.

In India, over the years, there is consensus on who can express dissent without incurring the system’s wrath. The mainstream Opposition parties certainly can. As can also activists, the media, and intellectuals to a degree, beyond which they are dubbed 'Left radicals' or incorrigible naysayers or, as has become the norm over the last two years, anti-national.

Certainly a person drawing salary from the Consolidate Fund of India is presumed not to have temerity to express differences with his or her political masters. On this count, Rajan cut a swathe uniquely his, perhaps certain — unlike, say, bureaucrats — that he had another calling to which he could return in case of a severe blowback.

Nevertheless, the blowback against his propensity to speak out won’t make the academicians and professional leaders among NRIs feel confident about India. Regardless of whether they subscribe to the Left-liberal or Right ideologies, a good many of them believe frank debates help a nation strike a right stance on myriad issues.

More than anything else, Rajan will become an argument that the educated middle class will remember at the time of taking a decision to settle in the US or return to India. Perhaps every third middle class family in the four metros has a relative in the US, or is planning to go there, explaining much of India’s romance for the US.

Partly, their migration is on account of push factors — for instance, the competition to get into quality educational institutions has become increasingly tough. Partly, it is because of pull factors – higher remunerations, better working conditions, a more comfortable lifestyle, and a climate conducive for research.

Rajan is typically the Indian middle class boy who has come good. His father was an Indian Police Service officer who was subsequently drafted into India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Rajan completed his school from Delhi Public School, RK Puram Branch, got into IIT, and did management from IIM-Ahmedabad before winging it to the US, where he became professor of finance at the prestigious University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

He is credited to have predicted the financial meltdown much before it hit the world in 2007. He also became the youngest ever chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. For all his achievements abroad, Rajan continues to hold the Indian passport.

To middle class parents, Rajan will become the latest example which will inspire them to encourage their children to try for an education abroad and settle down there. As NRIs, they may be considered a deposit in our brain bank, but one which we might find hard to draw upon and use for India.

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Updated Date: Jun 20, 2016 14:13:30 IST