August 11, 2020
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The Importance Of Being Ashok Mitra

An incisive, culturally alive mind, but politically a blend of revolutionary naivete and tactical posturing

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The Importance Of Being Ashok Mitra
A Prattlers Tale: Bengal, Marxism, Governance
By Ashok Mitra
Samya Pages: 481; Rs: 595
This is the English version of the author’s biographical narrative, Apila-Chapila, originally serialised in Bengali journal Desh. A distinguished economist, political activist, a stimulating essayist and columnist and a vigorous polemicist, Ashok Mitra excels in both languages. The first part offers an interesting account of his journey from childhood at Dacca, then a sleepy district town in East Bengal, to the end of his formal academic career at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague, Netherlands, under Professor Jan Tinbergen, one of the world’s foremost econometricians. Mitra writes reminiscently of the natural beauty of East Bengal, its tangled social structure, the mystique of its music and, of course, the many addas and their exuberant joie de vivre. Mitra is a voracious reader and has met a large number of poets, writers, musicians, artists, composers, dramatists, teachers and politicians of left-wing vintage. His comments and letters on cultural and literary movements are rewarding and a significant contribution to Bengal’s cultural renewal.

Subsequently, Mitra’s canvas becomes vast. From the volatile cold war years to holding key positions in the central government as chairman, Agricultural Prices Commission, and then chief economic sdvisor, Mitra was in a position to assess the Indian economy, important members of the power elite and the self-perpetuating mechanism of the possessing classes as well as the shortcomings of the professed socialistic pattern. These aspects of India’s development have been sketched adroitly. But Mitra’s analysis is somewhat inadequate. It seems his exposure to contemporary historical movements is patchy and episodic. In the ’50s there was an ascendancy of left-wing forces in several parts of the world. But to conclude that the hegemony of the Communist movement in Eastern Europe was organic and complete is to underestimate the grit and determination of capitalism and nato’s significance. Or to conclude that the intense resentment among the left-wing student community against McCarthyism and Charlie Chaplin’s expulsion from the United States suggested an imminent global takeover by the Left betrays a total innocence of revolutionary politics.

It’s also striking that one who judges everybody from the standpoint of orthodox Marxist parameters had no qualms about spending four years in the faculty of the Economic Development Institute in Washington. The institute was funded exclusively by the World Bank in order "to proselytise" some economic ministers and civil servants from developing countries in the "philosophy of the World Bank". Mitra was probably happy that he had a long innings to teach those ministers and civil servants the art of subversion of the World Bank from within. At one place, he admits that during the early phase of the Naxalbari movement, he ‘harboured’ romantic notions about its cause and wrote quite a few editorials in Now as well as in Frontier in it support. The elaborate justification for being driven to believe in "enticing dreams" of dramatic social and economic transformation without any adequate recognition of the objective reality sounds both facile and fanciful. As Mitra moved away from Samar Sen, his erstwhile comrade, towards CPI(M)’s official line, he began to talk of the phases of the movement and the imperatives of inner party struggle. He is now footloose and fancy-free: "I have always noticed that for Samar Sen drinks acted as a truth serum.... At first, it was banter and counter-banter, but soon descended into acrimony. Samar Sen accused me of ruining both his journals." Probably he did.

Mitra has spared nobody, not even the poverty-stricken poetic genius, Jibanananda Das. A good deal of tittle-tattle, small talk and innuendo drawn from the drawing rooms and whispering galleries of his ever-increasing international addas predominate. It is unfortunate that he goes on to assert without any evidence that the appointment of Manmohan Singh as finance minister was forced on Narasimha Rao by the World Bank and the US administration. Mitra, however, does not know that his unauthenticated accusation makes him legally vulnerable and that civility is expected from a bhadralok. In any case, many others have over time raised similar doubts about Mitra himself. P.N. Haksar confided to me that both Indira Gandhi and the World Bank assessed Mitra at his true valuation and placed no credence on his public postures and political pronouncements. They were conscious, Haksar added with a mischievous smile, of the importance of being Ashok Mitra in Indian politics.

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