Home >Opinion >Online-views >Arvind Subramanian’s inspirational legacy

It was late at night and we were wrapping up the day’s work on the first Economic Survey under chief economic adviser (CEA) Arvind Subramanian. A Gita-esque discussion on the motivation of technocrats and its manifestations in the realm of realpolitik ensued. Subramanian invoked Marc Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar almost in its entirety: “Friends, Romans and countrymen... Ambition should be made of sterner stuff." The lines flowed in characteristic Subramanian enthusiasm as Rabindranath Tagore’s picture, hanging on the office wall, stared approvingly. What drives us—influence or impact, power or proletariat? How can we consistently say what is true to the government and to the nation? There were many epic moments like these in TeamCEA’s sojourn.

Four years hence, Subramanian generates fierce loyalty among his team. To an outsider, it may look like a random group of nerdy young economists who crunch numbers for their boss, which is not untrue. But the emotional and intellectual bond that connects its members to each other, and to its captain, takes work to another level. Subramanian has said this is the best job he has ever had. For most, if not all, team members, working for him is the best job they have ever had. It is a high that will be hard to match.

The team’s role is to frame policy puzzles, provide in-depth empirical analyses, and offer potential solutions to the powers that be. At the core, as Subramanian mentioned in an interview, the primary job of the office of the chief economic adviser is to “feed the ecosphere of ideas and policies". Subramanian did justice to that ideal by asking big questions. “My friends," his eyes would light up, “I have a new idea for us to explore" or “Can we talk about this humble insight." This would kick-start an intellectual and institutional rush—detailed discussions on the idea followed by phone calls to all corners of government to source the required data, collation of all the results and their framing into a theoretical narrative, and then the final literary push to communicate it all in an elegant lexicon. “Read, read, read," he would say “till you’ve understood what you have written".

When JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) became popular parlance; when “competitive and cooperative federalism" was quoted by the highest-ranking officials; when the “twin-balance sheet problem with Indian characteristics" captured macroeconomic mores; when “socialism without entry, to capitalism without exit" flooded the edit pages of national and international newspapers; when the “mother and child" chapter in Economic Survey 2015-16 reinvigorated discussions on maternal health; when the massive online open course on the Indian economy reached millions of students; or when both treasury and opposition benches referred to the Subramanian report in a high-quality parliamentary debate on the goods and services tax, the team suffered happy bewilderment—internalizing how those umpteen hours were making their way into the ecosphere of ideas.

It was an unusual team. For starters, despite being placed within traditional bureaucratic hierarchies, it worked as a flat unit. There was one boss and the rest were all equals. Carefully chosen by Subramanian, the team broadly consisted of four types of members. Four to five of them came from the Indian Economic Services and formed the team’s steel frame. At all times, there were three or four full-time external consultants—policy analysts with specific skills, such as lawyers and big data experts. There were also short-term members, typically PhD students, who joined over the summer or in the crunch wintertime of the Union budget and the Economic Survey. Last, but not least, there was a hands-on administrative staff. In true Hindustani ethos, the team was a microcosm of plurality: There was a farmer’s son from Madhya Pradesh and a Bengali Bhadralok, there was a Malayali Christian and a Lucknowi Muslim, there were right wingers and left wingers, there were Ivy League graduates and those that learnt economics in the vernacular.

Subramanian was masterful in managing differing opinions and egos in a high-stakes environment. He encouraged the team to ask big questions, and debate and disagree, but at all times maintaining the sanctity of evidence and dialogue. Active criticism of his own ideas was demanded before he put them out in the world. There was no censorship within the team but a mutual respect emerged, fostered by the trust Subramanian put in all its members. At the end of the day, three things mattered: decency, work ethic, and eagerness to learn. Subramanian would never miss an opportunity to credit members of the team in varied private or public fora. He also invested in the team’s life outside the office—what motivates them, what brings them down, what constitutes the complexities of their characters.

A perception is doing the rounds that Indian scholars who have worked abroad do not understand or care enough about Indian problems. While the critique of holiday academics and policymakers is well taken, Subramanian has offered the perfect example of how committed economists with cutting-edge research and policy experience can create genuine institutional capacity. In fact, Subramanian surrounded himself with both local and international talent. The heartfelt tributes at his farewell organized by the Indian Economic Services symbolize the inspirational legacy he leaves behind for a crucial component of India’s bureaucratic machinery.

Subramanian wants each state of the country to have its own chief economic adviser, a dream he has worked towards, but could not realize in his time in office. Since “India lives in its villages", for policymakers to understand and act upon local problems, decentralized capacity should be a top priority. As an extension, setting up inspired TeamCEAs in every state holds immense institutional potential in its multiplier effect.

In another epic moment, while discussing the importance of integrity in public life, Subramanian reminisced on George Orwell’s words on the Mahatma: “But regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!" As an economist, as a policymaker and above all as a mentor, chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian aced the Orwellian test.

Abhishek Anand, Rangeet Ghosh, Parth Khare, Rohit Lamba, Kapil Patidar, Zubair Noqvi and Navneeraj Sharma are members of TeamCEA, a larger group of economists, policy analysts and administrative staff that worked with Arvind Subramanian.

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