A file photo of economist T.N. Srinivasan.
A file photo of economist T.N. Srinivasan.

Opinion | An economist who never pulled his punches

T.N. Srinivasan is one of a very select group of economists who could take satisfaction in knowing that they played a consequential, intellectually grounded role in shaping an important event in world historyin this case, India rejoining the global economy in 1991

It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of economist T.N. Srinivasan—T.N. as we all knew him—on 11 November in Chennai. The moving obituary by Niranjan Rajadhyaksha in this newspaper (“An economist for all seasons", 12 November) conveyed his intellectual accomplishments and his impact both on the discipline of economics and on economic policy in India, so I need not repeat those here in any detail.

I will, however, reiterate that T.N., along with Jagdish Bhagwati and Padma Desai, deserves the lion’s share of credit for developing the intellectual consensus around economic liberalization well before the 1991 economic reforms. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that they laid the groundwork for 1991 and made it possible. While it may be unfashionable to say so today, I firmly believe that ideas and the individuals who articulate them do matter in shaping public policy outcomes and, in this, T.N. played a hugely important part. He is one of a very select group of economists who could take satisfaction in knowing that they played a consequential, intellectually grounded role in shaping an important event in world history—in this case, India rejoining the global economy in 1991.

My first and vivid recollection of T.N. was at an Asia Society event in New York, sometime shortly after the 1991 economic liberalization. Then Union finance minister, Manmohan Singh, was giving a talk, and my Columbia classmate, Pravin Krishna, and I were in the audience, as was our thesis supervisor, Bhagwati, Srinivasan, and other luminaries. In the Q&A following the talk, T.N. got up and asked Singh a tough question, no mere soft ball, as you might have expected from one of the intellectual architects of the liberalization that the finance minister was presiding over.

This was characteristic of T.N. He could be blunt and direct when he thought it necessary and he never pulled his punches because the interlocutor happened to be a friend or someone in power (or, in this case, both). Economists today could learn a lesson from this.

My next and more personal recollection was of a Festschrift conference at Columbia in honour of Bhagwati in late 1994 or early 1995, a time when I was in the throes of wrapping up my doctoral dissertation. The central chapter of my dissertation, on the then raging debate on whether economies in transition from central planning to capitalism and markets should do so with a “big bang" or via gradualism, was a theoretical model that deployed a branch of mathematics known as optimal control theory. As this was not a type of mathematics that my primary supervisor, Bhagwati, was familiar with, he wanted me to get the green light from T.N. that my mathematical analysis was correct—recall that his early training was in mathematics and statistics, as was the case with so many of that generation who ended up becoming economists.

Thus it was that, on the sidelines of the conference, I sat with T.N. and went over my equations with him. He was generous with his time and made some very helpful observations on how I might better present and explain some of my findings—and, to my great relief, he gave a thumbs up to my maths.

My next interaction with T.N. came about a decade later, during a conference organised by economist Elias Dinopoulos, another Bhagwati student at Columbia, at the University of Florida. As it turned out, the highlight was the result of a sudden and unexpected ice storm that hit the American south, and caused Atlanta airport to shut down. Some of us trying to fly out of Gainesville, Florida, reached the airport, only to be told that we were re-booked the next day. Thus it happened that a few of us—Krishna, another Columbia classmate, Devashish Mitra, and T.N., got together for an impromptu dinner that evening. T.N. was in especially gregarious form and we heard priceless anecdotes of the early days of the Planning Commission, the drama surrounding the 1991 economic liberalization, and, of course, some of the usual gossip about other economists who shall remain nameless.

My latest and, sadly, as it was to turn out, last meeting with T.N., was at a dinner hosted by Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Urjit Patel following the C.D. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture at the RBI in April 2017, given on that occasion by economist Willem Buiter. Both Buiter and Srinivasan, along with economist Kenneth Kletzer, had supervised Patel’s doctoral work at Yale. And so there was much discussion, among other topics, of the great economics tradition at Yale, in its own way as illustrious as the other great Ivy League economics departments, notably Harvard, Columbia and, more recently, Princeton.

What stands out, though, from that event, is a very personal recollection. While I knew that Srinivasan was called T.N. by just about everyone, I maintained the old-fashioned Indian attitude of respect for elders and called him “Professor Srinivasan". He responded right away: “Please, call me T.N." I recall how incredibly gracious and warm he was, inviting me to visit him in Chennai sometime. I remembered, in particular, that he made it a point to be in Chennai every December for the music season, and expressed the hope that I could join him there for a concert sometime. Sadly, that visit never happened, and so the Mumbai dinner proved to be my last contact with this great economist and great human being. RIP, T.N.

Vivek Dehejia is resident senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, Mumbai. Read Vivek’s Mint columns at livemint.com/vivekdehejia.