Bengaluru: Harvard economist Gita Gopinath’s appointment as financial advisor to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala has stirred a political controversy in the Left-ruled state.

The reason: She is thought to advocate neo-liberal economics while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that leads the Kerala government vociferously opposes such policies on a national scale.

Academically, Gopinath, 44, has impeccable credentials. She is John Zwaanstra Professor of International Studies and Economics at Harvard University—only the third woman and the first Indian after Nobel laureate Amartya Sen to become a tenured professor at the Ivy League university.

With her roots in Kerala’s Kannur district, she is the daughter of a farmer-entrepreneur. She is fluent in Malayalam and did her schooling in Mysore, Delhi and the United States, said a person who knows her personally.

Gopinath, whose expertise lies in international macroeconomics, will be given the position of principal secretary in the Left Front ruled state without a salary. However, her appointment, through the creation of a coterminous post has led to protests by some Left sympathisers and leaders.

What stokes the debate is Gopinath’s professed support of neo-liberal economics, which has long been attacked by the Left in India and around the world for its advocacy of free market policies.

Kerala is one of two Left-ruled states in India, and the CPM, after disastrous electorial performances in recent years, is trying to make a return in strong opposition to the Union government’s pro-liberalisation economic policies.

Neither is the Left in Kerala impressed by Gopinath’s earlier association with the US government, World Economic Forum and International Monitory Fund—institutions not known for their support to socialist programmes.

As a Left parliamentarian from Kerala put it, “Forget that she is no traditional Marxist-Leninist, some of her professed views on economics and politics are in favour of neo-liberal economic policies that Leftists in the country fight tooth and nail."

Gopinath has endorsed diesel deregulation in India and urged the union government to push the Land Acquisition Bill in its present form—two policy positions that would make any proponent a class enemy for the Left.

Further, she has been appointed at a time when the state’s finance minister is a development economist. Development economists tend to be favour centre-Left economic policies.

“No one is questioning her competence. But she will be dealing with the political economy of the state where the Left is trying to bring an alternative development model which is far away from neo-liberal economic thinking," said the MP quoted above.

Taking note of the issue, the central leadership of the CPM has sought an explanation from the state unit of the party, The Indian Express reported on Monday. It’s unclear whether the state leadership took the decision without knowledge of her economic views. Vijayan and Gopinath were not immediately available for comment.

Gopinath is actually the third unconventional political appointment made by Vijayan, a veteran Communist leader. Just before Gopinath, the appointment of senior lawyer M. K. Damodaran as the CM’s legal advisor two weeks ago, also sparked a major controversy. The decision was met with strong opposition within and outside the party as Damodaran had appeared in some controversial cases, including those in which he is fighting against senior CPM leader V S Achuthanandan and even the state government itself.

Finally, last week Damodaran said he will not take up the position.

Again, the government’s appointment of V. K. Ramachandran of the Indian Institute of Statistics as planning board vice-chairperson also raised some eyebrows. Previous Left governments in Kerala have usually offered this post to classical Marxist economists such as Prabhat Patnaik. Ramachandran, a development economist who has written extensively on agrarian and labour issues, is considered to be more pragmatic in his approach to economics.

It’s clearly a deviation from the traditional ways of doing business for a left CM in Kerala, said BRP Bhaskar, a veteran journalist and political analyst.

“They have made a statement by choosing a complete outsider as an economic advisor. By all accounts, she is a very competent economist. She could even possibly devise a scheme to attract investors to the state, which is a main agenda of the government," said Bhaskar.

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