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Isher Judge Ahluwalia. (Mint)
Isher Judge Ahluwalia. (Mint)

Remembering the individual behind renowned economist Isher Judge Ahluwalia

Isher’s network and charm were so pervasive that she personally knew every economist in India and abroad

When I first read her work, I used to think someone in Isher Judge Ahluwalia’s lineage had been a Judge. That reflected my ignorance about Sikh surnames. “My family name ‘Judge’, which I retained as my middle name after marriage, has nothing to do with a legal or judicial lineage. It is simply an Anglicization of the Punjabi name ‘Jaj’." That quote is from her recently-published autobiography, Breaking Through, published almost back-to-back with Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s autobiography, Backstage.

All of us are destined to die. But how do you react when that certain destiny is a short distance away? How do you react when death is not sudden, but makes you wait, as cancer does? It is not easy to handle that with grace and dignity. Isher did just that and was the driving force, the will and the determinationbehind both books being published.

Now that a noted economist and a Padma Bhushan awardee has left, what will we remember her for? Her work on industrial growth and productivity and urban infrastructure?

For all economists, that kind of work has limited shelf-life and is eventually relegated to bibliographies in academic papers, unless you happen to be (post Nobel vintage) a Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow or Milton Friedman. Isher’s abiding legacy, unless successors make a hash of it, is the building of the institution known as ICRIER or the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (as director and chairperson), at a time when older research institutions had gone into relative decline.

Other economist couples have existed, but none as powerful and influential as Isher and Montek. I named Isher first, because despite Montek being the person he was, Isher was never eclipsed. (Early on in her career, she consciously chose to remain outside government, because Montek was already in government and she didn’t want a rank inferior to his.) Especially during the UPA years—and their proximity to Dr Manmohan Singh was no secret—they featured in every power list that any newspaper or magazine brought out.

So vast was Isher’s network and so pervasive her charm, that she personally knew every economist you might name, in India and abroad.

Now that the inevitable has happened, I have non-professional memories to treasure. I forget what the occasion was: Montek was speaking and was seated on the dais. Isher was seated in the first row. My wife and I were in the audience. Some inconvenient question had been asked. After the event was over, my wife remarked, “Did you notice Montek glance at Isher when the question was asked? Only happens between a husband and wife."

During the UPA years, they had invited us to a reception at their house, where there was a large crowd. Having recently resigned from Rajiv Gandhi Institute, I felt a slight awkwardness and strain. If the tension, real or imagined, was eased, it was because of Isher’s welcoming words and smile.

When Montek’s book was launched (by then her malady was known), Isher requested me to be a panellist. Agreeing to speak at that event was like being thrown into a den of lions. The one to ask being Isher, it was impossible to refuse.

It was the first time I met her after cancer struck and the deterioration was evident. Irrespective of their own individual professional contributions—and they are significant, including in influencing policy—it is impossible to think of Montek without Isher. That kind of blending and resonance does occur between husband and wife, but not invariably. My abiding memory will remain that of Isher’s charm and grace, aging gracefully even before the illness struck. Economics is a profession and transcending the profession, there is the individual. This comes across partially in the two memoirs, in Isher’s more than in Montek’s.

No doubt Montek, Aman and Pavan and ICRIER will do things in her memory. But those will probably be about Isher as an economist and head of ICRIER. I will also remember the individual.

Bibek Debroy is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.

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