Subir Gokarn (Mint file)
Subir Gokarn (Mint file)

Subir Gokarn: Combining the best of Mumbai and Delhi

Subir Gokarn (1959–2019) was a well-rounded macro economist, who understood fiscal policy, had a nuanced view of monetary policy, knew the bolts of industrial economics, and was thorough in trade matters

Subir and I crossed paths may times; not only in different but vastly diverse roles. I first met him as an academic at the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research. Then we interacted as fellow columnists at Business Standard. He “succeeded" me as the Chief Economist at Crisil. In 2002, I had accepted an offer as Chief Economist at Crisil but never joined as I moved to J&K as Economic Advisor. Ravi Mohan, who was at that time the CEO, asked me for a recommendation and I suggested Subir Gokarn. At that point, he was working with the NCAER and was my tenant in New Delhi!

A few years later, the earlier tenuous landlord-tenant relationship was replaced by a more stressful relationship: regulator and market participant. In 2009, when he was appointed Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and I was doing my second term as Chairman of J&K Bank. We met many times in that phase to discuss the all-important credit policy issues, which he was in charge of.

As an accomplished professional economist, Subir combined the best of two divergent and often conflicting schools of economic thinking and approach: the Mumbai and the Delhi school. He was one of a rare breed of economists who understood market needs and appreciated government compulsions.

The Bombay school had influenced him to believe that democratisation of entrepreneurship was key to economic growth in a Schumpeterian sense. Closer home, his objectives were that of a C N Vakil or P R Bramananada, while his methods were that of a Sukhamoy Chakravarty.

The Delhi school had sensitised him to the distributional virtues of public investment-led growth. He narrowed the policy differences by reasoning that analytically it was only about a capital goods versus consumer goods investment strategy. He was inclined towards the latter as it addressed the issue of inflation in the short and medium term. His view of an ideal mix would be high public expenditure with high private investment.

He was one person who knew that “borrowings" meant different things in Delhi and Mumbai. As a “Mumbaikarnomist" he understood the fiscal deficit and spoke about it without prefixing a pejorative. And he was one of the few Delhi economists who understood debt leverage!

This syncretic view of economic policy and management, of course, came from his academic education. He studied to be an economist at St Xaviers College in Mumbai and Delhi School of Economics. It got well rounded and complete by his career moves. Even though it may not have been planned, the way it panned out was not just very complimentary but also quite complete. He got the academic grounding at IGIDR, a feel for microeconomics at CRISIL, empirical and analytical rigour at the NCAER and macro-monetary mastery at the RBI.

His rise in public policy was quite remarkable. But unlike most who grow into their jobs, the remarkable thing about Subir was that he didn’t grow into any job. He somehow made the job fit him; tailor made it, to be precise. I saw him as an Associate Professor at IGIDR, and he was the quintessential professor. And then when I saw him at the RBI, it struck me that he was made for that monetary policy management. The only other academic who I know did the money manager job so well was C Rangarajan.

This showed the versatility of his talent and the depth of his knowledge. He was a well- rounded macroeconomist who understood fiscal policy, had a nuanced and insightful view of monetary policy, knew the nuts and bolts of industrial economics, and was thorough in trade matters.

Through all these high-profile jobs and many accomplishments, two thing never changed: his unruly mop of hair and scruffy beard.

He will be missed; not only by his family, friends and fellow economists but by the country. He could have contributed a lot more for quite some time.

Haseeb Drabu is former finance minister of Jammu and Kashmir

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