Dumping Marx to embrace Gita?

geeta gopinath MGR

  • Any country would be proud to have Gita Gopinath as its economic advisor. Corporate houses would pay her millions to get her on their board.
  • Many feel she is too right-wing for a state which has chosen an alternate path to development.  They are aghast that she has been invited by a Left government
  • Who could be a better advisor to Kerala during these times than a daughter of the state, known globally for her specialisation in macroeconomics and international finance?  But ideology-induced myopia and the fear of excellence seem to have seeped into the veins of God’s Own Country.  

She is a professor at the five-centuries-old Harvard, the world’s sixth best university.


She is the third woman in history to be a tenured professor at Harvard’s esteemed economics department.


She is the first Indian since Nobel laureate Amartya Sen to hold that position.


She was selected one of the Young Global Leaders at World Economic Forum in 2011.


She is the Managing Editor of Harvard’s Review of Economic Studies.


She is the only Malayalee ever to rise to such rarefied heights in the world of academia.


Governments queue-up to seek her counsel to on matters of economy. 


“She has made fundamental contribution to the understanding of sovereign debt defaults which is the current leg of crisis in Europe. Her work has shown at a deeper level why emerging markets tend to experience greater macroeconomic volatility...” gushed Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics, Public Policy, Harvard University


Any country would be proud to have Gita Gopinath as their economic advisor.  Corporate majors would pay her millions to be on their board.


But not so for Kerala, her home state in India. With one exception. The state Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who has dared to make her his economic advisor. 


The appointment has triggered a cacophony in Kerala against the move.  


The reason?  For the opponents, she is a “capitalist roader” of the worst kind.  A hardcore neo-liberal.  Worse, she even supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies on numerous occasions. If that's not blasphemous for the Reds, what is? 


The ironies don't end there. Chief Minister Vijayan who appointed her as his advisor is a senior Politburo member of the CPM, India’s largest Communist party and the most trenchant critic of neo-liberalism and  PM Modi.  


And who is at the forefront of the attack on the neo-liberal professor? The state Congress party which is the harbinger of neo-liberal economic reforms in the country. What could be more Orwellian to mark the 25th anniversary of the economic reforms that “unshackled India’s animal spirits” by the Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh?


Even BJP leaders have castigated the CPM for dumping Marx to embrace Gita.


Can anything be more metaphoric?  “Gita” the wise counsel being imparted by Gopinath (aka Krishna)  to Vijayan (aka Arjuna) exhorting him to shed all inhibitions to fight against all his (Marxist) elders and gurus to discharge his karma in the great war of Kurukshetra!


If the Congress and BJP’s opposition sounds outright hollow and hypocritical, the volte face by the CPM too, is rather odd.  For the Marxists have rolled out for Gita the red carpet even as they continue to harangue both the Congress and the BJP for their neo-liberal policies.  It was on the promise of an alternative to the Congress-BJP policies that the LDF came back to power in May. 


No wonder the redoubtable former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan who leads the conservatives in CPM wrote to the Politburo against Gita’s appointment by his bête noire Vijayan who is seen to be the leader of the dominant reformist camp.  Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik, known as a conservative and former vice-chairman of the state Planning Board when Achuthanandan was chief minister, too has criticised the appointment.  “CPM should keep away from the neo-liberal discourse of development,” he warned.


After his initial silence on the issue, an unfazed Vijayan responded tongue firmly in cheek: “Thanks to all who remind us not to falter from our ideology.  But why cannot we seek advice from the most reputed experts in their respective fields? Do you think we will give up our ideology and politics once she is appointed?”


What has astounded everyone is how Vijayan could zero in on Gita. It is not sure if Vijayan or any of his comrades in Kerala or Delhi had heard of the illustrious Malayalee’s name until now.  Perhaps the only exception could be Dr Thomas Isaac, state finance minister and a former economics professor. But he seems to have been completely in the dark about the posting and appears none too happy either.  


The incident has triggered another unlikely comparison as well.  Some suggest growing similarities between Modi and Vijayan, who were supposed to be polar opposites, ideologically. They point to the authoritarian streak in both leaders and their strained relationship with media (like Modi, Vijayan too keeps them away), and now, the fondness for experts from America!   


Those who have been investigating the links between Vijayan and Gopinath have come out with only one coherent explanation. Both belong to the same district, Kannur, a Communist fortress. Vijayan, a political hard nut, is known for his soft corner for his home district and its people.  In fact, many even inside the party feel that Vijayan has turned the party into a Kannur outfit with only comrades from the area holding key positions. 


However, except for her family roots, Gita has nothing to do with Kannur as she grew up elsewhere.  Her businessman father Gopinath was based in Mysore and she went to college in Delhi -- Lady Shriram College (LSR) and Delhi School of Economics -- before leaving for the US for doctoral studies at the University of Washington, and Princeton. 


The Gopinaths are said to be related to AK Gopalan, the legendary Communist leader also from Kannur.


According to the grapevine, it was Amithabh Kant, CEO, Niti Ayog, who suggested Gopinath’s name to Vijayan. Kant, a Kerala cadre officer and the architect of the state’s success in tourism is close to CPM leaders in Kerala and Delhi and was party general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s campus mate at JNU. Interestingly Kant is one of Prime Minister Modi’s favourites too.  Another Vijayan-Modi link!    


Following the outbreak of the controversy over her appointment, Gita chose to keep away from the media but issued a statement from the US about her honorary position.  

I am very honoured to have the opportunity to serve as the Economic Advisor to the Hon’ble Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Kerala is my native state and one that has made substantial progress on education and health. I hope to contribute towards further developing sustainable policies for Kerala that address its unique opportunities and challenges…My mandate as discussed with the Hon’ble CM is twofold. First I will respond to any requests from Hon’ble CM for advice on the impact on Kerala’s economy of global national and state events and policies. Second I hope to play a convening role to connect various departments to the knowledge leaders from around the world in sectors relevant to Kerala like public finance, management, labour and development economics and entrepreneurship..I see my role confined entirely to providing advice to the Hon’ble CM and make connections for the various departments…”


Hardly sounds like someone coming to devour and demolish CPM’s ideology and politics. The biggest joke is the view maintained by many that Gita has nothing to contribute to Kerala. Many feel she is too right-wing for a state which has chosen an alternate path to development. They are aghast that she has been invited by a Left government. At the same time, many conservative Leftists see nothing surprising in the appointment as they feel the CPM took a rightward turn a long time ago. The late Marxist scholar Praful Bidwai in his book had held that the Left’s recent decline has been due to CPM’s neo-liberal lurch.


Some critics wonder why Gita should be brought in when Kerala has “home-grown” experts competent to advise the government on the economy.  


According to some, the criticism shows that chickens have come to roost for the Left because it was they who had taught Kerala to hate neo-liberalism.  Shades of Nandigram and Singur?


Amidst the din, the important question to ask is if an economist of Gita's stature could help address some of Kerala's perennial problems. Undoubtedly, Gita believes in the market rather than Marx. It is also without doubt that Kerala’s enviable gains in human development have also largely been on account of the alternative socialistic model of economic development and wealth redistribution it followed. Thanks to the flow of huge remittances from its 2.5 million-strong diaspora in the Gulf, Kerala rose from the ranks of India’s poorest states to one of the most prosperous. Kerala today is one of the few Indian states doing well on both economic and human development fronts. 


But does that mean Kerala has no problems to address? Far from it. Kerala is a money order economy which could crumble the moment the remittances dry up.  Except the services sector, driven by tourism, all other parts of the economy have been in a shambles for quite long. Its agriculture has been showing a negative growth rate while the manufacturing sector is stagnant. 


It has been riddled with India’s highest rate of unemployment and thousands of youngsters are forced to cross the state borders. Investors still keep away from Kerala. The state government is nearly bankrupt, saddled with public debt of over a whopping ₹1,00,000 crore. Dwindling revenues, soaring expenditure with nothing left for capital investment on infrastructure. 


Even after so many years when both the UDF and LDF were in power backed by their die-hard ideologues as advisors, Kerala has failed to resolve these problems. Would anyone with common sense let go of an opportunity to have the services of one of the world’s most reputed economists to tackle these issues? Remember, Gita won't be paid a penny for sharing her expertise.


The coming days are going to be ever more difficult for Kerala which now is linked closer with the global economy. Global recession continues. The turmoil in the Gulf countries fuelled by the oil price crash could snap Kerala’s lifeline. Large-scale layoffs in those in countries would mean a mass exodus of Malayalees. Without remittances, Kerala's economy could go belly up. 


Kerala’s once robust plantation sector led by rubber and spices is in the doldrums now with crashing global prices. 


Who could be a better advisor to Kerala during these times than a daughter of the state, known globally for her specialisation in macroeconomics and international finance?  But ideology-induced myopia and a fear of excellence seem to have seeped into the veins of God’s Own Country.  


MG Radhakrishnan is Editor-in-Chief of Asianet News