Book Box | Reimagining Raghuram Rajan - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | Reimagining Raghuram Rajan

Dec 17, 2023 09:00 AM IST

A book of prescriptions on India's economic policies by a former RBI Governor and a book on capitalism by a former finance minister.

Dear Reader,

Raghuram Rajan (centre) with co-author Rohit Lamba (right) and Faye D’souza (left) PREMIUM
Raghuram Rajan (centre) with co-author Rohit Lamba (right) and Faye D’souza (left)

I don’t know how to say this nicely. I am not sure I want to say this at all. Still, maybe I should give it a try.

It had been a good day. I’d started a new batch of students in my class on persuasive communication they were enthusiastic and seemed to enjoy the exercises I designed for them. After class, I had a working lunch with my daughter, who is home from Bengaluru. We ate quinoa salad with figs, jeera rice and creamy dal makhani, she worked on her data strategy spreadsheet, and I worked on a class assignment for next week.

It was a happy productive day. So when I got to IFBE, a swanky new space in Ballard Estate, I wasn’t in the least bit cranky.

I walked in with high expectations. The guest of honour for the evening was none other than Raghuram Rajan, former RBI governor, a legend whom so many of us share a crush on – for his brilliance, his energy, his enthusiasm, and of course his good looks.

“Raghuram Rajan has put 'sex' back into the limp Sensex and that makes him seriously hot”, said gossip columnist Shobhaa De, when Rajan took over as RBI governor in 2013. And when he resigned abruptly in 2016, his departure was mourned by many. This IIT Delhi, IIM Ahmedabad, MIT Sloan alumnus is a serious celebrity in every sense of the word. As for me, I’ve always been awed by his aura of brilliance, his erudition, his professorship at Chicago’s Booth School of Business and his books, especially his first, intriguingly entitled Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists. Co-authored with Luigi Zingales, his fellow faculty from Chicago’s Booth School of Business, it is an incisive investigation into the components of capitalism – examining the conditions and impediments to financial development, drawing on examples from Napoleanic history to present-day geography, a book that was written in 2003 but feels relevant still.

Breaking the Mould and Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists
Breaking the Mould and Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists

Like most people in the audience, I had my copy of Rajan’s new book - Breaking the Mould: Reimagining India’s Economic Future.

The title didn’t draw me in. Neither did the cover.

Breaking The Mould ’ has letters in blue and red, with an inverted E and an inverted D. Is this cover prescient of the content of the book, I wondered, a simplistic re-arrangement of a few elements? Rather than any radical breaking of the mould?

But then again, what should the titles and covers matter with Raghuram Rajan’s name as the author? It’s the brilliance of the author's insights, within the pages of this book, that counts.

All set to illuminate these insightful pages was news reporter Faye D’souza. Dressed spiffily in a green jacket and black trousers, she looked immaculate if nervous. I’ve been following Faye on Instagram and note the kind of engagement and controversy she generates with her stories; Faye and Rajan seemed to be headed for a great conversation. With the duo was Rajan’s co-author, Rohit Lamba, an assistant professor at Penn State. Being a co-author with a luminary like Rajan couldn’t be easy, and I felt almost sorry for Lamba, surely, he would find it hard to get any airtime. Turns out I need not have worried. Lamba was diligently dutiful, with a sage-on-stage persona. He spoke at length about PC Musthafa, the idli-batter poster boy entrepreneur, and other such matters.

But let’s come back to the man of the moment. When he walked in, the man once referred to as ‘Messiah on Mint Street’ looked as distinguished as always, in a formal suit, sipping something (hot water? something stronger?) from a blue mug. He seemed subdued. He’s come directly from an earlier book launch at Bloomberg, someone said. So naturally he must be ‘book launched out’. Once the discussion begins, Rajan will be his energetic fiery self.

Raghuram Rajan (centre) with co-author Rohit Lamba (right)
Raghuram Rajan (centre) with co-author Rohit Lamba (right)

If only. And I say this with love. The former RBI governor seemed sans enthusiasm. He spoke in a desultory way about the things that ‘we’ were not doing and the things ‘we’ needed to do. Many such pronouncements were blindingly obvious- we need to move up the value chain, and we need to spend more on education and health. Rajan spoke about a case study in the book - the Orchid International schools with its 5,000 teachers and 32,000 study plans, and it sounded like he was going through the motions, with no ownership of the book or its ideas.

Perhaps he would be more enthusiastic when he came to the subject of higher education. Raghuram Rajan is known to have been proactive in this matter – he is an advisor and governing council member of Krea University, set up in 2018. Here surely was the insider perspective, the perfect combination of theory and practice. But no, the higher education chapter, followed the tenor of the rest of the book in its platitudinous generalities– "At the same time, we must encourage scientific and research collaborations with research institutions abroad, sometimes with our national research foundation lubricating the way with research grants. Collaborations will be a way of reinvigorating existing faculty at our top institutions, of making connections with the diaspora, but also making use of our trusted status (say relative to China) among rich democracies."

Driving back, I texted my book group. ‘I have always loved Rajan, his fiery spirit, his rebellion, his fearless speech about how corruption erodes democracy and capitalism. But the writer I listened to felt more like a retired uncle carping about the ills of the system, putting forward well-intentioned and vague remedies. I missed the firebrand economist I knew.’

When I returned home, I re-opened Breaking the Mould. The writing was as pedestrian as the conversation. Every concept in the book is laboriously spelt out and illustrated with a long list of examples. ‘How Do Countries Grow Rich’, for instance, starts thus –

"What does it mean for a country to be rich? Broadly speaking, richer countries produce more economic output per person – more food, such as grains and milk; more goods, such as cars, clothes, electronics and oil and natural gas; and more services, such as haircuts, doctor consultations, restaurant meals, hotel stays, films and software code. The more everyone in the country produces, the higher the incomes will be."

I wondered at the tone, at times it feels like a high school textbook, at other times it feels like a student assignment – perhaps the authors didn’t want to sound like jargon-spouting intellectuals, perhaps they are doing an efficient job with word count. I decided to sleep on the matter.

The next morning, I woke up confused. Were my expectations too high? Maybe I was just cranky – in some deeply subliminal or unfathomable way. I made my way to my bookshelves and picked up my hardcover copy of Reimagining India again. Surely I was missing something?

Breaking the Mould
Breaking the Mould

I read from the section on governance -

“What we can do in India, apart from lauding those who have shown independence, is to limit government discretion to reward or punish to only when truly necessary, and even there requires substantial transparency.”

It was still as uninspiring. As I put the book away, I wondered - is it unreasonable of me to expect every new book to be as brilliant as the one before it? And what is it like for a writer to have to replicate success again and again?

Why did Raghuram Rajan become part of this book project? Was it pressure from a publisher? Was it the frustration of being out of the system, of not being able to frame policies and implement them? Was it the isolation of being out of the national stage?

I don’t root for this book. But there will be more. Surely Rajan has interesting stories to tell, and perhaps he is waiting for the right time.

In the meantime, I am off to read Talking to My Daughter: A Brief History of Capitalism. It is a slim book by Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's former finance minister, that uses an engaging mix of economic theory, anecdotes, mythology, and popular books and movies to explain economic problems. Highly recommended.

And until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

BOOKS IN THIS EDITION OF BOOK BOX

Breaking the Mould by Raghuram Rajan

Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists by Raghuram Rajan

Talking to My Daughter: A Brief History of Capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis

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