It was 2012. I was in The Economic Times.
Around April that year, I had first heard about the concentrated insanity of the common banking correspondent (BC) auctions. The details are unimportant here and so, briefly: the department of financial services wanted to cleave India into 20 clusters and appoint one BC as the common BC (for all banks in a cluster). Effectively, all financial transactions of the poor, no matter who they banked with, would flow through only one company – the textbook definition of a monopoly.
The idea didn’t see much resistance. Auctions started. Vying to grab clusters, BCs bid ridiculously low numbers — eventually ending up with negative bids. I wrote but nothing changed. And then, a friend from Samaj Pragati Sahyog called asking if I had heard of some big government BC tendering. Hell yes, I said, and ranted for a while. And then, he suggested I meet the Planning Commission.
That is how I met Professor Abhijit Sen. I have gone over the subsequent details a few times now – I do not do a good job of affixing details in my head as they happen – and so, things are a tad hazy. On hearing I was meeting him, i remember some colleague in ET telling me he is unfriendly. I remember going to meet him with some trepidation. I remember him sitting in a dimly-lit room with cigarette smoke visibly eddying in the air. In that chat, I think, I spoke much more than him, recounting the trajectory of the auctions. He did not ask too many questions; he listened attentively; he seemed to smile occassionally into his beard; I remember feeling, midway, that he was familiar with all these details. I came out of that meeting feeling not just relieved but also very glad for this acquaintance — no beastly small talk; only substantive points; that gentle demeanour… (In the weeks that followed, the common BC auctions were scrapped — maybe because of Dr Sen).
Over the next two years, I picked his brain on a bunch of reports – financial inclusion, the government’s infatuation with Aadhaar, direct benefit transfers. He was always acute, shedding light on not just the developmental issues at hand but also the political economy at work. He was also honest. Despite being in a position of power, he called a spade a spade — a real rarity.
One memory comes back. A bunch of reporters were critical of Aadhaar. And so, one evening, Jairam Ramesh and Nandan Nilekani decided that they would hold a small session to explain Aadhaar so that we would lose our “misconceptions”. They also called a few editors like Swaminathan Aiyar and Shankar Raghuraman.
The meeting was not a masterclass in persuasion. When the meeting started, the editors, ever sceptical of reporters, were inclined to give Aadhaar benefit of the doubt. By the time it ended, they had joined the reporters’ in their skepticism. Dr Sen had played a role there. He stepped in multiple times, asking questions about the project that yielded unconvincing answers.
Another memory surfaces as well. Of him confirming — without hesitation — that Aadhaar had been deployed for welfare delivery sans any testing to see if it was better than the system it sought to replace.
And then, 2014 happened. Modi came to power. I began thinking up my Scroll states reporting project – one way to familiarise myself with this new India. I ran that idea (including the choice of states) past Professor Sen at his house in JNU and then headed off to Mizoram. Over the next 33 months, I saw other sides to him. Once back from Mizoram, I had met him to tell him about the trip. This became a habit. I began meeting him at the end of each state stint. As I wrote in Despite the State: “If my reporting methodology was one constant across states, former Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen was another. As each state stint ended, I met him to discuss what I had found. For his insights, generosity of time and amused interest, I am deeply grateful.”
Those chats were unique. I looked forward to them. And so, over the last few days, I have tried to recall what made them so special. There was, obviously, his acuity. After hearing about the Badals’ capture of Punjab’s stone crushing sector, for instance, he told me India’s politics is funded through the construction sector – an answer which resulted in me taking a closer look at sand mining in Tamil Nadu. Other chats — about Punjab’s exemplary mixed economy, India’s edible oils mission, the different relations between industry and politics in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu… — come to mind as well. So much of the context for what I saw while reporting came from him.
The reason I looked forward to these chats, however, ran deeper than his insights. These chats were not just illuminating. They were, as I said, enjoyable. It wasn’t the subject matter. Focusing on the frayed social contract between parties and the people, it could just as easily make for dire conversations — similar chats with others usually took on a glum quality. But not with Dr Sen.
His curiosity was palpable. I looked forward to landing up at his house with updates from the latest reporting trip, eager to tell him about the latest set of details, oddly convinced that he would find them fascinating. We never discussed this. I never asked him. But this is the impression I came to carry. So much so that once, when I read a particularly rich book, I remember thinking Dr Sen would like this. It was on the Islamic Enlightenment – far from anything we had discussed ever – but that is how strong an impression his curiosity left on me.
Others have commented about this quality in him. As JNU’s Himanshu has written: “Usually, when he solved a puzzle that was bothering him, he moved on to the next one. He didn’t feel the need to publish it. The mere fact that he knew what was going on made him happy.”
Also, there was something unflinching about this curiosity. He belonged to a generation that built modern India. Given his incisive brain, his understanding of India’s ongoing slide – and the accompanying anguish about its costs – would have been acute. But he never looked away. Instead, as I think about it, he tried to understand things in better and better detail. Study something long enough and its frailty will reveal itself. But again, that is something I never asked him.
I learnt one big thing from Shashi Rajagopalan – the importance of never telling the folks we purport to serve what they should do. I gained one big thing from Richard Grove – an appreciation of a life of the mind. From Dr Sen, I get new standards for curiosity and conduct. I run often into people who fidget when told something that runs counter to their beliefs. I run, every once in a while, into people who don airs. He wasn’t like them. He was exceptionally brilliant and knowledgeable. He spoke his mind. He focused on understanding things, ignored anything he considered unimportant (cue: Himanshu’s quote above) but made time for the truly important stuff (in the video below, you will hear about this). He had a wholehearted openness (a palpable delight, really) towards knowledge. He was generous and patient to an extent few others are.
And he passed away on 29 August, 2022. And the world is now a poorer place.
PS: A couple of other links about him.
1. Read JNU prof Himanshu’s elegies here: https://thewire.in/economy/remembering-professor-abhijit-sen. And here: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/economist-abhijit-sen-believed-in-power-of-policy-to-achieve-growth-and-alleviate-poverty-8121561/
2. From 2013, a Dinner with BS. This is between BS’ Ashok Bhattacharya and Dr Sen. Charming.
3. A bunch of people, including those who knew him as a student, a teacher, a planning commission member, a sibling, an uncle… got together to remember him. A video here: