POLITICS

When Nation Building Can Be A Sabbatical — The Case Of Arvind Panagariya

Sacrifice is so pre-liberalization.

02/08/2017 3:38 PM IST | Updated 03/08/2017 9:24 AM IST
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Dr. Arvind Panagariya, Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, at the National launch of India Energy Security Scenarios, 2047 version two at FICCI on August 27, 2015 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images)

When someone as high profile as Arvind Panagariya chooses to leave his post, tongues will wag. There are rumours that the high-profile Columbia University economist, the first vice-chairman of Niti Aayog, a man handpicked by Narendra Modi himself, decided to make his exit because he was at loggerheads with the RSS's labour arm — the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh.

In December 2016, The Hindu had reported that the BMS was upset about NITI Aayog's "corporate leaning policies". In May it directly charged Panagariya as being "committed to a powerful corporate lobby" and that his Niti Aayog, with its stand on FDI and strategic divestment, did not understand the Indian situation.

Panagariya has a perfectly legitimate excuse. Columbia University will not extend his leave and at 64 he admits he cannot hope to easily get another position comparable to the one he has, as Jagdish Bhagwati, who is a professor of Indian political economy at the prestigious university. But as The Telegraph points out, while that is technically true, big universities usually do extend sabbaticals when they can boast their professors are shepherding a country's major policy think-tank.

Perhaps Panagariya is not unhappy to have a face-saving exit strategy for what might have become a thankless task, jousting with the RSS.

But what's intriguing is this word "sabbatical". To woo a high profile NRI back, whether it's Panagariya or Raghuram Rajan, the call of the motherland is positioned as a sabbatical within the American Dream. That's not good or bad. That's just the way it is. In many ways it's a sign of a changing world and a changing India.

To woo a high profile NRI back, whether it's Panagariya or Raghuram Rajan, the call of the motherland is positioned as a sabbatical within the American Dream.

When you think about it, Mahatma Gandhi too was an NRI who answered the call of the motherland. When Narendra Modi made his first trip to the USA after becoming prime minister he reminded a cheering crowd in New York about that. That was in 2015, exactly a century after Gandhi returned to India from South Africa and embarked on a jan andolan for azaadi. A hundred years later, Modi invited his NRI audience to become part of a jan andolan for vikaas.

But he assured them that they would not have to do it the hard way like Gandhi.

Gandhi had already become quite well-known in India because of his work in South Africa on behalf of Indians there. He came back to India to treat his pleurisy but found himself feted and garlanded by Bombay high society. He was keen to replicate his experiments in satyagraha in India. But he promised his political mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale that he would spend a year just learning about India first.

He told the Bombay Chronicle, "For the present, as Mr. Gokhale has very properly pointed out, I, having been out of India for so long, have no business to form any definite conclusions about matters essentially Indian, that I should pass some time here as an observer and a student."

Even before he returned he wrote to Gokhale, "I want to learn at your feet and gain the necessary experience." He kept his word. Later he said one of his biggest lessons was to learn humility, to learn that Indian problems might need Indian solutions, that his time abroad might have gained him experience but not necessarily all the answers.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Dr. Arvind Panagariya, Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, at the National launch of India Energy Security Scenarios, 2047 version two at FICCI on August 27, 2015.

That was only possible because Gandhi, and for that matter other "foreign-returned" leaders like Nehru and BR Ambedkar who obtained doctorates from the London School of Economics and Columbia University, never thought of their return to India as a sabbatical. They understood that forging a new country into being would be a lifetime's work.

A few decades on, as India strained against its license raj, the west acquired a different allure. It became a place of escape and opportunity, a chance to make something of one's life without being held back by babudom's red tape. In brain-drain India, the motherland became just a repository for nostalgia, a home for aging parents, a pilgrimage for children growing up with an American twang. There was guilt of course.

Economic migration never comes without guilt. There was fear of that midnight call from home. But it was rarely strong enough to push one to return from comfortable 3BR-2BA suburban lives and stock options in America. If they returned, they came as know-it-alls, the successful ones who expected the red carpet rolled out for them, the ones who opened wings in universities and hospitals and named them after their mothers. But they worried that all India cared about was their money, not their expertise.

Modi understood that. He wooed the NRI abroad for both money and expertise. In that maiden speech at Madison Square Garden he reassured the crowd there was no need for the freedom movement balidaan that had been drummed into our heads as school children. Sacrifice was so pre-liberalization. He asked nothing of the NRI other than going to the MyGov website and giving their suggestions there.

Once Indians burned foreign clothes to show their patriotic colours. Now Modi asked them to merely persuade at least five foreign families to visit India.

Once Indians burned foreign clothes to show their patriotic colours. Now Modi asked them to merely persuade at least five foreign families to visit India. To make it even more attractive he promised a visa on arrival. Desh seva had never been made so convenient.

Perhaps it's just as well. In an increasingly global world immigration is slowly losing much of its fraught emotional baggage, that sense of a permanent rupture. Nation building does not have to be a lifetime commitment. As Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Panagariya have shown, it can just be a sabbatical, a temporary pause in a more lucrative career trajectory.

Once we came back as dreamers moved by some higher calling to build a new nation. Now in the new world order we return as consultants on an assignment for Acche Din.

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