‘Rebellious Lord’ reveals multifaceted Meghnad Desai (Book Review)

The jury is out on whether hes named after Ravans son or a renowned scientist; he lived in rather cramped accommodation in his early years, went on to buy property in England and France and now regards three countries as home.

He was active in theatre at various times, even as he taught at the LSE. He pioneered economic concepts for Britain’s Labour Party, was granted a lifetime peerage and at 80, Meghnad Desai hopes that the “element of luck” that has been his “reward” for a lifetime of hard work, may continue for long.

“With the onset of 2020, I march towards my 80th year. I still have too many ideas and books, and articles to write, friends to meet and talk to, causes to support, countries to travel to and life to live. I consider myself lucky that hailing from a fairly moderate, middle-class Indian background, as I did, I nevertheless got the opportunity to live globally and indulge myself in my favourite hobbies of reading and writing — and got paid for them,” Desai writes in “Rebellious Lord — An Autobiography” (Westland).

The story begins in Baroda (now Vadodara), where Desai was born but soon shifted to Bombay (Mumbai), where his father, who then worked with the Baroda State, was posted after it was merged with the Bombay State post-Independence. He grew up in an India that was still shiny and new and filled with every kind of potential. Seeking fresh academic challenges than were available in Bombay, he left for the US, and then the UK, certain that his future lay elsewhere.

As Desai participated in the student protests that spread across the Western world in 1968-69 against the Vietnam War, his political energy and ideas began to find focus — and this was perhaps the root of his unorthodox approach to economics.

A scholar of Marxian economics, political economy, monetary policy and economic history, Desai founded the Centre for Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, as well as its Development Studies programme. He is also one of the creators of the Human Development Index (HDI) — an inclusive index that quantifies development not by what is to be achieved but by what has been achieved.

Desai is currently the Chairman of the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF) — “a somewhat ungainly name” in his own words � an independent membership-driven research network that focuses on global policy and investment theses for off-the-record public and private sector engagement and analysis. He is also chairman of the Mumbai-based Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics post-graduation institute.

His journey in the US began at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his Ph.D. in economics in 1963 but he really came into his own at the University of California-Berkley, where he first came into contact with Amartya Sen, an association that was to last a lifetime.

“The time I spent in Berkley was to have a profound influence on me for reasons entirely other than my work. I would say I became a more mature person in Berkley. I formulated my political ideas more coherently and decisively moved to the Left in many matters. Further, I did this while participating in an amazing movement launched by the students, which changed the nature of student life for many years to come,” Desai writes.

This was followed by a prolonged stint at the LSE from 1965 to 2003 beginning as a lecturer and rising to professor, teaching econometrics (using mathematical models — especially statistics � to describe economic systems), developmental economics, macroeconomics and Marxian economics and, in the 1970s, an idiosyncratic version of economic principles to freshers.

He has written extensively, and apart from eight scholarly books, has published over 200 articles in academic journals and also contributed to the British radical “Tribune” weekly and to two Indian dailies.

In all this, one wonders at the “rebellious” tag he attaches to his autobiography. He does admit to having “lost faith” in his parents’ ability to protect him after his maternal uncle locked him up in a dark bathroom for 20-30 minutes for being mischievous, to the extent that “in fact, I would say that I may have rejected the prospect of my staying on in India once I had the chance to go abroad for this very reason” — but he did stand by his parents to the very end.

Rebellious or radical or unconventional?

For instance, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he began to make his contributions to the Labour Party’s economic policy, he had been asked by a group of MPs, known as the Tribune Group (not to be confused with the weekly) to address the question of how Labour could achieve full employment as and when it came to power.

“I worked on the question and then presented my views to them…My presentation was quite detailed. I had to propose expenditure policies as well as ways of financing the extra expenditure. Even so, it was a mild Keynesian exercise as far as I was concerned,” Desai writes.

When he finished a prominent young intellectual member of the group told him: “Meghnad, we thank you for this work. But we cannot publish it as a Tribune Group proposal. Questions are bound to be asked in Parliament and we do not want to embarrass the leadership. But you are free to publish it as your own article.”

It was subsequently published in the weekly.

On another occasion, he attracted the party’s wrath for suggesting during a TV debate that Britain’s deficit of 22 billion pounds in the 1992 budget could be wiped out by imposing VAT on the items that had been exempted.

The 20 billion pounds that could be gained “could be split: half for reducing the deficit, and the other half to relieve poorer households that would suffer from the higher taxation, as some of the items were children’s clothes and some food items. That way, I thought we could cleverly meet the two objectives of fiscal prudence and social relief”, Desai writes.

The upshot was that he “acquired a reputation of being a good (party) member (of the House of Lords to which he was elevated in 1991) but not to be trusted in positions of responsibility, as I was liable to go off message. But the party leadership knew I would continue to work hard even from the backbench),” he states.

Even so, at the bottom line, there are no regrets — not even from the breakup of his first marriage in 1970 and lasted 25 years and from which he has three children. He was formally divorced only in 2004, just before his marriage to former TV personality Kishwar Ahluwalia (now Kishwar Desai).

“I have been lucky to regard three countries — India, the US and the UK — as home, with family and friends spread across these countries. My contribution to this life has just been hard work. The reward I got had a large element of luck in it. Long may it continue,” Desai concludes.