FROM THE TELEGRAPH OF 26 JULY 2005
THE ICONIC MOTABHAI
I.G. Patel's passing removes an entire generation I looked up to. He was a close friend of Mahendra, my elder brother, and hence an honorary elder brother himself; and in a Gujarati family, the elder brother is a sort of demi-god. That he excelled in every examination he took brought even greater veneration for him in a family where children were taught to make the best of their brains.
That hierarchical bond survived till I was well into my fifties. Then I published My Economic Affair, in 1994, a collection of policy briefs I had written for Manmohan Singh while I was in the finance ministry. That, so to speak, opened IG's eyes. As he said, till then he had only thought of me as a younger brother; now I had proved I had something more. That compliment meant more to me than the many encomia that have come my way.
IG's intellect was daunting; but in my youth, IG's romance made a greater impression on me. Professor A.K. Dasgupta was fond of young economists; his small talk was economics, and he made it as interesting as family gossip. He was India's director at the International Monetary Fund in the early 1950s, when IG was a bright young point man of the Fund. He fell in love with Alaknanda, Professor Dasgupta's daughter.
So began an exemplary partnership of over half a century. Wherever they went, whether it was Washington, Delhi, London, Bombay or Baroda, Alaknanda made every place their own where IG's numerous friends and admirers could drop by, laze around and just be at home. She was as much of an attraction, if not more. With her one could go beyond economics and affairs of the state, and talk about music and literature. For while IG looked after the country's parlous reserves, Bibi learnt Hindustani classical music, and soon collected an engaging little circle of music-loving friends who gathered together to listen and chat once in a while. In Delhi in the 1960s, one went only to talk to Alaknanda, because IG was at the finance ministry from morning till night, and one was unlikely to see him unless he dropped by to go to the toilet. For the finance ministry at that time had only the collective toilets built in the middle of the courtyard in the 1930s, which were too wet and dirty. By the time I got there, however, N.K. Singh had had a toilet built in a quiet corner for the select few, so one did not have to clutch one's trousers and rush home in the middle of an important meeting.
IG had a great sense of humour. One of the stories I remember is about a flatmate he had in Washington when he was a bachelor. This man was irascible; the nicer IG was to him, the more bad-tempered he became. Only later did he realize why. To propitiate him, IG used to call him Motabhai. In Gujarati it means elder brother; but in north India, Mota means fat ' which his roommate happened to be. Only when IG moved to Delhi did he learn what he had got wrong.
I have not seen IG at work in meetings and negotiations. But once, when he was trying to persuade the big donors in Washington to give what at that time seemed unconscionable amounts of aid to a left-leaning, plan-driven India, an irritated donor asked him to give him one good reason why they should aid India. IG said that as a Hindu, he believed in rebirth. They might not, but they had to admit that there was a 50 per cent chance that he was right, and that how happy they would be in the next birth depended on what good deeds they did in the present birth. So giving aid to India was just an insurance premium against being born in the next birth as an ant or a bear. They gave him whatever money he was asking for.
When I came to Delhi in the 1960s, IG was the great fixer, juggling government finances at the time of the great famine of 1966 and the subsequent withdrawal of US aid. He was a man of influence, looked up to and sought after. He was also a great patriot, who had done thankless tasks for the country through the difficult years of the 1950s and 1960s. So I was surprised when suddenly, in the 1970s, he quit and went to New York as deputy administrator of UNDP; it looked to me like going down the ladder.
Only later did I learn that IG had a running battle with the corrupt ministers Indira Gandhi had appointed. IG routinely rejected their improper demands. But then he got worried that his recalcitrance might be bad for Y.B. Chavan, the finance minister. So he went to Chavan and said that if he wished, IG would send him all politically sensitive files. Chavan told him to carry on exactly as he was doing.
After the 1972 election, Indira Gandhi removed Chavan, and IG lost an upright minister. Rather than acquiesce in her improprieties, IG accepted the invitation of Rudolf Peterson, the tough, ruthless banker whom Nixon had appointed as administrator of UNDP, and went to New York as his deputy. He helped Peterson reclaim some control on the specialized agencies - FAO, UNIDO, WHO, etc - and introduced a new arrangement under which the agencies, instead of implementing programmes, commissioned governments to do so. That gave governments greater sense of ownership. And since salaries and perquisites in the governments were much lower than in the agencies, projects that they implemented cost much less, and the money went further.
IG would have gone on to the peaks of the international civil service, in the UN or the Washington sisters. But as luck would have it, Indira Gandhi was thrown out in the general election of 1977, and Morarji Desai became Prime Minister of the succeeding Janata Party government. He persuaded IG to come back and take up governorship of Reserve Bank. IG was a strict and impartial administrator. When he found the RBI trade union taking improper advantages, he disciplined it, and dismissed some of its leaders (they were taken back after Indira Gandhi returned in the 1982 election and IG stepped down).
After that, IG was non grata with the Gandhi family. But he went on to become director of London School of Economics. He thought it was the most challenging job he had done, maintaining the standards of a great school in a time of a terrible financial squeeze. The tough British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was his tormentor. Asked later how he dealt with her, IG said, 'You can't argue with great leaders, but you can always tell them that what they are doing is not according to principles they uphold.' That was a man of principle speaking. I am proud to have known him.