I admired I G Patel , not just for his brilliance, but for his devotion to duty, his affability, and his sense of humour. The publication of his memoir gave me a chance to write an appreciation of him in the Telegraph of 2 December 2003.
Sir Indravadan’s last war
Although I have known I G Patel for over half a century, I could not say I had known him well; 14 years is a huge age difference when one is young, though the distance diminishes with age. He was a close friend of my brother Mahendra, and it was with good reason that everyone who admired Mahendra did not think the world of me. For Mahendra, of course, I G was a paragon – a brilliant economist who went on to serve India with distinction in most distinguished positions. For me his achievements were no less real, though different: although he had the brains to have become a great economist, he chose the thankless task of serving that capricious master, the Government of India, and still managed to keep his integrity intact. He was head and shoulders above his contemporaries: he was a great worthy, to use a favourite word of my Cambridge contemporaries, and high and mighty to use a favourite phrase of his.
So I never managed to ask him: how did he, the quintessential civil servant, gather himself up just when his bureaucratic career had ended, when he was just about ready to retire in Baroda and stay late in bed, and become director of London School of Economics, one of Britain’s best? True, he had a starred first in economics from Cambridge. But that was 36 years earlier. No one is asked to head an institution because of how well he did in college exams. Academic brilliance is merely an entry qualification, whose value depreciates rapidly as one ages; ultimately it is one’s ability to lead people who are too important to bend to one’s will that takes one to the top of great organizations. So my lazy answer was that it was I G’s proven ability to raise millions for India from hard-hearted international worthies that the guardians of LSE must have appreciated.
In his new book (An Encounter with Higher Education: My Years at LSE) IG solves my puzzle. I used to know R S Bhatt slightly; he was in various nationalized banks, and had a mien suitable to a worthy. I should not be surprised, but he was a friend of I G’s. When I G was director of IIM Ahmedabad, he had Bhatt invited to give a lecture on the Institute’s annual day. The professor in charge did not ask I G to say the usual gracious words after Bhatt’s speech. Bhatt was miffed. To pacify him, I G took him to the back of the hall where he could fume inconspicuously. There Bhatt told I G that he was going to suggest I G’s name for the next director of LSE. I G told him he could do so if he wanted, but would he keep quiet. And that unconsidered remark ended up in a perch in Aldwych.
I G obviously shares some of my wonder at his leap from a tree of knowledge in Ahmedabad to another, distant one in London; otherwise this book would not have been written. I have always thought administrative jobs to be a terrible grind. I left them to more worthy people when they were around; and a few times, when importance was thrust upon me, I always tried to pass on the burden to others or looked for a chance to abbreviate the torture. But I G has an altogether more virtuous bent of mind; he actually cherishes public service. That, plus a sense of past but still pulsating excitement at having done a difficult job well without any previous preparation explains this book. He should have given this book the title of one of his chapters: “At the deep end.”
I G was no doubt a dark horse. Margaret Thatcher said to him, “Oh, you are going as principal of that school! How come LSE always has foreigners at its head?” Xenophobia is not an exclusively British disease; it has deep roots in India too, and is a staple of Indian politics as l’affaire Sonia illustrates. But Mrs Thatcher’s sentiment must have been shared by other British worthies; and it cannot have made I G’s job easier.
But what made it really difficult was Mrs Thatcher’s policies. For in the 1980s she was wielding her axe ferociously; all British tertiary education was the victim. Budgets were being cut; and as governments normally do, the British government did not simply cut the grants and let universities cope. It also had strong views on what they must do with the money it gave, and hedged it with so many conditions. The two sore points were that the government controlled salaries and hence made it impossible for institutions to compete for good academics, and that it disapproved of tenure, which was an important instrument for retaining senior staff. Cambridge and Oxford ameliorated the impact of these prejudices by giving good teachers more time for their own research; LSE, on the other hand, had a tradition that even professors had to teach a first-year course. LSE continued to give tenure. The University Grants Commission had warned it that its grant would fall 1.5-2 per cent a year; so either staff had to be reduced or teaching loads had to increase or both. It was calculations like these that made I G’s directorship painful.
I G goes in some detail into his experiences with Sir Karl Popper, famous for his The Open Society and its Enemies. Popper was much hated by the left in my student days over 40 years ago; he did not mellow with age, and had many enemies within LSE itself when he retired. But he did bring prominence to philosophy in LSE. By the time I G took over, Popper had retired. He asked to be allowed to call on I G, and they got on very well together. Then I G proposed that LSE institute a chair in Popper’s name. When the selection was held, however, Popper’s two favourite students were rejected, and Nancy Cartwright, whom he somehow did not approve of, was selected. He refused to let his name be used for the chair; under the compromise I G worked out, she was appointed, but the chair was not named after Popper.
Such are the stories of which good biographies are made; and I G is a master storyteller. My only complaint is that there are too few of them in this book. For I G, running the LSE was a serious business; this book is shadowed by the sombreness of the British ‘eighties. I G reports in detail on what he calls the Great Debate: what and whom tertiary education is for, and who should pay for it. He quotes at length from his annual reports. To him, they must be testaments to battles fought and truces made. But in a different country and at a different time, they read like the minutiae of alien history, at any rate to someone who is not an academic and not an LSE alumnus.
I G, for all his sense of humour, is a conscientious man. He took his tasks seriously, and fretted at less than perfect performance even when he knew that the results were not in his hands. I think he has done enough of this dutifulness; now he should let down his hair, and think of the fulfilling side of his life – his friends, his travels, his conversations, his wit. Let those be the subject of his next book.