Obituary in Business World 20 July 2005.
Man of many gifts
I G Patel’s death on 17 July in New York brought to an end a long career in public service: although I G left government in the early 1970s, he had such a reputation that institutions abroad and in India continued to seek his help. After he retired as director of London School of Economics in 1990, he refused to move out of Baroda or to take on executive responsibility. But so many institutions were headed by people who had seen him perform at the peak of his powers that they kept him busy giving advice and chairing apex boards.
I G was an exceptionally bright student. After standing first in B A from Bombay University in 1944, he sailed for Cambridge where the revolution in economics started by John Maynard Keynes with his General Theory in 1936 was still raging. Keynes’s students, contemporaries and adversaries – Sraffa, Robertson, Kahn, Kaldor, Joan Robinson – were reshaping macroeconomics. Lucky were those who read economics in Cambridge then. I G got a distinguished first in his Tripos. After spending a year in Harvard, he returned to Cambridge and finished a quick Ph D dissertation. Then he was picked up by International Monetary Fund.
In the early 1950s, the Fund sent him on a mission to the Indian government. He impressed the then finance minister, C D Deshmukh, who asked the Fund for his services. The government found him so useful that it never returned him to the Fund.
What made him indispensable in the 1950s and 1960s was his considerable powers of persuasion. India was growing rapidly without regard to balancing payments and needed enormous amounts of foreign aid. I G was one of the economic diplomats charged with persuading international institutions and industrial countries to back India’s development. He was highly successful. Appreciated by his superiors, I G became Chief Economic Adviser in 1962 and secretary (economic affairs) in 1968.
That was the time when Indira Gandhi had split the Congress. She brought in unscrupulous politicians such as L N Mishra, Janardhan Pujari and Abdul Ghani Khan Chowdhury; I G found himself trying repeatedly to foil their depredations on the treasury. After Mrs Gandhi’s victory in the 1972 election, I G realized that he was fighting a losing battle. He left government and went to UNDP in New York.
Mrs Gandhi was defeated in the 1977 election, and Morarji Desai became Prime Minister. He persuaded I G to return as Governor of Reserve Bank. Mrs Gandhi was back in the saddle in 1980, but she let I G finish his term.
After retiring from government, I G served as Director of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He then became Director of London School of Economics. He piloted it through the years of Margaret Thatcher’s squeeze on academic institutions.
For all his public achievements, I G was an unassuming and charming man. He was a riveting speaker and an entertaining raconteur. India was lucky to have such a gifted public servant in the hour of its need.