Thoughts on economics and liberty

Category: About me

How many days after that meeting with a corrupt Chief Minister did you quit IAS?

This is a slightly edited version of my discussion within FTI in the last week or so regarding the standards of integrity we need in India.


You are entitled to be sceptical and to wonder why I am so 'arrogant' in calling others spineless crooks when I myself supported the system till 2000? I'll address this briefly.

I had heard a lot about corruption. Everyone in India has. But I had seen that many officers could remain upright (my father being one of them) and so people like 'us' could save India if only we controlled these deviant politicians. That is why I joined the IAS anyway. (One day if I get time I'll type out my hand written notes from my IAS interview of 1982 – I found it the other day. Very interesting!).

I discovered corruption in government VERY EARLY. The relevant CM was NOT the only one. Virtually everyone in the bureaucracy and politics was steeped in corruption. The instances are so many that I need not recount (I've recounted a few in BFN if you are interested). But I didn't understand either the administrative system nor economics, nor politics. So till I became 30 I did my job in the best way I could. But even before reaching 30 I was getting more and more convinced that change could not come about at the bureaucratic level.

Since 30, by 1989, (if not before) I have been totally clear about the fact that there is no alternative to reform of Government except through political means. Indeed, so much did I talk about this that one day after a major fight in the secretariat with an officer, a good friend (he left the IAS as well and now works in the US) came rushing to me advising me not to jump into politics without preparation – well, I wasn't going to anyway at that stage!

To get a sense of my thoughts at age 32/33 please read: and (one of these contains my article published the major Assamese newspaper The Sentinel in 1992).

The 1991 experience with the concerned CM was merely one of many. It simply reconfirmed things. I then started investigating causes. Studied in Australia and US for 6 out of the 10 years of my 30s. Tried to explore what causes this problem.

Here's my autobiographical essay submitted as part of an application for the USC College of Arts and Sciences Pre-doctoral Merit University Fellowship on 22 January 1996 – which I did get and so decided to complete my PhD: It will give you a sense of my attitude towards learning from the 'masters' (gurus).

Everything came together at age 39 in Feb. 1998, and I thought we must have a liberal party in India. Since then numerous efforts and experiences later, FTI. I believe this can work, though I realise it still may not:

a) People differ on what integrity means (I'm stuck in a rut on this. I see things in black and white).

b) People think liberalism is libertarianism and demand freedom without responsibility.

c) Very few people have organisational ability and skills. Most simply are good at talking (not something to be despised, but the fact remains that a liberal party needs organisational experts and we don't have many).


By 60, in 2019, I will either be back in India full time, or have finally quit India (or even life: there are no guarantees anyone will live to 60!).

So from 22 (joining IAS) to 60, I'd have done whatever I thought was good for India – given my limited understanding. If my little contributions make any difference, fine. If not, I'm quite comfortable doing other things. No fuss at all. I don't need to be Prime Minister of India to be happy. Digging up my garden up and taking pictures of flowers gives me the most exquisite happiness. I live for myself and my principles, not for India. If India (whatever that means: for India is nothing but a bunch of individuals) doesn't budge, so be it. I won't, in any event.

I did quit the IAS (and India) when I thought I could and needed to, and had tried all options to launch a political movement. You may well critique my actions and want me to have done other things. Too bad. I just do what I think I need to. If people in India don't care, sorry – but why should I bother? Have I taken any contract for fixing India? Are you or anyone in India paying me anything? (I won't go into details about how I get not a paisa of retirement entitlements for working 18 years in the IAS…) It is a joint responsibility I talk about. As citizens.

You can question me all you like and you'll get what you see. A liberal at heart and in action.

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My peeve against intellectuals, officials and businessmen in India

By 2000 I had developed a strong aversion (better expressed as ghrina: sense of detestation or disgust) towards most officials and businessmen in India who are mere stooges of corrupt politicians. Not from them can one expect to get a good country to bring up one's children, for they are all going in only one direction: money making through corrupt means (or, at best, conniving with the corrupt).

But even as my faith in officials and businesses declined precipitously, I retained some faith in public intellectuals. However, by 2005 I had begun to develop a strong ghrina even towards intellectuals. I have since decided that most 'elites' of India are not worth listening to since they talk a lot but do nothing. Worse, they consort with the corrupt and take pride in such dalliances.

Indeed, India is flooded with 'advisors' today – a dozen of them clustering on top of each rupee coin ('rupee a dozen'). They cluster particularly around policy makers like bees around honey; they write articles and publish books, but they only have lame excuses to make to avoid entering active politics. That would not be so bad if they did not then go out of their way to consort with corrupt politicians.

Many Indian intellectuals tend to be stooges with absolutely no self-respect. They seek audiences with corrupt politicians, they accept awards from them, get photographed with them. They suck up to the corrupt to form part of committees established by governments. Never during this whole process is any tough question asked, never the thunder of public challenge issued. What they should do each time any Minister approaches them for anything is to demand a declaration of assets, a declaration of certified accounts of his elections – and of his party, and spit hard (metaphorically speaking, of course!) on any politician who doesn't prove his or her honesty. You want my advice: first show me you are worthy of my advice. But they don't! You'll find them rolling out the red carpet for corrupt politicians every day.

Therefore I now prefer to spend my time talking only to simple citizen-doers who are untainted by a desire to run around corrupt politicians. Particularly on FTI we should avoid mixing with idle intellectuals who carp and criticise but refuse to undertake any action as citizens.

Liberty did not advance in its early years (17th and 18th centuries) through those who only wrote books (which is always a necessary accompaniment), but by those who actually participated in politics. From Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Milton, Burke, Jefferson, to Paine and beyond, about 80 per cent of the initial impetus to freedom came from doers – liberals who recognised their obligations to society and humanity. It is only in the 20th century that liberals seem to have stopped leading politically in the West and limited themselves to writing books or novels. That might be acceptable in the West but it certainly is not in India, where even rudimentary advances in freedom have yet to be made.

Let's hope Indian liberals are made of sterner stuff than most Indian public intellectuals and will step forward to defend their and their fellow countrymens' liberty – by joining the Freedom Team.

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When will I enter full-time politics in India?

(This post is work in progress). A member on FTI asked me about my political plans for India. This is the current situation.

Joint responsiblity
I have wanted to be in full time politics since 1998, but various constraints have prevented it. My family commitments must get first priority. The reform of India is a task for all of us – indeed, of all citizens – not mine alone by any means.

I do expect to come back when financially not significantly worse off (not just for one year or two, but for my entire life). Sharad Joshi gets a substantial UN pension for life – that has left him free to do politics full-time upon his return from Geneva. Therefore he is the only full-time Indian liberal politican today. I am not so blessed, and my attempts to seek funding so far have failed, though I remain hopeful

For instance, I had offered to work in 2000 with CCS for life for a relatively small amount – only $20K US per year indexed for life – but that was too high for CCS to afford at that stage. Now my financial situation is far more complex, and the amount needed to get me to India full-time may exceed $150K AUD pre-tax to pay my mortgage, etc. The fact that I didn’t stay on in India in 2000 has turned out be a good outcome. It forced me to gain experience in a developed country bureaucracy – and also forced me (as I started writing my book/s) to think more clearly about what I stood for. The importance of leadership became clearer to me thorugh experiences in Australia. These things wouldn’t have happened if I had continued in India as part of CCS.

In addition, I’ve been looking for appropriate jobs over the past 3 years that will take me to India but have not been successful on that front yet. If nothing comes up I expect to be able to return in 10 1/2 years at age 60 when I will get an old-age pension in Australia (provided I continue my citizenship) which will mean I could retire from work here and work in India with fewer financial constraints – but that will also mean I won’t be able to contest elections. Delaying for 10 1/2 years is not my preference.

One possibility is that once 1500 members join FTI, there will be sufficient momentum and funding for people like me who want to return and work for FTI and politics full time. Currently, working as a ‘full-time’ second, unpaid job is all I can afford.

Btw, I am aware that similar constraints may apply to a number of others on FTI as well. One thing I don’t want is for any of us to reduce focus on our primary responsiblity – towards our families – for the sake of our secondary (joint) responsibility (country). The liberal must know his priorities. No one is better placed to look after our families than us. If I hear of any liberal who has acted irresponsibly towards his family (and I’m guilty of that at least in part in terms of time I devote), I’d know the liberal has some work cut out for him.

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An autobiographical essay (1996)

I found this short essay (below) among my papers today. It may interest no one, but a blog is a place for one's own notes: matters which interest me, whether they matter to others or not.

This 1996 essay interests me on two grounds: (a) I cite Schumacher as an influence, which is no longer true, and (b) I was reminded that since 1990 I had worked towards a manifesto for a political party to be launched in Assam.

My disillusionment with existing political parties had clearly started by then, and I was looking for solution: what would a good party do was the question I asked. If I find a copy of that initial manifesto of 1990, I'll put it up on my blog for whatever it is worth! Just memories to me, if nothing else.

In any event, that thought – of writing a manifesto – re-emerged in 1998 and led to the Victory of India Party and then to the India Policy Institute. This essay also reminded me that I never budged from my early aim (since about 15, I think) to be philosophically self-sufficient and to lead life the way I see fit.

There is a conflicting element in this essay: so, why was I preparing a manifesto in 1990 if I did not intend to join real politics (as I wrote in the essay)? I suspect I was not sure of my goals then; these things take time to evolve. But by February 1998, I had no doubt that I should join active politics, in a systematic manner. That aim remains good even today: though I had a setback in 2005, and I am only now recovering my interest in this goal, again.

Sanjeev, 7 Jan 2009


(submitted as part of an application for the USC College of Arts and Sciences Pre-doctoral Merit University Fellowship on 22 January 1996)

My family background has been relatively exceptional in terms of Indian norms. Though my parents are Hindus, they are extremely liberal, and did not interfere in my attempts to determine my own opinions through a vast reading of Western and Indian philosophy from the age of 12. Despite not being too well off, my father encouraged me to purchase any amount of second-hand books that I could lay my hands on. When I declared at 13 that I was not a Hindu, and began to offer various proofs of my atheistic contentions, I was not curbed in my expression of dissent. I have considered humanism as my religion since the age of 16. Later, I worked out stern ethical principles for my own reference, and attempted to write a book on philosophy at the age of 19. The book is far from completion (a hand-written 3000-page first draft was penned down in 1979-81), but the two years of work put into it opened my eyes to the complexity of issues involved, and enabled me to leap headlong into public service from the age of 22 with a determination to do something positive for my fellow human beings who were relatively under-privileged. Voltaire, Bertrand Russell, R.W.Emerson, Vivekananda, M.K.Gandhi and E.F. Schumacher have been some of the key influences in my intellectual development. In many ways I therefore represent a modern, liberal, independently thinking human being who could be found anywhere on the globe.

Today, I am thirty-six years old – an age when it is rather uncommon, at least in India, to be reverting to university education for one’s personal development. I have extensive financial pressures living in USA, which will get worse as both my wife and I attempt to complete a Ph.D. degree here. The salary back home will stop in August, 1996, as I move to extra-ordinary leave, and there will be a steep drop in funding available to my wife. I also have important commitments of time to my family with two children – with a daughter being born only 25 days ago, on the 29th of December, 1995. It was therefore definitely not necessary for me to have returned to higher study, or, having taken a break of two years to study for a Masters degree, to attempt a Ph.D. program. Back home, the challenging job, power, prestige, large house, servants, chauffeur driven cars, and other perquisites, are sufficient to prevent most IAS officers from leaving India for a student life. In terms of job satisfaction, also, my work was very fulfilling. But by 1989, I had began to realize that personal hard work and dedication were of not much avail if economic policies were “defective” in the first place. This meant a re-consideration of many of the economic premises which I functioned under.

It would be necessary to mention in this context that I have always taken a deep interest in politics. I have seen the political system at very close quarters in India and I believe that ultimately I must contribute to its betterment. Since 1990, I have been preparing a draft manifesto for the launch of a new political party in Assam along with a few active friends. But I soon realized that it is very difficult to work out a set of consistent humanitarian policies for political action, in the absence of immense knowledge of economics. In 1993, therefore, I considered the necessity of a trip to a good university in USA to fill up these gaps in my knowledge and thinking. I have not reached anywhere near the level of confidence I think I need to begin to sort out the issues involved. Hence the need to go beyond the Masters degree. I must state here that I have no intentions of joining active politics, however. My interest remains purely academic and intellectual – at the policy level.

The overall style of my life is therefore moving, as I planned it, in the direction of participation in events of real life, while retaining sufficient distance from them, to be able to look back and deliberate on the broader issues of life and philosophy. I would be happiest as a writer of normative philosophy and economic policy. I would like to be able to sit back and write on issues which I believe are of long-term interest to human beings everywhere. A Ph.D. degree in Economics would be just the right thing for my vision to be established on sound academic principles.

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