8 August 2012, Wednesday
Some two weeks before 31st July, my last day as CEA, I got a call from the World Bank president’s office. A man with a slight Indian accent, one of his assistants, a Sikh gentleman I later gathered, said that the president wanted to talk to me about various things. So much so that he wondered if I could do a brief trip to Washington.
I thought that since Jim Yong Kim had taken over as World Bank president recently (in June) and was quite a greenhorn in this kind of work, he must be calling up chief economists or treasury chiefs of various countries to get a briefing on their economies. That was a noble enough mission but it was too much to expect me to fly all the way to Washington to brief him. So I said I was happy to talk but that we could just as well have a long conversation on the phone.
There were multiple calls related to this and I began to get a bit suspicious of Jim Kim’s thirst for knowledge. So when his assistant called again a couple of days ago I asked him exactly what the World Bank president wanted to talk about. By then he must have received instruction that he could reveal it to me. Without any change of tone, he told me that the president was thinking of offering me the job of chief economist of the World Bank.
Hyperventilating is an over-used term these days but I think I hyperventilated, whatever that means. It was both exciting and unsettling. After nearly three years in the policy world, with seemingly not a moment to myself, I was looking forward to my first love, research and lecturing, and the joys of being able to close my door and read and write as and when I felt like. On the other hand, I knew what an exciting job this could be, and I had never thought it would come my way.
For one, this job was typically reserved for economists from USA and Europe. The only exception was the last chief economist, Justin Yifu Lin, from China. Also, deep research questions are my obsession in economics and I did not think of myself as visible enough in the economic policy scene – though my previous years as CEA to the Indian government must have begun to change that.
In any case, so much of life is luck. My primary interest in economics was always economic theory; the policy interest is a by-product. I had one side diversion. I enjoyed writing for the popular media. This I think has helped me disproportionately, in getting these exciting policy jobs. One of my luckiest columns was the one I wrote for BBC. A few years before I got the offer of the chief economic adviser post, I had started writing a regular column for BBC News Online, at the invitation of BBC’s Soutik Biswas.
The column became wildly popular, with laypersons and politicians reading and commenting on it. I have a theory about why this happened. Soon after I began writing my column, BBC invited the celebrated (and stunning) Bollywood actor, Preity Zinta, to also write a column, and that used to appear next to mine. My hypothesis is a huge number of people came to see Preity Zinta’s face and read my column, thereby giving me a major career break.
I had had one earlier experience with the World Bank and had a sense of what the job entailed. In 1998, Joe Stiglitz, then chief economist of the Bank, decided to invite some academic economists to the World Bank as visitors. Jean-Francois Bourguignon and I were the first ones he invited and I spent a full academic year, 1998 to 1999, at the Bank, on leave from Cornell.
I had enjoyed the year and also fantasized once or twice how it would feel like being in the oversized office room that Joe had. But I never seriously thought of that as anywhere within the realm of possibilities. I should clarify, this was a surprise not because I thought I did not deserve it, but because I did not think anyone else thought I deserved it.
In fact, the only reason I think I fantasised on this was the World Bank had given me one of the smallest imaginable offices, and with no windows, for the year I spent there (even though the salary more than compensated for that). And to rub salt to injury, it got me visiting cards and letterheads made in which, below my name, it said: “Office of the Senior Vice President, World Bank”.
This did cause occasional awkwardness. To an innocent bystander, who else would be sitting in the “Office of the Senior Vice President” but the senior vice president! That is what must have happened to Thea Sinclair. Thea was a colleague and dear friend during the first year of my working life, when I was finishing my PhD at LSE and began teaching at Reading University. I remember Thea, whom I had not met after 1978, phoning me from the World Bank reception and saying that she was visiting Washington and thought of dropping by to see me.
I was immensely pleased and said I would come down to the reception. To that she firmly said no and added that she wanted to see the “Office of the Senior Vice President”. There was no way of stopping her; she ran up the three flights and burst into my office. I think that was the first time I saw someone hyperventilate, caused by the shock of divergence between what she expected and what she saw.
Anyway, to return to the phone calls, a compromise plan was hatched. The World Bank president had some work in London and it was decided that the Bank would fly me to London and we would stay and meet up at the Sofitel airport. That is what brought me to London yesterday.
I had taken the 8:20 am British Airways flight from Delhi. So there was little sleep loss. On arrival, I worked for a while in my hotel room and then I phoned my friend, Gautam Sen, originally from Kolkata where we were virtual neighbors when we were of school-going age, and whom I met up again many years later when we were both students at LSE.
Since Heathrow airport is on the edge of Southall, which is an ethnic enclave of mainly Indians but also Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, I thought this was a great opportunity to explore Southall. I have always been convinced that deep down in me there is a closet anthropologist. Any place I visit I am much more fascinated by the ordinary people and their lives than the museums and palaces.
Though I had lived in London for many years I did not know Southall, which sounded magical and romantic, as all ethnic enclaves do. Gautam and I walked around for a while and had dinner at Southall’s favourite “Brilliant Restaurant” that described itself as the “only one of its kind”. The food was very good and I felt the use of the adjective was accurate.
From 8 am to 10 am today I had a breakfast meeting with Jim Yong Kim, World Bank president, in his grand hotel suite. My first impression was that of a terrific person. I liked him and for me that is always a critical step before I decide to work with someone. His political orientation seemed broad left, which I liked.
We had common friends; we talked about Amartya Sen and Nick Stern. We talked about the policy challenges that the developing world faces today, the Indian economy and Africa; we gossiped a little about previous World Bank personalities and presidents – I liked the fact that he did so quite comfortably.
At the end of it, he said he had of course already done his homework on me and based, in addition, to this conversation (he didn’t call it an interview), he would want to offer me the job of chief economist and senior vice president, though this would have to be ratified by the World Bank’s Board on 27 August.
I had lunch in a pub with my old friend Rupen Mallik and his partner, Mimi, and I caught the 5:40 pm British Airways flight back to Delhi.
10 August 2012, Friday
The prime minister hosted a farewell lunch at his residence, 7 RCR, which I treated as both a farewell lunch and, without the prime minister’s knowing it, a birthday party for Alaka.
1 October 2012, Monday
I joined the World Bank today. My office is on the fourth floor of the Main Building of the Bank on Pennsylvania Avenue. In terms of square footage, this is the largest office I have ever occupied. I tried not to feel good and proud about such trivial things but I failed.
This used to be Joe Stiglitz’s office. Joe’s secretary, whom I used to occasionally stop by to chat with, was fond of me, and insisted that one day I would be in this office. This was so far- fetched that I treated her remark as that of a person wishing me well. It was not something I thought twice about. Strange indeed is fate that here I am sitting in that very office.
As I mentioned before, during the 1998–99 visit, I had the opposite experience, of getting to use the smallest office I ever had. There was a shortage of space in the Bank that year, the regular, permanent staff had grabbed all the decent offices and so I had to take a cubby hole with no windows.
Within minutes of my arrival in my new job, Vivian Hon, who was effectively my chief of staff, and Laverne Cook, my main administrative assistant, reminded me that I was to launch the “World Development Report on Jobs”. I had agreed to do this because the report was led by Martin Rama, whom I knew well before joining the bank and whose work I admired, and also because I was told firmly by Vivian that this was my job. I had barely glimpsed through the report, but I had no choice.
Vivian and I walked down to the auditorium where the launch would take place. It was packed with Bank staff, outsiders, the press. I began speaking and soon realised that my experience in the world of Indian politics had trained me well to speak without content. I managed well enough. I was now a part of the World Bank.
Excerpted with permission from Policymaker’s Journal: From New Delhi to Washington DC, Kaushik Basu, Simon & Schuster India.
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