Calcutta, May 1 (PTI): Eminent scholar and Marxist economist Ashok Mitra, who also served as the finance minister of West Bengal and chief economic adviser to the Government of India, passed away on Tuesday morning after protracted illness.


He was 90 and his wife predeceased him ten years ago.


Born in Bangladesh, Mitra taught at the Lucknow University after picking up a masters in economics from Banaras Hindu University. He got his Ph.D from the Netherlands.


He worked for the World Bank, taught at the Delhi School of Economics and Indian Institute of Management Calcutta.


Mitra was finance minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 1987 when Jyoti Basu was the chief minister. In the mid-1990s he became a member of the Rajya Sabha and was chairman of the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Industry and Commerce.


He was the Chief Economic Adviser to the government of India from 1970 to 1972 when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister.



Two reviews of books by Ashok Mitra. Reviewer, Jayati Ghosh


Ashok Mitra, First Person Singular , 2016. (For Frontline)




Jayati Ghosh


A singular person


There are some people who are hard to classify, whether in terms of achievement or contribution to society or personality, and Ashok Mitra is one of them. Economist, policy maker, writer, organic intellectual, politician, litterateur, legislator: he has been all of these at different times, and often several of them together.  In a remarkable life spanning nearly nine decades thus far, he has also shown a remarkable ability to integrate the personal and the political, the individual and the social, the emotional and the rational, in ways that express both the contradictions and the sublimity of being truly human.


But even among these varied personae that he inhabits, in terms of legacy one thing is clear: he will surely be ranked among the foremost exponents of the art of the essay that India has ever produced. This achievement is deeply bilingual, as he has written prodigiously and to great effect in both English and Bengali, in columns that have been widely popular as well as appreciated by cognoscenti. In English, first in a very longstanding column in the Economic and Political Weekly and then in numerous writings in other publications like the Telegraph newspaper, he has set a remarkably high standard for the short essay that others will strive to reach in vain because of the very singularity of his style.


A new publication of mostly recent essays (“First Person Singular”, New Delhi, Paranjoy 2016) shows that, even as he nears his nineties, Mitra’s passion, literary flair and capacity for incisive analysis remain undiminished.  In addition, he retains his very idiosyncratic style, which is both unorthodox and unafraid of giving offense in all directions. He brings to bear this unique combination of attributes in pieces that deal with a wide range of issues: assessments of recent and current political and economic tendencies; reminiscences great and small; considerations of the literary and cultural influences that have shaped him; and much else. The result is a volume that is both an intellectual tour de force providing a sharp analysis of contemporary India and a sentimental journey that provides an evocative and memorable tour of some aspects of its making.


There are of course the sharply written and often disturbingly prescient commentaries on political and economic issues for which Mitra is justly famed. Commentaries cover the last inglorious years of the UPA government; trenchant criticism of the economic policies of the last decade and more; desperate concern about the incipient fascism brought about by the Trinamool government in West Bengal; tirades against the inadequacies of the Left movement with which he continues to feel associated despite mounting irritation and anger; considerations of how international relations continue to reflect imperialist underpinnings and of how Indian elites and the current Indian government are playing into this; and much more.


Some of the vignettes are memorable. The opening piece in the book, on Thirty Pandara Road, provides a flavour of the intellectual excitement and camaraderie that characterised the period just after Independence, when young economists gathered in Delhi to build a new India, and dwells on how personal relations between some of them evolved in the decades thereafter. A later piece describes some of the Mitra’s experiences as a Member of the Rajya Sabha in the 1990s, when he describes instances of open magnanimity by political opponents, and notes that “in spite of the increasing existence of crude and vulgar behaviour on the part of a few abominable specimens, civilities still reigned in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha  and members of Parliament, even when their political views were totally polarized, would often be full of consideration for, and gracefully courteous towards, one another. But that was almost two decade ago and neoliberal economic notions were yet to be firmly grafted into the nation’s ethos. It is a different universe now.” (page 222)


There is a charming story juxtaposing the inauguration of President Kennedy in Washington D.C. in January 1961 with a game of bridge played by a group of Indians (including Mitra) who were then based there, who were simultaneously watching the proceedings on television and ribbing one of the party about being interviewed for a newspaper by the woman of the moment, the glamorous Jacqueline (then Bouvier) Kennedy. Mitra and his partner won an unlikely small slam just as Kennedy ended his famous Inaugural Address, somehow resonating with the aura of hope and optimism generated at the start of that Presidency. Typical of Mitra, he ends that particular story with a different take: “Is it not ironic that by far the most outstanding initiative the Kennedy administration took was enlarging the scale of military engagement in Vietnam, a decision which caused deep misgivings across the globe and tore apart the American nation itself and its denouement was an American defeat, for the first time, in a war with a foreign power?” (page 99)


A lovely piece entitled “Incalculable debt” first tries to estimate the current value of the two rupees (plus interest) that Mitra borrowed from a fellow student in 1951, but never had the opportunity to return, arriving at a figure of more than Rs 100,000 at current prices. This is juxtaposed with another debt that is harder to calculate: that owed to his teachers at the government school in the sleepy district town in eastern Bengal where he studied in the 1930s. Ironically, their skill reflected the scarcity of jobs for recent graduates, which meant that even jobs in high schools in district towns were seen as “dream jobs”. As he puts it, “Some of them possessed a brilliance of mind and could claim a depth of knowledge that would put to shame many of those who occupy a professorial chair in any of the universities of the country these days”. (page 110) He notes their intense seriousness and commitment to their students, which were crucial in his own development, which is why the use of the term incalculable (and therefore unrequitable) to describe his debt to them “has its own dignity and splendour”.


While there are several reminiscences in the first part of the book that is based on his articles in The Telegraph, the second part of the book consists of both earlier and more recent pieces that were written as obituaries or memorial statements of people he knew and mostly loved. Many will find this the most rewarding section, as it brings out not only Mitra’s deeply felt emotional links with such people, but also provides a sense of their social and historical contexts and of the ways in which they altered the world around them.


The historian Ranajit Guha used to say that his only wish was to die before Ashok Mitra, in order to have the honour and satisfaction of an obituary written by him: no other person, he felt, could ever do justice to a person’s life with such clear-eyed empathy underlined by social understanding. Indeed, the feeling and felicity with which most of these pieces are written do make you feel that Guha was right in wanting such a memorial. Typically, the range of people covered is wide: the quiet Kolkata printer P.K. Ghosh, the singers Suchitra Mitra and Debabrata Biswas, the founders of Seminar journalists Raj and Romesh Thapar, the dedicated and civilised Communist Party worker Kitty Menon, the wonderful sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri, the founder of the Signet Press the dignified but determined Nilima Devi, the crazily charismatic Khurshid Hyder, the delightful Zohra Sehgal, the indefatigable Verghese Kurien of Anand co-operative, the cultivated economist K. S. Krishnaswamy, the academic and playwright G. P. Deshpande, the editor of EPW Krishna Raj and many others.


What is remarkable about these pieces is that Mitra does not make excessive concessions to sentimental concerns about expressing opinions that may appear critical of the dead, something that often inhibits those who are writing in memory of others. Rather, he retains his own personal (and often quirky) perspective – one that can be simultaneously satisfying and aggravating, creating a desire to enter into an argument about this or that point even while appreciating his fundamental sympathy towards the person concerned.


This is a book to dip into, to enjoy in bits and pieces or in long stretches as the whim takes the reader. Mitra’s very individual voice makes this feel like a conversation with an accomplished raconteur, one who is always able to situate his voice in the wider social, economic and political context. We continue to be lucky to hear this voice in all its clarity and candour.



2006 review of English version of Ashok Mitra’s book Apila Chapila. (English version A Prattler’s Tale: Bengal, Marxism, Governance.)
Ashok Mitra


It is difficult to write about those whom you love. Curiously enough, the difficulty is not only because of the fear of excessive partiality: it is also because love brings with it the freedom to be exasperated. And intimacy creates very complex and textured perceptions, often too nuanced to be easily captured in mere words.


That is why, when this book of memoirs (“A prattler’s tale: Bengal, Marxism, Governance”, Samya, Kolkata 2007) by Ashok Mitra,  came into my hands, I was at first reluctant to write about it. But the author was and is so much more than the recipient of my private affection: he is one of the more remarkable personalities of independent India, who has been involved and even deeply enmeshed in some of the most significant events and socio-economic processes of the past six decades and more, and whose acquaintance spans a fascinating cross-section of our societal mosaic.


Ashok Mitra may be in the public eye as one of the more eminent Left economists of India, who has written several valuable books in the subject, served in important positions in the central government and been Finance Minister of West Bengal as well as a member of the Rajya Sabha. But many others will know of him through his prolific columns on current affairs in several journals (notably Economic and Political Weekly)  and newspapers, in a journalistic parallel career that has spanned more than half a century and showed his passionate commitment to progressive causes. And still others will have engaged with his more approachable literary pieces, in both English and Bengali, and discovered at least in part a kindred spirit.


Contradictions are inherent in all of us. Even so, the life and personality of Ashok Mitra has over the years distilled the very essence of the term: at once vociferously public and intensely private; devastatingly cynical and endearingly romantic; angry and affectionate; stubborn and sensitive; puritanical yet generous to a fault; belligerent with his friends but also fiercely loyal to them; strongly political while remaining at heart a sentimentalist lover of poetry; worshipping idealistic principles but enjoying above all a good gossip; railing against the times, but very much a part of them.


All these attributes, combined with his indisputable literary flair and prodigious memory, are what make this book so absorbing and so much fun to read. The Bengali original of this book “Apila Chapila” (Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 2004) generated much enthusiasm and also much controversy when it was first published, in a way that has been typical of the author’s life. The English version captures most of the flavour of the original, even if it is sometimes more circumspect.


It is an utterly charming book as well. From the start, a dizzying array of personalities fill the pages. There are countless anecdotes, some humorous and some poignant, and all quite fascinating. There are quirky and effective pen portraits of the abundant profusion of his friends, acquaintances, colleagues.


Of course, there are times when the cast seems perhaps too lengthy, and the kaleidoscope of characters too intricate for the reader to retain. Many of the people flitting across the pages are not only well known in different ways but also part of the elite of India, in different spheres ranging from the literary and artistic to the academic and scholarly to the political and ruling groups.


Yet there are also some notable silences. For example, there is scarcely any mention of his wife Gouri – even though her graceful dignity, quiet efficiency and unswerving loyalty must have made her presence the central stabilising factor of his life. Like the quintessential Bengali gentleman that he has often declared he detests, Ashok Mitra steers clear of the truly intimate, perhaps assuming that those who are deeply close are not to be trafficked in words.


The opening chapters are wonderfully evocative of childhood and youth in Dhaka in the 1930s and early 1940s, and the sheer exhilaration of student life in Kolkata in the period just before Independence is also effectively captured, along with whiffs of the momentous times in which these were experienced. Indeed, the entire book is suffused with the vibrancy and excitement of particular moments. And since Ashok Mitra was so closely involved with so many events of national significance, these memoirs also offer a panoramic glimpse into some of these broader processes and events.


The heady days of central planning with Mahalanobis in Delhi; the creation of the Economic and Political Weekly; the social and political atmosphere of Indira Gandhi’s “left-leaning” phase in the early 1970s; the bloody emergence of Bangladesh as a independent nation; the violent attempt at destroying the Left in West Bengal over the same period; the grim days of the Emergency; the extraordinary political transformation as the Congress lost the national elections and paved the way for the era of coalition politics; the electoral victory of the Left Front in West Bengal in the late 1970s; the battle over Centre-State fiscal relations; the rising hegemony of neo-liberal economic policy form the early 1990s – all these form more than just a backdrop, as they are inextricably intertwined with the dramatis personae of this account.


Some of Mitra’s ruminations about the difficulties of progressive change in only one state within a federal system and the internal systemic threats emerging even within disciplined Marxist parties that are pushed by varying forces when in power, deserve more attention. Even where one disagrees, there is no contesting that he raises critical and thought-provoking questions, and that his reflections are informed by continuing commitment.


It is true that the final sections of the book do carry perhaps too much of the perception that everything – even progressive politics and literature – was better in the past. In this sense some of Mitra’s later reflections do indeed fit in with the stereotypical attitudes of those who have been around for longer, who tend to assume that the newer trends and changes are generally adverse. Nostalgia can certainly colour one’s attitudes to the present, but it should not lead to privileging a past which was probably as complicated and contradictory as the present.


The disarming thing is that the author would probably be the first to admit this, as he would be to agree with anyone who brands him as difficult. Yet the impression on reading this book is not one of a difficult man, rather of an incurable romantic. It is a book full of people, full of little stories about them and full of the emotion that only caring deeply about people can bring. So this idiosyncratic memoir is in some ways a love poem to many of the people he has ever known. This may then be the longest and most successful poem of the would-be poet.

Top - Home