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Obituary: Ashok Mitra (1928–2018)

Thursday 17 May 2018, by Pritam Singh

For me, the greatness of Ashok Mitra, who passed away recently, lies in the fact that his contributions to the understanding of centre–state relations in India were most illuminating. What distinguished Mitra was his attempt to develop a Marxist framework on centre–state relations. This area of work is not popular among left-wing economists in India, partly due to the difficulty of empirical substantiation of centre–state relations (except in finance), but more due to the difficulty of working out the process by which the class interests get implicated in these relations.

Mitra’s book Terms of Trade and Class Relations was a pioneering work on understanding the relations between agriculture and industry in the context of India’s capitalist economy, while also providing brilliant insights on the implications of those relations for centre–state conflicts in India. This book still remains a unique work of its kind. When I was a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University I had the opportunity to listen to a series of lectures he gave on this book, and I have never forgotten the thrust of those lectures, especially relating to class dimensions in the working of Indian federalism. Later, when I was at Oxford University, researching centre–state relations and their implications on regional development—in order to understand Punjab’s development pattern—I complained once to Meghnad Desai (who also takes interest in centre–state relations) that apart from Mitra, his generation of left-wing economists had not produced good, theoretically-informed work on this subject, which younger scholars could look to for further development. Desai agreed, with a somewhat evasive and yet challenging response that this academic void should perhaps encourage me to develop such theoretical work myself. With the view of meeting this challenge, I thought of getting in touch with Mitra.

A few years ago, when I was on sabbatical leave in India, I rang up Mitra to request a discussion on the subject. He was very friendly, but complained that his hearing was not good and, therefore, he had difficulty in holding a fruitful conversation over the telephone. He suggested that the best course would be for me to come to Calcutta where he would spend as much time with me as I wanted. I did think of going to Calcutta, knowing the importance of conversing with such a unique expertise on the subject, but it will remain one of my serious regrets that I did not make a great enough effort for our meeting to materialize.

Mitra consistently criticized the growing centralization in India under all central governments. In particular, he highlighted four key issues in his writings on centre–state relations. One, that increasing centralization leads to states not being responsible for financial management, since it increased dependence and financial lethargy in the states. This dependence tended to perpetuate further centralization.

Two, that a state’s autonomy to chart a different path of development is hindered by concentration of economic policy decision-making at the centre. This aspect was highlighted when the neo-liberal turn in economic policy at the centre in 1991 was launched in one stroke, without states being given the opportunity to critically evaluate the new policy framework, or understand either the reasons or the full implications of this sudden policy turn. With the launch of this policy framework, the states also had to practice neo-liberalism and privatization, irrespective of whether they agreed or disagreed with this policy. This had a particularly devastating impact on the policymaking framework in West Bengal, where the CPI(M)-led government started following the policy of competitive privatization in order to industrialize, repressing its own peasant support base—which was resisting land acquisition for corporate business-led industrialization—in the process.

Three, that conflicting class interests were deeply implicated in the mode of functioning of centre–state relations, and within the matrix of those conflicting class interests, the big monopoly capital is dominant in the central decision-making processes. Four, increasing centralization weakens the modes of diversity and forces of democracy.

Despite the emergence of increased electoral power of regional parties in India, the intellectual discourse still remains hegemonized by pro-centralization tendencies. This becomes more glaring as even the parliamentary left parties in India and most intellectuals allied to these parties have become centralists or neo-centralists, in the name of strengthening Indian nationhood. Mitra’s death is an immense loss to those who envision a decentralized reconstruction of India.