Nirmal Chandra

(Excerpt from ‘Nirmal Chandra: An Appreciation’, April 29, 2014 by Research Unit for Political Economy (rupeindia). The full piece can be read here:

Friends of the Marxist economist Nirmal Chandra, who died recently, will remember with a pang of grief many facets of his personality: his self-effacing manner and lack of egotism; his warmth and conviviality, his unstinting aid – without the least condescension – to students and others who sought his help or advice; his principled stand when he felt it necessary to distance from something wrong; his lack of malice, gossip, and careerism of the type so common in academia. He had the quality (rare among academics) of inviting and welcoming criticism of his work, and readily accepting it if he felt it was justified, not only before publication but even after.

At the same time, his death is a loss not only to those who knew and cherished him, but to causes that he held dear. One might tend to overlook this at first, for several reasons. His personality, while gregarious and generous, eschewed all flamboyance, and he never wore his sentiments on his sleeve. He was a private person in some ways, even in public. (One recalls Auden’s lines: “Private faces in public places/Are wiser and nicer/Than public faces in private places.”) In his writing, too, he typically preferred to present his investigations in detail but keep his own conclusions concise, at times almost terse.

Moreover, on the face of it, he appeared to be entirely a part of the academic world, far from the rough and tumble of political activity. He generally avoided public platforms, nor did he write for newspapers and the like; and he wrote principally for the Economic and Political Weekly and other journals read mainly by academics (an exception being his contributions to Samar Sen’s Frontier).

His pieces touched on a broad range of intertwined subjects: questions of Marxist theory (e.g., theories of unequal exchange, the peasant question), international development economics, imperialist domination of the Third World, the pattern of industrial development in India and industrial self-reliance, India’s Plans, questions of socialist construction (particularly, though not only, in the Soviet Union and China), agrarian relations in India, the living standards of the mass of people. In each piece not only was there much to chew over but there were leads to pursue further.

Only one collection of his writings appeared: The Retarded Economies: Foreign Domination and Class Relations in India and Other Emerging Nations (1988). The title, and the organisation of the work, bring out the linked themes that preoccupied him throughout: Why is it that, despite the end of colonial rule, India and similar backward economies were unable to develop satisfactorily, and instead developed new forms of dependence on imperialism? (A subsidiary and related theme was: What special conditions permitted a few countries to develop rapidly along capitalist lines in the post-War era, and what prevented such a trajectory in other countries?) What economic models should the backward countries have adopted in order to grow rapidly, in a self-reliant way, and for the benefit of the masses of people? What aspects of the internal class relations prevented an adoption of such models?

Throughout, he emphasized that the actual course of development was decided, not at the ‘purely’ economic level, but by political decisions.

He kept a close watch on positive developments or indications elsewhere, whether on the subcontinent, in China, or in Latin America. In the final analysis, he placed his faith in people’s movements. He concluded his critique of the West Bengal government’s package for Tata Motors in Singur with the following lines: “In any case, all credit should go to the peasantry of Bengal, especially of Nandigram and Singur, for having saved their own farmland and relieved the state exchequer of the burden of maintaining a white elephant.”

Those who can truly benefit from Nirmal’s work are those he referred to as “today’s radicals”. They will find there rich material. Among his recent pieces: a study meticulously documenting the drain of foreign currency resources from India, with the startling finding that it has reached levels comparable (as a share of GDP) to the drain under British rule; a comparative study of China and India’s rising concentration of wealth, poverty trends, employment trends, and consequent social unrest; a survey of ‘inclusive growth’ in India showing “the ugly reality – India is on track to become another oligarchy like post-Soviet Russia”; and much else. Nor can they afford to miss such classic earlier pieces such as “Western Imperialism and India” and “Long-Term Stagnation in the Indian Economy, 1900-75.”

Not only is each article replete with facts and insights, which provide leads for those who wish to investigate further, but they help substantiate and deepen the arguments of those struggling for the political preconditions of real development.

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