On Ideas for India’s 10th anniversary, our Editor-in-Chief Parikshit Ghosh pens a tribute honouring the late Ashok Kotwal, whose vision and values percolated our portal’s character to make it a veritable ‘forest’ of ideas; a collaborative and self-sustaining ecosystem of engaged I4I contributors and readers has been possible only by building bridges across ideological and disciplinary chasms in the decade gone by.
In Mahabharata Katha, Buddhadev Bose asks: who is the hero of the Mahabharata? Is it Arjun, the man of action; Krishna, the architect of empires; Karna, the tragic hero; or maybe Draupadi, a feminist force behind the scene? Bose provides his own surprising answer – it is Yudhisthir.
Yudhisthir is a man who, on the surface, seems lacking in heroic qualities. He shows no great skill in the art of war or politics; his hallmark is dithering rather than determination; he is swayed by others sooner than he can impose his will on them. Yet, if the epic is to be seen as a study of human affairs, Yudhisthir is the one engaged in a quest for understanding, not conquest. He lost bets but won probing philosophical quizzes. Of the Vana Parva, Bose writes:
“This forest…which, for Bhim and Arjun, was a stage for heroic struggle, was for Yudhisthir a great university, where he learned continuously for twelve years – not vocational or pedantic education – but insights into the self and the world."1
In my own wanderings through the woods, I came across Yudhisthir more than two decades ago. His name was Ashok Kotwal.
I was a graduate student at Boston University, where he came to speak on India’s agrarian policy. There was no model or regression or even slides. He jumped from one thing to another, raising Socratic questions and offering tentative answers or none at all. Then, abruptly, he turned to us huddled apprentices: “So what do you think about all this?” Panic broke out when we realised it was not a polite mannerism but an actual question. Little did I realise that he was giving us an aerial survey of the forest rather than a microscopic examination of a tree. Ashok loved forests.
A few years later, as chair of UBC’s economics department, Ashok wanted to recruit me. Even before I flew down for my job talk, he started calling me regularly, ostensibly to discuss my research and UBC’s attractions. Every time I put the phone down, I realized we had talked about anything but. We had talked about elections in America, the economic miracle of the Asian Tigers, and Sachin Tendulkar’s batting form. Naturally, when the job offer came, I took it up.
Ashok Kotwal is a household name to development economists. In between the era of narratives and the age of data crunching, he wrote (often in collaboration with Mukesh Eswaran) highly original applied theory papers that are now considered classics – on agricultural contracts, two-tiered labour markets, economic dualism, and so on. A serious assessment of his body of work must be reserved for another occasion. In the narcissistic world of academia, what made Ashok unique was his deep interest in other people’s ideas.
Whenever his number flashed across my phone, I knew there was a new idea coming – something he picked up from a seminar, a paper, a blog, a lunch conversation, or maybe a thought that just popped into his head during his evening stroll. Excitedly, he wanted to critique and dissect it from all angles, and was doing the rounds asking the question I had first heard many years ago: “What do you think of this?” Ashok’s daughter Shanu was once overheard telling a friend: “I don’t know what my dad’s job is, but it involves chatting with his friends all day.” He used to tell the story with peals of laughter.
It dawned on me later that Ashok was interested in other people’s ideas because he was interested in ideas, period. Not as dividend bearing intellectual property, nor as delicate rose plants to be sequestered in their own beds, but as seeds to be cross-bred and spread across many soils so that a forest might grow out of it. Ideas for India is the new growth forest Ashok almost single-handedly created in the last decade of his life. He loved forests.
Ashok believed that India’s high octane, intensely partisan media debates could do with an infusion of the kind of dispassionate reason and evidence that academics strive to cultivate. At the same time, academic inquiry is too important to leave to academics. The NGOs who see people’s lives from up close, the civil servants who have intimate knowledge of the nuts and bolts of policy implementation, and even ordinary people with their lived experience, can enrich our understanding of the most intractable social problems. Blind men and women can draw an accurate picture of the elephant if driven by a collaborative spirit. Ideas for India was his canvas for that collective artwork.
Ashok also passionately believed in the value of communication. In an era of specialisation, researchers have developed highly complex vocabularies and often get too accustomed to talking to each other in tongues. This poses two dangers – banality can be couched in impressive jargon, and insight can become buried in a thicket of technical detail. In trying to convey our ideas in plain language to non-specialists, we not only contribute to the democratisation of knowledge and discourse, but also understand them better ourselves.
But even that is not the most important point. A collection of flower-pots is not a forest. Knowledge of complex modern societies can only be crowd sourced. Ideas need to be cross-bred. People need to talk to each other, not at each other. People need to talk, but also listen – listen to a wide range of perspectives, not just ones bandied about in their ideological or methodological echo chambers. Socialists must talk to market fundamentalists, theorists to empiricists, randomistas to instrumentalists, freshwater macro guys to saltwater macro creatures. With his intellectual fluidity and empathy, Ashok had the rare ability to build these bridges. He could make Karl Marx and Ayn Rand sit down over a beer.
Today, Ideas for India completes ten years. Unfortunately, the man whose values and vision shaped this portal’s character is not with us anymore. Ashok Kotwal breathed his last on April 28, 2022. I have been appointed Editor-in-Chief in his place, along with a mostly new editorial team. As we look back at this last decade, we are acutely aware of the legacy we have inherited but also the enormous responsibility this places upon us.
Ashok also loved forests in the literal sense. I have travelled with him to India’s great national parks – Ranthambore, Corbett, Kaziranga – and experienced the thrill of seeing their elusive and majestic creatures. During these adventures, Ashok was full of his usually unusual and eccentric questions. Why don’t tigers get food poisoning from eating rotting flesh? Since animals die naturally, why don’t we see more skeletons on the forest floor? Where do they shelter when flood waters rise or forest fires spread?
We realised over time that a forest does not need to be tended like a garden – it has enormous powers of resilience and regeneration. As a platform for discussing India’s policy challenges, Ideas for India draws its strength from the engagement of its contributors and readers. This editorial is not a hagiography of the portal’s founding editor, nor a hubristic pledge that his successors will fill his oversized shoes. It is an occasion to thank the numerous people who have lent their voices and ears to this forum over the last decade. We will survive and grow as long as you continue to do so.
1. Translation author’s own