by R.VenuGopal, Bharat Times

This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics was jointly awarded to India (Kolkata) born American Abhijit Banerjee and his French born American wife Esther Duflo and fellow US professor Michael Kremer.

Although it is a matter of great pride and joy for anyone getting recognition for their work, for Abhijit Banerjee, it has been a mixed bag. While on one hand his followers, peers and colleagues all over the world congratulated him and his wife Esther for their achievement, the BJP folks in India have been out to attack his ideas and labelled him “left leaning” economist whose policies they say, ‘have been rejected by the people of India’.

The basis of BJP’s charge against Banerjee is based on the fact that he was the man behind the Congress’s “Nyuntam Aaye Program” adopted by the party in its 2019 elections in May this year. According to the program, the Congress party (if it won government) promised to implement a program advised by Abhijit Banerjee, to guarantee a minimum of Rs 72,000/- annual income for India’s poorest of the poor people. And of course, the Congress party comprehensively lost the election.

Abhijit Banerjee was awarded the Nobel Prize along with two others for their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.  On the day Banerjee was conferred with the prestigious award for his work in fighting global poverty, he said “the Indian government is on shaky ground and that policies are evaluated based on accepted criteria and looked at as an option”.

And Banerjee has been under fire ever since. 

A very unhappy, former Finance Minister Piyush Gyal in the Modi cabinet and now Minister for Railways, hit out at the economist, saying the Indian public has rejected his thinking.

Referring to Banerjee’s comments while congratulating him on his achievement, Piyush Goyal said, “I congratulate Abhijit Banerjee for winning the Nobel Prize. But, you all know about his thinking. It is left-leaning. He had sung praises for NYAY (Congress’s minimum income scheme manifesto promise). The people of India have rejected this thinking,” Goyal said at an event in Pune.

Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee while on a visit to India has been asked at various forums to respond to such comments and he seemed pained but composed at times. In one interview when asked about the allegation of the BJP that his thinking was left leaning and his ideology (or argument) had been rejected by the people of India, he said had he been consulted by the BJP, he would have given the same advice to them as well. He is at pains to emphasise he – as a professional – is absolutely impartial – when it comes to give economic advice. But he added such criticism is not fair as it questions his methods to alleviate poverty.

Abhijit Banerjee has ‘thick skin’
How does one deal with such attacks, criticism and political Banerjee said: “Thick skin, very thick skin and a little bit of — we are very political people, we live — politics is very much in our minds. So we feel that silence is very costly. We feel like influencing policy, influencing the world is in our genes”  speaking to CNBC TV18,  adding that he feels “silence is very costly”.

Goyal is among a number of BJP leaders who have criticised the Nobel Prize awardee. BJP MP Anantkumar Hegde had also sardonically described Banerjee as the “man who recommended inflation and tax rates to be raised” in the country.

From being aggrieved to being the perpetrator
An erudite discourse on policy ideas is healthy and that is where it was while Piyush Goyal and Anantkumar Hegde were commenting. Taking to the extremely low levels of any form of communication and ridiculing one on a personal level which includes their family, especially wives – is definitely a ‘No Go Zone.

But not for Rahul Sinha – the BJP National Secretary and the party’s former West Bengal unit president who stoked a controversy ridiculing anf questioning credentials of Banerjee, saying people whose second wives are foreigners are mostly getting the Nobel Prize.

He also wondered whether having a foreigner as the second wife was a “degree” for getting the Nobel.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics was jointly awarded to Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, a French-American economist and fellow US professor Michael Kremer.

Duflo is Banerjee’s second wife, to which Rahul Sinha was referring in his bid to ridicule them. Abhijit Banerjee was previously married to Dr. Arundhati Tuli Banerjee, a lecturer of literature at MIT and they have a son from that marriage. Banerjee married his co-researcher, MIT professor Esther Duflo in 2015.  Banerjee and Duflo have known each other for more than 20 years. In 1999, with Joshua Angrist, Banerjee was the joint supervisor of Esther Duflo’s PhD in economics at MIT in 1999. She later joined the MIT faculty as Assistant Professor.

Banerjee and Esther Duflo have two young children.

“Those people whose second wives are foreigners are mostly getting the Nobel prize. I don’t know whether it is a degree for getting the Nobel,” Sinha said.

In Banerjee’s defence, the Congress, party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi calling it “arrogance”, in a tweet said “So electoral victory makes Nobel experts wrong, maybe ignorant; Nyay bad because BJP returned to power. Amazing inverse logic and huge arrogance.”

But the party has not quoted any real cases which have implemented Banerjee’s policies and ideas and really made a difference to the lives of people, pulling them out of poverty.

While Banerjee, who says such (Piyush Goyal’s) comments are not helpful, and question his professionalism, a visibly partisan political discourse continues, for now.

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