MY TEACHERS, AND people I know, have won Nobel Prizes in Economics. (Strictly speaking, the prize for Economic Sciences is not quite a Nobel Prize, it is a Nobel Memorial Prize established by Sweden’s Central Bank.) People I know have won Nobel Prizes, not just in Economics. A student winning a Nobel Prize in Economics is a first for me. Obviously, I have in mind Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, who has jointly won the 2019 prize with his wife, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer. I shouldn’t brag about the teacher-student bit too much. Presidency College, Kolkata, was a college affiliated to University of Calcutta then. It hadn’t yet become a university. Presidency College only had under-graduate teaching, post-graduate teaching was through the University’s post-graduate department. I studied in Presidency College for my BA in Economics between 1970 and 1973. Beginning with the late 1940s, for a very long time, Presidency College probably possessed the best under-graduate teaching faculty anywhere in the country, perhaps even in Asia. Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998, did his BA (Economics) from Presidency College in 1951. When we were students, the stalwart teachers were Tapas Majumdar, Dipak Banerjee, Mihir Rakshit and Amiya Bagchi. Research (and publications) has now become a sine qua non for the teaching profession. It wasn’t quite the case then. There were people who didn’t have an exceptional publication record. They were simply superb teachers.
Dipak Banerjee was one of them. Except for a paper on utility he wrote while he was at LSE (London School of Economics), he rarely published. He was an exceptional teacher who produced exceptional students. Bhaskar Dutta, Subhashis Gangopadhyay, Dilip Mukherjee and Debraj Ray should be familiar names. They (all Dipak Banerjee’s students) edited a collection of essays in his honour in 1990. Mihir Rakshit primarily taught us macroeconomics and Dipak Banerjee primarily taught us microeconomics. Mihir babu’s teaching was precise. He never deviated from the topic. Dipak babu’s teaching was also precise, but he deviated from the topic and told us “stories”, especially at tutorials. In the course of these stories, we learnt he had two sons. He wasn’t worried about his younger son, who was “street smart”. But he worried about his elder son, who wasn’t that street smart. We learnt this elder son was called Jhima and that he had a middle name of Vinayak because he was born in Mumbai and because his mother (Nirmala Banerjee) was a Maharashtrian.
Later, in December 1979, I joined Centre for Economic Studies, Presidency College, as Research Associate. (I left for Pune in February 1983, to join Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics as Associate Professor.) The Centre was an UGC-funded research centre, legally distinct from the Economics Department. But de facto, the two were identical. Dipak Banerjee became my teacher and Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee became my student. There was a teaching hierarchy. You didn’t get to teach economic theory, micro, macro or trade. That was reserved for senior teachers. A new entrant was allowed to teach statistics, which is what I taught Abhijit and his classmates. I have met several of these ex-students later, especially those who remained in India. With the passage of time, every teacher tends to forget names and batches students belonged to. This batch (a Bengali expression for ‘class of such and such a year’) passed out in 1981 and was invariably referred to as Jhima’s batch. By then, the under-graduate degree in Economics from University of Calcutta had switched from BA to BSc. There are bright students in every class and there are weaker ones. No teacher can afford to teach the brightest, so the teaching is pitched at somewhere near the mid-point or average. Inevitably, the brightest, like Abhijit, will have a slightly cocky smile on their faces, as if to say, “What a waste of time! I know all this.” (Naturally, this comment is about classroom teaching, not research-level supervisor-student relationships.) When Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize, some people interviewed said they knew he would win the Prize from his school days in Patha Bhavan, Santiniketan. (Actually, when Amartya Sen was in school, the Nobel in Economics didn’t exist. But never mind.) In 1981, I certainly had no idea Jhima would win the Nobel one day. Most economists will probably say they started to think of Amartya Sen as a possible candidate (not a certain one) after his book Collective Choice and Social Welfare was published in 1970. Similarly, most economists will probably say they started to think of Abhijit Banerjee as a possible candidate after his book Poor Economics (co-authored with Esther Duflo) was published in 2011. Every prize, and the Nobel in Economics is no exception, has its biases. For the Nobel in Economics (and a few other Nobels too), working in a US university or institution, and changing the citizenship from Indian to American, facilitates the process.
In 1981, Dipak Banerjee told me they (meaning Dipak and Nirmala Banerjee) had decided to send Abhijit to JNU rather than Delhi School of Economics for his MA in Economics, because “on balance”, the faculty was better in JNU. (I suspect it was Jhima who decided.) Since my alma mater is Delhi School (of Economics), I will agree (for 1981-83), but also say the balance was “iffy”. I think JNU brought much more focus into whatever Jhima was going to do next. Eric Maskin won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2007. In Harvard in 1998, Maskin was Jhima’s PhD supervisor. In Cambridge (England), my supervisor was Frank Hahn, who, according to many accounts, missed the Nobel by a whisker. In 1976, Eric Maskin spent some time in Cambridge (England). While playing tennis, Frank Hahn broke his leg and was bed-ridden for a few months. With that plaster on his leg, Hahn requested Maskin to supervise me for a couple of months. I took a draft paper to Eric Maskin and somewhere in the paper, there was the expression, ‘Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate’. “What is this?” asked Maskin. He also offered to add to the paper so that we could publish it as a joint paper. Sufficiently cocky so as to not recognise a future Nobel winner, I refused. How could I co-publish with someone who had not heard of Ockham’s razor?
Dipak Banerjee would have known. (He died in 2007.) Abhijit Banerjee will know. Amartya Sen will know. Amongst Bengalis with an intellectual bent of mind (not just economists), there is (or was) a 19th century Bengali renaissance kind of tinge. There is an interest in multiple things—philosophy, music, sports, puzzles, mathematics, science, history. Dipak Banerjee was as much at home with David Gale’s books on mathematics as he was with classical music or solving cryptic crosswords. The son is of the same vintage, which is why I have a problem with equating Abhijit Banerjee’s work with randomised control trials, as a lot of reportage has done. There are people who plod away with the same research issue their whole lives. The 19th century Bengal renaissance stereotype will get bored with that. Amartya Sen moved on, shifting from one topic to another, continuing with the learning process throughout his life. Jhima has also done that, following the same intellectual tradition. Indeed, his ideological leanings are also similar to those of Sen’s. But we shouldn’t straitjacket and reduce the considerable volume and impact of Abhijit’s work to either randomised control trials or ideology.