Illustration by James Ferguson of Jagdish Bhagwati
© James Ferguson

It’s a blisteringly cold day in New York and I arrive at the corner of Lexington and 64th Street in need of thawing out. JoJo is a snug little restaurant inside a two-storey salmon pink house. Inside, there’s a tiny bar at the foot of the stairs leading up to the main dining area. The barman is pouring an enticing-looking glass of red wine. “I’m meeting Jagdish Bhagwati,” I say, shivering. “Could you possibly send a glass of whatever that is to our table? “This one is for Mr Bhagwati,” the barman beams. “Two glasses coming right up.”

It’s not only the cold that makes me want something to take the edge off. Bhagwati, brilliant, argumentative and occasionally vituperative, has a reputation for skewering his enemies. One of the most outstanding economists of his generation never to have won the Nobel Prize, his failure to be recognised for his work on international trade has become something of a cause célèbre.

One fellow academic told me he used to avoid the great professor on the day the economics prize was announced because Bhagwati was inevitably in a frosty mood as yet another prize-less year went by. The Nobel committee’s oversight is so well known that it has even made it on to The Simpsons, an episode of which features Bhagwati receiving the coveted prize. (Krusty the Clown gets the Nobel peace award.)

More recently, Bhagwati, 79, has gained notoriety for a bitter intellectual feud with Amartya Sen. Like Bhagwati, Sen is an Indian-born, Cambridge-educated economist now in the US (where Sen is professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard). Unlike Bhagwati, Sen is a Nobel recipient. In a long-running argument, Bhagwati accused Sen of prioritising redistribution in poor countries such as India. Bhagwati argued that only by generating sufficient growth to begin with would there be enough wealth to spread around. “Sen puts the cart before the horse; and the cart is a dilapidated jalopy!” he wrote last year in Mint magazine. Sen, he said, paid lip-service to the idea of growth “much like an anti-Semite would claim that Jews are among his best friends!”

The argument has since spilled out of the ivory tower and into the blood and dust of the Indian election, the world’s largest democratic exercise, which reaches its climax in May. Sen is seen as lining up behind the incumbent Congress administration, which has pursued policies that broadly favour the poor but has allowed growth to slide. Bhagwati supports the controversial candidacy of a fellow Gujarati, Narendra Modi, who fronts the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and promises to get the economy revving again.

I find Bhagwati upstairs, squished behind a corner table by the window. He’s smartly dressed in a dark suit with a turquoise tie and greets me warmly in a crackly, slightly high-pitched voice that combines traces of his Indian, English and American experiences. He has lived in America on and off for 50 years and is now professor of economics, law and international affairs at Columbia University. He has a daughter with his wife, Padma Desai, a fellow academic.

We’ve exchanged emails before but never met. In person, he is warm and disarmingly solicitous. His speech is punctuated by constant chuckling, usually at his own jokes. Certainly, there are occasional sideswipes at fellow academics. But he turns out to be great company. For a man of ideas, he has a passion for stories about people. He is forever conjuring personages from years gone by, many from his Cambridge days, and has an almost Dickensian ability to populate the room with ghosts from firesides past.

Not long after I sit down, he launches into a joke that somehow involves VKRV Rao (a temperamental Indian economist known as “alphabet Rao”), a 6ft-tall UN director and several Sri Lankans. The punchline is: “No, but I represent their aspirations,” which leaves me slightly baffled but has Bhagwati falling about in stitches. Before I can figure it out, he’s on to a story about the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson. “She was a socialist and as tough as nails. Give her a samurai sword and she’d cut your balls off,” he says, guffawing at the memory of her formidable character.

A waitress brings our wine, Three Saints Cabernet from Santa Barbara. It is blackcurranty and exactly what I needed. She serves us elongated bread rolls. “Missiles,” says Bhagwati.

I ask about growing up in India. “My earliest memory, actually, is of being woken up in 1942 when I was about eight, because my brother was . . . you would think of him as a revolutionary.” One of the seven Bhagwati siblings, Prafullachandra (known as PN, who is now in his nineties) had been blowing up goods trains in protest at British rule, though he went on to become chief justice of India. He had come home bloodied one night after being beaten by the authorities.

“They had a warrant out for him. There was this commotion in the house and the police were saying they wanted to take me as a hostage together with my brother.”

Bhagwati was born and brought up in Mumbai, though the family was Gujarati. His father became a Supreme Court judge but they were not wealthy, he says. Did they have servants? “Only one.” It was, he says, a puritanical upbringing. If he asked for money to buy samosas, his father would say no. A tailor would come once a year to make the seven children Indian pyjamas. “We would have two sets, one to be washed and one to be worn. And that was it.” Their only indulgence was the local bookstore, where there was an open account. “Education was the great priority.”

At school, young Jagdish came top in Sanskrit. “I wanted to be a Sanskritist, actually. I fell in love with it. But my father said, ‘You come from a poor family, that’s not an option.’ ” He was nudged towards economics and, eventually, a degree at St John’s College, Cambridge.

The waitress comes to take our order. Bhagwati wants tuna tartare followed by organic chicken with olives, ginger and coriander. As I hesitate over my choice, Bhagwati tells me, incredulously, that “once I brought somebody [here] and he ordered a cheeseburger!” The waitress chimes in chirpily: “Sometimes you just need to have a burger, so we want to satisfy that.” “They just lack taste,” Bhagwati says with a snort. I decide on charred octopus with warm potato salad, followed by roasted hake. The first glass of wine has gone down so well I ask for another. Bhagwati sticks at one glass.

His father, he says, taught him tolerance. “It was a very traditional Gujarati family. No eggs, no fish, nothing. Pure vegetarian.” But when 18-year-old Jagdish was about to board the boat for England, his father took him aside and said: “We are vegetarian. That’s what I and your mother believe in. But it’s your own choice. So when you get into the boat and go to England it’s up to you whether to be a vegetarian or not.” At Cambridge, Bhagwati went straight to beef. It is a lesson he will always remember. “Never force anything down anybody’s throat. While I may occasionally fault people like my friend Amartya Sen,” he adds with deft understatement, “I don’t unleash my sword that much.”

He can be pretty cruel, I venture. In his recent book Why Growth Matters, written with fellow Columbia economist Arvind Panagariya, didn’t he accuse George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz of practising “Jurassic Park economics” for their questioning of pro-market orthodoxies? “I can be tough. That’s true,” he concedes, adding that he is addicted to the “British witticisms” he picked up in the rough-and-tumble intellectual atmosphere of 1950s Cambridge. “When I think of something like ‘Jurassic Park economics’, I can’t resist it.”

The starters arrive. Bhagwati attacks the tuna, which he pronounces excellent, and I try the octopus, cooked to perfection. Of his feud with Sen, he says, “All I’ve said about him is that he missed the bus on the 1991 reforms.” He’s referring to Indian economic liberalisation, which began in 1991, overseen by Manmohan Singh [then the finance minister, now prime minister] and which let loose much faster growth. “I asked him to produce a single piece of evidence that he was in favour. But he couldn’t. Because he was not in favour.”

We turn to Singh’s disappointing second term. The prime minister also studied at Cambridge – the pair first met there in 1955 – and has remained Bhagwati’s friend. “Sonia is basically running things,” he says, referring to Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic head of the Congress party. Singh, he says, is generous and humane. “Where he’s gone wrong is that he’s allowed it to affect his policy. There needs to be some toughness. And I think he’s basically a soft person.”

What about Modi, I ask? Does he have the requisite steel? Until recently, Gujarat’s chief minister was considered unelectable as prime minister because of his alleged failure to intervene during riots in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. “When 2002 happened, I like everybody else was shocked,” Bhagwati says of that tragedy. But he cites a Supreme Court-monitored inquiry (in 2012) which exonerated Modi. “When people say Modi is authoritarian, that I don’t believe. It sounds like he’s a fascist of some kind. But if people don’t exercise authority, nothing gets done. You need someone who is providing a vision of somewhere where you can go.” On one occasion he spent five hours with Modi. “I was so overwhelmed by him.”

Does he think Modi will win? Indian elections are notoriously tricky to predict. “Of course, it’s like cricket. You never know what might happen. But if he doesn’t come into power, I am not optimistic about India.” I ask if he thinks the country can get back on track after several mediocre years. Once there was an idea, now mostly forgotten, that the “tortoise” India could eventually overtake the “hare” – China. “That’s an exaggeration, I think,” he says. A crucial difference between the two countries is the type of corruption they have. India’s is classic “rent-seeking”, where people jostle to grab a cut of existing wealth. “The Chinese have what I call profit-sharing corruption”: the Communist party puts a straw into the milkshake so “they have an interest in having the milkshake grow larger”.

Fear of being accused of corruption has brought India’s decision-making to a standstill, a debilitating logjam that Bhagwati hopes Modi can clear. The government, he says, has also spent too much money, much of it on what Bhagwati considers ineffective subsidies. This has forced the central bank to raise interest rates, choking off growth. “That takes us into Amartya Sen territory because he is in favour of more spending,” Bhagwati says, unable to resist a little dig.

The main course arrives. My hake has subtle Asian flavours. “I always admire fusion food,” he says. “Because the only fusion food I can think of [making] is chow mein with sauerkraut.” This exchange reminds me of something Bhagwati’s wife Padma is reported to have said at his 70th birthday party. Knowing him to be fond of gourmet food, she tried to ease him into the culinary arts, first by getting him to prepare the morning coffee. Bhagwati, more familiar with the lecture theatre than the kitchen, asked: “Darling, how do I know the water is boiling?” Padma replied: “Darling, when it looks like champagne.”

I ask if he is worried about a drift towards Hindu nationalism. Some commentators in India sense a rising tide of intolerance. Modi’s BJP stresses Hindu cultural identity. “That part bothers me. I don’t know how to make up my mind on that,” he says, exhibiting doubt for the first time. But, he says, moderation will prevail: “Because that is more likely to be the case than extremism. Intolerance doesn’t work in democratic countries like ours. And we will remain democratic. That I am convinced of.”

I turn briefly to free trade, of which he has been a life-long advocate. International trade has helped many poor countries escape poverty but, I ask, would he agree that it has also led to a stagnation of wages in richer nations? No, Bhagwati says. That’s a Marxist theory. He thinks that labour-saving technology, not trade, has been driving down wages. Trade actually helps those with lower incomes by pushing down the cost of imported goods.

For dessert, Bhagwati chooses chocolate cake and then a cappuccino. I content myself with a black coffee. Finally, I broach the subject of the Nobel Prize. Does it still rankle? “Rankle is too strong a word. You get naturally worked up a bit on the day of the bloody thing, or the night before. But even that’s gone now. Because there’s no point. No one has any clue as to what goes on over there,” he says with a nod in the direction, I assume, of Sweden. Is it too late for him to win? “Who knows? It’s a lottery ticket. It’s like making babies. When you give up on it, you get one,” he says, hopefully. “My friend Leo Hurwicz got it at 91, Tom Schelling got it at 85. So, you never know.”

The waitress looks at his barely touched dessert. “Are we not enjoying our chocolate cake?” she asks. “No, I am. It’s just that I enjoy talking even more than eating,” he shoots back.

It would be great, even now, to receive the Nobel, he continues. “There’s nothing on international trade on which I’ve not written with some success. I shouldn’t be saying it myself but a lot of other people say it.” Then he wonders whether he’s been done down by his penchant for witticisms and his sharp, literary-inspired attacks. “I should”, he says, summoning one last chuckle, “probably get one for literature instead.”

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor



60 East 64th Street New York, NY 10065

Set lunch of tuna tartare; organic chicken; warm chocolate cake $28.00

Charred octopus $18.00

Roast hake $28.00

Three Saints Cabernet (2010) x3 $42.00

Filter coffee $4.00

Cappuccino $6.00

Total (incl tax and service) $154.00


Letter in response to this article:

Next guest: Sen / From Mr Abul Qasem

A refreshingly bibulous Lunch / From Mr Christopher Robbins

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article