Why is CPI(M) in Kerala Scared of Gita Gopinath and Neoliberalism?

Gita Gopinath can help Kerala get much-needed help from financial institutions, writes Shashi Tharoor.

5 min read
Why is CPI(M) in Kerala Scared of Gita Gopinath and Neoliberalism?

The news that the Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) decided this weekend to “note” Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s appointment of Harvard’s Prof Gita Gopinath as an economic adviser – rather than erupt, fulminate or issue stern reprimands – must not pass unremarked. The Politburo was, after all, in receipt of a letter from CPI(M) founder member and Pinarayi’s predecessor in the CM post, VS Achuthanandan, complaining at the new CM’s dereliction in departing from Marxist orthodoxy by appointing a “neoliberal” economist from that bastion of American capitalism, Harvard University. The party bosses ignored the veteran and implicitly blessed his arch-rival and successor.

This is no small matter. “Neoliberal” is the equivalent of a four-letter word to devotees of Marxist doctrine, so Communists would normally regard anyone sporting such a label as the Taliban might regard an apostate. That such a heretic could be appointed to an important economic position by a Communist chief minister is almost unthinkable to the faithful, and absolute anathema to the custodians of Marxist dogma like Achuthanandan. But Pinarayi went ahead and did it anyway, and now, strikingly, his party has fallen in line.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan addresses a press conference, New Delhi, 18 June, 2016. (Photo: IANS)

Why the Brouhaha?

Something is churning in Communist politics, and it isn’t just the bile in Achuthanandan’s gut. In itself, the appointment may not be such a big deal; in fact, there may be less to it than meets the eye. Gopinath will be an adviser, not an employee; she will have no executive position; she will not be paid, and she will not even move to Thiruvananthapuram, but continue teaching at Harvard, from where she will fire off emails as and when requested. Pinarayi will consult her on Kerala’s economic options from time to time, and be free to disregard her advice if it does not suit him. This is hardly tantamount to the wholesale jettisoning of Marxist dogma bewailed by the likes of Achuthanandan.

But still, for a Kerala chief minister to go beyond the tried and tired ranks of Marxist economic pundits – of whom there is no shortage in our country – to tap the talents of a Harvard economic professor signals an important shift. Pinarayi, who has developed a reputation as an arch pragmatist, is aware of what a prize asset Gopinath can be. With her reputation and her connections – she is a member of the prestigious Federal Reserve Bank’s economic advisory panel – hers is a name to be reckoned with in influential international economic circles.

Without stirring from her Ivy League perch, she could be useful in pursuing Kerala’s ambitions by plugging the state into a global network of knowledge and money it currently does not have access to. Her address-book (or mobile phone contacts list) may be as useful to Kerala as the content of her economic advice. Pinarayi understands this; the Communist theocracy in his state does not.

Embracing Neoliberalism

  • Fears over Harvard economist’s appointment unfounded as CM Vijayan will only consult her on economic issues and can choose to ignore her suggestions.
  • Gita Gopinath can give Kerala access to international financial expertise as well as funds from abroad.
  • Kerala is in dire need of funds to finance its various welfare programs.
  • Dilemma of a party associated with welfarism is that of embracing neoliberal policies which is against its very ethos.
  • Perhaps the Left’s central leadership realises the demand of changing times and has therefore decided to lend support to Pinarayi Vijayan.

Kerala’s Financial Distress

I have only met Gita Gopinath once, at a conference on India in New York, and was suitably impressed. She is only the third woman, and the first Indian after Amartya Sen, to be awarded a professorship in economics at Harvard. This is a considerable accomplishment, and Gopinath is, at 44, one of her profession’s rising stars. Just a few weeks ago, when a prominent Kerala TV channel requested me to serve on a jury to pick ten eminent American Malayalis for recognition, I expressed surprise at her omission from the long list and insisted upon her inclusion in the shortlist. Pinarayi’s appointment came as a vindication. I had no hesitation in applauding it when the controversy erupted.

Kerala is, not to put too fine a point on it, virtually broke. It needs to raise funds from international markets to finance its ambitious sustainable development goals, maintain the welfarism which the Communists consider their finest achievement, and begin to overcome the huge infrastructure deficiencies caused by decades of Communist obstructionism and Achuthanandan-style Marxist orthodoxy.

Kerala’s Marxists have no special competence in dealing with international financial institutions, big foreign funds or international markets in general. Gopinath’s connections and her easy familiarity with the world of international finance could stand the state in good stead.
CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, party leader Prakash Karat and others during a Politburo meeting, New Delhi, 29 May, 2016. (Photo: IANS)

Fraught with Marxist Ideals

That she will be advising a Communist government – run by parties whose red-flag-waving record of militancy and extortion drove investors away from the state – may be less relevant than many fear. Pinarayi is likely to seek the same way out of his state’s troubles as his Congress predecessor, Oommen Chandy. In ideological terms he is in the mould of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese strongman who famously declared, “I don’t care if the cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice.” In that spirit, prior to appointing Gopinath, Pinarayi had already hired KPMG as consultants to make proposals on reforming the state’s laws and procedures, with a view to improving its “Ease of Doing Business” record.

For Achuthanandan and his ilk, brought up on slogans, hartals, demonstrations and strikes, conformity to an outdated ideological line and adherence to tired Marxist orthodoxy is far more important than attracting investment, raising funds, transforming infrastructure or developing Kerala. For Pinarayi, the opposite is the case. Fortunately, the national leadership of the party has understood that the old ways would only guarantee political irrelevance in the 21st century, whereas Pinarayi could deliver results and therefore extend the viability of a fading party. Faced with the old stalwart’s complaints, the Politburo was happy to leave it to the new CM to do what he judged necessary for his state.

While Achuthanandan, at 92, rails about the colour of the cat, Pinarayi will set about catching mice. For the rest of us, and for all interested in the future of the Communist movement in India, this quarrel for the party’s soul should be well worth watching.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached at @ShashiTharoor)

Also read:
Dear Kerala Chief Ministers, Five Years in Power is All You Get
Chandy vs Chennithala Cost Congress Kerala Says Shashi Tharoor

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