Perhaps it is the frailty of a social animal, perhaps it is a deeply ingrained lack of self-assurance: in spite of being close to knocking at the door of ninety, one hankers after an occasional affectionate pat on the back from the handful of real and proper nonagenarian friends still around. I have recently lost two such friends — K.S. Krishnaswamy passed away June last, and R. Krishnamurti in July. Of the two, Krishnaswamy, an economist of rare acuity, was fairly well known in financial and economic circles, since he was a key figure in the Reserve Bank of India for decades and played a central role in the rapid expansion of banking operations across the country in the final quarter of the last century. He was also intensely involved in Sachin Chaudhuri’s adventure with the fledgling Economic Weekly (now the Economic and Political Weekly) in the 1950s; that was how we came to our camaraderie that stretched over some decades.
R. Krishnamurti’s trajectory was somehow different. When the Birla Group decided in 1944 to experiment with a financial and economic periodical and floated the Eastern Economist, they invited Devdas Gandhi to shepherd, at least, initially, the new venture in addition to his responsibilities as editor of the Hindustan Times. Gandhi in turn invited P.S. Lokanathan, the distinguished economist then teaching in Madras, to assist him. Lokanathan arrived, along with his former student, R. Krishnamurti, who joined the editorial staff of the journal. Lokanathan soon became the formal editor. His burning nationalism aside, Krishnamurti had a sharp and felicitous style of presentation. He wrote a number of extremely penetrating pieces in the Eastern Economist on the cynicism and callousness on the part of the foreign rulers which allowed the monstrous horror of the Bengal famine to take place. When Lokanathan responded to the invitation of the United Nations to be the first executive head of its economic commission for Asia and the Far East at Bangkok, Krishnamurti once again accompanied him and found his niche in the new organization. He did not shed his nationalism, but the ESCAP helped him accommodate it within the format of a global perspective. A little more than half a dozen years of learning the ropes of how the UN functioned — and he was ready to move to its headquarters in New York as an economist specializing in international trade negotiations. That was his destiny for the next 30 years.
Krishnamurti could have led the cushy life of a dull and dumb international civil servant. He chose to be contrary. His abiding abhorrence of colonialism goaded him to resist, to the extent he could, the neo-colonial machinations to turn the UN, too, into an inert status quo-ist bureaucracy rather than a living, throbbing organism for heralding a new international social and economic order as pledged in its charter. Few knew as he did the rules and procedures of the different UN agencies, or were more conscious than him of the import of its credo to serve each and every member-country on the basis of equality. Adherence to the credo exhorted him to reach out, to protect and enhance the interest of the less — and least — developing countries. The grotesquely skewed pattern of exchange of goods and services between rich and poor economies was a major factor underlying global inequity. The aura of bossmanship was pervasive in the upper reaches of the UN organization, including the security council; nonetheless, Krishnamurti the idealist was convinced, it would be catastrophic if the UN and its agencies were allowed to go to seed. In his preferred area of concern — international trade — the credo called for eradication of inequalities in exchange relations between countries, with no one dominating others.
More easily said than done. The voice of the poor nations did not yet create any measure of concern within the superstructure of the UN; the need was to provide a room of one’s own for the world’s poor nations within the fold of the sprawling institution itself. Something happened then: Raul Prebisch was executive secretary of the UN economic commission for Latin America for long years. This dour Argentinean was special; he articulated the Latin-American ethos at least a decade before the Fidel Castros and Che Guevaras arrived on the scene, even though his lingo and modus operandi differed from theirs. He did not take to the mountain, but preferred to plot and scheme a Latin American resurgence by using the institutions of the UN. Krishnamurti met him and discovered a hero. The developed countries — mostly formerly imperialist ones — had set up a think shop in Paris for protecting their threatened interests in the post-colonial era, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The developing countries, Prebisch felt, needed a similar agency to propagate their cause. The landscape, however, appeared disappointing. The Afro-Asian Conference was not comprehensive enough even for Asia and Africa, and the military juntas, who still ruled most of South and Central America, were overwhelmingly under the spell of the United States of America. The moral and financial backing called for for the setting up of a countervailing body to the OECD was not there. In the circumstances, Prebisch argued, why not use the cloak of the UN itself to establish such an institution. Krishnamurti was excited, and went to work. From then on, it was a tale of endeavour, frustration and compromise.
The UN secretary-general constituted a steering committee, with Prebisch himself as its chairman, to examine the latter’s proposals and make recommendations. Prebisch knew what he wanted: an entity with total identification with the interests and aspirations of the poor countries and a global trading system liberated from the stranglehold of exploitation, entanglements and manipulations. The agency to implement these objectives would be an integral unit of the UN, financed and nurtured by it. The Western powers could not go along. If Prebisch wanted a countervailing influence in the comity of nations to confront the OECD, he was welcome to pursue his dream, but why expect the UN, with its concepts and corpus of universal representation, to be its beast of burden? The steering committee reached a deadlock on the matter.
At this stage, Krishnamurti, who too was a member of the committee, initiated a round of quiet, after-hours talks with proponents of the two confronting views. He had the mandate from Prebisch, others had respect for the range of knowledge he had with regard to the UN rulebook and its rigidities as well as it flexibilities. The compromise Krishnamurti’s exertions resulted in was the UN Conference on Trade and Development, with headquarters in Geneva and Raul Prebisch its founder director-general; Krishnamurti was, naturally, his chef de cabinet and came to be widely known as the UNCTAD man.
It was in a sense a satisfactory denouement, and yet was not. The richer countries soon discovered the shackles they had imposed on UNCTAD were not enough, Prebisch’s — and Krishnamurti’s — objectives were far different from theirs. They gradually started by-passing Prebisch’s agency and found it convenient to make basically the Geneva-based, overtly conservative-minded outfit, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the focal point for the so-called Dunkel negotiations which led to the coming into being of the World Trade Organization. True, this turn of events was the direct consequence of the disappearance of the Soviet Union from the political map. The poor nations lost their bargaining counter; the UNCTAD was made irrelevant.
By then, Prebisch was dead and Krishnamurti had retired. He spent his final years with his children in the US and suffered the spectacle of the re-emerging West back to its old tricks of manipulation via potently unfair patents regimes and suchlike. He was in retirement, but he kept an open door for diplomatic negotiators from the developing countries — not just India — which sought his counsel. They would spend enchanting evenings at his place, devoutly listening to him, while savouring the delicious meal served by his wife, Meenakshi. The couple were merely continuing the hospitality they had begun extending while still in New York or Geneva.
What was extraordinary was the radical fire Krishnamurti maintained within himself and the intense pride he felt as an Indian citizen in spite of the long, continuous stay overseas. He would watch closely the worsening situation in India and seethe in frustration and anger.
In the week following his death in July, a letter arrived from his daughter. Krishnamurti knew the end was near and wanted his daughter to convey to me a last entreaty: till as long as it was physically possible, I must continue with my writings, dissent is golden, it is heresies which shape history, maybe with a time-lag.