Debating India

Puffed up in Oxbridge

Rashmee Z. AHMED

Thursday 20 May 2004

LONDON: As he moves to prime ministerial office, it is Manmohan Singh’s seven years in dreary university digs at Cambridge and Oxford back in the empire-exhausted Britain of the mid-1950s and early-60s that are held to be the key to his metamorphosis as an economist.

It was at Oxford , Singh’s supervisor at Nuffield College , told TNN that he began to change from orthodox Nehruvian economist to the great liberaliser.

Dr Ian M D Little, 85 and now retired, recalled with pride and fondness late on Wednesday: Indeed, Manmohan’s excellent, well-researched thesis changed a lot of minds. It definitely influenced me, which is quite unusual for a students work.

Nuffield, one of Oxford ’s wealthiest colleges, has its share of famous fellows and Nobel Laureates, including James Mirrlees and Severo Ochoa.

But on Wednesday, there were puffed chests and quiet pride at news of Singh’s elevation to India ’s highest office . The college confessed to having managed to dig up a lone "group photograph of Dr Singh".

Published 40 years ago by Clarendon Press with the forbidding title, " India ’s Export Trends and Prospects for Self-Sustained Growth", Little believes Singh’s thesis was the first to demonstrate an essential truth: That the poor performance of Indias exports was due to indigenous factors and not lack of world demand.

The thesis, says Little, was a product of his students extraordinary intellectual honesty. The very quiet, very hard working turbaned PhD student did not mix much with other students.

By all accounts, he was not a gay blade. Tutors and fellow students remember him as "subdued". He was "reliable" and "honest" but not charismatic, says Little. Overall, he was "a good man".

Instead of nights out on the town, Singh spent his two-year Oxford sojourn rigorously researching a closed-door subject and establishing the truth about India ’s dismal exports.

In the midst of planning his congratulatory letter to India ’s next prime minister, Little said Singh was probably one of Nuffields most outstanding students. I can’t think of any other who went on to become prime minister.

Meanwhile, over at Cambridge ’s 500-year-old St Johns College, where Singh did a BA and an MA and went on to become a serial winner of prizes for academic excellence, memories of the famous alumnus are slightly weaker.

Old Johnians recall that Singh’s old college has already awarded him its highest mark of honour.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, St Johns elected Singh an honorary fellow, to join roughly 35 other prominent alumni around the world.

Singh will add to a glittering list of prime ministerial Johnians, college sources stiffly told this paper.

The ancient Cambridge college, which is notoriously far more reticent than Oxfords so-called more plugged-in upstarts, is the alma mater of Lord Palmerston and William Cecil.

But that was nearly 200 years ago. Now, Singh is adding to Oxbridge’s international credentials as the universities of choice for those embarking on the universities of life overseas.

Singh’s economist peers at Oxford say his thesis was a landmark study and could be said to have begun the real process of conceptualising the eventual integration of India ’s autarkic economy with the rest of the world.

See online : The Times of India


in The Times of India, Thursday, May 20, 2004.

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