For a conservative, Deepak Lal saw deep strengths in India’s civil society

The of Deepak Lal’s death at his home in London reached me early on the morning of May 1. His wife, the reputed sociologist Barbara Ballis Lal had kept his Delhi friends advised of Deepak’s respiratory difficulties for the last couple of weeks. With some difficulty he had agreed to be admitted to hospital and the last I had was that he had been discharged. He and Barbara would normally have been in Delhi at this time, but they missed the travel window from London to Delhi by one day. Such is fate.

Deepak was half a generation older than me and I was aware of his formidable reputation as a student and a scholar well before we met. Our families knew each other from Lahore, and we had the Doon School and Oxford in common. The beginning of our intellectual engagement was at the World Bank. Deepak had served as a full-time consultant with Lovraj Kumar at the Planning Commission in 1973-74, introducing the fashionable techniques of rigorous project analysis developed for the OECD by James Mirrlees and Ian Little. My own contact with Deepak came a little later, through Dharma Kumar (Lovraj’s wife) who spent a year at the World Bank in the mid-1970s.

Deepak by then was on the faculty of University College London (UCL) but spent considerable stints at the World Bank in various roles in the Bank’s blossoming research programme under the guidance of Hollis Chenery. At that time Robert McNamara had re-oriented the World Bank away from an infrastructure-focused project lending agency to a country-focused entity committed to the reduction of poverty. The state was regarded as a benign, indeed central, agent in this endeavour.

By the late 1970s the political tide began to turn, first in the UK with the victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. I do not recall whether Deepak was an economic conservative as early as the 1970s or whether his views altered over the decade, but by 1983, when he published the influential The Poverty of ‘Development Economics, he had clearly aligned himself with the anti-dirigiste thinking of Friedrich Hayek and P T Bauer, both from the LSE. The arrival of Anne Krueger as World Bank Chief economist in 1982 provoked a major shift in the orientation of World Bank research which Deepak helped supervise as the Bank’s research administrator. Deepak moved from UCL to a faculty position at UCLA in 1991 but I am not in a position to comment on his skills as a teacher and research supervisor.

My more intense and continuous engagement with Deepak dates to 2001, when I took over as director-general of NCAER. Deepak had a standing invitation to visit NCAER on his periodic visits to Delhi and I continued that tradition. Over the 1980s and 1990s Deepak had produced an enormous body of work on country experiences with global development, on the economic origins of Indian social institutions (The Hindu equilibrium) and political structures conducive to economic and political liberty (In Praise of Empires). Many of these ideas found their summation in what, unfortunately, will have been his last book, War or Peace published in 2018.

There Deepak warned of both the threat and vulnerability of a China run by its communist party, but was sanguine that the combined strength of a still vital US and a resilient India were equal to the challenge. He saw the desired endgame not as co-existence but outright regime change, exploiting the brittleness of the system as Reagan had achieved with the Soviet Union. For a conservative Deepak saw deep strengths in India’s civil society, but despaired in the absence of an intellectual tradition of conservativism in India, which he had hoped would follow the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Despite his clarity of thought, controversial but well-researched views (rejecting the scientific consensus behind climate change, for example), fierce political convictions and global reputation and fame Deepak was at heart a shy man, most comfortable with a few friends around the dinner table with wonderful food from Barbara and good wine. His was an important, erudite voice in the pages of the Business Standard expressing a conservative perspective on global economic and strategic affairs. As a friend, as a mind, and as someone with deep faith in India’s manifest destiny, he will be greatly missed.

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