Isher Judge Ahluwalia: Relentless professional, private person at heart

The news of Isher Ahluwalia’s passing away this morning came as a shock despite the fact that she had been ailing was common knowledge. If anyone could have beaten the odds, it would have been Isher with her iron will. 

My last face-to-face encounter with her was in Mumbai at the end of February. The occasion was the launch of ‘Backstage’, the memoir penned by her husband Montek Singh Ahluwalia, which, among many other things, is a testimony of their lives together. At the event, their son Pavan spoke openly of her medical battle and her decision to seek treatment in India instead of going abroad. 

She was in a wheelchair, and the effort to travel from Delhi must have been fatiguing. In the few minutes that we had to talk, I was startled to learn that she had embarked on her own memoirs, and even more impressed when I learned of the virtual launch of ‘Breaking Through’ toward the end of August, even though she could not participate herself. 

Taken together, the two books provide an invaluable account of the professional lives of these two talented and productive individuals. Here I therefore focus on the individual and the personal. 

I first met Isher in Washington soon after she and Montek had been married. I had known Montek when we were students in England and had followed him to Robert McNamara’s World Bank, then at the height of its elan and expansion. Outside the complacent cocoon of the Bank/Fund circuit however. the US was then almost as troubled as it is today. 

Nixon had undermined the Bretton Woods system by breaking the link between the dollar and gold in 1971; his paranoia led to the Watergate bugging in the fall of 1972 leading to his resignation in 1974. Meanwhile the Yom Kippur war led to the first oil shock in 1973. The still small circle of Indians at the Bretton Woods institutions was more concerned with equally momentous events at home: the Bangladesh war, the US ‘tilt’ toward Pakistan by Kissinger and Nixon, and then the declaration of the Emergency by Mrs Gandhi. 

Montek and Isher lived in an apartment in Georgetown, a fashionable part of the Washington and Isher’s tradition of hospitality was already in evidence with a wide array of interesting guests. As I recall Isher was then doing her initial assignments at the IMF, but in an early mark of her drive, she applied for a fellowship at the prestigious Brookings Institution to continue work on her MIT dissertation, a macro model of the Indian economy. True to form she got the job finished. Soon thereafter she returned to the Fund, they bought a house in the nearby suburbs where their first son Pavan was born. 

In 1979 Montek was selected as Economic Advisor in the Finance Ministry, and Isher embarked on her illustrious professional career in India, largely associated with two public policy research institutions: CPR (the Centre for Policy Research) and then ICRIER (the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations). With the latter she first served as CEO and then accepted the position as Board chair, a position she held with distinction till last month. 

My direct professional and personal contact with her became firmer on my own arrival at a sister research organisation, NCAER (the National Council of Applied Economic Research). She joined our Board when Montek returned from a brief stint at the IMF to take up an appointment as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in 2004. We worked together till I demitted office in 2011. 

Three characteristics remain imprinted in my memory. 

First is Isher’s relentless drive for high standards, both as a member of the NCAER Board and even more so in ICRIER when she took over as Chairperson. She had direct experience of global standards on the Board of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC and believed Indian non-profit organisations should aim equally high, irrespective of different resource levels. 

Second, she believed passionately in the application of knowledge to policy which is why she devoted her energy and talent to policy research institutions for much of her professional life. 

Third, she led from the front intellectually, combining personal research and writing with institutional management till the end. 

While at heart she was a private person it was clear that her faith was important to Isher and perhaps it was this that was the source of her energy and drive. Her legacy lies not only in her work and the institution she helped build, but in the younger generation of scholars and analysts she helped recruit and develop. May she rest in peace.   

/> Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi. He is currently Non-resident Fellow at the Brussels think-tank Bruegel



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