PM Narendra Modi joked that media trying to trap me: Abhijit Banerjee

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian-American Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics this year, during a meeting at the PM's residence, in New Delhi
Abhijit Banerjee, this year’s Indian-born Economics Nobel Laureate, met Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi on Tuesday morning. Soon after, Modi tweeted that it was an excellent meeting and that “India is proud of his accomplishments”. Banerjee shared the Nobel with co-researchers Esther Duflo, who he’s married to, and Michael Kremer. Duflo, the youngest Economics Nobel winner, wasn’t present at the meeting with the PM. 

“Excellent meeting with Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee. His passion towards human empowerment is clearly visible. We had a healthy and extensive interaction on various subjects. India is proud of his accomplishments. Wishing him the very best for his future endeavours,” the PM wrote on his personal Twitter handle, @narendramodi. 

Banerjee was prompt to thank the PM, though not on social media. Speaking to the media later, he said, “Thank you, PM... that was a unique experience.” Responding to how the conversation with Modi had gone, Banerjee laughingly quipped he wouldn’t get into any controversial subject as he had been warned by the PM. But, the professor spilled the beans by saying the PM had started the conversation by cracking a joke on how the media was trying to trap him to say “anti-Modi things”. He went on to say, “The PM has been watching TV and watching you guys. And he knows what you are trying to do.” 

On a more serious note, Banerjee described the meeting with Modi as “cordial” and “good”. “The PM was kind enough to give me quite a lot of time and to talk a lot about his way of thinking about India, that was unique,” he said. He added that while “one hears about policies, one rarely hears about the thinking behind them”.

The two also spoke about the various aspects of governance. The emphasis was on “the structure of elite control over the process of governance”, that runs the risk of making the government less responsive. 

Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee with Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim

“He (Modi) very nicely explained how he’s trying to reform the bureaucracy to make it more responsive…,” the economist said, adding it’s important for India to have a bureaucracy that lives on the ground.

While claiming that he wouldn’t get into controversial turf, Banerjee termed the banking crisis in the country as “critical and frightening”. While pointing out that there’s need to worry, he said, “We need some important and aggressive changes”. 

He argued for reducing the government stake in public sector banks to below 50 per cent, so that there’s no interference from the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). Even as checks and balances are needed, CVC was allowing a rot in public sector banks, he said.

Banerjee and Duflo have been in India for the past few days to promote their book Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems. A professor at the US’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Banerjee has said in his recent interviews that a cut in corporation tax rate might not boost demand. He has been advocating increasing the tax on the rich and making cash available for the poor to improve consumption at the time of an economic slowdown.

Some politicians in the current dispensation have been critical of Banerjee. Recently, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal said Banerjee had a Left-leaning mindset and that his views had already been rejected by India. Some others in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had made personal remarks on Banerjee. To that he had reacted saying he was upset with such personal comments. Against that backdrop, Banerjee’s meeting with the PM was seen as significant.

Even as he has opposed the corporation tax rate cut as a way to boost economy, Banerjee has said that many other things that the current government has done, including many of its welfare schemes for the poor, are in the right spirit. Banerjee and Duflo have been awarded Nobel for their work on randomised controlled trials, or RCT—an experimental approach to alleviate global poverty.