Abid Hussain epitomised the liberal intellectual tradition
Abid Hussain, a distinguished citizen of India, passed away on June 21 at the age of 85. He was in London for a meeting; a sudden heart attack snatched him away from his family, friends, colleagues and admirers. Abid Hussain was a superb civil servant, a diplomat par excellence, a natural leader in the public sphere and a concerned citizen. He was held in great esteem by his peers, much admired by the young, consulted by national leaders, respected by corporate bosses, invited to speak by universities, and sought after by the international community. And his loss is bound to be felt nationwide. For me, Abid bhai was a close friend. And I have not quite come to terms with the reality that he is no longer with us.
Abid Hussain was born in Hyderabad on December 26, 1926, where he lived during the formative years of his life. As a young student, his politics was very much on the left. He was selected for the Hyderabad Civil Service. But it was not to be. The police action came. And an examination in Telugu intervened as an obstacle. It was not long before he was selected for the IAS in 1951. A chequered career followed. In Andhra Pradesh, he served as a legendary Collector of Visakhapatnam, where he is remembered with much affection. For the United Nations, he worked in Ankara and Bangkok. In the government of India, he was Secretary, Heavy Industry, and Commerce Secretary.
I first met Abid Hussain almost 30 years ago, in June 1983, when I was appointed Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Commerce. We had never seen each other before, but we must have been destined to meet. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. It was also a learning experience, with Abid as mentor, in the corridors of power. We had differences. Abid believed that the licence raj had become counterproductive so that it was time to rely far more on markets, while I believed that there was a critical role for the State in terms of strategic trade policy and industrial policy. There were fierce debates. Yet, in the process, there was openness, dialogue and persuasion. The reform of trade and industrial policies was an outcome of that process in which there were many actors but Abid was the catalyst and a leader. Outside the world of work, our friendship blossomed. We were in and out of each other’s homes. Our families became close.
For Abid Hussain, life after retirement provided exciting opportunities. He served as a Member of the Planning Commission, from 1985 to 1990, when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, where he exercised significant influence. He was appointed Ambassador to the United States, in 1990, when V.P. Singh became Prime Minister. It was a challenging period, when the relationship with the United States was beginning to be redefined following the end of the Cold War juxtaposed with the macroeconomic crisis and political instability in India. During this period, I was Chief Economic Adviser to the government of India. We worked together closely once again. I saw, at first hand, the networks he had developed with the government, industry, media, academia and society. He was a superb Ambassador who helped build our relationship with the U.S. in a changed world and in difficult times. On his return to India, he joined the newly established Rajiv Gandhi Foundation to lead the Institute of Contemporary Studies and create a remarkable meeting space for people with different, sometimes polar opposite, worldviews, to debate contentious issues in economy, polity and society. I recall a fierce debate on the demolition on the Babri Masjid where the widest possible cross-section participated. This was altogether new and it imparted a high profile to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. In theory, he retired after that. In practice, he never did. He continued to read, write and speak as a public intellectual.
There are some attributes of Abid Hussain that deserve special mention. First, he had remarkable leadership qualities embedded in delegation, trust and loyalty. If things went well, he gave the credit to those who worked for him. If things went wrong, he accepted the responsibility. There is a splendid story worth narrating. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once said to him: “Abid Saheb, I gather that you are partial and select only those whom you know or are your friends.” In reply, Abid Hussain said: “Yes, Madam, that is correct, but I assure you that everyone I choose is better than me.” Second, he searched for and nurtured talented young people, so rare in India. I was one of them. So was Jairam Ramesh. And there were others. Third, his relationships were never a function of office which is so characteristic of Delhi. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was very fond of Abid. In 1989, when he lost the elections, many of those allegedly loyal to him chose to stay away. But Abid met him regularly. Indeed, when Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who was also very fond of Abid, appointed him Ambassador to the United States, he told the then PM that he would meet the former PM, to consult him for advice. And so he did, several times, during his tenure as Ambassador. Fourth, Abid was secular in the real sense of the word both in belief and in practice. Indeed, his family is living testimony and proof of secularism in India. I recall his perceptive hypothesis when he said: “Deepak, we will be truly secular as a society only when you can attack Muslim fundamentalism and I can attack Hindu fundamentalism.”
Abid Hussain epitomised the liberal intellectual tradition. He was not simply a good listener. He had the capacity to learn from others. More unusual, he had the ability to unlearn from experience. Yet, he remained a person of strong convictions and uncompromising integrity. For all his attainments, he was unassuming and modest. Above all, he was a wonderful human being. The Abid I knew was a man of many parts: the admirable family person, a caring husband for Karki and a doting father for Sohail, Vishakha and Rana; a gem of a friend, warm affectionate and loyal; and a person with a zest for life, whether it was cuisine, clothing or parties. Abid Saheb was someone you could trust with your life. He will be sorely missed.
(Deepak Nayyar is Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Distinguished University Professor of Economics, New School for Social Research, New York.)