In the birth centenary year of S. Bhoothalingam, ICS, a tribute by his son to his many-sided talents and achievements.
S. Bhoothalingam, my father, studied economics in Cambridge University during 1929-1931, just before the Great Depression. There his teachers and mentors were Pigou, Keynes, Robertson, Kahn and Joan Robinson. He read widely in history and philosophy, and taught himself French. From this early exposure he gained the lesson that economics is more a method of approach than a body of knowledge with fixed answers. What he termed “the method of Socratic questioning combined with Cartesian logic” stayed with him.
His approach to economics, though analytical, was far from deterministic. He learnt from Keynes that mathematics is only a tool, a very useful one. He developed the realisation that economics is what he termed “an organic science,” closer to biology than to the physical sciences. This led him to the insight that economics is more of an evolutionary process, where a multiplicity of causes works together, rather than an exact science that is strictly governed by inexorable mathematical laws. He developed a healthy scepticism towards economists who needed to use detailed and complicated mathematics. This, he felt, was an inherently apologetic attempt to force economics into a pale imitation of physics.
His Socratic-Cartesian approach, deep knowledge of economics, and eclectic reading, produced a unique writing style. His prose was simple and lucid, with short sentences. Verbs were verbs, conveying action. Never did he use mealy-mouthed language such as “it would seem” or the bureaucratically ambiguous “may.” He eschewed the quaint and archaic language the Indian bureaucracy invented for itself after Macaulay. To lend colour, he used analogy and example.
During the years of his service in government, economic controls played a very large part. The ‘control raj' started during the Second World War received renewed life and vigour under the governments of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. As he served in the commercial, industrial and economic arms of government throughout his career, he was closely involved in the formulation, evolution and implementation of economic controls. His views on these are interesting, articulated as they were in the context of those times. On controls, he felt frustrated by the “one step forward, one step sideways or backwards” approach adopted by the government, which was “willing to strike but afraid to wound.” He was not against controls as a philosophy.
In accordance with his general approach, his analogy was that “markets must be used as a sailor uses the wind.” The market was the wind, and controls were the sails. The good sailor would choose and set the right sails to take advantage of prevailing winds and so move towards the destination. The incompetent sailor would either not choose the appropriate sails, or persist with the same settings even when the wind had changed. The vessel would then at best be becalmed, or at worst, move in the opposite direction.
Similar was his approach to the raging debate of his time: public sector versus private sector, which was “better”? He argued that this was posing the question wrongly. In his view, the real problem was to distinguish between good management from bad management. There were several examples of good management in both sectors, and many more of bad management too. What were the key differentiators? He pointed to the example of the French public sector (in the 1960s) as an illustration of success.
One is often asked: “Was Bhoothalingam a leftist or a rightist?” His own answer to this question was that the true question was not between left and right but between “the modern and the medieval.” There was not much difference in the relative endowments of leftists and rightists — they had several modern ideas, but also many more old and tired shibboleths. The trick was to distinguish between the two, and choose novel combinations that met the objective. Here his years of experience in practical administration in the districts served him in good stead. A good policy will deliver only what the delivery system is capable of handling.
He kept this in mind while designing schemes and programmes. He understood the need to take calculated risks and encourage innovation. His strategy of cautious experimentation followed by mass roll-out was more famously adopted by Deng Xiao Ping in China, who gave it the picturesque name of “crossing the river by feeling the stones.”
In the final analysis, what mattered were his qualities of character. He had integrity, moral and financial. He had the confidence and the conviction, harmonised with pragmatism and the willingness to learn. He had the generosity and the ability to inspire a team, invest in the members of the team and let it take credit for a job well done. He had a sense of comme il faut, which motivated him to work and take important decisions until the very hour of his retirement.
He often said that one day he would write a book titled ‘Beyond Economics' which would spell out his personal beliefs and philosophy of life. That never came. But this final quote might give a pointer: “The only way to work properly and not lose your balance is that whenever you take a decision, you must be there on the assumption that you are going to be there for all time. Otherwise, you will not really envisage the future.”