I. G. Patel

Economic statesman and Director of LSE

Monday 29 April 2013 04:00

I.G. Patel, Director of the London School of Economics between 1984 and 1990, was also a distinguished architect of economic policy-making in his capacity as an Indian and an international civil servant. He was the first person of South Asian origin to head a higher education institute in the UK and was well known for his formidable intellectual powers in the select company of central bankers and economic statesmen such as the "Committee of the Thirty" set up by the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

Indraprasad Gordhanbhai Patel was known as "IG" from his childhood days in Vadodara, then the capital of the princely state ruled by the Gaekwars of Baroda, where he was born in 1924. In those days the Patels were not as powerful a community as they became later, suffering discrimination against them from the higher castes. The story of IG's life charts the rise of his community in India's life. He surprised everyone by coming first in the Matriculation examination and established a record score that was never beaten. He then came top in his BA at the University of Bombay and went on to King's College, Cambridge, with a scholarship from the Gaekwars of Baroda. His tutor Sir Austin Robinson regarded him as his best tutee over his entire tenure as Fellow of King's. Patel returned to India and joined Baroda College as Professor of Economics and Principal in 1949, but was plucked the following year to join the Research Department of the International Monetary Fund by Edward Bernstein, who became his mentor. After five years there, Patel came back to Delhi as Economic Adviser to the Ministry of Finance in 1954 and spent the next 18 years in one or other top capacity in the Government of India.

In 1972 he became the Deputy Administrator of the UN Development Programme for five years, returning to take up the position of the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. It was during this period marked by turbulence in the foreign exchange markets that Patel's formidable intellectual powers came into use in sessions of the Bank for International Settlements. As one central banker once said to me, "IG had the smallest reserves but the biggest contribution to solving the tricky problems facing us." In 1982 he was appointed Principal of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, which he helped launch on a trajectory to become the best management school in India.

But again Patel was picked up to serve abroad. In 1984, he was chosen to be the Director of LSE, where he improved the school's finances and added several properties to its portfolio, as well as securing the freehold of the school's Old Building in Houghton Street. His quiet manner misled some academics to think of him as weak, but they were soon disabused. He had to handle student protest about LSE's investments in South Africa and their support of Winston Silcott, who had been convicted of the murder of a police officer in the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham. Patel handled both the situations with tact and firmness but also with a sympathetic understanding of students' concerns about racism. His initiatives, too, in setting up an innovative inter-departmental forum bore fruit in the Interdisciplinary Management Institute and the Development Studies Institute.

He returned to his native town of Vadodara but continued his hectic schedule of advising governments and institutions. He wrote succinct accounts of his experience as an economic policy-maker in Glimpses of Indian Economic Policy: an insider's view (2002) and of LSE in An Encounter with Higher Education: my years at LSE (2004).

I.G. Patel belonged to a generation that was too young to have taken part in the struggle for Indian independence but was imbued with the high ideals of public service, exemplified by Gandhi and Nehru. All his life he sought to serve the higher cause of economic progress with social justice. He was present at the creation of the post-war policy infrastructure for economic development in Washington and in Delhi. He was there at the launch of the Colombo Plan; he was involved in the Indian Second Five Year Plan in 1956 as well as the later two plans; he took part in building up the reputation of the UN Development Programme; he searched for solutions to the international currency crises in the aftermath of the breakdown of the Bretton Woods System; and he consolidated the reputation of the Reserve Bank of India as an architect of monetary stability.

I.G. Patel was a remarkably modest and unassuming man. He was also a very happy one, thanks to the devoted love of his wife Alaknanda, the daughter of the distinguished economist Professor A.K. Dasgupta, and a musician of much talent herself.

Meghnad Desai

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