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Zoning in on a Talisman

Harsh Sethi

By Ashok Mitra
Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 268, Rs. 450.00


Not too many of us may remember the journalism of the early seventies. In part because those were tumultuous and troubling times a world apart from the current obsessions with India shining or as a superpower in the making. Even as the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was consolidating her image as a left of centre, populist and nationalist politician – via garibi hatao, bank nationalization, abolition of privy purses and, above all, inflicting a resounding defeat on Pakistan and helping the birth of Bangladesh – there were magazines that struck a critical and contrarian chord. Foremost among them was the Economic and Political Weekly, which alongside Mainstream, Frontier, and Seminar became mandatory reading for young radicals. The more scholarly may have appreciated the EPW for its eclectic collection of academic articles, but even those of us unable to follow the more dense offerings looked forward eagerly to the trenchant columns and indepth field reportage from the troubled zones of the country, areas and people which did not quite share the euphoria of the ruling party. Undoubtedly, the star performer among a galaxy of notables was Ashok Mitra writing as AM. His ‘Calcutta Diary’ formed the staple for intense weekly discussion as he ripped apart the foibles and pretensions of the ruling elite. Even today, three decades later, those of us who came of age in those engaged times – the movements for land and wages, the Naxalite uprising, the Railway Strike, the Gujarat and Bihar movements, and the list is unending, as also the repression and crackdown by a beleagured political class culminating in the Emergency – can remember many of the trenchant and often prescient essays. Then, as now, it was intriguing to learn that these essays, invariably biting and polemical in the best sense were penned, not by a disillusioned radical innocent of the complexities of modern day governance but by an economist who had served at senior levels in government and helped in policy-making, both at home and abroad. Even more amazing was the range – ‘politics and sports, commoners to corporations, poetry to processions, local to global’ – surely not the staple of economists. And the edge in the writings came not just from the fact that Mitra was associated with the CPI(M), subsequently going on to serve as Finance Minister with the Left Front government of West Bengal. What marked the essays out was not a ‘party line’ but ‘...

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