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The visible hand

If most of my readers are unfamiliar with the name of Prasanta Pattanaik, this is because he is an “economist’s economist,” writes Kaushik Basu.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2007 22:29 IST

When the letter came inviting me to a conference at the University of California, Riverside, to honour Prasanta Pattanaik on his retirement, it caught me by surprise. It seemed just the other day in Delhi when we spoke sotto voce about Amartya Sen’s legendary student, who completed his PhD in record time from the Delhi School of Economics and became full professor at the age of 30, rivaling Sen’s own record of underage professorship. That was in the early seventies.

If most of my readers are unfamiliar with the name of Prasanta Pattanaik, this is because he is an “economist’s economist”. Virtually all his research is in rarefied abstract theory that straddles the narrow space between mathematical logic, moral philosophy and welfare economics. But within the economics profession he has been hugely successful, with a string of seminal papers, beginning with a note that he wrote in his early twenties and published in the Economic Journal in 1967, one year before he completed his PhD. This was followed quickly by papers in leading international journals like the Review of Economic Studies, Journal of Economic Theory and a famous article on the mathematical properties of majority voting in Econometrica in 1970.

Pattanaik’s rise was remarkable. He came from rural Orissa, with none of the surface polish that Indian students from big cities and famous colleges have. His English has a marked Oriya accent. But he has the gift of intelligence and an ability for abstract reasoning that has taken him to the top of the profession. I have co-authored a paper and have co-edited a book (in honour of our common PhD adviser — Amartya Sen) with him, and have direct evidence of his superior mind.

It seemed completely apt that his retirement would be a grand occasion, with speakers from Japan, Europe and all over the US, and, most importantly, featuring Amartya Sen. It must be because of his special relationship with Pattanaik that he readily accepted the invitation from the University of California. And Professor Sen really rose to the occasion with two magisterial lectures he gave — one on moral philosophy and one on economic theory. It is quite amazing how Amartya Sen continues to grow in stature as a philosopher and public intellectual. I have never seen anyone better able to combine wit and wisdom.

Having followed Amartya Sen’s work closely, I know most of his oeuvre and events — scholarly and trivial. But I learned a new story this time. Within a few weeks of being a student in Cambridge, he got tired of the cod dish that was served with unerring regularity in the cafeteria. So when the dish appeared once again, he protested that he did not eat cod. As he moved away with his plate of vegetables, he heard one of the old ladies who served food berating the other, “Don’t you know, cod is their sacred fish.”

The styles of these two great scholars are a study in contrast. Sen is flamboyant, garrulous and, by a wide margin, the great philosophical conversationalist. Pattanaik is self-effacing and a person of few words (though he has a quiet sense of humour).

The contrast was evident when Sen arrived on the first evening at the university auditorium for his main lecture. The crowds were large; people had come from several neighboring towns. As the milling audience poured into the auditorium, Prasanta Pattanaik, Bhaskar Dutta (economist and PhD student of Pattanaik) and I chatted outside the auditorium. A local newspaper reporter came up to Professor Pattanaik and asked, “Am I right that this big affair is all in your honour?” Bhaskar and I answered for him in the affirmative. She went on to ask many questions and then asked, “Can I take a photograph of yours?” Pattanaik responded softly that he preferred not to be photographed.

Feeling deflated, she turned to Bhaskar and me and asked whether we minded being photographed. We said we did not; so she clicked. And then asked, “By the way, who are you?”

Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University.