“What Do JNU Students Do All Day?” Ask Economics Nobel Winner Abhijit Banerjee

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“What Do JNU Students Do All Day?” Ask Economics Nobel Winner Abhijit Banerjee

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

The Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to economist Abhijit Banerjee on Monday, and all of Bengal has been falling over itself to claim this prestigious honour as its own. Banerjee, a Presidency College graduate, has now become the second Bengali academic to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, after Amartya Sen in 1998. He shares the award with French economist Esther Duflo, who also happens to be his wife, and American developmental economist Michael Kremer, for their collective work on alleviating global poverty.

Apart from creating a massive roshogolla shortage in the state, this award has been significant for another reason — not everyone has been very pleased to see this particular Indian honoured on the global stage, especially not the sort who otherwise consider themselves very patriotic. You see along with Banerjee’s long list of credentials — he’s currently a professor at MIT — he also has a bit of a “notorious” past (he spent 10 days in Tihar for agitating against a JNU administrative policy), at least if you’re the kind who watches TV news these days. 

For one, he’s been very outspoken about the failure of demonetisation, saying the pain created as a consequence of the note ban would be higher than initially expected. More recently he was critical of the economic slowdown in India; he opined that the economy was on “shaky ground” and that the government would have to carry out “pilots of policy initiatives more carefully”. He’s even worked with Congress governments on schemes like NYAY in the past, adding to his list of “anti-national” achievements.

But this is all minor stuff, really, when compared to his biggest flaw — his educational background. Banerjee just happens to be an alumnus of the most hated educational institute in modern right-wing intellectual circles, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Banerjee was awarded a postgraduate degree from JNU in the ’80s, when the infamous “Kanhaiya & Co.” were still in school. As most of us know, over the last few years, the university has been the subject of a pretty public debate. It started when the students were first accused of raising anti-India slogans (facts that still haven’t been proved), and escalated when BJP MLA Gyandev Ahuja claimed to have counted the number of used condoms at the university campus (probably only raising its real estate value in the eye of every college aspirant). 

Even the Governor of Meghalaya couldn’t get away with praising Abhijit Banerjee, having to immediately clarify on Twitter that he was against everything NYAY and the Congress stood for.

Since then, the smear campaign against JNU has been in full effect. TV news channels have even bothered to come up with fun names for its students: “Tukde-Tukde gang”, “Urban Naxal”, “anti-India gang”, to mention a few. Each time there was a proper TV debate, a news anchor would invariably look seriously into the camera and ask, “What is it that these students do at JNU anyway?” Then they’d answer, “Leech off our taxpayers’ money, of course.”

This “anti-intellectual gang” questioned why any student could possibly ever need more than a year in college to earn a PhD, politicians asked why they were sitting in canteens all day, and more eager internet commenters had visions of ultra-Left groups and money from Pakistan making its way to South Delhi.

So on Monday, the fact that the Nobel committee didn’t even bother to make a mention of the condom-counting MLA’s “entire math” skills, and instead awarded a man who is essentially an outspoken critic, might have stung a bit. Even the Governor of Meghalaya couldn’t get away with praising Abhijit Banerjee, having to immediately clarify on Twitter that he was against everything NYAY and the Congress stood for. He eventually backed himself into a corner, and ended his statement with the bizarre, “Even Zionist Jews were proud of Karl Marx.”

Anyway the Nobel Committee did get around to answering the question that’s been asked all these years — this is what (the more gifted) students of JNU go on to do. Since graduating from the university, the Nobel Laureate Banerjee has received a PhD from Harvard University (as if that matters), and is currently the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. He is a founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab which has conducted nearly 600 projects in the last few years including a pollution control audit in Gujarat, MGNREGA experiments, and a number of partnerships with the government of Tamil Nadu (and you thought it couldn’t get worse).

Banerjee has also been the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which presumably doesn’t mean much apart from the fact that he didn’t get to spend much time at JNU learning how to play “Wonderwall” on his guitar, and raising slogans against the country.

Anyway, now that the nation’s most pressing question has been successfully answered by an international committee, we can move on to other questions, such as, “What’s next for this Nobel Laureate in his home country?” State honours? Maybe a statue or two? My money is on #BoycottNobel.

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