The op-ed column
In 1997, Ashok Desai asked me to start writing a fortnightly column in Business Standard, and I have been on this spot every alternate Wednesday with 1200 words of opinion. Before this, my experience with writing for newspapers, consisted of a sum total of two pieces: I had written about Fischer Black (of Black/Scholes fame) when he died in 1995, in The Times of India, and had written once for Business Standard in 1996. Dr. Desai didn't seem to think that was a constraint; he just sent me email saying "By all means be topical".
The importance of the op-ed page. The op-ed page in the pink papers is unusually influential in India. Elsewhere in the world, newspapers focus on news, and more in-depth treatments with analysis and viewpoints are found in a different breed of magazines. In the US, the best current thinking is found in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs and Harper's (all of which can be partly or wholly accessed over the web). In India, we don't have a magazine of the flavour of The New Yorker.
The importance of the academic literature in India is unfortunately quite limited. We have one effective venue for the treatment of contemporary problems, in the form of Economic and Political Weekly. Apart from EPW, the journals in India or abroad are remarkably unimportant in the stream of consciousness of the nation.
Elsewhere in the world, we have seen research papers done in academics having important real-world consequences. In 1994, a pair of papers which appeared in Journal of Finance led to a complete restructuring of the market design on NASDAQ, one of the last bastions of "market makers" in financial trading. In addition, they led to a record $1.03 billion settlement of a class-action investor lawsuit with dealers alleged to have overcharged them. The academic community in India has yet to engage with reality in such an effective fashion.
In 1981, there was a famous article which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly titled The Education of David Stockman. It was an in-depth and unflattering look at the budget process that was employed by the new U.S. president, Ronald Reagan. It made waves, and had a major impact on debates about economic policy in the U.S. at the time. We do not have a comparable arena where such articles appear in India, except for EPW (which can do full-length articles) and the op-ed page of the pink papers (which do short articles).
A budget of 1200 words. The unique problem of writing this column is the hard constraint of fitting within 1200 words. The ideal column would pose a question, offer innovative arguments, summarise and conclude, all in 1200 words. (This one does not pose a question, and hence is far from ideal). It has to address an interesting and important question, but succeed in offering some fresh insights. It has to be very careful to use plain english, and avoid technobabble. It makes a contribution when it addresses mainstream questions, but offers non-standard answers and new perspectives.
I had the good fortune of writing many a column on my home ground, India's financial sector. The period 1997-2001 was a very interesting time in finance, and this provided fertile ground for writing this column:
- The equity market had undergone a revolution from 1994-1996, but it took five years and a few crises to move on to the logical destination of rolling settlement and equity derivatives (in 2001).
- Surprisingly, the new ideas that came about on the equity market took a long time to find their way into trading other financial products in India, a process which has only begun in 2001, with the establishment of the Clearing Corporation of India, a new clearing corporation intended to serve the bond and currency markets.
- The global stock market boom, and the rise of IT stocks was a new and fascinating phenomenon.
- Finally, basic questions about bank regulation and fragility in banking were being thought out over these years, assisted by the "banking crises" in US-64 and difficulties in a few other banks.
My experience with this column has been quite remarkable; I repeatedly met people who noticed my arguments, disagreed with them, embellished them, and made them their own. On my home page on the web (
http://www.mayin.org/ajayshah) I see a steady stream of readers accessing my archive of past columns. For example, in the last one week, my piece on the merger between ICICI Bank and Bank of Madura (which appeared in 2000) was read 50 times.
Fluff and the new media. It is fashionable to think of serious content as being an unviable strategy in the media business. The newspaper of tomorrow is often envisaged as a combination of local news, cricket, movies and celebrity gossip. My sense is that this is an excessively narrow vision; that there is a place for a whole range of alternatives, going from The New Yorker to teenager fluff.
The spectacle of `the Indian development project' is compelling and interesting material for serious treatment in the press. Vijay Kelkar once eloquently reminded me that in an open society, ideas matter, and have a great influence upon the shape of our world. There will be a time (one day) when politics, governance and institutions in India have stabilised to an extent where they become boring, and the fluff will be all that is left of interest. We are probably one or two generations away from such a cosy world.
In his book The idea of India, Sunil Khilnani argues that these questions of politics, governance and institutions are the most important questions that face us today. These questions -- of who we are, and what we do in the space of public life, are truly important, and make compelling reading.
At first blush, it appears that there is a very large market in India for low-end products. At the same time, we are also experiencing a process where rising education and incomes are giving us a critical mass in the audience which takes interest in the world beyond movies and cricket. The remarkable growth of India Today and Outlook is consistent with this perspective, and I suspect that we may see magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly come about too.
I recently changed hats, and will be looking at `the Indian development project' from a different point of view, from inside the Ministry of Finance. Hence, this is my last column, and I will now bid the gentle reader goodbye.
Back up to Ajay Shah's media page