Ajit Singh, the iconic radical economist at the Cambridge Faculty for Economics for the past half century, passed away at his Newnham home on 23 June. Ajit had tutored, mentored, befriended and, in his latter days, godfathered generations of economists and development scholars at Cambridge. From Irfan ul Haque, Shahid Amjad Chaudhry, Sikander Rahim, Javed Hamid and Shaukat Farid in the 1960s, to Bob Rowthorne, Rashid Amjad, Najam Sethi, Naved Hamid, Ashwani Seth, Manek Sen, Akmal Hussain and Shahzad Azam in the 1970s, to Mohammad el Erian of PIMCO fame, Nadir Mahmood, Shukti Dasgupta, Asad Sayeed and Imran Cheema over the 1980s and 1990s, to Shanzeh Mahmood last year. This list, if it were not personalised, would of course be far, far longer.
Ajit was of the generation of Cambridge dons who have valiantly kept alive the intellectual tradition of Keynes, Piero Sraffa, Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor. They have sought to provide an alternative paradigm to the laissez fair neoclassical school of economics, challenging that economic behaviour was very different from that posited as the theoretical underpinnings of a purely market economy.
Ajit’s early work in microeconomics played an important role in developing a new approach to analysing the behaviour of the modern firm, which led to Marris’s pioneering work on “managerial capitalism”. Ajit then established his credentials at Cambridge with his major empirical study showing that modern firms were not so much profit maximisers as traditional theory had predicted, but more often than not growth maximisers, even at the expense of lower profits. He was to develop his work on the theory of the firm further by analysing conditions that made firms vulnerable to takeovers or led to mergers as a defence mechanism against hostile takeovers.
Ajit on being accused that his students had shifted from economics to politics: “Finally, they are doing something that is more relevant.”
This strong empirical grounding in observing economic behaviour also characterised Ajit’s work on macro-policy, which challenged growth and development models based on liberal open economies and the laissez faire market-led development of industry with a minimalist role for the state. The observed result of such market fundamentalism, supported by the international financial institutions (IFIs), was deindustrialisation, whether in 1980s UK or in the developing world. Ajit joined this debate head on, both in the UK and with the IFIs, arguing for a more judicious use of tariffs. Moazam recalls struggling to understand this new concept: that a country’s very resources could cause it to deindustrialise. Ajit, of course, was only empirically illustrating, using Stone’s model to great effect, what has now become the well-known “Dutch” resource curse.
As the Latin American economies came under pressure from the IFIs’ structural adjustment programs to liberalise their domestic and external economies – reducing the role of the public sector and welfare provisions for labour – Ajit sought to provide alternative macro-policy advice to these governments, particularly in the Mexican crisis. Of course, we know that the IFIs held sway and pushed for devaluation, which led employment and wages into free-fall for near a decade.
In his heyday, Ajit sought to question not just the theoretical underpinning of a purely market economy, but also to seek policy inspiration from alternative economic models for better outcomes in equity and inclusive growth. The search for alternative policy, which would benefit the working and poorer majority of the world populations, was Ajit’s intellectual passion. It made him outspoken. Irfan recalls that Frank Hahn, a dominant Cambridge don, accused Ajit: “Since your joining the faculty, students are no longer doing economics, but engaged in politics. Ajit shrugged: “Well, finally they are doing something that is more relevant.” And Ajit’s classes were packed, as Rashid recalls: you had to get in early or it was standing room only.
The quest for alternative policy to the status quo led Ajit to partner and collaborate with the International Labour Organisation in the search for more sustainable growth paths based on more equity, inclusion, poverty reduction and rights.
Of late, Ajit’s body had become frailer, but his mind remained brilliantly sharp and clear. Moazam recalls the privilege of working with him in the last decade or so, mostly on macro-theory, which he particularly inspired, quite tutor-like.
But above all, Ajit was a real friend – a friend of anyone who came into contact with him. Even where the relationship might have been unequal – on account of age or intellectual reach – he remained completely accessible. So the many people we have listed above, as his students, became his very good friends. There was an irresistible warmth in him and he had a great sense of humour.
Ajit is survived by his loving partner and intellectual companion of many years, Anne Zammit.
And we all say, once again – jee o Jeeta