Ashoke Mitra was a rare breed among the Bengali intellectuals. Even weeks ago before he died on May 1 at the age of 90, he was writing articles for his magazine which he established in his late years.
He was born in Dhaka, capital of present-day Bangladesh. In his early life he picked up the spirit of nationalism from persons like Lila Majumdar, a famous personality in Bengali literature. He graduated from Dhaka University in Economics, where was influenced by Professor Amiya Dasgupta, a classical economist. Professor Dasgupta imbibed in Mitra the economic ideas of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, J S Mill and Karl Marx.
Some of ideas of classical economics are based on labour theory of value, existence of economic class, suitable distribution of incomes in an economy etc. Determination of value of a commodity was one of the key criteria of Classical Economics. Labour Theory of value considers that the value of a commodity depends on the amount of socially necessary labour time involved in it. This is as opposed to the Neo-classical Economics (S Jevons, A Marshal, L Walras, etc.) which is concerned with determining relative prices, The ideas of Classical Economists that Mitra inherited in his undergraduate studies held a permanent place in his ideology.
After the partition of India, Mitra left Dhaka and came to Calcutta but was unable to continue his masters in Calcutta University for some technical reasons. He was admitted in Benaras Hindu University for his post graduate course. After the completion, he was appointed as a lecturer in Lucknow University.
Mitra went to the University of Rotterdam, Netherlands for his PhD. Jan Tinbergen (1903–1994) the first co-winner of Nobel Prize in Economics with Ragnar Frisch in 1969, was his supervisor. Tinbergen became involved early with social-democratic movements. Tinbergen became a member of the Social Democratic Workers Party in 1922 and he was a doctorate in Physics from Leyden University but turned to economics later. His major contribution to economics was in macroeconomic modelling. Tinbergen experimented with elaborate models, such as a model of American investment and business cycles that incorporated some 70 variables and 50 equations. Working to develop a more statistical basis for Keynesian ideas, Tinbergen in 1936 developed a proto- Phillips Curve. The area of economic research in Netherlands became subject of attraction for Mitra.
Mitra’s area of research in Netherlands was determining profit share in a monopoly firm. In a monopoly market there is only one seller but buyers of the product are many. So a monopoly earns a super-normal profit from his business. In such a monopoly firm what will be the share of wages should be a crucial factor. If the wage share increases, the share of profit of the monopoly decreases. There remains a bargaining situation among workers and monopolist in this market.
Another area where Mitra has theoretical contribution is related to terms of trade in Indian agriculture. He acclaimed as an expert in studying the relationship between agriculture and industries. Mitra showed how the terms of trade against agriculture were going on and how that can affect farmers. Later Mitra became Chairman, Agricultural Prices Commission (later renamed as Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices).
During 1970-72 he had been Chief Economic Advisor of the Government of India where he was succeeded by Manmohan Singh. Later he went back to Calcutta and became close to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He was made the finance minister of West Bengal, the post he held for about 10 years (1977 to 87). In his tenure decades’ long agricultural stagnation was broken. He was also an MP (Rajya Sabha) during 1993 and 1999.
Mitra was a Marxist economist, a good essayist and a good speaker. He never used any English words while speaking in Bengali - and vice versa. Many people enjoyed his lectures. He authored the ‘Calcutta Diary’, a collection of essays he wrote serially in Economic and Political Weekly. He also received Sahitya Akademi Award.
He left his membership of CPI (M) but he had a close relation with the party until his death. When Trinamul Congress (TMC) came to power many intellectuals supported TMC. In spite being a critique of CPI (M), Mitra remained a Marxist.
Professor Ratan Khasnabis said that this was a bright example of ideological conviction. He acquired his ideological conviction from his boyhood at time when a lot of youth fell in love with Marxist ideology. After his death, Surya Kanta Mishra, State Secretary, CPI(M) said, “Mitra’s death is a irreparable loss to us.”