Oh Brother! Presenting one of the world’s leading economists, Dr Raghuram Rajan in a free-wheeling chat with his brother, entrepreneur and corporate thought leader, Dr Mukund Rajan

As one of two brothers, I am observing the scene in front of me in a rather personal manner. Like my brother and I, Raghuram (56) and Mukund Rajan (51) are five years apart. We’ve put the two in a situation they’ve never experienced before and the silent support between them is palpable.

Former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, educationist and one of the leading economists in the world today, Dr Raghuram Rajan is as well-known for his sense of style as he is for speaking his mind. (“I have a sapiosexual crush on him,” a colleague tells me as we put this piece together; and she isn’t the only one in office who is as vociferous.) His younger brother Dr Mukund Rajan served as Chief Ethics Officer at Tata Sons and their brand custodian, and is just beginning his innings as an entrepreneur.

Both gentlemen are in a suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, facing the camera for their first magazine cover shoot together. Raghu flew in from the US, where he now lives, the evening before; Mukund has come from Mumbai. Both have new books out (see box on Page 16). Both are erudite and opinionated. But one look at the make-up artist with her paraphernalia spread out on the bed, is enough to instil in them a distinct sense of unease.

Raghu walks in just as Mukund is getting his face “powdered.” The brotherly smirk is unmissable, but so is the solidarity. Raghuram Rajan knows he’s up next.

Thankfully, the photographer is demanding with his poses, but easy with the jokes. Comments fly, comparing the two to everyone from the currently-at-war Malvinder and Shivinder Singh to the Ambani brothers. One hears a comment on a “Men In Black pose” on the fly, and the two Dr Rajans play along sportingly.

The photographer now wants them to laugh. Little does he know that once they start, the laughter will last all through the morning.

The wonder years

Sons of an accomplished IPS officer, both Raghuram and Mukund Rajan were born in Bhopal, but spent their early years in different parts of the world. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Belgium. Their early life embodies the value-rich, responsibility-tinged middle-class of India.

“Growing up was fun,” Raghu says. “We lived in Moti Bagh in New Delhi, which is a government colony and we had lots of kids of civil servants around. All of us knew we had to get a job; there was nothing waiting at the other end.”

Mukund continues: “I remember learning French at a school in Brussels. But Raghu had lived in Sri Lanka and Indonesia before, though I don’t have memories of then.” Turning to his brother, he says, “You guys must have had issues, no? Learning Tamil in Sri Lanka, then French, then Hindi when we came back to India. Wasn’t that traumatic?”

“Oh yeah, heavy immersion as they say,” Raghu replies with a laugh. “You’re just dunked in and you have to learn. But math was the universal language. When you’re fine in math, people know you’re not a complete dunce.”

Raghu and Mukund moved to Delhi at ages 11 and six. Who was boisterous, who was quiet, we ask. Which of you was the bully?

A glance is exchanged in response to the question, and what follows is loud laughter. “When I was growing up, I used to have a terrible temper,” Mukund says. “The rest of the family would be very indulgent, and amongst my siblings, I was the one who was rarely subject to any kind of…”

“…discipline!” Raghu helps out. Mukund laughs and agrees. “So it was this guy and my eldest brother who were at the receiving end of our father’s disciplinary attentions!”

The Rajan clan consisted of four siblings: an elder brother and sister, followed by Raghu and Mukund. “It was fantastic growing up in a reasonably large family,” Mukund continues. “Most of his friends actually became my friends.

Learning from these older guys was an opportunity!”

Did Raghu indulge Mukund’s indiscipline as well?

“Well, I’d get very worked up if he wouldn’t!” Mukund laughs. “For instance, we’d play cricket and I’d bowl to him and give him some serious batting practice. But when it was time for me to bat, he’d suddenly remember something important and… (laughs)”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Raghu interjects, and even more laughter ensues. “The reality is that I bowled him out very fast. Always!”

“Which is even worse, Raghu,” Mukund continues. “Because the insult to my ego and sense of batsmanship was terrible!”

Who was more popular in school and with the girls?

More laughter ensues. But Mukund reveals a personal, idolising streak. “Raghu was very popular in school, and through most of my life, I’ve followed his reputation. I was a few years behind him at Delhi Public School, RK Puram, where he was House Captain. I got into IIT the year he left, and his popularity preceded me even in the hostel I lived at. He’d won the Freedom of the House in Nilgiri Hostel. He was the general secretary of the students’ council, and I became the Gen Sec a few years later…”

Raghu pitches in: “You forget some things. Mukund is a Rhodes scholar, and I flunked my Rhodes scholarship interview…”

“…which I think is one of the bigger mistakes the scholarship committee has made,” Mukund replies, without missing a beat. “They picked the wrong brother!”

Doctors of their own device

“We have to thank our parents for creating a very warm and comforting environment,” Raghu says. “Like all civil servant parents, they knew they had to give us kids a good education, and so they scrimped and saved to make sure we got that education.”

Mukund continues:“In my book, there’s this comment about my mother. She would always tell me that Lord Mukunda (or Krishna) was a cowherd, and if I don’t study hard enough, no problem! There were enough water buffaloes in India. You can tend to them, she told me.”

The brothers attended the same schools, but chose different career paths: one in academics, the other in the corporate world. “Actually, we both took the same road for a little while,” Raghu reminds us. “I also joined the Tatas for a glorious period of three months. Then I got the scholarship to MIT.”

What was it like when Mukund got his PhD and became a Dr Rajan too?

“That was special,” Mukund says. “Our older brother has a PhD as well, and it was nice to be able to say we’re a family of Dr Rajans (laughs). I visited Oxford just after I had been cleared for my doctorate. Our friend Sanjay Chauhan said, ‘Dr Rajan meets Dr Rajan.’ It was such a thrill!”

And how did their parents feel about three Dr Rajans? “They’re certainly very proud,” says Raghu, “but I don’t think that changes their attitude or anything (laughs)… theek hai, kar diya… Same old, same old!” More laughter follows.

Book marked!

Did the brothers show each other a draft of their books?

“I got fantastic feedback from Raghu,” Mukund says. “I had a sense that my book would elicit a lot of questions in the corporate world, as well as with my former employers, so I incorporated his changes.”

“My new book is my own intellectual exploration into why capitalism works and why it stopped working,” says Raghu. “The message I want to convey is, look, you need to think about what the system is. How it actually works and what the elements are is not just about markets, it’s the whole infrastructure around it. The Left wants a massive change in taxation and much more redistribution, the Right wants to reduce the welfare state. What I want to point out is how these components fit together. And how – when the system fits together – both democracy and prosperity flourish. On the other hand, when the system starts breaking, you lose prosperity, but you also lose democracy. So we move towards a more authoritarian structure – and across the world you see this happening – and you have to start worrying about what is driving it. This book is an attempt to answer that. There’s a small portion related to India, but it tries to understand the turmoil in the US, UK, the rising tide of populism, and populist nationalism, which is more virulent and looks more for enemies than for friends.”

Then, Raghu adds: “I enjoyed Mukund’s book very much. It’s written in a personal sense, and is a nice description of what it is like being a brand officer as well as ethics officer for India’s largest conglomerate. Embedded in that is also the story of the Tatas in the last 10 to 15 years: of what went right and what has gone wrong to some extent. It’s a very candid view. Of course, some of my advice was to drop some of the candour…”

Rambunctious laughter follows, the details of which we are thirsting to get. Raghu is happy to continue. “You are, in any position, privy to a lot of things, and you have to figure out what is useful to talk about because it helps people learn lessons. I think [Mukund’s book] is very good at doing that. That also differentiates it from a Tell All, which is here-is-every-last-thing-that-happened. Then, you start betraying people’s confidence…”

Modern family

If family is where the heart is, the Rajans have it down pat. “We’re always looking for an opportunity to be together,” says Mukund. “We spent a week together for my 50th in the Maldives last April. And our mom’s 80th is coming up later this year…”

When the two were involved in individual sticky situations recently, did they call each other for advice?

“Absolutely,” Mukund says. “Raghu has had enormous experience in multiple situations with powerful personalities, therefore, it’s that experience that speaks when you call him.”

And Raghu? Have you ever called your younger brother for advice? “I had come to the end of my term as RBI governor, and the question was do I stay, or do I not,” recalls Raghu. “In the process, I talked to Mukund. He was my closest advisor on this apart from my wife.”

Mukund pitches in: “I’ve always felt that Raghu looks for nobility in situations, and the good in everyone. But sometimes, people can be motivated by very base considerations. So when I find Raghu trying to find goodness in what people are doing, I highlight the raw elements of what’s going on.”

In political ideologies, as brothers, are there any differences?

Mukund takes this. “I describe myself as a liberal thinker. I believe we must give everyone their space and autonomy to learn and figure out things. I suspect we are very similar in that sense… I don’t think ideologies of the extreme are particularly palatable!”

Raghu nods in agreement. “One common sense is personal responsibility. You cannot blame the system. Of course, luck matters and adversity happens. The other thing is pragmatism; all too often we have this sense of deep ideology, and to my mind, that really is wrong in many situations.”

Last but not the least, what do the two Dr Rajans have to say about India in 2019?

“Why, it’s a very important election in terms of determining India’s path,” says Raghu.

Mukund adds, “In my book I have this commentary on some of the challenges the Tata Group faces, but they can be extrapolated into challenges that corporate India faces. Which, in turn, can be extrapolated to what India needs. I highlight the relative lack of job creation by large corporates.”

“I would wish that whatever government came into power would think of the need for serious reform of the system, because we are running into the limit of growth,” says Raghu. “Let’s see what happens…”

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From HT Brunch, May 19, 2019

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First Published:
May 18, 2019 22:29 IST

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