Raghuram Rajan: A New Posterboy for Indian Leadership?
Image Credit: Flickr (Slugpost)

Raghuram Rajan: A New Posterboy for Indian Leadership?


Amid fanfare usually reserved for movies stars and rock bands, Raghuram Rajan, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, took over as Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the country’s central bank, earlier this week. Rajan moved from the United States to India a little over a year ago when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed him as Special Economic Advisor to the Government of India.

Rajan came to India with a formidable reputation, having served as the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund between 2003 and 2007. He was touted as one of the few economists to have forecast the global financial crisis of 2008. His appointment as Chief Economic Advisor was much tracked even then, with India Inc. hoping he would be a sane, logical voice for market and financial reforms in a government that seemed to be struggling unsuccessfully to plot the right economic path.

But ever since he was named the next governor of the RBI, media coverage of Rajan has been equal parts nauseating and bemusing. In article after article, gushing journalists have cited his long list of academic achievements. His preppy, good looks have also received disproportionate coverage. The country’s leading business newspaper, The Economic Times had no less than six photographs and illustrations of Rajan on the day after he took over from his predecessor D. Subbarao, including one that cast him as a cool James Bond-esque figure poised to reclaim the Indian rupee’s “stolen” value and bring the mojo back to India’s spluttering economy (low growth, high inflation, a treacherous current account deficit).

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In his address at the press conference during the handover ceremony—broadcast ad nauseam on all major news channels—Rajan struck just the right notes in his inaugural conference as India’s youngest RBI governor, saying he would award long-pending bank licenses by January 2014, improve financial inclusion, and “sustain confidence in the value of the money.”

Mumbai-based business journalist Ankush Chibber called the attention “the media’s giant crush on Rajan.” Even top industrialist Anand Mahindra tweeted, “Raghu Rajan gave a master class in how to handle your first day in a new leadership role during a crisis. Be calm, collected and communicative.”

These reactions made me wonder if the intensity of the effusive media coverage was really more about India’s hunger for progressive, credible and communicative leadership. Rajan is a good public speaker; somebody clearly trained in the American way of speech who puts a premium on communicating complex ideas in a simple idiom with a casual, friendly air of authority. It’s a combination of leadership skills mostly lacking in several of our government institutions. Take the Congress Party. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is conspicuous with his silence—and even when he does address the press, or the nation, he usually sticks to an uninspired script of platitudes.

His impressive professional resume aside, has Rajan become the country’s poster boy because he has skills that we all should expect in our leaders, but sadly don’t get: expertise in their field, an ability to communicate, and a reputation built on hard work and professional integrity? Or, do many critics of Indian media have it right by suggesting that a central banker without Rajan’s easy, telegenic face and his “NRI (non-resident Indian) savior” story would not be as feted?

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