Eminent Economist Rustom Cavasjee Cooper: The One That Got Away

The news of R C Cooper‘s passing last June, which I heard only recently, recalled an episode from the Shah Commission. Indira Gandhi was giving evidence or, rather, refusing to give evidence and insisting on reading out a prepared statement in which she accused the Supreme Court of striking down bank nationalisation because some judges owned bank shares. Red in the face, Justice J C Shah exploded he had never held any. She responded sweetly she hadn’t said he did. She had only said “some” judges.

By Sunanda K Datta-Ray | Business Standard

image That exchange, repeated from memory after nearly 40 years, took place only because Cooper, a director and shareholder of the Central Bank of India, successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to stay the bank nationalisation Ordinance. Obviously not a man to give up easily, he sued the government when Gandhi struck back with the Banking Companies (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act. I was living in England then but read how Nani Palkhivala, appearing in R C Cooper vs The Union of India, mesmerised everyone with his erudition and eloquence. Jimmy Dadachandji, the Delhi solicitor, briefed him.

Years later I asked Nani about it over a late night whisky in his Marine Drive flat in Mumbai. He threw back his head, closed his eyes, and recited Cromwell’s memorable words ending with “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” A personal link with Dadachandji deserves mention. My book Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim would have succumbed to a calculated libel suit if Dadachandji and his personable young junior, Lira Goswami, hadn’t briefed Soli Sorabjee who persuaded the plaintiff to accept an out-of-court settlement entailing a conditional apology but no damages.

I feel all the more deprived, therefore, at not having made Cooper’s acquaintance during all those years we overlapped in Singapore. I think he and his wife gave us a lift home once after UCO Bank’s annual party. If so, he was a man whose bubbling cheerfulness showed no trace of the pomposity one expects from Indians of eminence. Cooper was a successful British-qualified chartered accountant, a noted economist, general secretary of the Swatantra Party and, I gather, totally devoted to the public cause. The interests of “the common man and the small shareholder” explained his spirited stand against bank nationalisation. Without him the government may not have provided any compensation at all.

I didn’t make the connection at the UCO party. I didn’t make it even when researching Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India, I came upon a letter he wrote to the Straits Times in 1979 when the paper sent a senior editor to India. Cooper commented on how education had deteriorated in 32 years of independence and on 700,000 graduates among 21 million unemployed. New Delhi had sat for years on a major water management plan that would have revived the economy by bringing a huge area under the plough, created jobs, generated hydroelectricity, increased agricultural revenue and promoted highways and waterways. Cooper’s comment struck an instant chord. As a journalist in The Statesman, I had written about M N Dastur and Co’s imaginative scheme to solve India’s perennial problem of drought and flood.

I quoted the letter in Looking East. Cooper’s daughter Farida happened to read the book and wrote to me to say her father had lived in Singapore for 38 years. He “actually moved to Singapore in 1975 on the advice and with the help of J R D Tata and late Naval Tata.” Those two men were responsible in a way for Singapore’s initial industrialisation. Way back in the early 1970s, they set up Tata Precision Industries and the island’s first technical training institute. Freddie Mehta, fiercely pro-free market despite being educated at the London School of Economics where he became friendly with Goh Keng Swee, who was as instrumental in Singapore’s modernisation as Lee Kuan Yew, helped. The man on the spot was another friend of Cooper’s. Slim and spry despite pushing 80, Shyamal Gupta is the only Tata Sons director to have completed 50 years on the board. He is highly respected in Singapore, which he still visits regularly.

This is a belated tribute to someone of distinction who died nine months ago. It saddens me to think that a man such as Cooper should have felt obliged to take his considerable talents abroad. Singapore, the Ivory Coast, Maldives and Indonesia benefited from his professional guidance. India didn’t.

 

A more detailed obituary and article on Rustom C Cooper is available here: http://freedomfirst.in/issue/articles.aspx?id=7629