The People's Economist

Joe A. Scaria

A state of about 33 million people running up a debt of 1.5 trillion rupees makes you suspect there is something fishy about its spending habits. And talking about habits, Kerala happens to have a habit of doubling its public debt every five years.

Therefore, when you meet with the state’s finance minister, T.M. Thomas Isaac, you expect a man burdened by that gigantic number. Instead, you’ll hear full-throated laughter from the student activist-turned economist-turned professor-turned politician and finance minister, as he enjoys one of his favorite fish delicacies in his coastal constituency, Alappuzha.

There’s positivity around Isaac that glimmers off his shiny pate which looks as empty as the state’s coffers and an aura around the greying beard that sports an increasing deficit of black hair, almost in proportion to the state’s fiscal deficit.

To have a finance minister full of energy and enthusiasm even as he surveys a gloomy financial horizon would be the dream of every leader of a cabinet. Harry S. Truman said, “Give me a one-handed economist. Every economist says, ‘the one hand and on the other hand.’”

Truman would’ve approved of Isaac’s optimism and clarity, but it was V.S. Achuthanandan, another comrade from Alappuzha, who got to benefit from Isaac as his finance minister for a full term. Indeed, Isaac was born in 1952 to T.P. Mathew and Saramma Mathew just a year after Truman bowed out as the U.S. president.


Such clarity was evident from his school days, as much in his leaning toward the Left movement as his liking for academics. The former gave him a grounding in student politics that finally elevated him to the top echelons of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the latter took him in a natural progression to a Ph. D in Economics and a role as professor with the Centre for Development Studies at the state capital.

Isaac’s academic distinction is vouched by his students at the CDS and almost everyone around him from his office staff to his vast circle of friends. Depending on who you ask, they say “I find Isaac Sir reading all the time”, or “I find Isaac Sir writing all the time.”

That is definitely something that you expect of a professor, but what you do not quite anticipate is that the man always seems to have time to talk to just about anyone, personally answer telephone calls, pick up a dish of his choice from virtually any wayside eatery and, over everything else, get along with anyone or any group of people.

That down-to-earth attitude seems to be at the core of his persona that has made him as much a man of the masses, as a professor who dishes out complex and intricate economic theory.

His practice-what-you-preach approach extends to his own personal accounts. Recollects Shibu K. Nair, director of Thanal, an environment agency, who has known Isaac at close quarters for a few years: “Last year when we went to Paris for a climate change summit, Isaac lost $200 he had kept in his passport. Asked why he kept money in the passport, he said he had stopped carrying a wallet since becoming a politician and that his secretary collects his salary and hands him cash whenever required.”


Others vouch for his insistence on keeping accounts properly, at the personal level and at the public administration level. Keener observers say he is well-organized in whatever he does. That sounds logical for a man who finds time for reading, scribbling notes for a forthcoming book and posting a few thoughts on social media – all in a day’s work.

Both his children seem to have picked up the trait of being well-organized while being busy, and found time to fly in from the U.S. when daddy was beginning another innings as finance minister.

For all his fan-following on social media, the finance minister has his share of ‘unlikes’ in the party and outside. Many are cut up with the lateral entry that he made into big-time politics straight out of his economics classes. And then there are the stresses and strains within the CPI-(M) itself that he cannot escape like any other comrade.

But even his detractors cannot but admit that he has brought a different dimension to the post of finance minister – professorial yet practical, burdened by public debt yet optimistic, and strong-willed without skimping on mirth.

As he presents another budget tomorrow, he has such red ink-streaked entities as the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation – which has lost over 36 billion rupees in a decade – and the Kerala Water Authority – whose coffers seem to be leakier than its numerous pipes across the state – to deal with.

Trust Isaac to think positively, like he suggested the other day that turning all bulbs in Kerala to the LED variety would save as much electricity as the state intended to generate from the Athirapally hydroelectric project.

And then, with a rambunctious laughter, ask, “Fish, anyone?”