It’s hard to find a government official in India with more star power than Raghuram Rajan, a University of Chicago finance professor who is governor of India’s central bank.
Rajan, 53, perhaps best known for predicting the global financial meltdown of 2008, has served as the chief of India’s central bank since 2013, earning widespread praise for his sure-handed oversight of the economy. He’s often mentioned as a successor to Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund.
In the past three years, India’s popular central-bank governor also developed — well, there’s no other way to say it — quite a fan following.
His news conferences are covered live across television news networks. He is commonly referred to as a “rock star” or India’s “James Bond” — a reference to a widely circulated newspaper illustration that depicted him as Agent 007. (In it, Rajan is the defender of the Indian currency — wielding a pistol made of rupee notes.)
When journalists compared him to both a hawk and Santa Claus at a news conference announcing a rate cut late last year, he simply smiled and said, “My name is Raghuram Rajan, and I do what I do.” The Internet swooned.
Raghuram Rajan is trending. Had to be. You don't just say something like that and not break twitter! "I am Raghuram Rajan & I do what I do"
— Shreeja (@nesshreeja) September 29, 2015
Yet despite his international reputation, there has been widespread speculation in recent days that Rajan may leave India after his three-year term is up in September, which would be a break with tradition. He has been under attack from a right-wing member of Parliament, and a local media outlet reported Wednesday that he has written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say he wanted to be relieved of his duties in September so he could return to the United States and continue his academic work.
Some would see Rajan's departure as a huge loss. He has a raft of proponents — including many prominent chief executives of large companies who have praised his efforts to curb inflation and clean up India’s debt-ridden banks. A Change.org petition has been set up urging the government to keep him on. It now has more than 56,000 signatures.
Subramanian Swamy, a controversial former Harvard University economics professor who is now a member of India’s Parliament, has led the recent attacks on him.
Swamy wrote a highly publicized note to Modi earlier this month to ask that Rajan be fired because he is “mentally not fully Indian,” a reference to his U.S. ties. In a follow-up note, Swamy accused Rajan of enacting monetary policies that damaged economic growth and of publicly contradicting Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
For example, shortly after the killing of a Muslim man by a mob sparked a national debate about intolerance, Rajan gave a widely covered speech in which he called for improving the environment for ideas “through tolerance and mutual respect.”
Rajan, whose family hails from the south of India, graduated from the country’s prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and later earned a PhD in management from MIT. He went on to be the youngest chief economist of the IMF.
Modi, who is said to be supportive of the governor, was circumspect about Rajan’s future in an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
“I don’t think this administrative subject can be an issue for the media. And that issue is only in September, not now,” the prime minister said.
Rajan has stayed above the fray, noting in a speech earlier this month that while the economy is in the midst of a recovery, “there is still work to be done.”