Prof Amartya Sen is once again in the news as he recused himself from being considered for another term as the Chancellor of Nalanda University, come July, for reasons he outlined in this open letter.
The Nobel laureate sat down with HuffPost India recently and spoke about a range of issues, including India’s continued failure to invest sufficiently in and nurture public education and healthcare, his thoughts about the new government at the Centre and the rise of the Hindutva discourse, Arvind Panagariya’s tenure at NITI Aayog, and his thoughts about the intellectual spat characterized as the “Sen-Bhagwati debate”.
This is the second in an exclusive two-part interview conducted in person and over email. The first part is here. These are edited excerpts.
HI: This govt has done away with the planning commission now. It seems to want to do it in a very different way with NITI Ayog and Professor Panagariya and Bibek Debroy leading the thinking in that institution, what do you think are the opportunities in front of this government? The budget is also coming…
AS: I never comment on the budget. In judging the general economic strategy of a country, any particular budget tends to be a fairly minor event. We have to see the long term direction of what the government is trying to do.
"As it happens, the main leader of NITI Ayog, Panagariya, has often attacked me, but that is no reason for me not to be eager to listen to him."
And how the NITI Ayog is going to work is not very clear yet. We have to give the new leaders of NITI Ayog a chance. As it happens, the main leader of NITI Ayog, Panagariya, has often attacked me, but that is no reason for me not to be eager to listen to him. Some people are enthusiastic about the new arrangement, and Panagariya and his colleagues, like Bibek Debroy, have some plans, and I wish them well. At this time it would be shooting from the hip to try to criticise them, since they have not had the time to do much yet.
HI: But you broadly know what his thinking is on how the economy needs to do and do you think that’s a good idea? You have debated with Bhagwati and Panagariya.
AS: Well there are different things here. I mean if you agree with Panagariya’s view that there is very little undernourishment in India, I think that’s a misdiagnosis. But he may realise himself that it’s a misdiagnosis, I don’t know. When this debate was going on — oddly called “the Bhagwati-Sen spat” — in which I didn’t write a single piece on Bhagwati (or Panagariya). And if my counting is right, between July and August 2013, when my book with Jean Dreze came out, there were more than 20 pieces – essays, op-eds, interviews – by Prof. Bhagwati and Prof. Panagariya which, in one way or another, dealt with me, and sometimes with my family members. It is very flattering really to get so much attention from leading intellectuals.
I’m not going to change my style now, and start fuming about Bhagwati or Panagariya. I’m very happy to discuss policy issues, including those which they recommend.
"It is very flattering really to get so much attention from leading intellectuals."
On the question of Panagariya’s leadership role, we have to hope for the best. We do have disagreements of course, but that is fine—we do not have to agree on everything to see the effects of his policy choices in an unbiased way. Also, as a public leader, Panagariya can take a much broader view than what his personal convictions are, for example about whether there is undernourishment or not in India. So at this time, let’s hope he will make good use of the power that has been given to him.
HI: In this debate that you just mentioned, your position has often been framed by others—both by the people who are writing these articles and also by independent commentators in the media. You have been portrayed as a messiah of unfashionable ideas. Of stuff that is no longer in currency…
AS: Very archaic ideas! You can call them “classical” if you want to be nice to me. Or “totally discredited and archaic” ideas if you don’t want to be!
HI: Do you worry that what you have taught and written and stood for most of your life has been misrepresented before a generation which has yet not have had a chance to firsthand read your work or understand what you are about?
AS: Well, I don’t worry about it as much as perhaps I should. Partly because I don’t like getting into a wrestling match, and have never written anything negative about Bhagwati or Panagariya. I have to hope that people can understand what I am saying even if I do not get into the wrestling pit. Only once I had to contradict Bhagwati and Panagariya personally (that was about my own work), when in the letters column of The Economist, they misdescribed my work in the process of complaining that The Economist had given my joint book with Jean Dreze too favourable a review.
They claimed that I had never been favourably disposed towards economic growth. This is not true – not now, nor in the past. The importance of economic growth was even the subject of my PhD thesis, published in 1960. And also my second book was on what the title suggests, ‘Growth Economics’, which was published in 1970. I have plenty of later writings that incorporated economic growth as a good ingredient of economic and social development, without taking growth to be good in itself, as opposed to a good means of making people better off.
So I had to contradict the misdescription, but I was making a statement about my own convictions, and not about Bhagwati’s and Panagariya’s. But I hope you would count this as a small effort in resisting misrepresentation of my own work, wouldn’t you?
"For God’s sake, I did not write a single piece attacking Professor Bhagwati!"
The fact that I do not get into a wrestling match does not, however, prevent some people from imagining me in such a match. I once opened a paper, and it said “when Bhagwati and Sen were attacking each other…” For God’s sake, I did not write a single piece attacking Professor Bhagwati! On the other hand, do I worry that as a result of avoiding wrestling matches, I’m missing out something, other than the rush of adrenalin? Well I hope not!
But I do not really live in constant fear of being misrepresented. I hope people form their idea of what my views are by reading what I say, rather than getting it from what others say “Sen believes”, often as a prelude to an attack. It would be, I think, quite disrespectful of the discerning ability of the reading public to assume that they would be swayed by how some others—and there are only a few—have chosen to misdescribe me.
So what I think you’re asking is this—can the Indian public follow an argument which is not in the dialectical form of attacking someone but in the constructive form of saying what I actually believe in and what analyses I myself would like to present? As a proud Indian, I do think the answer is yes: my countrymen, to the extent they take an interest, can follow me fine.
I was in the Delhi School of Economics recently--an institution I love and a place where I taught for many years--and I was pleased that a great many students there wanted to chat with me. I don’t think they had formed views on me based on anything other than what I have been writing or saying.
HI: You mentioned that there were some things this government is not doing very well. I was curious to know what these things are.
AS: I am worried that the old neglect of healthcare and public education continues: in fact if reports are to be believed, the allocation for public healthcare is being seriously cut. I hope that is not actually the case. Other than continuing some of the follies of the previous UPA government, the new government may actually have added a few of their own, such as being more neglectful of the environment than the UPA was. And, of course, I am particularly concerned that the Hindutva agenda is getting a lot of priority over the constructive work in economic policy-making that the government has to perform.
"I am particularly concerned that the Hindutva agenda is getting a lot of priority over the constructive work in economic policy-making that the government has to perform."
And economic policy-making has to include not merely giving incentives to business and economic operations, but also to making Indian people more capable, through being more educated and healthier. I think the reason why Indian industrialisation is held back is primarily because you can’t industrialise with adequate flexibility, with an adequate range of commodities to “make in India” in the way the Chinese can, without having an educated labour force and a healthy labour force in the way the Chinese – and other more successful developing economies – have. Now the present government is not – at least not yet – doing very much on that. Neither, of course, did the previous government.
HI: The policy discourse of India seems to have got stuck in this binary construct. On the one hand you have the Congress party that talks a little bit about farmer’s rights and welfare spending and completely ignores business and reforming our processes and all of that. And on the other hand you have the BJP, which is committed to economic growth but completely ignores environment, health, welfare spending. Isn’t this a completely needless binary construct? Because if the economy is growing faster, you have more tax revenue, and then you can spend more on welfare. Why is this so?
AS: Well I think this is part of the phenomenon I’m discussing. Public debate has moved away – actually never seized really – from the greatest needs of the economy, and of the people. This actually goes back quite some time, even to the First Five Year Plan. If you think of the first and second Five Year Plans, the discussion of primary education is pathetic there and so was the allocation of resources for these vitally needed public services. Whether the new NITI Ayog is going to correct that, we don’t know. It is a failure that goes back a long long time.
I sometimes read in the paper that I support the Congress Party. And that I am an advisor — even a “principal advisor” — of Shrimati Sonia Gandhi. I do respect her very much, but I have to confess that I have seen her only about four times — all in social contexts. The first of that was in the early 1960s on the Avenue at the back of Trinity College, when Rajiv Gandhi, then a student at Trinity where I was teaching, introduced me to his brilliant girlfriend. They were all pleasant meetings. But advising her must be some super-smart guy’s fertile imagination.
"Since the BJP, with its Hindutva agenda, is not going to be the party I support, am I attracted by the Aam Aadmi Party? Sure I am."
Have I voted for Congress in the past? Sometimes, certainly. But I have also voted for the Left. I am also proud of the fact that Somnath Chatterjee was my M.P., and remained so even after he was expelled by the CPI(M).
Do I think the Congress or the Left are doing enough to inspire our confidence and support? I fear I have to say No. Since the BJP, with its Hindutva agenda, is not going to be the party I support, am I attracted by the Aam Aadmi Party? Sure I am. And yet we do not know how well it will be able to tackle the problem of public services and equity which are among my central concerns. But the old party structure in India does need a serious change.
"India is not just a Hindu country, and to the extent that the Hindutva champions believe it is, I must protest."
HI: On the rise of Hindutva-related issues—can you put it in a historical perspective?
AS: India is not just a Hindu country, and to the extent that the Hindutva champions believe it is, I must protest. India’s traditions make room not only for Hindus, but also Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsees, Jains, Buddhists, Jews and others, including atheists and agnostics who have flourished in India since the sixth century BC. We Indians share a large and capacious boat – a “mahayana” – and not a narrow boat with a privileged position for the Hindus.
I also believe that the Hindutva reading of Indian history is very problematic. That is not a new thing for me to say. Sanskrit was my second language for many years, largely because my progress in English was very slow, while I got enchanted by Sanskrit, led by my Sanskritist grandfather. I also want to focus on those things that make the Sanskritic tradition really great which are not always the same things on which the Hindutva champions are keen.
I would rather read the mathematics of Aryabhata and Brahmagupta than the so-called texts of “Vedic mathematics.” Of the two objects that I had to give to the Nobel Museum, shortly after my award, for display, connected with inspiration and help in my work, one was the text of Aryabhatia, from 499 AD. The other was my old bicycle on which I gathered old famine data and with the help of which I weighed young boys and girls to ascertain when gender discrimination begins.
"Let me praise him (Professor Bhagwati) for saying that there is a concern that the Hindutva side may make the business part of Modi’s programme more difficult to implement."
Also, I would rather sink into the 14th century philosopher Madhavacharya’s Sarvadarshanasamgraha (‘Collection of All Philosophies’) than into any shrill account in favour of only one specific school of exclusive religious thought. Sanskrit is a wide garden, and we must not be forced into seeing it as a tiny flower pot – a priestly flower pot at that.
And even though I do not respond to Professor Bhagwati when he’s attacking me, let me praise him for saying, as he did recently, very sensibly I think, that there is a concern that the Hindutva side may make the business part of Modi’s programme more difficult to implement. That certainly is a problem, even though, for me, the principal problem of the Hindutva movement is its view of, and sometimes treatment of, the minorities.
HI: Are you writing another book?
I’m writing two books at this time, and a third is already in the press, and will soon come out. The one that is about to come out is a collection of essays that were originally published in The Little Magazine, dealing with some of the economic, social, political and cultural problems of India. It is called ‘The Country of First Boys — and Other Essays’. The book that will come out after this one is an extended edition of a mathematical work I wrote in the 1960s on social choice theory — dealing with analytical problems of democracy as well as of welfare economics. The book is called ‘Collective Choice and Social Welfare’.
The original version of this book was written mostly at the Delhi School of Economics, and I was pleased to see that in the citation for my Nobel award in 1998, the contributions that the Swedish Academy most focused on were parts of this book written in Delhi, in close collaboration with my students, like the brilliant Prasanta Pattanaik. I am trying to make the book’s coverage more up to date — a lot has happened in the half a century since I laboured on social choice theory at the Delhi School of Economics.
"I shall return to writing my memoir... I am about halfway through"
I hope to finish doing this extended edition by the early months of this summer, after which I shall return to writing my memoir. In the first volume of this rather large project, I reach up to joining the Delhi School of Economics, after Dhaka, Santiniketan, Mandalay, Calcutta and Cambridge. I am about halfway through doing this book.
It will end that volume with my Cambridge days coming to an end and my coming to the Delhi School of Economics and getting coordinated with our hugely talented students. My life was transformed by coming to know them and being able to do joint work with my students. Since the first volume (imitatively called, at least provisionally, Home and the World) will end with my sense of elation in reaching the so-called D-School, the story of D-School will have to be continued in a later volume. And then there are LSE, Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, and other hang-outs.
Those are for future years. Since I am already 81, I have to be careful not to pop off meanwhile.