India’s intellectual battle

India’s intellectual battle

India has rarely witnessed such an epic intellectual battle. What has made it even more compelling is the political angle to it.

It all began with Professor Amartya Sen, an economics Nobel Prize-winner and probably the most respected Indian academic around, saying that he felt uncomfortable about the idea of having Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, as India’s Prime Minister. This was mainly because of Modi’s anti-Muslim image. Sen’s offhand remark immediately provoked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has just named Modi as its campaign manager for the forthcoming general election. There is also a widespread assumption that he will be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

In a paroxysm of fury, Chandan Mitra, a failed journalist elevated by the BJP to the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, angrily declared that the next government — BJP, needless to say — would snatch the Bharat Ratna back from Sen (the Bharat Ratna, which was awarded to Sen, is the highest Indian honour given by the government).

What Mitra overlooked (doesn’t he Google before putting his foot in his mouth?) was that Sen received the award when the BJP was in power and Atal Behari Vajpayee the Prime Minister! I also wonder if the fact that both Sen and Mitra are Bengalis gave an added edge to the controversy. In any case, an amused Sen replied that if Vajpayee was to, indeed, ask him to return the award, he would happily do so. Egg on his face, Mitra apologised and an obviously embarrassed Vajpayee preferred to remain silent.

Round one overwhelmingly won by Sen, the BJP licking its wounds in the corner. The fight now shifted to academics, with politics still there though not on centre-stage.

Enter Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, equally renowned as Sen as an economist but without a Nobel Prize or Bharat Ratna to adorn his name. Bhagwati has always disagreed publicly with Sen on what economic policy India should follow. He is also, unlike Sen, an admirer of Modi and what Modi has done for Gujarat (though Bhagwati distances himself from Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat communal riots).

Here is what he said recently: “I am not going to vote for Modi. I have no particular affection for him. But I have no particular affection for Rahul Gandhi also. What has happened in Gujarat is that relatively rapid growth and social progress has taken place.”

Where the two economists disagree is the path India should take in the future. Bhagwati admires the market economy and the ability of the private sector to provide the main thrust for growth, much like what Margaret Thatcher did for Britain. He is scornful of the public sector doing this job. Sen feels that the two major areas where India has failed are in providing universal primary education and good health care. And that only the government can deliver on these two fronts. Once there is a high level of literacy and health care, economic growth will follow automatically, he says. He points to countries like China and Japan where the governments invested heavily in these two sectors, with the results we now see.

A personal disclosure is called for here. I happen to have known Amartya Sen somewhat though that was half a century ago! We were both at Cambridge university, I an undergraduate and he one of the youngest “fellows” (the university’s appellation for a teacher) there. He was still in his 20s then and married to a Bengali, Naubanita, who came from a famous literary family (he is now married to a Rothschild, one of the richest families in the world). We saw a fair amount of each other then, so I have a soft corner for him.

I also agree with him that India’s biggest failure has been on the literacy and health front. Where I disagree is on the ability of the public sector to deliver on these two vital social parameters. I don’t think it can, unless the entire governmental apparatus is overhauled and made less corrupt and more accountable. That is a big “if”. Sen points to Kerala (which has been helped by remittances from abroad) as an example to emulate. However, Kerala is a unique case, difficult to replicate in the rest of India.

I believe Sen and Bhagwati have a lot in common. Sen may be more to the “left” and Bhagwati to the “right”, but they both want better governance and less corruption – who doesn’t? That is clearly the key to higher growth.

But with due respect to both of them, to me they are essentially “outsiders” who have spent most of their lives in academia abroad, largely in the UK and US. They have little experience of Indian ground realities, of the wheeling and dealing that goes on among political parties, the day-to-day petty corruption and nepotism that citizens have to deal with. Politicians like Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi, even Manmohan Singh, are more aware of the way forward. In other words, of what can, in practical terms, be done and what cannot. Which of them the Indian voter trusts most is what will decide the winner in the coming general election.