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INDIA: Paying Lip Service to Amartya Sen, the Rebel

Commentary - Praful Bidwai (*)

NEW DELHI, Oct 16 1998 (IPS) - The euphoric reception within the Indian establishment to the award of the economics Nobel Prize to Amartya Sen hides one elementary truth: Sen’s work and thought irreverently question and cast serious doubt over a number of shibboleths accepted by the Indian ruling class.

Contrary to the claim that the prize is a “national honour” and a tribute to established official wisdom, it is a resounding slap in the face of much of the Indian elite.

Not only do Indian government policies run counter to every major public policy priority that Sen has passionately argued for, including heavy investment in health, education and social security, but the very thrust of Sen’s work rebels against the dominant stand within the Indian establishment on three crucial issues: secularism and pluralism, economic policy, and nuclear weapons and security.

Those in the elite who are busy showering praise upon Sen are trying hard to erase this by distorting his thought.

In reality, Sen’s work is a dual enterprise: against obscurantism, and theorising for an enlightened, humane, social order. This is what gives unity to his entire intellectual effort, spanning across different fields, from hard-core econometrics to the relationship between deprivation and social structure, from social choice to ethical values, from income equality to women’s empowerment.

This enterprise is directed against three kinds of obscurantism: market fundamentalism, religious obscurantism, and social conservatism leading to political cynicism.

Opposition to market fundamentalism is a major theme of Sen’s work. One of his greatest contributions lies in investigating the limitations of the market as an allocator of resources and, more important, its failure in dealing with poverty and deprivation.

Sen rigorously establishes that market forces or growth alone can never eradicate poverty. Conscious public action is absolutely indispensable.

Sen does not dismiss the role of the market as an indicator or transmitter of signals. In his scheme, there is room for private enterprise, for calibrated liberalisation and cautious globalisation. But he has never endorsed the ‘Washington Consensus’ – the neo-liberal orientation of the World Bank, IMF, and the US Treasury, which recommends total deregulation, rampant privatisation and unbridled globalisation. By contrast, India’s policy-makers plumped for it.

In fact, Sen strongly advocates “more” state intervention – in nutrition, health, education, social insurance. This, for him, is intimately linked to the “outcomes” of economic processes, which must empower people to become economic agents in their own right.

Departing from that approach and embracing “voodoo economics” can have disastrous results, as witnessed in Russia and East Asia. The Nobel for Sen is an acknowledgment that market dogma has run out of steam, and a new approach has become necessary.

Sen is not just an economist. He is one of the world’s great economic philosophers, that rare breed of thinkers who remind us that economics is not about the iron laws of supply and demand, but about the real world, about people, about choices and transactions which involve or assume values, institutions and patterns of behaviour – themselves historically determined.

Sen is the economist’s economist, the philosopher’s philosopher. More, he is a public intellectual who brings morality into policy debates. He is a beacon of reason, sanity and humanism – values that the grabbing Indian elite loathes.

Sen’s engagement with the issues of secularism and India’s identity has become more intense, especially after the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992 by Hindu bigots. He has made repeated public interventions on this theme. This reflects his belief that the time has come for intellectuals “to speak out”.

He says the Ayodhya demolition involved two different violations: “First, it violated the notion of tolerance in modern political ethics … Secondly, it violated the deeply held traditional Indian notion of co-existence and mutual tolerance.”

Sen’s emphasis on secularism in the Indian context arises from his deep conviction that India has always been a heterogeneous, multi-religious society. “To see India just as a Hindu country,” he says, “is bizarre”. Islam in India is older than Christianity in many parts of Europe. A range of religions, from Judaism, Zoroastrianism to Christianity, have co-existed here.

Plurality “also concerns the diversity within Hinduism itself

… Hinduism must also be seen as thoroughly plural in structure… [and] schools of thought … When the fourteenth century Hindu scholar Madhava Acharya … wrote his famous Sanskrit treatise … he devoted each of his sixteen chapters to the different schools of Hindu religious postulates (beginning with the atheism of the Charvaka school),” he said.

These uncompromisingly liberal-pluralist-secular views run directly counter to the Hindu chauvinist ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Sen scathingly critiques Social Darwinism, nuclearism and militarism. He totally opposes nuclear weapons and high military budgets.

Sen is a staunch defender of human rights. A society without compassion, which does not provide the “greatest benefit to the least advantaged”, is undesirable. Sen argues not just for equality of opportunity, but equal achievement of certain human functioning.

This provides the foundation for affirmative action, positive discrimination and empowerment of the powerless. It means opposing militarist notions of security. The Bomb is incompatible with rational social priorities. Weapons of mass destruction cannot produce security; they aggravate social insecurities.

The breathtaking span, holism, analytical rigour, and humane concerns of Sen’s work derive from multiple traditions. These include a strong grounding in Indian culture, as well as Western liberal-radical thought in its most refined form, as represented by his Cambridge mentors such as Maurice Dobb and Joan Robinson.

Sen is an inheritor of the liberal, enlightened, modernist, extrovert tradition symbolised by Rabindranath Tagore, one of modern India’s greatest thinkers, and also a Nobel Laureate.

The honouring of Sen vindicates the humanist-radical-secular project independent India set itself, but from which the elite is now beating a retreat. It is a reaffirmation of modern rationality, pluralism and the importance of human agency in the making of the world, including its apparently opaque economic processes, state structures and, above all, structures of the mind.

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