Amartya Sen: ‘There’s a sense of fear in India today’

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Amartya Sen in conversation with Aresh Shirali. Photographs by Rohit Chawla

FOR A MAN of such dignified restraint, Amartya Sen almost appears to bristle at the mention of ‘post-truth’, that euphemism for ‘lies’ in a world where truth and reason seem under siege. As an intellectual devoted to the study of Collective Choice, however, the Thomas W Lamont professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard has fought many a lonely battle before—and emerged victorious. Most famously, he earned a Nobel Prize for the rescue of Welfare Economics, which was beset with gloom after Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017) came up with his ‘Impossibility Theorem’ in 1950 that seemed to prove that no society can govern itself in a way that’s compatible with everyone’s preferences, does not mix up independent issues, has nobody setting choices for everybody else, and only makes changes that no one finds objectionable. Something—or someone’s interests—simply had to give way, and that was that. As Professor Sen writes in the Preface to the 2017 expanded edition of his 1970 classic on the subject, Collective Choice and Social Welfare (Penguin, 590 pages, Rs 599), Arrow’s finding was ‘an elegant demolition of the hope of reasoned democratic politics, as it was so often interpreted’. Its impact was indeed far reaching. Idealists despaired, dictators gloated and cynics shrugged. But Sen had doubts. So he examined the theorem closely and had his eureka moment in the information a society was assumed to need in making decisions for all. The impossible, he would go on to establish, could be made possible by taking into account ‘the systemic use of interpersonal comparisons of individual well-being’. Not only did his rebuttal revive a field in which interest was fast fading, the broad implications of his Social Choice Theory to various things that involve group decisions of high complexity, from policy formulation to electoral processes, have been under fierce—and welcome—debate in academic circles ever since. For ordinary folk trying to make sense of the professor’s principal point, perhaps a cursory look at the dynamics of social media will help. Can a Whatsapp group with diverse participants, for example, have a chat agenda that is always to everyone’s liking, keeps unrelated topics separate, lets no administrator dictate rules and also cheeses nobody off? The wider the group, the stiffer the challenge. While this may be too offhand an illustration of Arrow Possibility, it’s easy enough to observe that the better we understand each other’s sensitivities, the more pleasant such an online forum gets.

While perfection may not really be possible in more contentious settings, such as elections, Professor Sen argues in his book’s new edition that positive changes in public affairs can yet be wrought if ‘dreamers and critics’, those ‘agents of scrutiny and of change’, make an effort to grapple with the big questions of how we make choices for ourselves. He admits no anxiety over his work being left to gather dust by rightist forces on the ascent, and has the air of a thinker who knows his views on political reform may take a long while before they gain wide acceptance.

At 83, his voice may have literally begun to betray traces of frailty, but, as clear from an interview with Open held in his suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi, it retains the vitality that has long compelled the attention of those who care. The interaction spanned populism, globalisation, Donald Trump’s victory, electoral methods, Narendra Modi’s governance and the articulation of dissent, and took place only hours before news arrived that Arrow had passed away. In some ways, Professor Sen’s book serves not only to explain his own views, but also as a tribute to the late theorist who’d set him thinking about Social Choice all those decades ago. It’s what endears him to so many, this unfailing sense of compassion that enlivens the severity of his rationality. Excerpts from the conversation:


In this so-called post-truth era, do you worry that your contribution to Social Choice Theory is being ignored by democratically elected leaders?

Well, I don’t believe we are in a post-truth era. We are in an era where a lot of truth is distorted, but to call it ‘post-truth’ gives it a respectability which it doesn’t deserve. ‘Post’ is ‘beyond’, like ‘post- modern’ or ‘post-Euclidean’, and it’s not like that. Truth is just as important today as it has always been. And I don’t have any sense that my work is being ignored. Quite a lot of the work is technical and mathematical, and the audience for that is mainly academic and also intellectuals of very wide interest, and I have not had a problem communicating with them. In terms of the messages or lessons that may come out of my work—for whatever their worth—for the practice of either economics or politics, I don’t see any particular tendency to overlook the implications of what I’m trying to say. I don’t want to sound smug, but I’m not full of grievance that my work is being ignored.

Do you see a backlash against globalisation in the affluent societies of the West?

There are indeed many protests against globalisation. A lot of these are based, I believe, on a misunderstanding of what globalisation is. I am known to be fairly firmly pro-globalisation. I don’t want to see countries withdraw into their shell and detach themselves from the rest of the world, and that applies to the world of ideas as well as the world of political practice, economic relations and social priorities. The protest against ‘globalisation’ that one sees needs to be critically examined to check whether it’s really about globalisation or something else—and I think it’s largely about something else.

Is it about inequality? Is it that anti-globalisation populists— of the Left and the Right—are channelling the resentment that comes from that?

The short answer is yes, but there is also a longer answer. It is inequality that gives many people reason to ask ‘what’s going wrong’ and globalisation often seems like a usual suspect and then it is damned. But that’s not the long answer, because different kinds of inequalities have different causes. There have been changes in the world in which people have lost their jobs—like in the rust belt of America or in traditional industries in many countries— and that is one of the things that happens with a change in the world economy. What is required is a sympathetic and intelligent government trying to do what’s needed—and that could include education and re-training as well as support for those industries that may be declining much faster than need be the case—so that you can make the transition much smoother. It requires a sympathetic and informed government policy, which we have not often got. So that’s a particular kind of inequality which shakes people into believing that globalisation is the guilty party, which it may not be. If the world had resisted globalisation at any time, whether you look at the 10th, 15th or 18th centuries, it would have made the world a very retrograde place. What we enjoy today, our standards of living, the much greater human capabilities than we used to have (to live longer, to live better, to have more freedom to do what we have reason to do)—all these have depended on people learning from each other and having economic, social and political relations. So we shouldn’t chuck the baby out with the bathwater.

We are in an era where a lot of truth is distorted, but to call it ‘post-truth’ gives it a respectability which it doesn’t deserve. ‘Post’ is ‘beyond’, like ‘post-modern’ or ‘post-Euclidean’, and it’s not like that. Truth is just as important today as it has always been

Does the rise of populists like Donald Trump reflect a failure of traditional politics and political parties?

Partly yes, but it also reflects a bad electoral system, on which I have written in the New York Times and New York Review of Books. You know, Donald Trump did not get a majority in the Republican primaries, for the first 17 of them, and indeed at that time many other candidates—including Marco Rubio—could have defeated him in a head-to-head contest. I think the American political system needs reform. Jointly with Eric Maskin, who has done spectacular work on this subject, I have proposed a few changes that can be implemented.

Donald Trump reflects the deficiencies of the electoral system in America. These deficiencies are often overlooked because we tend to be too tolerant of what has been going on, in the case of America for more than 200 years and in India for a long time too. We’ve been following the British system, whereby a candidate with only a plurality (often very far from a majority) comes to office. For example, you may, as the BJP did, get 31 per cent of the votes and still get a firm majority of the Parliamentary seats and generate the illusion that you’ve won a landslide victory. As long as we have this electoral system, there is of course nothing wrong for the BJP to enjoy its privileges, but it must be remembered that the BJP does not have anywhere near majority support among the people. The false sense of majority victory and the psychology which it generates— to think and declare, ‘We represent the majority and even the entire nation, and everyone who disagrees with us is anti-national’—is terrible. The electoral system is ultimately connected with the way we think, and not only with the electoral outcomes we get… So we have to look for not only any defects that the society may have, but also at defects of the organisational base of the ongoing democratic practice.

Would ‘majority rule’ over ‘plurality rule’ (implied in first-past- the-post polls) reflect the popular will better? What is the core proposition here?

Yes, exactly that. It would’ve had the effect of stopping Trump, but that is not what we should be mainly concerned with. What we’re concerned with is the fact that going by plurality badly misrepresents what people want. You see, going by plurality means you go by the first preferences of people, and whoever has more first preferences than others wins, even if it’s a minority. The fact is, a person or a party that gets most first-preference votes may also get the most last-preferences. We have to represent as much as possible the totality of people’s preferences. The fact that a party has the most first-preference votes does not tell you if it is a majority winner in any way whatsoever. The present electoral system in India has many other defects as well. We happened to inherit it as a part of the colonial system. The British left as their legacy a very defective electoral system, along with many terrible laws, such as penalising gay sex, allowing charges of sedition on vague grounds, and so on. We do need change.

I think the newspapers are a bit scared to carry anti-Government stories. It’s also the case that some people feel very restrained in expressing dissent

What Maskin and I are suggesting is to adopt majority rule in the US, so that every candidate or alternative has to be compared head-to-head, one-to-one, with every other. That’s not very hard to do. All you need is for a voter to rank all the candidates—or even those that the voter wants to be on the top (the others would then be seen as tying for the bottom position). Suppose there are four, you rank them. When every candidate is placed against every other, the candidate that gets a majority over every other candidate wins. That represents the popular will in a bigger way than the present American system does. And that kind of change, which can be easily brought about in America, can also be introduced elsewhere—in Britain, in France, in India.

Speaking of India, you’ve described demonetisation as ‘despotic and authoritarian’. Why do you say that?

That word ‘despotic’, which was used in an interview, has been repeated endlessly—as if that was the main thing I was saying. Whether it was despotic or not, we can discuss. There’s a sense in which it was despotic—in the sense that it was an act taken suddenly by the Prime Minister without any consultation with other authorities, including the states, and very little even with the rest of the Central Government, not to mention the general public. But the main issue isn’t whether it was despotic or not, because those who wanted to attack me picked on that word and went on and on and on—‘What the hell does the guy mean, despotic?’And I do think in a sense it’s despotic, but the main issue is that it was a very silly economic step to take.

Do you not believe this could have ever been part of people’s preferences, to use terminology from your theory?

It could have been if they were very misled. People do have preferences of all kind, you know, from being misled about the science of something as well as being misled about how one’s own mind is working. Yes, it could be part of one’s preference, but the reason we tend to rely on reason is that many thoughts that we initially have do not survive critical scrutiny, and then we have to reject them. My view is rather similar to that of the industrialist Rajiv Bajaj—I was pleased to see it, and not just because I once gave, very happily, one of the annual Bajaj Lectures—that demonetisation was not only mistaken in its execution but the very idea is mistaken.

How do you assess the Modi regime on the whole?

Well, there are three issues here. I was critical of the previous Government for not doing enough in education and healthcare. In the case of Modi, those deficiencies have intensified instead of getting remedied. That’s not a new problem, but an intensification of an old one, but it has vitiated the Government’s approach to economic and social policies.

Second, I think no matter how you describe secularism, no matter how—and people talk about new terminology like ‘pseudo secularism’—the fact is that the minority communities have a sense of fear and uncertainty at this time which they did not have earlier. And that, I think, is a huge failure. India is not a single- religion country. I happen to come from a Hindu background, but that doesn’t make me long for a Hindu-dominated India. We want a multi-religious, multicultural, multi-ethnic combination on the basis of which India has always flourished, and as we have learnt from no less than Mahatma Gandhi that to define India in Hindu terms would be a huge mistake. When Gandhiji arrived in England to negotiate in the early 1930s and was described as ‘a leader of the Hindus in India’, he protested. He said that ‘To the extent I’m a leader, I’m a leader of people of all religions in India, and if I have to choose any side, it wouldn’t be that of being a leader of a particular religious community, but a leader of the poor landless labourers.’ My feeling is well captured by that great remark of Gandhiji. So there has been some decline there.

And the third point is that there has been a certain amount of confusion in the thinking of the Government between particularly two things—in taking the government to be the same thing as the state. Now the Government actually dispenses a lot of the things the state has to do, like giving money to universities. That doesn’t mean it ought to determine or dictate what universities have to do. I think American universities, European universities would not be as fine and successful as they are if government- financed institutions were also government-controlled and government-run. There is a profound confusion on this in Indian governance. There was a bit of this confusion even in the activities of the previous Government. There’s no question there was not enough clarity there, but instead of having the clarity increased, what we have today is a takeover of the running of universities with a massive absence of academic autonomy. And there’s a sense of panic in a large part of the university community even about freedom of expression, so important for academic pursuit. If you say what the Government thinks is the ‘wrong thing’, if you do what the Government decides is the ‘wrong thing’—and there are certain subjects on which you should say nothing at all, like Kashmir—you’ll be immediately subject to the possible charge of being ‘anti-national’, or perhaps have a sedition charge slapped on you.’ Sedition is a pretty serious business, but the charge is being outrageously misused in India.

So I think the confusion between the state and the government has been big, the confusion between people and the voters has been strong. We act in various capacities, one of which in the field of politics is voting, but another is to participate in political discussions. But if you express a certain point of view and get accused of being anti-national, that is antithetical to political reasoning and goes entirely against what John Stuart Mill saw democracy to be—namely, ‘government by discussion’.

Is dissent increasingly losing its voice in this country?

I don’t think it’s losing its voice. I think the newspapers are a bit scared to carry anti-Government stories. It’s also the case that some people feel very restrained in expressing dissent. But as Jean-Paul Sartre said once in the context of the French Resistance during the occupation period in the 1940s, ‘We have more power if we decide that we have more power and can do something about it.’ Fear is a big inhibitor. And I think when there’s a disagreement with the Government—of course we don’t have anything like the German occupation of France that Sartre was talking about, and no matter how critical I may be of the Government, that comparison would be ridiculous—one should have the freedom, the determination and the courage to express one’s views. And if people are afraid to speak up, it’s at least partly because there is a sense of fear that people have felt from the actions of the Government against some people, whether it’s Kanhaiya here or Teesta Setalvad there.

There has been an interpretation that the Government would not accept any kind of dissent, and that’s stifling. On the other hand, there is also the issue that people should have the courage to state their views. It is very important to do that. And on the positive side, we still have the Supreme Court, we have a constitutional commitment to the rule of law. It is not the case that anyone trying to express his or her views is crying in the wilderness—because what looks like the wilderness has many other people with shared commitments.