“I don’t know what Socialism means”

Amartya Sen - an amiable man in the dismal science
Passing Through
THE POST ARGUMENT SEN: Every successful economy, he says, will be a mixed one (Photo: RUHANI KAUR)

The battle of clever old professors is often fought behind the shield of values. They may even hint it is for the greater common good. But at the heart of it is usually a petty grouse. Naturally, they never mention the grouse, which points to where one may look to discover it. They say a lot, though, and employ bar diagrams. And much polite language. When an academic says “my good friend”, he usually means a body part. Indian-born American economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who used to be described until recently by several Indian commentators as a man who will one day win the Economics Nobel, and Amartya Sen, who has indeed won the prize, have been sparring for years, proclaiming that the other is a “good friend”. Bhagwati’s language has now turned savage, as Sen continues to seek refuge in elegance.

Bhagwati, in an essay in Mint—in which the only moment of humour is when he says, ‘The Gujarat template is ideal: its people believe in accumulating wealth but they believe also in using it, not for self-indulgence but for social good’—claims that ‘my good friend’ Amartya Sen ‘is not simply wrong; he also poses a serious danger to economic policy in India’. He says that Sen, probably through his book The Argumentative Indian, had ‘conned foreigners into believing that Indians believe in debates that lead to an informed democracy’. While the truth, according to Bhagwati, is that ‘Indians traditionally are more into falling at the feet of great figures like Sen and me.’ On the fact that Sen is often described as the Mother Teresa of economics, Bhagwati says, ‘Let us not insult Mother Teresa.’

It is Sen’s misfortune that one of the compliments he has been burdened with is a comparison with a proselytising nun from Kolkata. But the substance of the analogy is important. All economists may claim to work towards a better society, but it is only a particular type—because they recommend direct, urgent action to save the poor and weak and truly miserable at the cost of somewhat diminishing the strong—who are regarded as the conscience of their profession. Which Sen is. If Bhagwati were in a Tamil film, on a day of moral uncertainty, when he looks into the mirror, he will see Sen, and Sen will reprimand him through bad acoustics. (“My good friend”? Probably.)

The professorial economic conscience constantly reminds society of the cost of progress, the price of inequities, and that a meaningful unit of economics is as small as the span of childhood. And that only a state’s moral intervention, and not merely the market’s collateral benefits, can effect fundamental and lasting changes in society.

All this, Sen has suggested in different ways. Which is how, he tells me during a brief interview at the Taj in Delhi, as the smell of coffee fills the small conference room, he came to be misconstrued as a socialist, as a man who was “against economic reforms”, and, he chuckles now, as a man who “wanted the Licence Raj back”.

“I don’t know what socialism means anymore,” he says, “I don’t know what capitalism means. It is a complete waste of time to discuss socialism and capitalism. Every successful economy in the world will be a mixture of both. It is a question of balance you are looking for. If it is the tipping point you’re looking for, it would be the tipping point of terminology.”

But, among middle-economists, as is the case with writers, are some more sentimental than the rest? More precisely, do some of them, because of what they have seen in their miserable countries, believe in the centrality of conscience to economics, and does this lead them to a particular kind of economics? Some people need the illusion or reality of social conflict to achieve intellectual direction. Without imagining perpetrators and victims, they are lost.

The evidence is common in literature. Arundhati Roy, closer home. Eduardo Galeano, a bit farther. The Uruguayan writer, in The Book of Embraces, writes: ‘Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that, one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them—will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down, yesterday, today, tomorrow or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day on their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.’

Such prose is not possible without the imagination of a conflict gamed by the rich and designed to create winners and losers, the somebodies and the nobodies. Not surprisingly, Galeano is a ‘socialist’ who believes he knows what that means. Conscience, whatever it may or may not be, is a powerful literary device. It lends tone, and even movement. It carries the plot from a broad range of options, the illusory beginning, to the consequence, the illusory end. It was at the very origins of economics too. And has survived, despite all the math, like an ancient ancestor’s long nose persists in time down the generations.

In his latest book, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, which he co-authored with the economist Jean Dreze, Sen appears to have a clear understanding of socialism because he and Dreze emphatically claim that India was never a socialist republic as many believe and India itself has claimed for decades.

‘India’s economic planning in the early post-independence period was not particularly ‘socialist’, and it was certainly not Soviet-style planning as is sometimes suggested. India was attempting the sort of state-led development strategy that was also being pursued, in various forms, by many other countries around that time…’

One of the important reasons they say India was not socialist, or Communist for that matter, is that the nation did not take primary education seriously the way Communist countries did.

‘In fact, the first Five Year Plan, initiated in 1951—even though sympathetic to the need for university education, which it strongly supported—argued against regular schooling at the elementary level, favouring instead a so-called ‘basic education’ system, built on the hugely romantic and rather eccentric idea that children should learn through self- financing handicraft.’

This was Mohandas Gandhi’s influence. He wanted children to learn by making handicrafts. He even believed that if children learnt how to write or read before learning how to make, say, a straw hat, it will, in his words, ‘hamper their intellectual growth’.

An unsung achievement of modern India surely was its ability to abandon many of that man’s obtuse ideas.

Nehru was, as Sen says, “not as Gandhian as Gandhi was.” Which helped the nation. But India’s first Prime Minister was greatly influenced by another amusing figure—the statistician, among other things, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis.

In India: A Portrait, British writer Patrick French writes that before Mahalanobis got interested in economics he was involved in eugenics as he wished to ‘discover the racial origins of Bengalis’. French writes, ‘He invented a mathematical formula of “caste-distance” to determine the eugenic gap between Anglo-Indians and specific caste groups… His conclusion was that Europeans had bred with Bengalis rather than with people from other regions… In 1949, by which time such ideas were falling out of fashion, he took part in an anthropometric survey of several thousand Indians, busily measuring their brows, noses, elbows and shinbones.’

‘Extending himself from skull measurement and statistics to the ideal future for the nation, he invented a theory of economic development—the ‘Mahalanobis Model’, inevitably.’

It was a model on which India would base its disastrous central planning.

Mahalanobis was, Sen says with a chuckle for some reason, “What you would call a socialist. He was doing all kinds of things. He was quite brilliant with some subjects. You can see some good effects and bad effects. Among the good effects on Nehru is the emphasis on technical education, and the early beginnings of IIT, which will ultimately play a leading part in the Indian economic transformation. But he could not be convinced that primary education made any difference.”

It is hard to comprehend from the vantage point of this century, but the fact is that the Indian elite, which ruled the nation at the time, simply failed to see how crucial investing in primary education was. The nation also neglected primary health, which is even more perplexing. “It was a lesson missed,” Sen says. In time, he points out, “Relying on public healthcare and public education combined with the free market economy led to rapid economic growth” in several other Asian countries.

India’s investment in healthcare and primary education, as a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product, continues to be dismal. But how can a democracy, where the power of self-interest forced politicians to solve the problem of famine, ignore its children and the health of its people? “It was a policy mistake,” Sen says.

But India did build lots of rockets—and they went up too—and the very manly nuclear bomb.

And soon, when India goes to Mars, there will be much joy with commercials in between. It was partly malnutrition’s fault then that it was simply not as sexy as space.