Amartya Sen Is An ‘Institution Of Eminence’ Well Past The Sell-By Date

R Jagannathan

Jul 20, 2018, 11:58 AM | Updated 11:58 AM IST

Amartya Sen (Subir Halder/India Today Group/GettyImages)
Amartya Sen (Subir Halder/India Today Group/GettyImages)
  • Amartya Sen is too full of his own sense of being a prophet to accept that his ideas and eminence may be past their sell-by date.
  • He is being used by politicians to target the Modi government, and no longer deserving of our respect.
  • There is no other way to describe Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and critic-in-chief of the Narendra Modi government, than as an arrogant and biased individual who will never use the soft cloth of evidence to clear his smudged lenses. A few days ago, he was in the news making a sweeping statement to the effect that since 2014 India has taken a “quantum leap backwards”, a statement that was challenged by Niti Aayog Deputy Chairman Rajiv Kumar, who asked him to prove it.

    Yesterday (19 July), Sen accepted the challenge, and NDTV hosted their sparring session (See the full video here). You don’t have to accept all of Rajiv Kumar’s claims on behalf of the Modi government to sense Sen’s total unwillingness to shed his biases. Sen and sense are two different things.

    In the beginning, Sen appeared willing enough to listen to Rajiv Kumar’s arguments, that the Modi government may have done some good at least. But that was an optical illusion. As Kumar proceeded, Sen arrogantly put them aside with dismissive statements such as “I hear what you say, but..” or “I know that, but…”. Then came a put-down statement to the effect that Kumar, given his position as Niti Aayog chief, had no option but to toe the government line.

    To any impartial observer, it would seem that to Sen’s mind, nothing the Modi government has done can ever be good, and he let us all know that through his body language and dismissiveness.

    Consider his various responses to Rajiv Kumar’s enumeration of the Modi government’s achievements.

    Kumar talked of its macroeconomic performance, from growth to management of fiscal deficits and inflation, but Sen did not even nod acceptance of this achievement. He merely noted that United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) growth performance was better.

    Kumar talked of the efforts to give many institutions of higher learning autonomy – including the IIMs, 30 universities, and the freedom to new institutes of eminence. Sen dismissed all of it and only mentioned the recognition given to Jio’s university plan because it had not even been started. Kumar talked of the weak performance of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and a bill to replace the Medical Council of India with a New Medical Commission Bill, but Sen had no reaction to any of these changes to improve autonomy and governance structures.

    When Kumar talked of the reforms undertaken by the Modi government, including things like the goods and services tax which angered the BJP’s core support base, Sen dismissed that saying the 1991 reforms went deeper. It apparently did not cross his mind that in 1991 the reforms were driven by bankruptcy, and Modi’s reforms came without the pressure of a crisis and in the face of huge trade opposition to it. But why consider facts when they will force you to reconsider your prejudices?

    Then Sen talked about violence against Dalits and mobocracy – where the narratives certainly go against the Modi government’s performance. But when Kumar challenged him to show the data that such violence had demonstrably increased, Sen dismissed it mockingly, and asked if what the Supreme Court said recently on mobocracy “will do?” In fact, he went so far as to suggest that we should not look at individual numbers.

    In short, forget the evidence, believe the narrative being put out by interested parties without adequate data.

    The anchor, to her credit, asked Sen if his views were not “coloured” by his own political views on Modi. Sen evaded that question by answering the he criticised what ought to be criticised and had done the same with Manmohan Singh as well. That’s whataboutery with a capital W.

    More W’s were in evidence as the talk progressed. When Kumar talked of the government’s achievements in toilet-building (seven-and-a-half crore toilets), Sen said Bangladesh had done much better.

    When the anchor talked of the Indian economy overtaking France, Sen dismissed it as meaningless, as the true measure should be per capita income increases. Even this figure is improving, and recent studies by Brookings suggest that absolute levels of poverty may be well under 6 per cent, but Sen did not even acknowledge the finding. Instead, he talked about Bangladesh having a higher life expectancy by two years.

    Dismissal of the evidence, whataboutery, and non-acknowledgement of true achievements are how Sen handled the debate with Kumar. This is nothing but dishonesty. The arrogance was evident from the fact that whenever Kumar tried to contradict some of his statements, he angrily asked him to hear him out, but Sen then proceeded to interrupt Kumar when the latter was given his turn.

    When Kumar talked about demonetisation as the only way to push back against the culture of black money, Sen repeated his old statement that it was a “despotic act”, since no government can renege on its commitment to honour its currency. It did not occur to him that the government was only forcing people to exchange old currency for new ones. One can accept demonetisation as a bad economic decision, but to not even accept that it may have had some long-term benefits – like increasing the tax base – is really an obstinate refusal to view the facts as they are.

    Ultimately, the issue is not whether Sen is right to criticise some moves of the Modi government, including its failure to stem the mob violence that is besmirching its image, but whether intellectuals like him should have the humility to accept that sometimes they could be wrong on Modi. That he may have done some good despite his faults.

    Amartya Sen is too full of his own sense of being a prophet to accept that his ideas and eminence may be past their sell-by date. He is being used by politicians to target the Modi government, and he does not even know this. Perhaps, his ouster from Nalanda University rankles. But Sen is no longer deserving of our respect.

    He is just another anti-Modi propagandist. Maybe he is right to question whether giving Jio an “Institute of Eminence Tag” before it is even set up is the right thing to do. But what do we do with “Individuals of Eminence” who no longer deserve the title?

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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