Dr Sen is clearly lacking in sensibility. Amartya Sen dared to venture, on television, an opinion about Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate and a negative one at that.
In an interview with CNN-IBN, Dr Sen said "As an Indian citizen, I don't want Modi as my PM. ..He has not done enough to make minorities feel safe." Pressed further, he said "He could have first of all been more secular."
The BJP has been quick to react. "Professor Sen had better focus on research into problems of poverty amidst plenty in the world rather than worry too much about a politician's qualification to be prime minister," retorted party spokesman Dharmendra Pradhan.
Mind you, Dr Sen was responding to a question in an interview. It's not like the Nobel laureate had written an op-ed on the subject or was issuing his own white paper on the Amartya Sen checklist for Prime Minister of India for the Indian voter to follow.
While the BJP has pulled its punches somewhat, Mr Modi's always obstreperous online brigade has been going after Amartya Sen with ferocious gusto. And it's not just the aam aadmi. Janata Party head Subramanian Swamy, who routinely calls Sonia Gandhi vishkanya and her son the Buddhu, has dug his claws into Dr Sen now.
"Amartya Sen is not Indian," he told the Business Standard. "He had lost his Indian-ness after he left his Bengai ex-wife and married two foreign females." Even for Dr Subramanian Swamy that's a new low and hardly the kind of logic one would expect from a son of Harvard. Dr Sen's three marriages are now all over the comment boards as if ones right to have an opinion on anything is inversely proportional to ones marital record. Three strikes and you are out? He's been called every name in the book from "corrupt Marxist" to "senile" to "closet Naxalite". But none of that means the man does not have a right to have an opinion and share it when asked. And those who oppose him have every right to ignore that opinion and shrug and say the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.
Instead this caravan feels obliged to bark back. Dr. Chandan Mitra has tweeted that the "Next NDA Govt must strip him of his Bharat Ratna." It was the NDA that actually gave Dr. Sen that award in 1999. Last time I checked there was nothing that said a Bharat Ratna could not have a personal opinion. Nor is Modi synonymous with India (the way, say an Indira Gandhi's devotees routinely made her out to be) so that a negative opinion on Modi is tantamount to dissing Bharat.
Let's be clear - this is not about Dr Sen's economic policies or whether as Niranjan Rajadhyaksha writes in the Mint, (Jagdish) Bhagwati versus Sen is really a proxy fight between Modi versus Sonia Gandhi. That is in the realm of a battle of ideas. This is just about name calling at its most vicious. And such is the paucity of our political imagination that a critique of Modi becomes the same thing as lavishing praise on Rahul Gandhi. Calling the party's prince-in-waiting a "likeable young man" would be regarded as damning by faint praise anywhere else in the world. In India, that makes Sen according to the BJP's Pradhan "an apologist for the Congress party."
It bears reminding ourselves that this is really old wine in an old bottle. Dr Sen was merely repeating himself. In an interview with Outlook in 2009, he had clearly said "I don't think Modi is fit to be prime minister of India." At that time he was giving his personal reaction to reports that Ratan Tata had gone to Gujarat and showered praise on Modi and said he was fit to be PM. If, by the BJP's logic, an economist has no business playing political analyst, then should an industrial tycoon?
But that Outlook interview didn't send Mr Modi's supporters into such paroxysms of rage. So why now? Is it closer to the electoral cycle? Or is there something to be gained in trying to portray Mr Modi as the victim of the intellectual elite? Or is it about quashing any conversation about secularism by going into full frontal attack on the character of the questioner. As long as media can feast on juicy details about a septuagenarian's love life, there's little space left to discuss such dry and weighty ideas as secularism and models of development.
And it is not even, as some are lamenting, about the right to dissent and its ever shrinking space. Dr Sen was not dissenting. He was not burning a flag. Or refusing a national honour. This was merely about the right to have an opinion, which the last time I checked was a right enjoyed, and vigorously exercised, by every Indian, even thrice-married ones. If an opinion cannot be tolerated, what hope is there for dissent?
This is ignoble indeed.