Railing at Amartya Sen: Jagdish Bhagwati is only hurting himself

In a bitter rant published in The Mint, Jagdish Bhagwati compares fellow economist Amartya Sen to an "anti-semite," calls him "a serious danger to economic policy in India," and more bizarrely, "Lord Shiva who had hurt masses of India's poor." [Read it in its entirety here]

Personal feuds are common among celebrities of all sorts. Big egos tend to clash in every field, except some require the use of bigger words than others. There's Salman Khan taking on SRK, and then there's Salman Rushdie vs John Le Carre. The ivory tower is no less rife with petty sniping, but unlike literary authors, academics prefer to avoid outright name calling, at least in their newspaper op-eds. Bhagwati's choice to break that taboo is therefore noteworthy.

AFP

AFP

The various points of ideological contention between the two men listed in the Mint piece are not remarkable or new. These have long been established and rehashed on many forums. Sen may disagree with Bhagwati's characterization of his position, and vice versa, but the substance of the disagreement is plain to see. This isn't, however, an attack on Sen's policy prescriptions, but an attack on Sen himself -- and a concurrent defense of the grand 'I', which is liberally peppered across the piece. Bhagwati's writing sets a new precedent in terms of tone which is nasty, petty and very personal.

Take, for instance, this unnecessary swipe:

Sen has caught up with such issues only later and is sometimes described as the Mother Teresa of economics. But she did a lot of good at the micro level, whereas (as I discuss below) his policy prescriptions have done huge damage instead. Let us not insult Mother Teresa.

Or this one which is ironic, if not entirely coherent:

It is this tendency to degenerate into personal attacks as against debates on issues that we need to avoid. On the same programme, Sen's friend, the activist Jean Drze, produced some toy animals and told Panagariya that he was a unicorn! He is lucky that Panagariya did not respond bitingly and say that Drze should have described himself as the Nandi bull, with his senior colleague Sen as Lord Shiva who had hurt masses of India's poor. But is this what Sen wants us to do rather than debate issues in a professional way?

Over and again, Bhagwati rails at Sen, but succeeds only in hurting himself. An effect compounded by the fact that there seems no central argument that holds these rambling -- and clearly unedited -- paragraphs together, as they veer across decades, skim past the issues, and dive into inelegant and puzzling analogies. To what purpose such ill-aimed ire?

This is not a call to debate, a editorial glove flung at Sen, who he accuses of "dodging any invitation to argue face to face with those who disagree with his assertions." Namecalling is not an incentive for engagement. This is instead a willful, hysterical insistence that the entire nation join Bhagwati in shaming a charlatan, to establish once and for all, Bhagwati's essential rightness. Hence, the concluding, child-like demand made of an old friend:

May I urge at least the Prime Minister, a close friend whom I have known intimately for almost 60 years from our Cambridge days and is a proud architect of the 1991 track I reforms that I among others advocated for years and which have now turned us around, to finally abandon his silence and say to Sen and his friends publicly: "You are wrong"?

The judgement on Sen's policy prescriptions is a matter of ideological opinion, and Bhagwati is certainly entitled to his. But the verdict on this personal attack is not. It is utterly, entirely wrong. More so, as it comes in the midst of vicious attacks on Sen's personal life launched by Subramaniam Swamy and his online army of trolls. We cannot, as my colleague Sandip Roy notes, lynch people for having an opinion and still pretend to be a democracy.

But the person most harmed by this diatribe is not Sen but Bhagwati himself. The respected and erudite economist stooped to conquer, and in doing so, has tumbled right into the mud.