The Amartya Sen Guide to passing off petty pique as high principle

One of the fundamental realities of human behaviour is that people tend to develop instant likes or dislikes. Most people seldom change their minds once they have decided they don’t like someone. And so it is with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has been shouting from the rooftops about why he thinks Narendra Modi will make a bad Prime Minister.

He said that before Modi was elected in 2014, but once the people of India disagreed sharply with him, and Modi seemed to be vowing India by talking about sanitation and toilets, Sen gave him qualified and grudging approval. But now that he is losing his job as Chancellor of Nalanda University, he is back at it again.

In recent interviews to the media, Sen, whose term as Nalanda University head ends this month, seems to have decided that he will fling mud before he goes. He has decided to play victim by claiming heroic resistance to the government’s efforts to interfere with academic autonomy. He said in an interview to The Indian Express: “It was clear to me that even if my friends in the (Nalanda) board were to win in keeping me as chancellor, I could not be an effective leader because I would have to fight the government all the time. But I decided to make it a public affair so that it would be difficult to put a Hindutva ideologue in charge at Nalanda. The government did not want it to be made public at all. They would have loved it if I had quietly slunk away, but that, I am afraid, I was not willing to do.”

That a man who will turn 82 this November thinks he has some kind of permanent lock on the Nalanda job is surprising. He has chosen to make it appear like some kind of vindictive act on the part of the Modi government, neatly avoiding the real issues about how he handled his job. Among other things, he brought in unqualified individuals to run the varsity by flouting norms (read about it here).

Amartya Sen refused to continue as the Nalanda University Chancellor. AFP

Amartya Sen refused to continue as the Nalanda University Chancellor. AFP

Clearly, Sen has decided that he will go kicking and screaming from a job he should have retired gracefully ages ago. That he has chosen to place his own easing out from Nalanda in the context of the general lack of autonomy for academic institutions in India (he talked about Smriti Irani’s IIM bill) shows how good he is at mixing up issues to claim victimhood. His exit has nothing actually to do with the autonomy of Nalanda, and his claim, that he is trying to prevent the Modi government from replacing him with a Hindutva crony can be verified only when the appointment is announced. One hopes the government will find the right man for the job.

Sen has tried to take the high moral ground by making other criticisms of the Modi government – some of which may not hold water.

Speaking toMint, Sen could not avoid bringing in Gujarat. He said he had hoped that “in spite of my not being a cheerleader for Mr Modi, he will become a leader who will lead the whole country and not try to replicate, in my judgment, (the) very partial and defective experience, of Gujarat”.

It should be news to everyone that Modi is trying to replicate Gujarat in Delhi. While some Sangh loud-mouths have been talking nonsense about Hindutva, Modi himself has not encouraged any such talk. At best Sen can say Modi has not done enough to shut them up – but of late this has clearly been the case. The loud-mouths seem to have quietened down.

Then he was on to his hobbyhorse: increased social spending. Referring to the cuts in the education and health budgets in this year’s Union budget, he said: “India is the first country in the world that is trying to become an industrial giant with an unhealthy and ill-educated labour force. It has not been done in the past and, in my belief, it cannot be done now, by India or any other country.”

To The Indian Express, he elaborated thus: “I think he (Modi) has a wrong understanding of economic development. You can think of development as a process with human beings at the centre, or you can see it as a process with financial and industrial leadership (at the centre). He definitely belongs to the latter (school of thought). You need the financial leaders, no doubt, you also need the industrial entrepreneurs. But humanity has to be in the middle. The previous government also failed in that but they were trying to correct a bit with (schemes like) Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, funding for which has just been cut. Funding for school meals too has just been cut.”

Sen is clearly trying to build his antipathy towards Modi into some kind of ideological struggle where he and the UPA fought to invest more in health and education, while NDA is busy robbing the poor of their daily bread and schooling. Sen also indirectly seemed to toe the Rahul Gandhi line of Modi being a “suit-boot-ki-sarkar.” Ask any businessman, and he will tell you he is disappointed with Modi. So much for Sen’s insight on what is happening.

While there can be many valid criticisms about the Modi government – and this writer has often highlighted the shortcomings – the Sen antipathy needs to be taken with bags of salt. For these are relatively uninformed criticisms, and take no note of what Modi has actually done.

The fact is Modi as PM has talked less about business and more about social sector schemes. In fact, so many of them, that one wonders how he is going to deliver on them. From inclusive banking (Jan Dhan) to housing for all to low-cost old age pensions to direct cash transfers for the poor, Modi has been tweaking UPA schemes to make them work better. He has been asking the rich to give up their subsidies, not the poor.

As for the cuts in education and health, Sen has obviously not heard about the 14th finance commission report. The commission’s recommendations on the division of the tax pool is now 62 percent in favour of states and 38 percent for the centre, which automatically means the burden of social spending will partly shift to states. They have to decide how they will spend their new money.

Sen should be talking to the states about education and health, not just the centre. The shrinking of the central kitty has to be matched by a commensurate increase in state spending on social schemes, which is where the education and health cuts have to be made up.

Sen’s gratuitous remarks on Modi’s lack of understanding about development need to be dismissed with the contempt they deserve. Prime Ministers may not know too much economics, but they can call on experts to advise them. An intellectual like Jawaharlal Nehru created a socialist paradise where corruption and statism ruled the roost, robbing funds from education and health – which the dictatorships of Asia managed to ensure. Nehru was the author of the so-called “Hindu rate of growth” and the licence-permit raj, not Modi.

After becoming PM, Modi has been talking repeatedly of education for girls (Beti bachau, beti padhao), about skill-building, about sanitation and toilets in schools, about infrastructure, about homesteads. None of these are initiatives that fail to put “human beings at the centre” of development. NREGA spends are being increased, despite Modi’s initial aversion to the scheme.

The UPA poured huge amounts of money into rural areas, including offering higher minimum support prices for foodgrain. The net result was high inflation. Modi is not cutting funds for any major rural activity in a difficult fiscal year. The lower increases in MSPs announced last year and this year have resulted in lower inflation, helping the rural landless and poor. Sen did not shed even crocodile tears for them.

While it is not my case that Modi has, or is going to finally deliver the goods, it is equally obvious that Sen’s arguments seem to be driven more by pique than reality. It is time to tell him goodbye, thank you.