Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

Bhagwati V/s Sen, Updated

Bhagwati V/s Sen, Updated
Bhagwati V/s Sen, Updated

In the Business Standard, Mihir Sharma goes to the heart of the matter as to why minor disagreements between Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen "have amplified into a shouting match — well, a one-way shouting match, with Bhagwati repeatedly attacking Sen in public and in print, and Sen expounding on his point through interviews and op-eds, largely without mentioning Bhagwati or his views." Sharma argues that the real difference between them is merely a difference in emphasis, and then comes to the real reason behind the recent fuss:

As I said: duelling books; people who don’t bother to read the duelling books but instead read headlines written by journalists who haven’t bothered to read the duelling books, or only partially understood these, and the eternal quest in the Indian media to make absolutely everything relate to Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi.

Read the full piece which offers a dummy's guide to the latest brouhaha, with seven things you should know in the Bhagwati vs Sen slugfest: Bhagwati versus Sen: What's going on?

In the same newspaper, Rupa Subramanya invokes the Hayek-Keynes duel in the US in 1932 and concludes, perhaps a bit too optimistically:

One thing is for sure as a young Indian, this is the first time that economic policy debates between two great economic thinkers have been at the forefront of public discourse in India. Whether we like it or not, it’s shaping up as a battle of ideas between those who see themselves more on the right versus those who see themselves on the left. Ideologically driven debates seem to have finally arrived in India. It's just that not all of our politicians have yet figured that out.

Read the full piece: Bhagwati versus Sen: Slugfest or policy change agent?

For background articles referenced in Sharma's articles:

June 29: the Economist's review of Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze's latest book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions: Beyond bootstraps

July 10: Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, in the MintGandhi vs Modi is actually Sen vs Bhagwati

July 13: the Economist published a letter by Jagdish Bhagwati & Arvind Panagariya in response to its review:

The review approvingly cites us as advocating faster growth through labour and land market reforms to cut poverty yet more deeply and to generate more revenues for social programmes. But your claim that Messrs Sen and Drèze wish to go “much further” leaves us puzzled.

The truth of the matter is that Mr Sen has belatedly learned to give lip service to growth, which he has long excoriated as a fetish. He did not explicitly advocate any pro-growth policies, such as opening India to trade and to direct foreign investment, in practice before or after the 1991 reforms. Nor does he recognise that significant redistribution to the poor without growth is not a feasible policy.

Instead he continues to assert that redistribution has led to rapid growth in Asia, a proposition that has no basis in reality and puts the cart before the horse. Growth has made redistribution feasible, not the other way round.

July 20: Amartya Sen responds in the Letters pages of the Economist:

Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya have misdescribed my past work as well as the book itself (Letters, July 13th). I have resisted responding to Mr Bhagwati’s persistent, and unilateral, attacks in the past, but this outrageous distortion needs correction.

Their letter says that, “Mr Sen has belatedly learned to give lip service to growth.” On the contrary, the importance of economic growth as a means— not an end—has been one of the themes even in my earliest writings (including “Choice of Techniques” in 1960 and “Growth Economics” in 1970). The power of growth-mediated security outlined in another book I co-authored with Mr Drèze in 1989, “Hunger and Public Action”, is a big theme in the present book.

Economic growth is very important as a means for bettering people’s lives, but “to go much further, faster” (as your reviewer commented) it has to be combined with devoting resources to remove illiteracy, ill health, undernutrition and other deprivations. This is not to be confused with mere “redistribution” of incomes, on which Messrs Bhagwati and Panagariya choose to concentrate.

July 23: The persistent and unilateral Mr Bhagwati launched a fresh salvo in the Mint itself, where citing his previous work on poverty reduction, gender issues, granting of tickets by political parties to women for elections, and the importance of democracy, he went on to say:

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...

Bhagwati then went on to say:

Sen, with no evidence and with only wishful thinking to support his assertions, claims instead, and is at least construed by many to be arguing, that redistribution should precede growth whereas I (and Panagariya) believe that it is the other way around. As we clarify the matter again, for the umpteenth time, in our Letter to the Editor of The Economist in the 10 July issue, Sen puts the cart before the horse; and the cart is a dilapidated jalopy!

(Sen, in a reply last week in a letter to The Economist, takes me to task for “unilateral” attacks on him. This is strange. Intellectuals write for the public as John Maynard Keynes did, instead of seeking prior, bilateral agreement! We act individually according to our lights; we expect informed debates to settle the differences. He also claims that he embraces growth. But in our book, I and Panagariya quote him extensively to show that this is pro forma, at best, much like an anti-Semite would claim that Jews are among his best friends! To take just a single example out of the many we have recorded, he has attacked the Indian press for concentrating on issues such as foreign direct investment, which is growth-enhancing, and neglecting coverage of the poor.)

Read the full piece at the LiveMint: Why Amartya Sen is wrong: Jagdish Bhagwati

Meanwhile, Amartya Sen's view that he would not endorse Narendra Modi to be Prime Minister of India (something that he had first said as far back as August 2009 to Outlook, by the way) had got shrill and hysterical reactions from certain sections in the BJP, with its Rajya Sabha MP Chandan Mitra demanding that the next NDA govt should strip Sen of Bharat Ratna, a view from which his party later dissociated itself, saying that views expressed by members can only be construed as their personal opinion. 

Mr Sen today said that he would not "surrender his right to speak his mind" as an individual just because he is a Bharat Ratna. He said his reservations were over Gujarat Chief Minister and not BJP.

"Do I regret my views on Modi. No. By getting Bharat Ratna, I do not lose my right to speak my views as an individual.

"It is my right to speak up. I thought it was my duty to stand and speak up

Sen said it was unfortunate that such a demand had come forth and termed it as a "personal" view of Mitra:

"Mr Chandan Mitra may not know that the Bharat Ratna was given to me by the BJP-led government and was handed to me by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. If Mr Vajpayee wants me to return it, I will certainly return it" 

Mr Sen refused to answer a direct question whether he would ever vote for Rahul Gandhi as PM, merely saying that in a parliamentary democracy one votes for the candidates contesting in one's constituency and there was no chance of Mr Rahul Gandhi standing for Lok Sabha elections from a constituency that was once represented by the Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee. 

What he said specifically to NDTV, which can be viewed here (excerpts below):

[On Chandan Mitra's comments]

Well certainly I was surprised, and I think I was disappointed. And obviously I don't know what I could say. I mean, obviously, just as I can say as an Indian citizen the kind of prime minister I would like to have as someone who does not raise worry and concern on the part of large sections of the minority communities, I think Chandan Mitra can say that the Bharat Ratna awarded to me should be stripped. Whether he could do it or not is not clear because for one thing when I was given the award, it was a BJP government in power and while it was the President who gave it to me, it was a Vajpayee government. He can express a view, I do not have a difficulty in his right to make such a statement.

[Was this an endorsement of UPA? Should he have been more diplomatic?]

I don't think so. I read in the newspaper today that I have but I am getting so used to learning a new thing about myself every time I open a newspaper that I was not surprised either. But I have not endorsed the UPA government. Nor have I said that all BJP leaders fall in the same category when it comes to Modi. In fact, I had no difficulty in taking [the Bharat Ratna] or thanking Vajpayee when I got the Nobel and the Bharat Ratna. I have had the opportunity personally of talking to Advani, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, and so on... and have I benefitted from those discussions? QUite often. I don't think there is any contradiction in that. And indeed I have even said that there are things to learn from Modi, but I do not think he would be a good Prime Minister. I do not know how else to put it because I was representing a point of view that many of us learnt in our early days viz. that in a majoritarian democracy, it is the duty of the majority to look after the concerns and worries of the minority and given the fact that I do know that Modi -- because of what happened in 2002 and I am not going into the question here of whether it is a just assessment or not -- one could debate that but that is not the central issue here. The central issue is that does that worry minority Muslims in particular but also other minorities... then I do think that yes, as a member of the majority community I do have the responsibility to express that point of view in support of something that is the worry of minorities...

[On Rahul Gandhi]

Have I decided who I would like to have as Prime Minister? I have not.

Do I think as a voter, without an absentee ballot (I am not sure whether I would be able to get here in time to vote) but even then would I be voting for a Prime Minister? We don't. We vote for a constituency candidate.

My MP used to be a member of the Communitst Party (Marxist) until he was expelled from it, namely the former speaker of Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee. So you know, that's the level at which we face a choice

If Rahul Gandhi were in my constituency, would I vote for him? That's not the same question as Prime Minister

Do I know Rahul Gandhi? Of course, I do!

DO I like him? Yes!

Do I think he is a good product of my college where he was a student, Trinity College, Cambridge. I happened to be Master there. I wasn't prevented from being that on grounds of my Indian nationality. Yes. When I chatted with him, as I said in the paper, I asked him if was interested in politics and he said he wasn't so we didn't discuss it. We in fact discussed his career, as to how he might pursue his interest in Economic Development that he had at that time, that he may still have. Rahul may well be a good alternative and maybe an excellent alternative but I have not expressed a view, and I don't have to decide on that, and if I have to decide on that it  would be on the basis of much more discussion... and there is a lot of discussion to take place. And I like having these discussions and it is my duty as an Indian citizen to listen to this discussion

Meanwhile, Jagdish Bhagwati too stepped forward today to declare:

"I am not going to vote for Modi. I have no particular affection for him. But I have no particular affection for Rahul Gandhi also.

"I want all of the progressive people, no matter which party they belong to, to look at the ideas we are proposing and show where they stand and what they are going to do with these ideas" 

But he was not categorical when asked if he could like to see Narendra Modi as Prime Minister: he said he would not go by personalities and like to see what their platforms and their programmes are:

"I would also like to see debates between them like in America."

He said he was in favour of social indicators and social progress and the reason why liked the Gujarat model was that growth has taken place on social indicators.

"I don't know what his model is. What has happened in Gujarat is that relatively rapid growth has taken place. He has actually been very good about getting license cleared very fast, he has added to electricity supply which is a big problem...All of which is exactly the way development takes place and then I also find that social progress has taken place"

Mr Bhagwati refused to get into the debate on whether or not Sen should be stripped of his Bharat Ratna, as demanded by Mr Mitra.


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