April 04, 2020
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'Hope India Now Doesn't Get Too Hung Up On Cultivating Power To Feel For The Oth

The estimation of India as a global player should not become as much in excess of reality now as it was below it in the past.

'Hope India Now Doesn't Get Too Hung Up On Cultivating Power To Feel For The Oth
'Hope India Now Doesn't Get Too Hung Up On Cultivating Power To Feel For The Oth
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Nobel laureate Amartya Sen finds it hard not to feel frustrated about India. For problems he had "grumbled" about in the '50s and early '60s—illiteracy, lack of basic healthcare, social inequality, discrimination against girls—still persist even today. Until recently the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Prof Sen now serves as Lamont University Professor at Harvard University where he teaches Economics and Philosophy. Born in Santiniketan, he studied in Presidency College, Calcutta, and Trinity College, Cambridge. A proud Indian, he still holds on to his Indian citizenship and cares passionately about his roots. Prof Sen's books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and include the much-acclaimed The Argumentative Indian, and his most recent work Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Prof Sen talked to Ashish Kumar Sen on why the world has started to see India differently. Excerpts from an interview:


Is there a change in the world's perception of India?

Yes indeed. It's very hard to miss that there is a substantial change. It's to a great extent a correction that was needed. However, what we have to watch is that the estimation of India as a global player does not become as much in excess of reality now as it was below it in the past.

Do you think the estimation of India as a global player is already in excess of reality?

This has not happened yet to any great extent, since there is such a backlog of underestimation from the past (China, for example, is only beginning to take India more seriously, after looking down on India fairly substantially for many decades). But since the elevation of India in global estimation is very pleasing to many Indians, there is a danger here of complacency which we have to be careful to avoid.

What explains this change in perception: is it related to the fact that India is doing things differently? Or is it more because India has chosen to forsake its socialist past and embrace a model of economic growth that has the endorsement of global powers, notably the United States?

I'm not sure what you mean by India's socialist past. A country that failed to achieve the most elementary progress that most socialist countries in the world achieved easily (despite their failures in many other fields), namely universal schooling and basic education supported by the state, primary healthcare for all provided by the state, comprehensive land reforms and so on which pre-reform Russia, pre-reform China, Cuba, Vietnam and other socialist countries achieved, can hardly be described as a socialist country. If, however, by 'socialism' you mean an over-extended and counterproductive state-based system of license raj, stifling domestic enterprise and the development of modern industries and the modern services sector, then certainly that change has been important, though it need not involve any necessary abandonment of the ideal of egalitarian humanism that has been central to the socialist vision presented by Jawaharlal Nehru and others who led India to political independence.

Correcting policy mistakes by taking a closer look at reality is beneficial mainly for the country itself, but the fact that this is happening via the removal of the license raj brings respect from abroad too, and that has certainly been a factor here. The changed position of the United States is, however, mainly because of the end of the Cold War in which India tried to be non-aligned in a way that the US certainly did not approve. The nature of global politics has itself changed—the change is not confined just to India.

One reason for the change in perceptions of India is the achievements of its diaspora, particularly in the US and the United Kingdom. What does the diaspora mean for India? Should India be basking in its glory?

Certainly the diaspora's success abroad has played a big part in greater interest in India and also helped a fuller appreciation of the creative talents in India. There is however no question of basking in the glory of the diaspora since its achievements, while important, are limited and the job that needs to be done at home, especially through removing poverty, illiteracy and bad healthcare have an urgency that the success of the diaspora does not in any way reduce. It's also important to recognise that India's success as a functioning democracy, with a relatively free media, regular multi-party elections and a lively civil society has also helped the diaspora gain respect and acceptance abroad. While there have been domestic failures, for example in basic education and healthcare, India's domestic success, through a flourishing democracy and progress in advanced higher education and technical skill formation, has given the diaspora an easy entry into global civil society—and that too must not be underestimated.

The consumption pattern of urban middle-class Indians is becoming increasingly similar to their counterparts of the West. From household goods to food to cultural products, there is now a close resemblance between Indians and those in the West. Are Indians becoming increasingly similar to their counterparts in the West? If so, what are the perils of this trend?

The increase in global contact and association has led to much greater homogeneity of the consumption of the rich across the world—it is not an isolated trend exclusive to India (you see it in Rio, Accra and Johannesburg as well as in Mumbai and Shanghai). This is, in a basic form, an age-old phenomenon. I have discussed in my book The Argumentative Indian how the consumption pattern of rich Indians changed in the early centuries AD, because of the trade in luxury products from China (with plentiful references in Indian literature, including Kalidasa and Bana), to Chinese silk, Chinese fruits, Chinese cosmetics used by the rich. But this is happening on a much larger scale in the contemporary world.

The basic problem is not what commodities the rich spend their money on, but that the economic gap between the rich and the poor is so large and also that it is growing (it has not grown as fast as in China, but it has certainly grown in significant ways). In fact, it is the existence and the expansion of this gap that we have to address. This may be an inevitable part of the price to pay to retain high-skill technical experts within the country and realism may well require that this connection be taken into account. But social ethics also demands that we examine—with realism but also with a sense of equity—what is really inescapable and what can be done to reduce the divergent fortunes of the rich and very rich on the one hand, and the poor and very poor on the other. This is not just a matter of the commodity pattern of the consumption of the rich.

Having said that, however, I should also mention that there is still at least one special problem in the hold of modern Western consumption patterns on the rich in India—and in other poor countries. The labour component in the production of these 'modern amenities' is often quite low in comparison with the older patterns of luxury consumption (for example, widespread services provided directly by unskilled labour), and this can have a negative effect on labour demand and through that on employment. This is not in itself a strong enough reason to curb that type of consumption through government control, but it is a reason to pay special attention to the critical role of employment generation in the process of economic development and to see what can be done to address this issue.

Even as India strives to become a global power, politically and economically its social indices remain poor. In terms of human development, India lags far behind. Has India become less caring? How does it dovetail with India's quest to become a global power? And what kind of future do you envisage for the poor as India changes?

You are absolutely right to point to India's relatively poor record in human development. This is not a new phenomenon, so it is not a question of India becoming 'less caring' than in the past, but the old problem of the neglect of social facilities and of the development of human capabilities which has not been adequately addressed or removed. It is hard for me not to feel frustrated when I look at some of the things I wrote in the media in the 1950s and early 1960s—grumbling about illiteracy, lack of basic health facilities etc...they still remain relevant. I would have loved to have become a purveyor of obsolete problems, but alas these problems are not obsolete even now. More attention is certainly being paid by the present government to elementary healthcare and other basic failures in capability formation. But much more needs to be done, without shutting off other good things like the expansion of Indian industries, extension of its global economic connections, development of more technological sectors, greater attention to physical infrastructure. These too are potentially helpful developments for reducing economic deprivation, but they are not adequate in themselves in eliminating India's handicap in human development.

Post-9/11, India's democratic example has been hailed worldwide. Yet the last 10-15 years have seen the emergence of unstable polity, rise of religious fundamentalism, and the trend among lower castes to move away from mainstream parties like the Congress. What explains the strengthening of the politics of identity? Do you think this in itself is a reaction to globalisation, and the shift in our politics from concentrating on 'poor India' to 'shining India'?

This is an important subject, but I don't think it is globalisation that is the source of the problem here. Indeed, as a successful democracy, India's ability to tackle these problems demands democratic politicisation of issues of poverty and social backwardness, which is entirely compatible with a more thriving participation of India in the global world. The exploitation of divisive identities, by focusing on our contrasts and conflicts, neglecting other identities that unite people in different ways, is a phenomenon that has plagued the world persistently. The field of divisive action has changed, but the basic problem of the exploitability of one division or another—forgetting everything else—remains. World War I was fed by the division of national identities, with the British, the Germans and the French tearing each other apart. Now the most exploited source of belligerent identity is linked to religious divisions, and here, despite tendencies in that direction unleashed particularly by religious majoritarianism, India's democracy has helped to reduce and restrain the divisive exploitation of communal differences.

Indeed, in the reading of the outcome of the 2004 general elections, while there are many local factors involved, it would be hard to overlook the real presence of a general disapproval in the country of communal fanaticism (especially after what happened in Gujarat in 2002). Nor can we overlook a strong desire to reassert a commitment to the poor rather than taking the 'shining' of the middle classes to be itself adequate. More can, however, be done in these respects and they demand greater political engagement with the entire population—not just some sections of it to the exclusion of others. However, you are also absolutely right that the fragmentation of lower caste movements into divisive groups, rather than providing a united front for social equity, has been a negative influence. It is the task of the socially committed political leaders of today to focus more fully on the shared challenges of economic poverty, social deprivation, gender inequality and other defects that require a joint approach, rather than a divisive outlook that splits the deprived groups into mutually hostile segments.

To what extent is this change in perception an outcome of globalisation, where knowledge of English has become a skill that counts. A large number of Indians, even in villages, want to go through the English system of education. What do you think could be the perils of this trend?

Certainly globalisation has made English something like a lingua franca of the world. We have to accept that, without seeing globalisation and the spread of English as a necessarily problematic phenomenon. Indeed, I do not see the wide interest in learning English as a regressive force, since the use of the English language both allows India to speak to the world and serves as the medium through which Indians from across the country can share their technical knowledge and social and political dialogue. If the interest in English were to eclipse the interest in India's enormously rich languages, with its rich literature and long histories, that would be a loss, but that is not the situation now and future dangers too can be avoided through giving the issue our conscious attention. It is possible to be both interested in the richness of India's own culture and heritage and take an interest in the cultures and achievements of the rest of the world, in exactly the way that Rabindranath Tagore discussed so eloquently and convincingly. There is no necessary conflict between 'the home' and 'the world', if we continue to stand on our own feet and look at the world with interest and involvement, rather than with docility and slavishness.

What has to be watched, however, is the possibility that the role of English acts as a serious barrier for the underprivileged to get their voices heard whenever they are expressed in other languages. The linguistic divide can also contribute to the strengthening of economic divisions. These are, however, issues that can be addressed through intelligent and humane government policy, rather than our seeing them as inescapable problems that make the use of English irresistibly retrograde.

The attributes of power you'd want India to acquire?

I fear I am not a great believer in power as a source of redemption. Power is mainly the dividing line that separates the powerful from the powerless. Having been on the powerless side in the world for so long, I hope India does not get too hung up on cultivating power to be on the other side! The really important powers to acquire would come not so much from India's nuclear arsenal or missiles, but from our ability to help in solving the problems that ail the world today, which, alas, are too plentiful. We have something to offer through our experience of a working democracy (not just the rhetoric of democracy, delivered through invading armies) and sustained secularism (tested but still thriving in India), and these are not negligible issues in the thoroughly messed-up world today. If we do try to be good global players in the confused world in which we live, then a bigger global voice for India would indeed be an excellent thing.

There is a further issue about power. There is a positive role for the empowerment of the underprivileged groups within India—the landless labourers, the subjugated housewives, the economically deprived making a precarious living, the social underdogs maltreated by the privileged, and others. If we are concerned with inequality, then inequality of power must command our attention. And if a reduction of inequality of power within India is seen as making India as a whole more "powerful," then we may sensibly want "more power" in that rather special sense. We have to think more critically and more fully about exactly what powers we want, in what sense, and precisely what we want to do with power. Having more power is not a virtue in itself.

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