There are many argumentative Indians, but very few who can hold your attention in quite the way Amartya Sen can—if you catch him, as Outlook did last week, at his expansive best. He dazzles you by moving fluidly between welfare economics and history, philosophy and international politics, the laws of Manu and Article 377, the pronouncements of Gautama Buddha and the policies of Manmohan Singh. In provocative arguments linked closely to the theme of his magisterial new book, The Idea of Justice, he asks you to consider whether Krishna was right to make Arjuna fight a war that left “women weeping for their lost men and funeral pyres burning in unison” and if non-violent Gandhi should have been on “Krishna’s side”; and then, crossing centuries with his characteristic agility, whether the Indian Left should worry about American imperialism “rather than the consequence of living in the kind of world we live in”.
“One reason the Left can’t liberate itself from the Cold War is its gut anti-Americanism. It made sense at some stage. But now the gut anti-Americanism is pulling it down.”
In a trait rare in Indian public intellectuals, Sen laughs often and makes you laugh with him, regaling you with anecdotes that are never malicious, but infused, rather, with gentle delight in the ironies of human existence. Given the grand sweep of his arguments, his attention to detail can be almost disconcerting. When we entered his suite at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel to interview him, he greeted us with a laughing complaint: “So I am told I have been attacked in Outlook.” The ‘attack’, it turned out, was a stray reference in our gossip column on books, Bibliofile, to Sen’s “turgid” prose style. An admirer had e-mailed it to Sen, who had clearly stored it for future reference! (The same gossip item also mentioned a comment on Sen by his former wife, Nabaneeta Dev, published recently in a British newspaper; she was quoted as saying that when she was wooed by him in the mid-’50s “she felt like a dwarf who was being approached by the Moon”. When we quizzed him about it, Sen responded with aplomb: “She is a very generous person, she may have said it out of generosity rather than belief.”)
Outlook’s ‘attack’ on him notwithstanding, the Nobel laureate was remarkably generous with both his time and his reflections in an interview that stretched to over an hour; sharing, among other things, his opinions on such leading figures of the Indian political scene as Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Not everyone will agree with his positions, for instance, on dynastic politics, on which he takes a carefully neutral stance; or on the Left, of which he is clearly a trenchant critic these days; but as always, his words leave you with much to think about.
Excerpts from an interview...
In the 63rd year of Independence, how many cheers would you give Indian democracy?
How peculiar that Gandhi should be on the side of Krishna, who made Arjuna fight and kill people.
Out of a total of three (laughs)? That was a scale invented by E.M. Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy. I think I will give it a bit more than two but somewhat less than three. If you take the view, is democracy functioning as well as it could, it may even be one. But given the adversities we have had—a very poor country, largely illiterate, border wars with China and Pakistan, with Pakistan going its peculiarly difficult way, the relationship problems that we have had with the United States and the global powers—have we done as well as expected? Yes. Except in one big respect, namely that I had expected that non-dramatic deprivations would receive more attention than they ended up getting. Famines did go away with democracy, as I had expected, but I thought other things like gender inequality and the huge undernourishment of children would get more attention, but they did not get enough. That’s the disappointment.
Of all the injustices that haunt India today, the deprivations you have just spoken of, what disappoints you the most?
They are all complementary. One of the reasons that child undernourishment is so hard to remove in India is that children are born much more deprived here than in much of the world, because women are very deprived when they are pregnant. One basic issue is gender inequality. But I don’t want to say it is the only important one. I would rather speak of a cluster of deprivations. And we should address all of them together.
Apart from development issues, you’ve been speaking on a range of national issues, including, of late, the Indo-US nuclear deal. Was it a good deal?
Now, I am on record as having said I don’t know whether the Indo-US nuclear deal was a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t have a strong view, unlike Manmohan who clearly thinks it is a good thing, and the Communist Party, which thinks it is the biggest disaster.
Your friends on the Left are repenting now. It’s clear they picked the wrong issue to bring down the government.
I gave a television interview on that subject a year ago, in August, just after the vote.
And what you said hurt them the most because the criticism was coming from a friend, not from the other side.
“When I met Rahul at Trinity, politics wasn’t part of his plan. But he was clearly committed to Indian development.”
Certainly not from the other side. I am a friend of the Left and my politics has been on the Left, but sometimes it’s difficult to recognise what is Left, what is Right. I am in favour of fighting today’s battles rather than yesterday’s battles. I think this gut anti-Americanism—don’t make it the headline (laughs)—is a problem. It is a minor problem, but one of the reasons why the Left cannot liberate itself from the Cold War. It made sense at some stage to oppose America for various reasons. But I think gut anti-Americanism is certainly pulling the Left back now.
Have you had any conversations with them about this?
I have conversations every time I go to Calcutta, many of them are very close friends, also in Delhi.
And how do they respond?
“Child undernourishment is hard to remove in India as children here are born much more deprived, because pregnant women are deprived. Gender inequality is an issue.”
They are always kind to me but that doesn’t mean they agree. And usually they tell me they couldn’t have accepted the deal, given their views on America. This reading that the plague that haunts the world today is American imperialism has a grain of truth in it, but that grain of truth is underneath a ton of other things. How can you emphasise that and forget everything else—forget the international threat of terrorism, of creeping fundamentalism across the world, not see the problems of dictatorial continuation, whether in Sudan or in our neighbourhood, Burma, or that democracy has not made much progress in recent years; not see our domestic problems like hunger and undernourishment, on which the Left is the natural party to protest loud and clear?
Are you saying the Left should have opposed the government on issues other than the deal?
They were part of the government, they could have done more than they actually did.
Prakash Karat recently said Cuba is a very good role model for India. Did you read that?
I didn’t read the statement, but I don’t believe that for a second. There are things to learn from Cuba about healthcare and basic education, not about democracy (laughs) and not about media freedom. It is a very unfree country. There are things to learn from America, but not about medical care for the masses. There is no country that provides us with a model.
In your new book, The Idea of Justice, you speak a lot about the difference between niti (institutional justice) and nyaya (realised justice). Do you think we have too much niti in India and too little nyaya?
To deal with past injustice, it has to be recognised. In the ’84 riots, there’s not been enough admission.
The short answer is yes. Niti has huge appeal and this applies to the great as well as to the non-great. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna’s position has much to commend it. I am not saying he should not have fought the war, but his doubts were not dismissable, in the way that Krishna dismissed them. Krishna is clearly a niti person. How peculiar it is that someone as non-violent as Gandhiji, who was very inspired by the Gita, was on the side of Krishna, who is making Arjuna fight a war and kill people, when Arjuna is saying maybe I shouldn’t kill! The Mahabharata ends with success, but also with grief, desolation, with women weeping for their lost men and funeral pyres burning in unison.
Was it a just war?
Yes, you can call it a just war. That’s the power of theory, that’s niti, saying it’s your duty, you ought to do it. Niti plays a big part in the Left too, they think about American imperialism rather than the consequence of living in the kind of world we live in. This is befuddling. Similarly, we take comfort in the institutions of democracy but not the things that would make democracy a success.
Do you think dynastic politics, of which we see so much in India, is intrinsically unjust?
I don’t take an intrinsically positive or negative view of dynastic politics. It depends on who the people are. I think it would have been sad if Franklin Roosevelt was not allowed to become president on grounds of the Roosevelt connection...
But what about India—the Gandhi family, the Abdullah family, the Karunanidhi family, sons automatically becoming leaders...
I can’t have a general attitude on this. People tend to begin with Jawaharlal Nehru, but he was the son of Motilal Nehru, who was the Congress president. If on dynastic political grounds we had excluded Jawaharlal Nehru, we would have lost something. We have to judge in each case—Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi...
A lot of people felt very disillusioned after the recent elections because it seemed that the political class had shrunk to a small, self-perpetuating elite.
“I don’t think Modi is fit to be PM. I’m surprised to hear Ratan Tata could have said that. Newsreports can be unreliable.”
That’s an issue of internal democracy in political parties—you could ask, does the Congress party have enough internal democracy?—not a problem about dynastic politics. Dynastic politics is about whether, for example, Rahul could become a possible prime minister, and I would say, that would depend on Rahul’s qualities. Obviously, we have an excellent prime minister at the moment so that question does not arise and no one in the Gandhi family or elsewhere has seriously raised that question. On the other hand, would Rahul some day be a good prime minister? It’s quite possible. I know him a certain amount. I once actually spent a day with him when he visited me in Trinity and I was very impressed with him. Then again, we have to compare what the alternatives are. His being Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi’s son doesn’t change my view one way or the other.
What impressed you about Rahul?
I think he is very talented. He is a Trinity man, we had a meal together when I was Master of Trinity and we chatted about what he was planning to do. At that time, politics was not part of his plan at all, and he told me that. I believe those were his genuine views and he changed his mind later. It was very clear to me that he was very committed to Indian development. I pointed out to him there were ways for him to dazzle the world with the money he could make. But he wasn’t in the least interested. I would say, since I have known Manmohan at the same age, that there was a very similar commitment in both of them, in terms of being deeply concerned about deprivation in India and wanting to make a change in that. And to devote one’s lifetime to that.
On a different note, we tend to attribute injustices in India to the historical past, the colonial past. Do we overdo that? “What can we do, we have inherited this terrible legacy...”
“I don’t think Manmohan’s policies have been neo-liberal. Had they been, we would have done much worse in this crisis.”
We have inherited some terrible legacies and some good ones. We certainly inherited from the Raj the low literacy, the low attention to healthcare and complete neglect of the basic welfare and freedom of the population. And some good things too. Three things that are very important—India has a long argumentative tradition (on which I have written a book), British rule encouraged that. The importance of the media is to a great extent a British contribution. The third thing that people often don’t recognise, that is common between Britain and India, is a basic tolerance of eccentricity. If you think about some of the great writers we tolerate...Nirad Chaudhuri, a totally eccentric writer, actually barmy in many respects, and yet a brilliant writer. After I became Master of Trinity, one of my English colleagues asked me, do you like Nirad Chaudhuri? I said I have disagreements with him, but I do like him. I don’t like some of his books, like A Passage to England, which was a profoundly silly book. My colleague then remarked that most Indians did not like him because he was so pro-British and anti-Indian. So I said do you know what remark he made when I was appointed Master of Trinity? He said, it is a terrible appointment, it goes against British culture. And then he added: “British culture is nothing without its racism!”
The past is a very live issue for us, in ways other than the colonial legacy. This year, it will be 25 years since the Sikh riots, we still haven’t come to terms with them.
The Sikh riots should be in our memory because they were a terrifying event. It is difficult to believe that they happened in this city.
How should we deal with them?
One thing we have learnt from the leadership of Mandela and Desmond Tutu is that there is no way of coming to terms with past injustice until those who commit it accept responsibility. Neither retribution nor forgetting, it has to be recognition and then coming to terms. Admitting wrongdoing is an important part of it. Where the Sikh riots are concerned, I don’t think there has been enough admission in 25 years.
What is our record as a country, after 62 years, on coming to terms with such atrocities?
Mixed. The country reacted well to the Gujarat riots with the exception perhaps of Gujarat itself. The popularity of the government responsible has diminished but not as much as I would have expected. But it certainly contributed to their (the BJP’s) loss in the general election in 2004, and certainly did not help them consolidate the fight for 2009, and if I am any judge, is not helping them now. With that kind of blood on your hands, it’s very difficult if people forget. And I think Indians haven’t forgotten.
Our corporate chiefs—Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani, Sunil Mittal—went to Gujarat and showered praise on Narendra Modi. They said he ran the state so well, and that he was fit to be PM.
I don’t think Narendra Modi is fit to be prime minister of India. But I haven’t seen the reports, so I won’t comment on the statements you cite. The person I know best among them is Ratan and it surprises me to hear that he could have said that. Newspaper reports can be unreliable. (But) would I like Narendra Modi to be prime minister of India? No, I wouldn’t.
Akbar, Ashoka and Gautama Buddha are your three great heroes, you come back to them time and again in your book.
“More money has come in for education and healthcare, not as much as I would like, but it has come in. There is more radicalism needed.”
I have many heroes! But those you’ve mentioned were very articulate, you see. Akbar to a great extent because he had such a great assistant in the form of Abul Fazl. Ashoka was keen on his views being recorded on stone across the country. Buddha gave a lot of good speeches and in my childhood he was a big figure for me. He agonised, he changed his mind, he reasoned, his conclusions came out of reason. One spectacular moment is when after two years of fasting and starving the body he comes out and says, basically, “You can’t improve your soul by starving the body.” But I even quote Jesus, as you will have seen in my book.
The BJP was very upset when in an interview with Outlook some years ago, you gave primacy to Ashoka and Akbar.
That’s because you put a gigantic headline—two great emperors of India, and neither of them Hindu (laughs). But even if they were Hindus, my point would have stood because great Indians have come from every part of the nation. India is not a great history-based country, we don’t know who said what to whom and when. In contrast, Akbar, Ashoka and Buddha were well-documented, it is easier to illustrate from them.
One last question about politics. The prime minister and his economic team—P. Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia—have embraced neo-liberal economics. Schemes like NREGS were initially resisted by this team. Given Manmohan Singh’s background, are you surprised?
I don’t think his policies have been neo-liberal. Had they been, we would have done much worse in the economic crisis. That’s not to say the government’s policies are entirely correct. There are issues to be dealt with, and the main issue is whether there is adequate engagement with the primary injustices in India.
I must add that in the context of politics it is very difficult to judge what a person would say as a free intellectual, as opposed to being prime minister. In general, I see Manmohan in the right territory. Would I like him to go a bit more? Yes. Am I able to judge how far he can go, given the politics of the situation? No.
Manmohan’s always well-behaved with everyone, whether it’s George Bush or the King of Bhutan.
He and I did have disagreements in 1991-92, when he came in as finance minister and wanted to carry out the reforms. I was very much in favour of them but I wanted a package. My ideal statement from Manmohan would then have been, the state is over-extended in some areas, we have to cut it, it is under-extended in other areas, like education and healthcare, we must extend it. That did not come for a long time, and I was hesitant when newspapers asked me whether I was in favour of reforms. Once in Calcutta after a lecture on Indian history, the only question I was asked was: Are you in favour of reforms or not? I said, look I have just given a talk on history, I am not going to answer this question. The next day, a headline said: ‘Amartya refuses to answer question on reforms.’ I have to say I recognised what Manmohan was doing then: he has always tried to identify a big problem and go at it.
Is he doing that now, with the Indo-Pakistan relationship?
I haven’t followed that. But in the American context he did think there was a strong case for improving relations with the United States and he went for that. But when he came back to office in 2004, he said from the start that along with reforms we have to expand the state in education and healthcare. And more money has come in, not as much as I would like, but it has come in. There is more radicalism needed.
Do you think Manmohan has emerged as a good politician?
As an old friend, may I say something that people seem to miss? He is immensely well-behaved with absolutely everybody. People say things like “When I saw him with Bush he looked so happy and so supportive.” But you see any picture of Manmohan and he always looks friendly and supportive. You see him standing very happily with the King of Bhutan, and you could immediately say this is a lackey of the King of Bhutan. But in the case of Bush they say it, in this case, not (laughs). I would defy you to find a picture of Manmohan looking angrily at anyone. I haven’t seen one in the 54 years I’ve known him. Whether that is a lacuna in a politician, whether he has to jump and lose his temper, I don’t know. But if there is a fault, it is a fault of generosity and courteousness.