In the span of three weeks, the differences between dueling economists Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winner, and Jagadish Bhagwati, a Columbia University professor, have metamorphosed from academic to political, and then perhaps, a tad personal.
Sen and Bhagwati represent two of India’s well-known economic minds in the western academia and even those aware of their differences could never have conceived that it would be such a spectacle.
The current duel is a throwback to the famous showdown between economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek that gripped Britain 80 years ago and was no less vicious. The Keynes-Hayek contest has been described as one that shaped “modern economics” by Nicholas Wapshott’s in his book “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics”.
A review of Sen’s new book, An Uncertain Glory, co-authored with long-time collaborator Jean Dreze in the Economist magazine triggered the joust.
The review of Sen’s book credited Bhagwati and his collaborator Arvind Panagariya with advocating labour and land reform to achieve growth and poverty reduction. However, the reviewer applauded Sen and Dreze for aiming to go “much further” (in improving living conditions).
In a letter published in the magazine, Bhagwati took a swipe at this, saying he was “puzzled” over how far Sen could go and accusing Sen of offering only a “lip-service” to growth.
Sen, of course, had to “correct” Bhagwati. “On the contrary, the importance of economic growth as means – not an end – has been a theme in my earlier writings (including Choice of Techniques in 1960 and Growth Economics in 1970),” he said in his rebuttal published in the magazine.
In the Indian academic landscape, there have been similar famous intellectual clashes that have enriched public reasoning. For instance, the ”book view” of caste -- as based on textual Varna hierarchies -- espoused by the likes of French anthropologist Louis Dumont was challenged by the “field view” sociologists, such as MN Srinivas, who argued that local landholding patterns, rather than ancient religious texts, determined the dominant caste status.
South Asia’s “subaltern school” broke with Marxist academics, arguing for a “history from below” capturing the experiences of the marginalised. They clubbed the Marxists with the nationalists as “elitist”.
More recently in a New York conference in April this year, New York University sociologist Vivek Chibber presented a critique of subaltern scholarship from a Marxist perspective, leading to a rebuttal by eminent subaltern scholar Partha Chatterjee. Celebrating Chatterjee’s “demolition” of Chibber, academic Aditya Nigam even questioned Chibber’s understanding of Marxism.
Historian Harbans Mukhia’s differences with RS Sharma on whether India exhibited feudalism was another landmark. Disagreeing with Sharma, Mukhia argued that there was no feudalism in India as there was no serfdom here.
The latest academic debate between Sen and Bhagwati, however, got caught up in politics over whether Narendra Modi should be Prime Minister of India and whether his development model was “inclusive”.
Asked in an interview whether he would want Modi as the Prime Minister of India, Sen said he would not, citing Modi’s controversial record on the treatment of minorities in Gujarat. He repeated his stand in an interview with NDTV on Thursday: “I would like to see someone who would not generate worry and concern on part of large sections of the community, the minorities.”
The fact that his associate Dreze has also been involved in food security idea in its early days as member of Sonia Gandhi’s NAC has obviously made the debate all the more political, with Sen facing questions whether he was tacitly backing the UPA. He has however maintained that he isn’t.
Many see Sen standing for the “poverty-reduction” development model of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, and Bhagwati as more on the side of Modi’s development approach focusing on growth more than inequality.
Bhagwati in fact explicitly backed Gujarat’s development without endorsing Modi or Rahul Gandhi per se: “Gujarat has produced growth and also that the change in its social indicators is remarkable, whereas Kerala is by no means the great model of development that Sen has long extolled for its ‘redistribution’ under the communist regimes, and that Bangladesh to which Sen has now turned is also no paragon of virtue.”
He attacked Sen, saying he was a later entrant in economics aimed at poverty reduction. “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.” Sen replied that he wouldn’t like to get personal, as it wasn’t his “style.”