A book that grapples with subjects that affluent Indians have been slow to confront, An Uncertain Glory; India and its Contradictions by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, incited controversy even before its release at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi on July 22.
A positive review in The Economist prompted a snappish reaction from Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, eminent professors of economics at the Columbia University, who accused Sen of pushing the idea that “redistribution has led to rapid growth in Asia”. The Nobel laureate’s rare rebuttal provided observers with the kind of thrills usually delivered by film stars.
There was more of the same at the launch, with Sen frequently alluding to Bhagwati’s comments though he did demolish the theory put forward by one publication that their spat mirrored the positions taken by Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. “There are many things that Modi did that are not part of Jagdish’s belief structure,” said Sen referring to the Gujarat chief minister’s views on minorities.
But though he was open about his distaste for some of his views, Sen did not reject Modi’s achievements. “This is not a CM whose politics I agree with but there are things to learn here,” he said referring to Gujarat’s successes with business and physical infrastructure.
It was clear, though, that the greatest praise is reserved for Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, all states that had invested in the social sector, in healthcare and education early on and are now reaping the benefits.
There is much to recommend the book that stresses the need to provide quality health care and education for the poor, public hygiene, protecting the environment, and to facilitate true democracy.
A powerful section looks at how India fares compared to other BRICS countries and its neighbours — shockingly, Bangladesh does much better on many parameters including women’s empowerment.
Leila Seth who launched it called An Uncertain Glory “an agitational book”. It’s definitely a call to action. “I’m not recommending redistribution — taking from the rich and giving to the poor. What the poor need most are public services, that’s not redistribution,” says Sen.