Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a dig at economists critical of his demonetisation move, saying “hard work is more powerful than Harvard”. His remarks came close on the heels of Harvard University professor Amartya Sen terming the decision to ban high-denomination notes a “despotic action”. Days before the PM’s remarks made headlines, here’s what the Nobel laureate told HT in an interview:
Rajesh Mahapatra: What has influenced your decision to expand upon your work of 1970? And how does it find a reflection in your new book?
Amartya Sen: If we take our own country, in India, the distinction between the State and the government is not clearly understood. The government often has to take decisions. It doesn’t own the money, but it has control over the money. But that has often been used to bring about something that the government wants. As if it’s the government’s own money, rather than the government acting on behalf of the State. This has had a ruinous effect on public discussion. It has terrorised some people. Sometimes, it has also led to a kind of decline of independent research and work in universities. Universities have borne the burden of it a lot because the universities are financed by the government. And they are not supposed to do the bidding of the government. They are supposed to do what is good for the nation.
The other thing is that complexities of voting procedure are less understood. I mean, most governments today are minority governments. The BJP got 31 per cent of the vote. With the coalition, they got 39 per cent. It’s a minority. Now even with a majority, it’s very difficult for a government to say, “We won’t let you express your views because it’s anti-national.” But with a minority, it’s particularly ridiculous and with this comes the question as to why we need to make a distinction between majority and plurality –– getting more than the others when there are a whole lot of candidates in the field. Whether that’s a good way of proceeding, that’s another thing we needed to examine.
There are issues of this kind … and we needed a deeper analysis than what I was able to provide in the 1960s. This book is a result of that need.
RM: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014 was a massive victory in terms of seats, not in terms of votes. You make that point to illustrate the difference between plurality rule and majority wins. What will it take to address the shortcomings of plurality rule?
AS: There are two ways of thinking about it. It is an ambitious thing which I pursue, namely, how we can change the voting system. My colleague Eric Maskin, an economist who also won the Nobel prize, has written about how Donald Trump lost in 17 Republican primaries and several of the other candidates would have defeated Trump in a head-to-head contest. There is something wrong with the way these elections are held. We have suggested different ways of doing it for the primaries and the US Congress. Whether that will be done or not, we do not know. But there is, at least, a discussion now.
In India too, we can do it. We follow the colonial model, the British system, whereby whoever gets the highest number of votes in a constituency is declared a winner. That’s not a majority winner, that’s a plurality winner. We have to change that.
RM: As you speak, there is a lot of talk about electoral reforms. Also, in a few months we will be completing 70 years of independence. Isn’t this an opportune moment to ask for the change you are talking about?
AS: I am glad you remind us that this is the 70th year of India’s independence. As we became independent, there was a Constituent Assembly where we had wonderful discussions with an open mind. There were lots of things that were thought about, but we didn’t do. We had Ambedkar, possibly the most important voice on the making of the Constitution, saying we are leaving a lot of contradictions here, that we are getting political equality in society with deep social and economic inequality which we have to re-examine as we go along. These issues remain. Looking back at the 70 years that have gone by, we need to revisit these issues.
It’s not just the present government. There have been minority governments in the past too, and they have pretended as if they were a majority, assuming that the State is the government. It’s not the case. The State includes the courts, the media, the public opinion, public reasoning, which you cannot stifle.
The worst of them of course is trying to fire someone who has a university job, in which he or she expresses a different point of view from that of the university council, chancellor or the government of the day.
I think we need public reasoning. John Stuart Mill, who is a big influence on the book, used to think about democracy as government by discussion. For that the voting system would need to be examined. It won’t happen without public discussion. And also without the understanding that something is going deeply wrong. Firstly in confusing the state and the government, confusing majority and mere plurality and confusing role of people as ones who cast votes every five years and people being active participants in a democratic system by expressing their views.
It is favourable to have different public opinions on issues. If the last government did badly on that, the present government is doing worse by oppressing opposing views with a greater force. The fact that an under trial person was beaten up in custody is shameful.
RM: What strikes you the most about the present government when you think of some of these issues that you are raising?
AS: Well, the main thing is of allowing and encouraging dissent. A government is not the State and the government is not the authority to decide what can be discussed and what cannot be discussed. Even Kashmir is a subject for discussion. After all, we are a democracy. We have been fortunate to have not been run by the military as our unfortunate neighbour Pakistan has been. So what do we use the democracy for? To discuss these things. Secondly, as it happened with Kanhaiya Kumar, they were not discussing Kashmir. They were discussing something else. Sadly, there is a distortion. A video is produced where there’s an absolute deliberate distortion. But the people who did that distortion have still not been brought to book. Then this chap is arrested –– a mere kid and son of an anganwadi worker –– and is assaulted under custody. Underlying all of this is this complete determination not to allow certain expression of opinion. That is totally undemocratic. I think what has taken the biggest knock in India is the idea of individual liberty, also the idea of seeing the government as a government by discussion and seeing people as more than voters who come and go.
It’s not just the present government that has done it, but the present government has done it with a greater intensity and effectiveness, using all the powers that a government can wield. These are powers of the state not powers of the government. I have worked with private and public universities both in India and abroad. I don’t think anyone in Europe would say that simply because the government is financing the university, they could determine what happens in the university. That is a complete confusion between the government and the state. It is the state which is providing the funding for the university, the government of the day should not determine what the university can do.
RM: Other institutions in India today see a threat to their autonomy, their independence. How do we view that?
AS: Yes, that is a serious issue. Why is it that unlike China, unlike Korea and unlike many other countries, India doesn’t have world-class universities? One reason is that universities in India do not have the academic autonomy that encourages them to do what they can. My little effort to do that in Nalanda has come to a sad end.
RM: But our prime minister wants to build world-class universities with all kinds of autonomy.
AS: Don’t say autonomy. Because they don’t understand autonomy. I happen to be the head of a college, namely Trinity, which has done a lot, more than any college in the world. It was not run by the government. It was run autonomously. In fact, as master, the persons who could remove me were my colleagues, who could get together and, with a majority vote of no-confidence, they could sack me. That’s autonomy. It is not the ministry or the minister who has looked into it and has decided to remove you. We want autonomy, you are doing right with autonomy and there you go, snap! That’s not autonomy. That’s not the way to run a university.
RM: It’s very easy to blame the government or its leader, but the university systems in India have failed to evolve.
AS: I’ll have to disagree. It is not that easy to criticise the government. People are genuinely afraid. I have seen it among people. After what happened in Hyderabad, JNU and Jodhpur, they have reasons to be afraid. So, it’s not so easy.
RM: Also, the reality is that India’s elite is no longer invested in India’s education system. All their children go abroad.
AS: They want their children to have the best education they can get. And they don’t get it here … but that doesn’t solve the problem. If you have to reconstruct it, and that was my hope in Nalanda (university), which didn’t happen and obviously, it will not happen in my lifetime. Hopefully, it will happen under some other leadership, some other time. (My hope) was to build something, which has the autonomy that ancient Nalanda had. So that people would choose to go there. We have to think about what makes the parents decide what is best for their kid and what is best for the advancement of education. And that requires giving the universities autonomy.
RM: How can a more informed discussion about the things you talk about in your book help overcome the issues you are highlighting?
AS: We could draw attention to these questions and have a discussion. The public discussion was very big in the 18th century, with Adam Smith, David Hume, Mary Wollstonecraft — the pioneering feminist and probably the most underestimated of the Enlightenment thinkers. They were all keen on public discussion and then came John Stuart Mill. All that requires to be integrated into our thinking of democracy. If there are analytical and mathematical complexities, solve them, rather than stare at them and put your foot down and contemplate your navel. That is what the book is about.
RM: You write about the lively debates in universities and colleges like Harvard, Trinity and how they also shape policy decisions. We don’t see that happening much in India.
AS: Well, if you give an opportunity it will happen. I was teaching in the Delhi School of Economics and we had a lot of discussion among students, among the faculty — we had differences. We were lucky to have CD Deshmukh as vice chancellor and he was lucky to have a tolerant government. We made so many departures, including people taking attendance — all that went. We were the first to stop it in India. We made a number of departures, many of them led by students. Some of those students are (now) academics, big figures in the political economy discussions today. But they were not being silent. There are lively discussions when the opportunity is there.
RM: And that opportunity is no longer there. What would be your message to the current leader of the country?
AS: When I have things to say I don’t address the current leader, I address the people. If democracy means anything, it is that in order to bring about a change it has to be through talking to the people. And that is why dissidence being allowed is so important; people not being arrested for being anti-national is important. That is the heart and soul not only of democracy, but of successful living in the modern world.