Idea of individual liberty has taken the biggest knock in India: Amartya Sen
Economist Amartya Sen has just revised his seminal book on social theory. He talks about the importance of dissent in public life, academic autonomy, electoral reform and other challenges
Individuals in a society have views, interests, concerns and priorities. How do we combine their preferences for a society to make decisions? How do we assess and judge the outcome of those decisions? Philosophers, social scientists and thought leaders have sought to answer these questions from the time of Kautilya and Aristotle. In the 18th century, French revolutionary and theorist Nicolas de Condorcet offered an answer in a precise mathematical form, which marked the beginning of the evolution of the social choice theory –– a subject that has been at the core of economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s body of work. In 1970, Sen wrote Collective Choice and Social Welfare, a seminal book that inspired generations of economists. On Tuesday, he released a revised version of the book that significantly expands on the application of the social choice theory to find answers to real-life challenges. Excerpts from the 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.
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.
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. (For full interview go to
‘Important matters must not be decided by one person’
Collective Choice and Social Welfare - Expanded edition, Amartya Sen, Penguin, Rs418; 591 pages
Ashoka, the Indian emperor, who hosted the third – and the largest – Buddhist Council in the third century BC in Patna (then called Pataliputra), the capital city of the Indian empire, also tried to codify and propagate what were among the earliest formulations of rules for public discussion (some kind of early version of the nineteenth-century Robert’s Rules of Order ). To consider another historical example, in early seventh-century Japan, the Buddhist Prince Shotoku produced the so-called ‘constitution of seventeen articles’, in AD 604. The constitution insisted, much in the spirit of the Magna Carta (to be signed six centuries later in 1215), that: ‘Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many.’ Indeed, the importance of public discussion was a recurrent theme in the history of many countries in the non-Western world, and the understanding of democracy went well beyond the perspective of ballots and elections.
From acknowledging the relevance of global history we must not, however, move to the presumption that we cannot break from the past to initiate a radical political departure. Indeed, new political initiatives have always been needed in different ways across the world. We do not have to be born into a tradition of democratic history to be able to choose that way today. The significance of history in this respect lies rather in the more general understanding that established traditions continue to exert some influence on people’s ideas and imagination, that they can inspire or deter, and that they have to be taken into account, whether we are moved by them, or wish to resist or transcend them.
It is not, therefore, surprising – though it does deserve clearer recognition today – that in the fight for democracy led by visionary and fearless political leaders across the world (such as Sun Yat-sen, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Aung San Suu Kyi), an awareness of local as well as world history has played an important constructive part. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes how impressed and influenced he was, as a young boy, by seeing the democratic nature of the proceedings of the local meetings that were held in the regent’s house in Mqhekezweni:
‘Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer.’
Mandela’s understanding of democracy was hardly aided by the political practice that he saw around him in apartheid-based South Africa, run by people of European origin, who, it may be recalled, used to call themselves by the cultural term ‘European’ – rather than just ‘white’. In fact, the ‘European’ culture of Pretoria had little to offer to Mandela’s comprehension of democracy. His discernment of democracy came, as is abundantly clear from his autobiography, from his knowledge and understanding of global ideas as well as local African practice.