A Battle for the Soul of India

Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen's disputes are far more consequential than most academic dustups. 

At first glance, there did not seem to be anything unique, or, voyeurism aside, even all that interesting about this past summer’s public quarrel between Indian economist and political philosopher Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate who now teaches at Harvard, and his former Cambridge University classmate Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University economist and law professor who has long been one of the most eloquent champions of globalization based largely on free trade as the surest, if not indeed the only sure, way for poor countries to become prosperous. As Henry Kissinger is said to have remarked, academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. Those who like their sarcasm gift-wrapped in erudition may enjoy reading about slagging matches between scholars, whether of the ‘witty fury’ type exemplified by the decades-long quarrel between the British historians A. J. P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, or of the ‘titanic clash of narcissisms’ type that Edward Said and Bernard Lewis illustrated so indefatigably in their exchanges over Said’s ‘Orientalism.’ It is true that these and other such rivalries were partly grounded in political and even moral differences of real substance. But their effect on the politics and public policy of their time is usually pretty trivial, even if the disputants don’t usually see it that way.

Every once in a while, though, a bitter controversy erupts between scholars where, far from being small, the stakes in terms of public policies affecting the lives of huge numbers of people and the wealth or poverty of nations could scarcely be higher. Unsurprisingly, they usually involve economists (though Krugman v. Rogoff and Reinhart is not one of them!). The most important of these in the twentieth century was certainly John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek’s long-running debate over the question of whether significant state interventions in fiscal and employment policies, above all massive government spending, were what were needed, as Keynes thought, or, as Hayek believed, instead would either have no effect or even potentially prevent the economy from recovering from the Great Depression.

One of Keynes’ colleagues at Cambridge described it at the time as “the method of the duello conducted in the manner of Kilkenny cats.” The recent Sen-Bhagwati debate had something of the same character, with one crucial difference: while Bhagwati can surely be said to have gone the Kilkenny cat route, apart from one letter to the Economist, Sen has not. Even there, Sen contented himself with saying that “I have resisted responding to Mr. Bhagwati’s persistent and unilateral, attacks in the past,” before going on to say that Baghwati distorted the position they had taken in their recent book, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, when he charged that Sen and his collaborator, the Indian economist, Jean Dreze, had only been giving lip service to the importance of economic growth—the centrality of which Bhagwati and his collaborator and fellow Columbia University economist, Arvind Panagariya, had emphasized in their recent book, Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Has Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries.

In contrast, Bhagwati (Panagariya has been a good deal more circumspect) has gone after Sen with an ad hominem remorselessness—“foot, horse, and gun,” as the late Christopher Hitchens, who was fond of such British imperial expressions, liked to put it—that an outsider is left awestruck by the energy of the assault but somewhat baffled as to what possible purpose it could serve. For example, in one article, the rumbustious Bhagwati, having labeled Sen as the only Indian economist “to have inflicted damage twice on Indian policy and therewith on poverty reduction,” went on to deprecatingly called him “the Mother Teresa of economics,” only two sentences later to retract the charge, saying, “Let us not insult Mother Theresa,” who, he said, at least “did a lot of good at the micro level, whereas [Sen’s] policy prescriptions have done huge damage instead.”

Bhagwati went on to charge in the same piece that Sen’s commitment to supporting economic growth—the position Bhagwati views as the one that he, contra Sen, truly espoused—was false, and that Sen’s claim was akin to “an anti-Semite [who] would claim that Jews are among his best friends.” And in a subsequent interview, Bhagwati said that it was “high time to jettison Sen…whose ideas are harmful to the poor.”