A Battle for the Soul of India

September 4, 2013 Topic: EconomicsEconomic Development Region: India

A Battle for the Soul of India

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

But Indian growth has now slowed and even the country’s most fervent boosters, whether at home or abroad, no longer talk about ‘India Shining,’ a merchandising slogan devised by the Grey Worldwide advertising firm to promote the country abroad and popularized by the BJP during the 2004 elections. But if two hundred million Indians can still celebrate their newfound prosperity, the overwhelming majority of its one billion people cannot do anything of the sort, and that is leaving to one side the estimate that there will be at least 1.6 billion Indians in 2050, with most of this population growth in the country’s poorest states and among families from those states who have migrated to richer ones. Three hundred million Indians are without electricity, open defecation is the only option for almost half the population, with all the obvious public-health consequences, above all for children, and at 43 percent the country’s childhood malnutrition and undernutrition rates are double that of the sub-Saharan African average. According the UN’s Human Development Index, India ranks 136th out of the 186 countries surveyed.

What can and should be done about this? This is what the debate between Bhagwati and Panagariya and Sen and Dreze could and should have been about, had it not been obscured by Bhagwati’s summer-long tantrum in the media. For their analysis and their prescriptions are as radically different as their political sympathies. But like the Keynes-Hayek debate, and unlike the Tory Trevor-Roper and the Laborite Taylor, whose views were impassioned but largely irrelevant to the course of the British state in the post-World War II period, the fate of hundreds of millions of Indians depends to a significant extent on whether the Indian government signs on to the basic premises behind the economic and social policies Bhagwati has been recommending, or, instead, to the one Sen has championed.

Some Indian economists and pundits have suggested that the gap is not in fact as wide as all that, and not even remotely as wide as Bhagwati has claimed. “The boring truth,” wrote the prominent Indian journalist, Swaminathan Aiyar, “is that differences between Sen and Bhagwati are much exaggerated, as also between the Congress [Party] and the BJP.”

If all that Aiyar means is that both agree on the need for growth, as Sen would surely agree, even if Bhagwati would not, then he is on solid ground. Aiyar is also correct in saying that while, rightly or wrongly, Sen is widely viewed as a supporter of the Congress and Bhagwati of the BJP, Congress has experimented Bhagwati’s prescriptions for cash transfers to the poor, while the BJP has supported the Food Security bill that commits the government to providing subsidized food to more than 50 percent of the Indian population just passed in the Indian parliament—a piece of legislation that very much reflects Jean Dreze’s influence and that Panagariya recently charged was part of the cause of India’s current difficulties.

But this begs the question of which model of growth is the one India should follow? And here, Bhagwati’s furious insistence of the incompatibility of his views and Sen’s is probably closer to the mark, and one wonders if Sen, though he has refused to be drawn, would disagree. If one economist calls for an emphasis on growth that relies primarily on the deepening of trade liberalization both internationally and domestically, private-sector entrepreneurship, and a smaller role for the state, and the other emphasizes redistribution and, as Sen and Dreze put it, harnesses “the constructive role of the state for growth and development,” you are not just offering two paths to growth that politicians will eventually find a way of largely reconciling. To the contrary, like the great economists of the past, Smith and Marx, Keynes and Hayek, Minsky and Milton Friedman, Bhagwati and Sen’s policy prescriptions depend for their force and coherence on a philosophical vision of what a good society is. An obvious example is not where either man stands on the need to reduce poverty but rather on the importance each attaches to not just to economic inequality but to social equality as well. Their divergent views on Gujarat is a case in point. For Bhagwati and Panagariya, what stands out about Narendra Modi’s tenure as chief minister of the state is the economic growth he has brought to it. For Sen and Dreze, Modi’s anti-Muslim attitudes and what they view as its consequence, the Muslim community’s economic marginalization in the state, go hand in hand. As the political editor of Open magazine, Hartosh Singh Bal, put it in a critique of Bhagwati and Panagariya’s book “this is the kind of inequity that cannot be quantified.”

One of Baghwati’s and Panagariya’s most ardent supporters, the Carleton College economist Vivek Dehejia, has called Sen’s rights- and entitlements-based approach to development “a sophisticated retread of the failed socialist policies that led [India] to the very brink of economic ruin in 1991,” that is, just before the country turned to economic liberalization. And whether or not one agrees with him, Dehejia is surely right to insist on the ideological character of the dispute. The importance of whose ideas prevail to India’s future is obvious. But its effects will be felt in the rest of the world as well. The authoritarian capitalism of China has profoundly altered how we now view capitalism itself. So will the implementation either of Bhagwati or of Sen’s conflicting visions for the economic organization of the country that soon will displace China as the most populous country on earth.

David Rieff is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis and At the Point Of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention. He is currently completing a book on the global food crisis.

Image: Flickr/Koshy Koshy. CC BY 2.0.