Amartya Sen on elections, communal politics and inequality in India


Amartya Sen on elections, communal politics and inequality in India

Amartya Sen on elections, communal politics and inequality in India
Amartya Sen on elections, communal politics and inequality in India

There is no lack of famous Indians, but few of the more than 1.2 billion Indians will come close to the global renown and respect of Amartya Sen, Nobelprize for Economy in 1998 and author of numerous books on economy, development, identity and justice. Sen has been living and working in the West for decades, but he is looking forward to being part of the biggest elections ever organized, starting April 7 and running through May 15. MO* talked with this living legend about his native and conflicted country.

Talking with Amartya Sen is not, at any moment, chatting. When I as whether he would fancy a cup of coffee, or chai, maybe, he remarks how few people would drink coffee with milk in Europe. And even tea with milk seems to be restricted to the British isles. ‘An English habit’, he says. ‘Or, rather, an Indian habit’, he immediately corrects himself. Followed by the story of how tea was introduced in India in the 9th century AD, after an Indian traveller learned about the drink while travelling in Tibet, where tea was served with yak-milk. And so, Sen muses, there is a very real possibility that the British learned to savour their tea-with-a-cloud-of-milk in South Asia. Still, he prefers coffee. Latte, to be precise.

The past and the present

Amartya Sen was born eighty years ago in Santiniketan, Bengal, on thencampus where his father was teaching Sanskrit and where Rabindranath Tagore was trying to put his pedagocical ideas into practice. When we meet in Amsterdam, he just recently arrived from Santiniketan, and the return ticket is booked. Sen has lived abroad for more years than he lived in India, but he always made it a point of honor to keep his singular Indian nationality –if for no other reason, then to be able to formulate his opinions about his native country.

Sen has lived abroad for more years than he lived in India, but he always made it a point of honor to keep his singular Indian nationality

Is Santiniketan a good outpost to observe the evolution of India, I ask. ‘The image of India when seen from there, is rather sad’, Sen answers. ‘When the school started, it was a very special, progressive place. Today it is a rather unremarkable university. Instead of a symbol of excellence, it became an example of the blandness that is produced so abundantly in India.’

When his mother followed courses in Santiniketan, about a centry ago, judo was part of the curriculum and co-education was normal. ‘That would certainly count as progressive today, you can reckon how progressive it was then.’ The school offered courses on Thailand, China, Africa and Europe –not just the UK. But to get rid of the endemic financial worries, the board chose to become a university, ‘with all the paperwork, government control and entrenched unions that come with that decesion.’

But Amartya Sen refuses to sound desperate, especially when the topic under discussion is India. ‘The original spirit of Santiniketanlives on in the Kalakshetra school in Chennai, where they teach classic Bharatya Natyan and Carnatic music. The school cannot award academic degrees, but it is the best educational institution for these artistic disciplines I know of.’ In december 2013, Sen presented book A Southern Music by T.M. Krishna atKalakshetra, stressing how important it was to make Indian classical music accessible for the majority ofn the population.

Missed opportunities

Sen’s disappointment about Santiniketan reflects his global, critical evaluation of India. That, at least, one could conclude from the tone, the data and the conclusions in India_. An Uncertain Glory_, his latest book in collaboration with Jean Drèze, a Belgian-turned-Indian economist with whom Sen has a longstanding working relation, that resulted in at least six book. ‘Jean and I have an excellent work division’, Sen jokes. ‘He puts in 90% of the work, while I get 90% of the credit. Good deal, no?’

43 percent of  children under 5 years old is undernourished; more than half of all Indian families has to take recourse to open defecation –while that is only 8 percent in poorer neighbour Bangladesh; around 30 percent of Indians is not connected to the electricity grid –in China that is only 1 percent.

In the book’s preface, the authors write that ‘while India has climbed rapidly up the ladder of economic growth rates, it has fallen relatively behind in the scale of social indicators’. An Uncertain Glory develops as a long and well researched requisitoir, filled with examples and statistics that help to indict the nation for its failings. Just three data: 43 percent of  children under 5 years old is undernourished; more than half of all Indian families has to take recourse to open defecation –while that is only 8 percent in poorer neighbour Bangladesh; around 30 percent of Indians is not connected to the electricity grid –in China that is only 1 percent. Does this all mean the Indian dream failed? That would be shorter and less nuanced than how Amartya Sen would like to put it.

‘One cannot say that India has not made a positive impact for its citizens. During the times of British colonial rule, we faced economic stagnation and famines –the last, big famine happened four years before India became independent. After 1947, we did not know a serious famine anymore, even though we still know droughts and floods. As a matter of fact, when a huge storm was announced at the end of 2013, the Indian government succesfully evacuated a million people, and thereby prevented loss of life on a large scale. This seems to be the rule: if the government decides to intervene, it usually is succesful. The problem is that governments have been making less use of the possibilities offered by democracy than they could have.’

The deep divide

India is not the only society in Asia that knows a deep divide between the elite and the masses, but few countries in the continent see that inequality weighing so heavily on the future expectations of its people. One of the reasons for this, says Sen, is the sorry state of education in India.

‘Rabindranath Tagore once said that India’s most important problem was its lack of educational opportunities. Unfortunately, even Mahatma Gandhi is partly responsible for the fact education received far less attention than it should have. He was less convinced of the importance of formal education and rather believed in the virtues of learning by practice. This approach was later repealed, but we never recovered the standard of excellence that was maintained in other countries like China, Singapore and Korea. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a priority interest in tertiary education, thereby laying the foundations of the institutions that would later create India’s economic boom: the institutes for management and technology.’

‘As a consequence of all this, we have an educational system that hardly reaches the majority of Indians, or serves them extremely bad, while the upper classes have access to world class education. For the rich, the Indian dream has certainly not failed, while it never even existed for the poor. The deep class divide that overshadows India even translates into a leftist leadership that comes largely from upper class or upper caste backgrounds.’

The dialectics of caste

Is caste, with it’s inherent claims to privilege for the elites, maybe the factor that would help to explain why the economic growth has been redistributed so poorly in India? Sen is aware of the attraction of putting the explanation in a reality so uniquely and essentially Indian as caste, but he is very reluctant to see it as the key to contemporary inequality.

‘The Southern state of Kerala was the pinnacle of casteism and untouchability. But that was exactly the reason why egalitarian people’s movements against upper caste dominance originated there. It were these movements that later developed into the communist movement with it’s focus on education as an essential mechanism for emancipation. Kerala already had a tradition of more and better education than the rest of India, as the princely states of Travancore and Cochin were able to stay outside the orbit of direct colonial rule by the British. Rani Parvati Bai, the maharani of Travancore, proclaimed an edict, guaranteeing the right to free education for everybody –including girls- already in 1817.’

These historical developments in Kerala resulted in a human development score that is far better than Indian averages, and even exceeds China’s scores for years of schooling, life expectancy, fertility rates…

Kerala has a human development score that is far better than Indian averages, and even exceeds China’s scores for years of schooling, life expectancy, fertility rates…

‘Caste triggered resistance in Kerala, and that resulted in genuine development. In Northern India, on the other hand, caste started to dominate politics, both as the upper-caste politics of BJP and lower-caste politics of different other parties, which remained hopelessly divided and thereby powerless to reform the system of exclusion itself. Indian politics has remained too tightly connected to identities of caste and/or religion. That means that caste has been restrained from playing it’s dialectical role and instead became a factor that reified the inequalities in Indian society.’

Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the principal author of the Indian Constitution, was convinced that the constitution could only perform its functions if and in as far as there would be social action to make it happen. He summarized his vision in three concepts: educate, agitate and organise. Dr. Ambadkar was a Mahar, a caste considered as untouchable. He was able to study because his father served in the British army, but had to confront discrimination and prejudice on a permanent basis. That made him a staunch proponent of affirmative action, to give children of historically discriminated against communities an extra opportunity in higher education or in civil service.

Some people argue that it are exactly those policies of affirmative action that carry the main responsibility for the immutability of the larger caste system, since it created a stake for even the lowest castes to maintain the status quo in terms of caste-identities and hierarchies. Amartya Sen is not convinced by that argument. Again he refers to the experience of Southern India, where leftist or progressive parties effectively attacked the caste privileges of the upper layers of the system, and abolished them as soon as they occupied positions of power.

‘It is not our traditions that are responsable for our contemporary problems, it are the political leaders that failed us. And I am referring to leaders of all political colours and convictions: Congress, BJP, and even the communists, who have become a party not so different from the others.’

A failing politics

Amartya Sen would have no problems using any of the arguments available for keeping a  very safe distance from the chaotic dealings of everyday politics in India. He is sufficiently academic, old and internationally famous to do that. But he only needs half a question to fully jump into a discourse on why the more than 800 million eligible voters in India will give the ruling Congress-party a hard time.

‘The Untied Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by Congress, has fallen short of people’s expectations’, he says. ‘And on top of that, they are extremely bad at communicating whatever they did accomplish for the people.’ Sen cannot understand why the government keeps harping on about the nuclear deal it made with the US, as if that were it’s major accomplishment. ‘Why is the government not boasting about the the end of polio in India? Or about the right to employment for the rural poor? About the Right to Food Act?’

Even in the field of the economy, Congress seems to be unable to defend itself against the attacks from the main opposition party, BJP. The weak point being a slowing down of economic growth to less than 5 percent, the strength though, is the fact that during the tenure of Manmohan Singh, India recorded the highest growth in modern history.

‘There is one thing the BJP does better than Congress: political campaigning’

‘There is one thing the BJP does better than Congress’, comments Sen, ‘and that is campaigning. But that does not make them any less the sectarian hindu-communal party they have always been. And I seriously doubt whether that is what India needs today.’ Afterwards, he would qualify that by saying the BJP does all that it can to shed that sectarian image and replace it with an image of a party that will provide good, efficient and curruption-free government.

‘That is a party profile that would serve them much better than the saffron propaganda from the past. And as for efficient government: the Europeans would remember the claim that trains ran strictly on time under the fascist government of Benito Mussolini.’ That does not mean he would compare the BJP to fascists, nor would he compare Narendra Modi –the Gujarat Chief Minister leading the BJP into these elections- with the Duce.

The communal agenda

On the other hand, there is no lack of commentators that have worried about the behind-the-scenes impact of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on the BJP. The RSS is a grassroots movement that is very militaristic in behaviour and fanatically Hindu in orientation, and it is said to celebrate the Aryan descent of Indian Hindus rather disturbingly at times. ‘It is true that the RSS remains very important for the BJP’, answers Sen. ‘But their visible activity works both ways for the BJP.’

‘On the one hand, their strict orgaisational discipline represents a clear added value for the campaign and can help the party win the elections. On the other hand, the same RSS is scaring possible coalition partners away, which could make it a lot more complicated for it to form a government. And don’t forget that the BJP is all but absent in about 30 percent of the country. That makes a nationwide majority on its own all but impossible.’

Taken out of context, some of Amatya Sen’s statements could be construed as pro-Congress arguments. But that would not take into account his often sharp criticism of the policies pursued or realized by the government. He is highly critical, for instance, of what the government accomplished under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), even though it is the brainschild of his co-author Jean Drèze. ‘NREGA’s weakness lays in it’s lack of transparency and accountability, that should have been much more firmly built into the programme to counter and prevent corruption from sapping the life and the ressources out of it. Some states, like Tamil Nadu and recently even Bihar under Nitish Kumar, that have a generally good degree in governance, make the best of NREGA. But states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh make a mess out of it.’

A democratic society

Indian politics is a ‘disappointing spectacle’, according to Amartya Sen. Still, 814 Indians are invited to cast their vote in the biggest elections ever. What will decide their vote? Will it be the economic achievements of the current government or will it be the economic promises made by the opposition?

Sen does not think it is that simple: ‘Before you ask these questions, you should be aware of the very broad democratic engagement that lives among Indians. And I would even add that the Indian population shares to a very large degree and engagement that is secular and egalitarian in nature. Indians expect a state that responds to the demands and needs of it’s population, a state without an outspoken preference for one or the other community or religion.’

Indians expect a state that responds to the demands and needs of it’s population, a state without an outspoken preference for one or the other community or religion.’

One of the most recent developments in Indian politics is the establishment of the Aam Admi Party by anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal. Late in 2013 they already succeeded in forming the governement of Union territory Delhi, after the elections there. Their government did not last long, but when we had the interview, they were still in function.

‘On itself, this is a wonderful realisation’, comments Sen. ‘They won the elections without taking recourse to communal identities such as caste or religion. Their only programme was the fight against corruption. At the same time, that shows how their idea of good governance remains limited to middle class worries. They want cheap electircity, for instance, instead of a connection to the grid for the 30 percent of Indians that lack every access to electricity alltogether.’

Good governance

The emergence of issue-based politics does appear as a step forward in an environment that has been dominated by communal politics in so many ways during the history of independent India. At the same time, says Sen, that is less a novelty than it seems.

‘Communal politics has dominated Gujarat maybe [the state where Narendra Modi has been Chief Minister since 2001 and where an anti-Muslim progrom in 2002 resulted in more than 1000 dead], in other states the issue of good governance has been dominant for a long time already. Bihar is a good example, as it was the poorest and probably the most corrupt state for long, but also the state where Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal Party succeeded in winning elections on the platform of good governance as opposed to communal dynamics.’

As an Indian citizen, Amartya Sen would be happy to see a future government build around Congress, with the support of communist parties. And to avoid any misunderstanding, he laughingly adds that these Indian communists are much closer to centrist European social-democrats than to the gulag-communists we know from the Cold War propaganda. He thinks a combination of Congress and communists would be best fit ‘to put in place the reforms that India urgently needs’.

Then he adds that the Communist Party has a lot of work to do before she could be part of such a forward-looking government. ‘The main issue for the communists continues to be their anti-Americanism. It is an echo from the past, really. Russia, China and Vietnam have reformed quickly and succesfully into market ecenomies, so what is the problem for Indian communists? On top of their antiquated anti-imperialism, they  focus on the needs of middle class voters rather than on the needs of the impoverished majority. Why should a communist party stand up for diesel subsidies while the majority of the poor cannot even afford a motorised vehicle?’

It is a recurring theme in much of the recent work by Amartya Sen. Subsidies profiting the middle and upper classes, such as the ones for diesel, electricity and cooking gas, are costing more than twice or even three times the cost incurred for the NREGA employment scheme for the poorest in rural India. In An Uncertain Glory Drèze and Sen present the specific example of the exemption of diamond and gold imports from customs duties, which costs the exchequer more than twice what a proposed renewed Right to Food bill would cost –the latter attracted fiery opposition from media and middle classes as unaffordable for the Indian budget.

Law and justice

The many failings of Indian political institutions are, to a certain degree, compensated by an activist judiciary, especially the High Court or the Constitutional Court. The drawback of that judicial activism is a unilateral emphasis on the law and mainting the law, which, according to Amartya Sen in An Idea of Justice, cannot compensate for the appaling lack of attention for fundamental justice that every society should strive for. In this book, called his Magnum Opus, but that term could be used for so many of his works that it does not seem to bother him too much, he points to two Sanskrit concepts that both refer to justice: niti and nyaya, law and justice.

‘One should never judge the importance of niti on it’s own’, he says. ‘Niti’s importance is dependent on it’s contribution to nyaya. That does not mean niti is unimportant, it is instrumental for the real goal: realized justice. Still, we should be very carefull when it comes to the law and maintaining it. One can not, as Aam Admi Party did, tell the police they should “transcend” the rules. Police and security are there to maintain the rules and to have people apply them. To have just and honest elections, for instance, niti is indispensable.’

Wishes for India

Just a few weeks before we met in the Krasnapolsky Hotel in Amsterdam, Amartya Sen deliverd the opening keynote to what is probably the largest literary event in the world, the Jaipur Literature Festival, with more than 100.000 visitors. In that lecture, he imagined an encounter with the Goddess of Medium Things –a clear reference to Arundhati Roy’s succesfull novel The God of Small Things.

The Goddess grants him seven wishes for India, of which the third one is the most surprising: ‘My big political wish is to have a strong and flourishing right-wing party that is secular and not communal.’ The Goddess of Medium Things is surprised, knowing Sen’s leftists sympathies. To which he answers: ‘There is a an important role, for a clear-headed pro-market, pro-business party that does not depend on religious politics, and does not prioritize one religious community over all others.’

It typifies Amartya Sen as the absolute advocate for democratic and public reasoning above political calculations of the short term kind.

It typifies Amartya Sen as the absolute advocate for democratic and public reasoning above political calculations of the short term kind. It does not prevent him, though, to ask for in his fourth wish: ‘I would like the parties of the left to be stronger, but also more clear-minded and much more concentrated on removing severe deprivations of the really poor and downtrodden people of India.’ The Goddess sighs: ‘It is not easy for me to make them politically stronger until they themselves think afresh.’

On May 15, when the results of the parliamentary elections will be announced, we will know which of Amartya Sen’s seven wishes will have been granted. From there, the Country of Big Numbers will be on it’s own again to achieve the necessary social, economic and societal goals, formulated by Sen and 1.2 billion other Indian citizens.