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REDUCING nuanced differences to gladiatorial contests has for some time been a favoured past-time of our media. Ever since The Big Fight premiered on prime time TV, not just competing networks but even the print media seem comfortable with offering somewhat simplistic, sound-byte renderings as considered analysis, honourable exceptions apart. Even if marketing departments remain convinced that such is the way of the future, the currently in fashion flattened-out commentary not only does disservice to respective positions (and their protagonists) but makes the task of making and communicating complex choices to the public far more difficult. Polarities may make for compelling drama, they also leave us poorer.

The ‘constructed stand-off’ between Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze and Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Pangariya in much of our media, well illustrates this tendency. The message to those insufficiently familiar with the vast corpus of work by the four economists is that the Bhagwati-Pangariya duo stand for growth and reform, preferably through a reliance on private players and the market, and the Sen-Dreze team are anti-growth redistributionists, distrustful of the market and favouring state controlled mechanisms. Even more absurd is the attempt to paint the two positions as reflecting support for either Narendra Modi or the UPA. Even a cursory look at the reactions on social media on Amartya Sen’s remark that Mody would not be his choice as prime minister illustrates the ‘dangers’ of such facile writings.

It is, for instance, no secret that Jagdish Bhagwati, was among the early advocates of an open economy framework, focusing more on conventional modes of wealth creation through unleashing the entrepreneurial energies of private capital. It so happens that his work in the mid-1960s, incidentally when he was a colleague of Amartya Sen at the Delhi School of Economics, did not find favour with the dominant thinking of the time, what somewhat simplistically may be described as the Mahalanobis-Sukhamoy Chakravorty view favouring a state-led, import-substitution strategy. As an aside, it is worth recollecting that the early work of Manmohan Singh was closer to the Bhagwati view.

Amartya Sen, notwithstanding his path-breaking work, The Choice of Techniques or the erudite introduction to Growth Economics was not, at the stage, a key player in the policy debates, branching off, following his work on the Bengal famine, into major contributions in the field of choice theory and the intersection between economics and ethics. All his subsequent writing about capability enhancement, issues of justice, or the evolution of the human development framework and index, as also his reading of the history of development, hugely helped our thinkers and policy makers to re-align their focus on those left out, not as redistribution, but as an essential component of the manner in which growth enhancement could be achieved.

Equally, while both Sen and Bhagwati welcomed the reforms and opening out of the Indian economy under Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh in the carly 1990s, Sen has consistently been critical about our inability to reform ‘unreformed sectors’ and the inefficiencies/failures in the models of public provisioning of key goods and services. Nonetheless, he continues to advocate an enhanced role for the state in these areas while not ruling out a judicious role for private players, both profit and non-profit. He has, for instance, never quite opposed the role of private players in education, at all levels, in the manner that many of our left-wing ideologues do.

Of course, there is a difference between the two broad ‘packages’. The Bhagwati-Pangariya team advocate a further deepening of economic reforms, greater participation in international trade and an enhanced focus on easing supply side constraints by improving physical infrastructure – roads, power, ports, and so on. Unsurprisingly, they are somewhat less enamoured of measures like the food security bill, particularly through a leaky fair price shops system, fearing a diversion of scarce capital resources. They also view the performance of Gujarat under Modi with considerably greater enthusiasm.

To, however, reduce one to a votary of Modi, someone anti the poor, or unconcerned about inequality and, above all, to a mindless globalizer, and the other to a UPA courtier, anti-growth and unmindful of inefficiencies in public provisioning or the limited capacities of the state, is to do both the scholars and us, the public, considerable disservice. The belief that ‘the people’ are incapable of understanding nuanced and complex policy choices is reflective of a strong elitist, if not undemocratic, strain in our media. At a time, when we need more rather than less informed debate drawing on the latest research findings, such a tendency can only diminish us.

Harsh Sethi

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