Amartya Sen on Indian Unbound

The following is the text of a talk by Amartya Sen at the Nehru Centre, London on 7th May, 2002. Prof. Ian Little of Oxford University and Prof. Meghnad Desai of LSE also spoke at the seminar, which was organized by Girish Karnad, Director of the Nehru Centre, on the occasion of the launch of the UK edition of India Unbound by Gurcharan Das. The tape of the talk has been provided courtesy the Nehru Centre.

The big story is that this is wonderful book. India Unbound is a great mixture of memoir, economic analysis, social investigation, political scrutiny and managerial outlook being thrown into the understanding of India. It is not easy for a book of this kind to work, but in this case it actually does. In terms of the temper of the book, the fact that Gurcharan Das is happier with the world does makes a difference. He is both critical as well as optimistic and I think that combination works well. There is a positiveness of approach that breathes through every page, and the view of India that emerges is optimistic but it is not unrelated to criticisms of early periods, [the decades after Independence], and at one or two places I would even say that he may have over-criticized things. His basic take is a combination of seeing difficulties, noting them, and then going onto a view which is basically optimistic. I will address one or two of the points that Ian [Little] has mentioned, although I do not entirely agree with his criticism.

The first thing to note about this book is that it is not an apologia for India in any sense, because there is a lot of critical stuff here. We have, of course, a long tradition in India of being fairly outspoken. One has to read only papers like Economic and Political Weekly to see how sharply we express our views. I remember when I first came to Cambridge, an English friend of mine telling me that on his first visit to India he was very impressed by how outspoken Indians were. And as an example, he mentioned that he went to buy some candy for his children and he was tremendously impressed to find at the candy shop that there were two types of candy in a glass jar: one was labeled “superior” and the other “inferior”. And, in some ways, that is also Gurcharan Das. He points out many inferior things, but there is a clear predominance of the superior in the overall balance in the story that he tells.

Let me now turn to the book itself and what makes it work. It is not a plan document, you know, and hence I disagree somewhat with Ian's critique. If it were the kind of book that Ian wanted, it would have been a duller book. I mean it would have been a wordy planning document. But it is not—it is a book. It is a celebration of some things and an appreciation of others. It is actually amazing that a country, which has not been very well governed, has ended up still doing extraordinarily well. I realize that we are inside some kind of Government of India establishment, but I have to agree that our country is badly governed, and I applaud Ian Little for mentioning the decline of secularism. I think it is very hard to resist the thought right at this moment that India may be a great country but it is also governed by a lot of very small-minded people. We live at a time when some of the most dreadful atrocities have taken place in a state where the state government has not resigned, where the Central Government has not put enough pressure to make them resign, and where the so called secular partners have done very little to vindicate their secularism other than sticking to office (which, I guess, is some kind of secular virtue too!) But the totality of the situation on the governmental side leaves many reasons for discontent.

I agree, by the way, with Ian [Little] that in terms of [economic] reforms there are many things more to be done, but Gurcharan Das is also aware of these deficiencies. He is celebrating the country and not its policies. There is tendency to make a division between the left and the right, and to discuss issues in terms of their positions, which often have almost nothing to do with the left and the right. I do come from the left, and in the long run I don't really see a position for the Indian economy that does not have much greater degree of reform. In fact, I do not go along with the increasingly common consensus that [we must free] everything other than capital movement. I don't really see a successful capitalist economy thriving in India with restricted capital movement continuing. Restricted capital movement is often seen as solving problems when it hasn't altogether done so. The countries in East Asia suffered not from having capital controls (as China did), and one result of it is that when all was done the financial reform that was needed in Korea, in Thailand, etc. has basically taken place, whereas the financial reforms in China are yet to come. So, in some ways, by bandaging over problems we have a tendency to make them survive longer, when what is needed is severe scrutiny in a very different way. The same remarks apply to Japan's need for more foundational change.

What a book of this kind does is to point out that there is something to fight for and to see where one might go from here. [Having said that] I'd like to turn now to a few disagreements. One of these is it's tendency to describe our past up to 1991 as some kind of left wing Nehruvian socialism, and this is really a monstrous absurdity. The country's literacy rate [for example] was still below 50%, compared to all the promises made before Independence. The Sargent Commission report, which was published in 1944--the last bit of British government planning about education--suggested that in thirty years India would be made completely literate. (When the Britain left, it was 11% literate, which is of course not a great achievement. I must add that one or two of our states which were outside British control, such as Kerala, did a lot better.) When the Sargeant Commission report came out the whole of Congress establishment dismissed it on the grounds that India did not have that sort of patience. But, of course, not thirty but more than fifty years have gone by and we are nowhere near [universal literacy]. And what happened reflects the class bias, the basically upper class bias of the previous governments. And to describe them as a kind of socialism is total absurdity.

Even if you look at the successes of India, one of the things for which Nehru should get a lot more credit is the beginnings of the IITs, the Indian Institutes of Technology. [Nehru's] vision, which was deeply sympathetic to the middle classes, which wanted to have a good education, and which did get it. We must not grumble too much either: for when the opportunity came in the information sector and the software industry, they transformed the Indian economy in the way that Gurcharan discusses. But that is a very classist picture. To some extent degree I agree (although not entirely) with Ian Little, that you can't really remove basic poverty with information industry. But it has made a big difference, and as Gurcharan also mentions, it has extended to a lot of ancillary jobs as well. [However, our policy] had the feature of concentrating the educational efforts in the direction of the upper and middle classes and neglecting the lower classes, and that to me is not left wing policy in any sense.

When the reforms came in 1991 there were two major obstacles staring at India. One was the basic lack of governmental action in education, in health care, in land reform, in micro-credit--things that government should have done and which it had done very little. Second, there was over activity of the government in the form of 'license raj' and so on. But to diagnose the second without the first would be a great mistake. I do not blame Gurcharan Das because he does talk about this failing, but I should have liked to have had more of it…. If you take the countries that we think of as the Tigers, all of them had high rates of literacy--higher rates of literacy than India has today--in the 1970s…So, the possibility of a similar kind of economic expansion on the basis of a largely illiterate population was never a very plausible story. After 1979, China too began to do economic reforms and moved rapidly (after having had a rather dismal economic performance) to a terrific economic performance. It rode on the shoulders of what was achieved in the pre-reform period in terms of educational and health expansion, [as well as] land reform and micro credit.

Basically, these things still remain the major problem in India. It was a very difficult position for an economist to occupy because we wanted a dual program not just one or the other. Maybe it was unrealistic, and maybe what my friend Manmohan Singh did was to say, just forget one and do the other. That was certainly an improvement and no question about it. But the improvement would have been much more secure, much more broad based--the issues of poverty and unemployment to which Ian Little rightly referred, would have been dealt with much better if the totality of that change had been addressed. Now this not a criticism of the book, except perhaps in terms of emphasis, because he does talk about it as a very major neglect. I just wish there had been be more emphasis. So 2 ½ cheers for Gurcharan Das there.

There is an important issue of politics, and I have to say that Gurcharan Das is ideally suited to play a much-needed role. What India needs most at this time is a secular, right wing party. It is a dreadful thing that the right has become all non-secular. If you want a kind of right wing position--and I hope I can rely on Gurcharan being right wing--then you need a secular party. (By the way, Gurcharan quotes me in his book as having described the BJP a fascist party. I didn't quite say that, but I don't mind being misquoted like that. What I did say was that it has fascist elements and some of them have been very much in evidence recently.) The Swatantrata was originally such a party, but it didn't survive. Now, thirty years later, there is a room for such a party and the timing is better. If we had such a party and something like the Gujarat atrocities were to happen, then the protest would come from both sides. It would not come from one side…Now I am not promising that if Gurcharan were to start a right wing secular party I'll vote for it. I will not. I will welcome it however as a citizen of India because the polity does need it, and needs it very importantly.

I should mention, on the other side, that the left parties also could do with much greater unity. Gurcharan has paid tribute that is uncommon and very insightful to people like Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh, and others, who are tainted in many ways He has talked about the confidence they have given to the backward castes. Laloo Prasad also played a valuable role on behalf of secularism during the riots that followed the demolition of the mosque in UP and they did not spread to Bihar. This is, of course, not to support the industrial policy of the Bihar government, nor the corruption of Laloo Prasad Yadav.

Gurcharan Das, to its credit, often takes a dialectical position. For example, consider his discussion of the English language and Hindi nationalism. English has always been contentious in India, going back to the 1840s, when it was introduced by one of the most bigoted mammals produced by my college, Thomas Babington Macaulay. That debate--what happened to it? Why did it suddenly melt away? Partly, of course, the British left, and this meant that it was no longer a nationalist issue, as it had been during the freedom struggle. It was no longer the ruler's language; in fact, it was recognized in the Indian Constitution as one of the 15 national languages of the country. Secondly, and this is where dialectics come in, it became a target of Hindi nationalism (often combined with Hindu nationalism). And, of course, that produced a predictable dialectical reaction in the south of India and east of India, and elsewhere. So what happened is—and I think one mustn't invoke Hegel too much--a negation of negation. The attempt to hit at English and to champion Hindi had the effect of hitting back on the paths of the Tamils and the Malayalees, the Bengalis and the Assamese, and so, Hindi, of course, is one of the two official languages and that is exactly what it should be. But the idea that it was somehow going to be the sole national language was killed to a great extent because of the action and reaction that occurred at the time.

I think we need to look at India's future in these terms. In politics we need more dialectics, and that is why I am advocating a right wing party that is secular….So, when Gurcharan writes another book, I would like him to take up some of these issues again; I only hope that the program of starting a new right wing secular party will not distract him too much from doing the next book. (By the way, it must be remembered that he has written other books, including a wonderful novel, 'A Fine Family', and I recommend it.)

Thank you.

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