One could rationalise, even justify, the recent outburst of the economist Amartya Sen against the Prime Minister by considering the circumstances. Here Sen is, well over 81, at a point in most men’s lives when the enfant terrible routine is beginning to pall a bit. His favourite political party and ideology, which he has defended tooth and nail even when they did absurd things, are in the doldrums, with no immediate prospects of a return.
His sinecure in a nascent university, which he has run as a private fiefdom, appointing cronies at fat salaries, is coming to an end. The Indian Council of Historical Research, which he had latched on to despite having no formal training or any scholarly credentials in the subject, is now detoxifying itself and ejecting his fellow-travellers. He is at risk of being a has-been, as his brand of extreme leftism is not even getting traction in much of the media (with notable exceptions).
And he, unfortunately, has a new book to plug, The Country of First Boys.
What would any thinking man do? That’s right, create a controversy for some visibility and some free press coverage. And that’s exactly what he’s proceeded to do. Google trends indicated instant, free publicity. Hey, presto, book sales will climb, too! And you thought the old man didn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve?
The fact of the matter is that Amartya Sen richly deserves the bashing he’s getting these days, for he has done little for Nalanda University, apart from many his other sins. An amount of Rs 2,700 crore was committed to the re-creation of Nalanda, and going by Sen’s own admission, as quoted by Minhaz Merchant, they have spent Rs 46 crore so far.
What do they have to show for this expenditure of Rs. 46 crore? A handful of students, a few faculty, and an absurd Soviet-style building that looks like a cowshed. It is among the most undistinguished, unimaginative, architecturally nihilistic university buildings I have ever seen, and looks brutally Orwellian. This is not what Nalanda, once a splendid international university, and an alleged cornerstone of India’s celebration of its heritage as the hub of Asian education, deserves: any government primary school looks better than this. It is a metaphor for the disdain with which Sen treated the whole Nalanda project.
It was also interesting to see the reactions of his acolytes. I retweeted, in all innocence, a tweet that said that Rs 2,700 crore had been wasted. In response to that I was trolled by a famous journalist, who studied economics at the Stanford of the East Coast of the US, who abused me and told me my facts were wrong. I pointed out that even the Rs 9 crore spent last year, or the Rs 46 crore spent cumulatively, would mean that most of it had been wasted, because the building as it stands could be constructed for no more than Rs 2 crore. Thereupon, said journalist abused me some more.
I must admit to a slight prejudice against economists, despite having good friends like Atanu Dey in that profession. A lot of that prejudice comes from seeing what economists have done to India. Jagdish Bhagwati once said, “India’s curse is its brilliant economists”. Yes, they thought they could control and direct all economic activity because they, being superhuman, knew better. This was the vanity of the Five-Year Plans and the Licence Raj. It was the absurdity of farm-labour minimum wages, which have wiped out rice cultivation and other agriculture in Kerala. It was the bigotry of one Raj Krishna, an economist whose sole claim to fame is that he coined the racist, derogatory, and untrue phrase “Hindu rate of growth”.
It was reflected in the horrifying speech I once heard from an ex-Planning Commission member, apparently the “father of NREGA”, explaining how wonderful it was. I took detailed notes, and was appalled to hear him say three times that “there were unlimited funds” for the project. That was the second most terrifying speech I ever heard in my life – no wonder this country is so messed up. (The most terrifying speech I ever heard was given by an ex-IAS officer prone to making up stuff at the drop of a hat and then pontificating about them in the most purple of prose. And believe me, I have heard some scary people at Stanford, especially the Hoover Institution, but this took the cake.)
So I am generously nervous about economists, but with Amartya Sen, I think it was my bullshit detector that lit up when I first encountered his “Kerala model”. It purports to explain the fact that Kerala, a relatively poor area, has a quality of life that’s almost as good as that of the US despite its per capita GDP being a fraction of the latter’s. The facile explanation is that Marxist policies of land distribution have been responsible for the state’s remarkable indices of health, longevity and women’s emancipation.
Now, being a native, I have a fair idea of what happened, especially as we have long family chronicles, and my mother was a professor of history. There is a simple explanation for Kerala’s high development rates: it came from three M’s – maharajahs, matriliny, and a monk. Nothing to do with Marxists. Nope, wrong M.
It has little to do with leftism. Those like me on the ground would give much more credit to the benign maharajas of Travancore, who spent their money on the welfare of their subjects, spending on schools, hospitals, and infrastructure rather than on their own vanity (and their humility was because they ruled as regents for the deity, Lord Anantha Padmanabha). And this was long before the modern era.
Further, there was the beneficial effect of matriarchy and matriliny among the main Hindu jatis, which led to the economic independence of women. Finally there was the remarkable effect of the monk, Sree Narayana Guru, on the downtrodden jatis of Kerala, whose message of egalitarianism and self-improvement struck a chord, from the 1880s to the 1930s. Thus, three ‘M’s.
And that led to the biggest ‘M’ of all: money-orders. There is really no mysterious “Kerala model”: it is a classic money-order economy. As there are few employment opportunities at home, Kerala residents have made a beeline for greener pastures, and have sent large remittances back home, first from clerical jobs in the metros, or army jobs; later from Singapore, Malaya, Africa, Europe and the US; and a veritable flood from the Persian Gulf region.
If this is “model” is Amartya Sen’s main claim to fame, it is a bit of a smoke-and-mirrors, and has no predictive value whatsoever. This feeling was strengthened when I read of an incident at a conference where Sen pontificated about the efficacy of ‘barefoot doctors’ in Mao’s China. After the lecture, a diffident old Chinese man in the audience stood up and said this was total hogwash. The audience was aghast at his impertinence, until the little old man revealed that he had been Mao’s personal physician. It is not recorded how the Great Man (Sen, that is) reacted.
Amartya Sen is a very clever man. He wouldn’t have become a global expert if he wasn’t. However, he may be even better at schmoozing than at his research. He has been magnificent at attaching himself (and pals like Jean Dreze) to the mammaries of the welfare state, and milking it utterly dry. So much so that he has now come to believe that he has an entitlement to a lifetime job as the head of Nalanda, where he was like a bull in a china shop, insulting former President APJ Abdul Kalam and the historian Lokesh Chandra.
I am sorry to be the one to tell Sen the facts of life: he doesn’t have a lifetime sinecure there. Sen is a typical hard-left relic from an era of dirigiste state control. When even the Chinese have moved on to some sort of market economics, Sen is a dinosaur, who has survived only on the kindness of his leftie friends, who allowed him to leverage the prestige of his Nobel prize to wreak havoc. That he pushes hard-Left ideas, while accepting the largesse of the West, and while being married into one of the richest families in the world, the Rothschilds, would give cognitive dissonance to a normal person, but apparently not to Sen.
Entertainingly enough, Sen also became an amateur pontificator on history. I believe he declared at an ICHR event that Indian Hindus could hardly claim any merit in their historical leaders: after all, the greatest emperors had been, according to him, non-Hindus: Akbar and Ashoka. Which just goes to show that Sen is either ignorant (he has evidently never heard of Krishna Deva Raya or Rajendra Chola) or is a villain (who deliberately downplays them just because they were Hindus).
There is an old axiom that Nobel prize winners in one discipline should not dabble in another discipline. I am reminded of the sad case of William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, and a Nobel laureate in Physics. In his later life, he made a laughing-stock of himself by espousing what appear to be cockamamie stories about the inferiority of black people. Sen is doing something similar.
I started writing this feeling sorry for Sen in his old age. But, on second thoughts, thinking of the damage he has done, when he could have applied his energies to improving India’s competitiveness and rebuilding his heritage, I am no longer sorry for him. It’s about time he exited stage left.