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The Obscure Academic Feud at the Center of India’s Elections

The Obscure Academic Feud at the Center of India’s Elections

There are few accolades that Amartya Sen, the aging, brilliant Indian academic, hasn’t attained. His country’s most prominent public intellectual, the man is both a Nobel prize winner and that most unlikely of things: a rock-star economist. His lectures draw huge crowds; his mildest of pronouncements generate boldface headlines. But as he returned to India last week to cast his vote in the country’s closely watched elections, it’s tough to shake the impression that Sen is fighting something of a rear-guard action to defend his recent argument that India’s stagnating economy needs not just a boost in growth but a renewed focus on improving its literacy rates and health-care system.

After having become embroiled in a bitter feud with Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University economist, over the future of India’s economic future — one that centered on whether economic growth or development indicators should be the government’s measure of success — Sen now finds himself perceived as allied with a losing political movement, the Congress Party of Rahul Gandhi. Because of his left-leaning economics, Sen has long been seen as a natural ally of Congress, whose policies, including the economic liberalization of the 1990s, have helped spur growth. But the sluggishness of the Indian economy and widespread corruption have resulted in a sense of disillusionment with left-wing economics, and Bhagwati’s emphasis on improving the investment climate has been welcomed as a long-sought tonic.

That sentiment has come to be embodied on the political scene by Narendra Modi, who has embraced Bhagwati’s ideas and is pitching himself as the reformer the country needs. Indians are currently casting their votes in marathon parliamentary elections, which conclude on May 16. Modi is widely favored to become the country’s next prime minister.

Sen is no fan of Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, who advocates a pro-market, pro-business agenda that is at times difficult to square with the Nobel laureate’s focus on development outcomes. But in an interview with the Hindustan Times, Sen offered kind, if highly caveated words for the center-right candidate from Gujarat. “I am a great admirer of many things that Gujarat has done, not just under Narendra Modi, but even before,” Sen said. “But, human development has not been among its better achievements. The percentage of literacy, the rate of infant mortality and extent of healthcare services in Gujarat are like those in a middling country.”

Indeed, while India has posted impressive economic growth rates, the same can’t be said of key development indicators. Just have a look at the growth of literacy rates, where India continues to lag behind China:

“No country in the world has achieved high rates of economic development and sustained growth of per capita income with an ill-educated and unhealthy labour force,” Sen told the Hindustan Times.

The relationship between literacy rates and GDP per capita is one example of why Sen sees human development as key both to a good society and a vibrant economy. Below, India is circled in red and compared to other countries in South Asia.

On statistic after statistic, the story is much the same: While the gains are impressive, the reality remains deeply depressing. For example, between 2001 and 2012, India reduced the number of annual child deaths under the age of five from 2.5 million to 1.5 million. Still, India accounts for 20 percent the world’s child mortality figures. And 48 percent of Indian children under five are chronically malnourished. That’s an astounding figure.

Having served as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi has assembled a track-record of overseeing impressive economic growth, winning a reputation for his state as a hotbed of development and good governance. Running on a mostly free market platform, Modi is now pitching himself as the antithesis to India’s ruling, center-left party.

That has put Sen in something of an awkward position. The country’s leading intellectual is losing the domestic political argument:

While always a leading light of the Indian intellectual scene, Sen made a splashy return to the headlines last year amid an academic feud widely seen as a proxy for the election. With Sen on one side and Bhagwati on the other, the two men have carried out a bitter debate over the proper role of market reforms in India. Bhagwati argues India’s poor investment climate is primarily to blame for a stagnating economy; Sen prefers to focus on the need for public projects, mostly education and infrastructure, to boost development indicators.

As a result, Sen, while reluctant to firmly endorse India’s governing party, came to be seen as a natural ally of the Congress Party. Bhagwati, meanwhile, enthusiastically backed Modi, the reformer. And with Modi favored to take India’s top office, it appears Bhagwati has finally gotten a bit of revenge on his colleague, against whom he harbors a fair share of resentment for his Nobel. (Bhagwati has been repeatedly passed over for the award, a sore point for the eminent economist.)

Bhagwati’s argument is that while Sen’s focus on improving the quality of life of ordinary Indians is certainly admirable, it fails to address the reality of India’s economic circumstances. Before the country can lift the fortunes of its most impoverished citizens, India must first create greater wealth to spread among its people. “Sen puts the cart before the horse; and the cart is a dilapidated jalopy!” Bhagwati wrote last year.

Modi has aligned himself with that sentiment by promising to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of India’s economy. In so doing, he has tapped into a deep desire among the country’s strivers to join the middle class. Sen may have the Nobel, but Bhagwati has a politician willing to implement his economic ideas.

Bhagwati’s revenge may determine the course of India’s future.