Amartya Sen and India’s Future

India is a country of the past, but it is also a country of the future.

Listener: 25 June, 2011.

Keywords: Growth & Innovation; History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Political Economy & History;

Many New Zealanders find India mysterious, for we don’t have much to do with it – unfortunately it is just out of direct flight range. We have so many misconceptions about the nation. We rightly think it a mystical land of astounding contrasts.

Some of the world’s major religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism – originated and today still flourish there. Religion still plays a significant part in the daily lives of most Indians (but perhaps not for the offspring of the burgeoning middle class).

But Indians have also made remarkable contributions to science, mathematics and economics. The country has a reputation for eroticism, yet aside from the television adverts, today’s Indian women are far more modest than their Western counterparts.

India is a country of the past? With its civilisations going back 5000 years, its sacred texts – the Vedas – are older than Homer’s and may be older than the Jewish scriptures; like them they contain both sublime poetry and contemporary social philosophy.

Yet the Republic of India only started in 1947. India certainly has a future. At some time in the next two decades its population will pass China’s; it is already the fourth largest economy in the world and its share of world output will increase.

One of its most important social philosophers is Amartya Sen, who grew up on the Santiniketan university campus established by 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Rabindranath Tagore. Sen is best known for his contributions to social choice theory, for which he was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. His insights are complicated and deep, presenting a serious challenge to the utilitarian theory that underpins much of economics by emphasising people’s capabilities and opportunities rather than their material consumption. His masterly 2009 book The Idea of Justice has to be read slowly and carefully.

Yet this ruthlessly rigorous economist has been described as “the Mother Teresa of economics”, for he has also applied economics at both a practical and ethical level. “Sen’s law” is that democracies don’t have serious famines. He was instrumental in developing the UN’s Human Development Index, which combines material income with the capabilities that education and health generate. In a lecture to the Indian Parliament, he flayed the MPs for paying insufficient attention to social justice.

His “popular” writings are a pleasure to read. Development as Freedom applies his social choice theory to economic development. More recently, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on History, Culture and Identity reflects on India. (The title is sly; although Indians may love an argument, it refers particularly to the writer.)

The 16 magisterial essays are by an economist who could lay claim to be a historian, political analyst, sociologist and moral philosopher (were more like him). In the tradition of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, albeit with much greater marshalling of evidence, this tour de force argues a healthy society is open to debate and diversity.

Sen is passionately opposed to the view of India’s main opposition party, BJP, that the country is an exclusively Hindu state, demolishing its arguments with forensic precision. Although four out of five Indians are Hindus, there is much variation of belief among them. India’s great success has been tolerance of diversity. Sen cites earlier rulers including Ashoka (304-232BCE) and Akubar (1542-1605) as examples of this tradition (long before there were European equivalents).

The book’s topics range widely, as does Sen’s learning, for he knows the Indian classics and the European ones, too. His charming essay on Tagore rescues him from the West’s dismissal as a mystical poet.

Tagore was also a deep political and social thinker. He had a complicated relationship with Gandhi, giving him his title Mahatma (great soul). He wrote the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh.

Tagore gave Sen his forename, Amartya, which means “immortal”. They both are as long as India continues to flourish.

This is the last in a series of columns on India, made possible by a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.