Speaking truth to power

Professor Amartya Sen is probably the most renowned Indian intellectual anywhere today. His contribution to development thinking has been seminal and his work on moral philosophy, within the analytic tradition, stands among the very best. Books such as On Ethics and Economics , Development as Freedom , and his Introduction to Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments , along with his extensive articles on rational choice and human capability, show his ability to bridge disciplines and, in the process, foreground important issues about the nature of what Malraux called the “Human Estate.” He deservedly enjoys a place among the most innovative and influential thinkers of the last 50 years. These stellar qualities of mind, and of public engagement, earned him the Mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Thomas W. Lamont professorship, and professorship of economics and philosophy at Harvard, the Bharat Ratna, and the Nobel Prize in Economics. His fine distinction between “beings” and “functionings,” as key components of the idea of human development has given us, at just the right level of abstraction, crucial conceptual pegs by which to assess the working of Indian democracy. Prof. Sen has written extensively on India.

Views on Modi

With this formidable reputation it is no wonder that the questions asked of him at the “ Express Adda,” transcribed and posted on the web on December 22, 2014, were so tame. While most of what he said has been said before and has become part of our commonsense, one statement, which has several parts, was new and calls for our critical engagement. It concerns his view on the current Prime Minister. I quote: “One of the things that Mr. Modi did do is to give people a sense of faith that things can happen. It may not have been exactly the things that I would have liked but I think this is an achievement. This wouldn’t make my differences with Mr. Modi on issues like secularism go away but, on the other hand, if we don’t recognize it, we’re missing out on something very important.” The paper headlined the above statement. They too thought it was the key statement of the Adda.

There was no mention of the controversies, on “Ghar Vapsi” that have drawn headlines over the last few weeks, or of the ordinance on “land acquisition” and its implications for tribal communities, or on communal violence as an electoral strategy such as in Trilokpuri, or on declaring December 25 as ‘Good Governance’ day. These issues which have caused many of us much anxiety, were missing from the published statement. He mentioned his differences with the current regime but did not elaborate.

Both his statement and his silences require our critical scrutiny. Analytical philosophers do not make casual statements. Their statements have a certain economy of language which does not compromise on substance. When they articulate a position, we can assume that that position is significant for them. It derives from their conception of the just and the good. When they refer to an issue “in brief” we can also assume that the issue is less significant because it has not deserved elaboration. When they ignore issues, these have lower priority in their scheme of things. Analytical moral philosophers evaluate and judge. When they do so in the case of India, they give us some sense of “How is India Doing?” (to borrow the title of a 1982 NYRB article of Prof. Sen.)

Which ‘people’?

There are five parts to the statement that need our attention. The first is “to give people a sense of faith that things can happen.” The second is “not exactly the things that I would have liked…” The third is “… but I think it is an achievement.” The fourth is “won’t make my differences with Mr. Modi go away”, and the fifth is “if we don’t recognize it we’re missing out on something very important.” Each of the five parts of his statement calls for a public discussion. Let us discuss them in sequence.

What was Prof. Sen referring to when he said “to give people a sense of faith that things can happen”? Who are these “people”? Those that filled Madison Square Garden or the Sydney Stadium or are they the Adivasis whose lands are now going to be taken away more easily with the amendments to the Forest Rights Act? One has only to look at the report of the high-level committee (the Xaxa Committee Report) to get a sense of the condition of Adivasi communities and the further impact on them of the new policy on mining and mineral extraction. Perhaps the “people” referred to are the minorities whom the Parivar affiliates target, and the Prime Minister does nothing to control, in their Ghar Vapsi programme? Surely he did not mean those who will be most affected by the cut in allocation to health and education, by as much as 20 per cent in health, by the Narendra Modi government, because the cut goes against his entire argument of investment in these two (out of the three) pillars of human development. Perhaps ‘the people’ refers to the corporates but even they, as per Bloomberg releases reported in Livemint of December 22, are beginning to feel disenchanted. So while it is unclear who “the people” are who have “been given a sense of faith that things can happen”, was this statement based on a public opinion survey, which he had access to, or is it just impressionistic? But analytic philosophers do not make casual statements.

The second part, “not exactly the things that I would have liked”, can be read in two ways. It could be seen as language use, belonging to another culture — a British understatement — meaning instead “not the things I like or support and are things which I, in fact, oppose,” or it could be Indian English, meaning “a position close to what I would have liked, but not exactly the same.” The two meanings are very different. They have different political implications. Which one did Prof. Sen have in mind? This we will only know if we get a list of the things on which Mr. Modi has given people a “sense of faith” and another contrasting list which Prof. Sen would prefer to see. Since both lists are unavailable we have to move to the third part of his statement, “but I think it is an achievement.” He refers in the sentence following this one, to the Prime Minister’s statement at the Red Fort where the Prime Minister talked about toilets and sanitation, etc, but Prof. Sen also mentions that little has so far been achieved.

He applauds the Prime Minister on two achievements: “giving faith” and “raising issues.” Coming from a moral philosopher, this is high praise. This apparent endorsement is troublesome because what some of us, such as Gopal Gandhi and Romila Thapar, see as the unravelling of the nation — the banning of books, rewriting of textbooks, the grant of a one billion dollar sanction by the State Bank of India to Mr. Adani for investments in mining in Australia, a cutback of a similar amount in allocations to health and education sectors, major laws being passed through the ordinance route, a proposed all India anti-conversion law, rejection of some recommendations of the Collegium of the Supreme Court for appointment of judges to the Court, etc. — Prof. Sen does not discuss.

Second order issues

The fourth, “won’t make my differences with Mr. Modi go away.” This part belongs to the second order issues, what I have referred to as the “issue in brief.” In other words, his differences with Mr. Modi are not significant enough for him, at a major public discussion, after some months of the National Democratic Alliance government, to dwell upon. One feels let down by this brevity since a public intellectual, of global standing such as Prof. Sen, must use the occasion to speak truth to power. The dissenting tradition in India needs such leadership. Noam Chomsky does so when he speaks about the excesses of Israel and the U.S. When an eminent public intellectual speaks, the legitimacy of the government stands either diminished or enhanced. When he criticises policies, he initiates a new public discussion which lesser commentators, such as us, can draw upon and develop. When a moral philosopher of high standing awards a certificate of achievement to a government, opposing voices lose courage. Our disquiet now has to climb a higher mountain to be heard. There are times in the life of a society when moral philosophers are called upon to speak, not in brief, not by ignoring crucial issues, but forthrightly by identifying the issues that define our times. They help the critical voices within society to speak because they carry so much moral and philosophical authority. This is what an Adda essentially is.

The fifth part of his statement, “if we don’t recognize it we’re missing out on something very important”, addresses our scholarly sensibilities. He seems to be saying that we are closed minds, caught in ideological fixations, prone “not to recognize it,” inattentive to the changed reality. It is both a critique of our existing intellectual attitude and an invitation to acknowledge that the ground has changed because of the achievements of the Prime Minister. We need to have open minds or else we will miss “something very important.” Does this “it” refer to the tectonic shift in society, to the Hindu Rashtra? If it is, then yes, it is something very important, but we have not missed it. We have, in fact, been drawing attention to it. So what was the point we were missing?

The analytical moral philosopher needs to be interrogated in the manner we have just done. If his statements are casual, then he will issue a clarification. If his statements are coded, then he will issue an elaboration. Either way our public discourse will benefit from the response of this quintessential argumentative Indian.

(Peter Ronald deSouza is Professor at the Centre for The Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.)

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