The author of ‘The Argumentative Indian’ is an eminent welfare economist and a Nobel prize winner. But that has not left him feeling giddy with pleasure and with his head in the clouds, he’s firmly grounded and is especially well in tune with India and the ground realities of the economy.
It took him 10 years to research this book and it is not just a treatise on how to do away with poverty but rather what makes India the democracy it is – the noisy, colourful, chaotic second largest democracy in the world exists because Indians have a great capacity to argue! But this could be interpreted as being analytic and reasonable or quarrelsome and unreasonable, so which is it?
The book is a collection of essays – some which are a sharp critique of policies that India has followed and these can be stinging. For instance, on the subject of hunger, Sen has written that "India has fared worse than every other country in the world."
He says that "being fired up about hunger or illiteracy" is more fundamental than being "fired up about public ownership or private ownership. If you do, then there is something wrong with you!" This was in reference to divesting of public sector businesses.
He elaborates, "People are always thinking as if equity and efficiency are constantly in battle but there is a question of what is the best way of promoting equality." He says that the issue should only be, is it instrumental to whether a business is better managed as a public sector company as opposed to in a private sector or vice versa. Either way, the businesses should be efficient in generating equity.
The professor was at his enlightening best on that and other issues affecting the country of his birth.
Excerpts from an interview given to CNBC-TV18
Q: Is the title ‘The Argumentative Indian’ a bit of a pun?
A: I’m not sure it’s a pun because argumentative has several senses but a general propensity to question and dispute, which is neither methodical argument necessarily nor is it somebody saying ‘show me why, show me how and let’s discuss’. That is the main sense in which I mean argumentative. By and large, people are keen in chatting and asking questions about each other. I remember, a lovely 19th century poem by Raja Rammohan Roy, a religious reformer, about the horror of death. In the poem, he said, "Just imagine how dreadful the day of your death will be. Others will go on speaking and you will not be allowed to argue back!"
Q: ‘The real roots of Indian democracy lie not so much in the periodic system of elections and voting but in the Indian tradition of reasoning, questioning and disputation’, why do you say that?
A: What I’m saying is that democracy can be seen in two ways. One is by just balloting. The other is government by discussion, responding to public discussion and protecting public discussion. Voting is just a part of it. Indeed, no government has won 99% majority without its people having discussed or the opportunity to know what’s going on. So, it’s that general thing about democracy, of every country, what happens in the nature of discussion is extremely important. India, having a strong tradition of public reasoning makes it easier for us to conduct a discussion and it also helps to sustain the balloting. I’m not overlooking the importance of balloting but it is a part of a bigger story.
Q: For Indian democracy to achieve its full potential, "a more vigorous and vocal use of democratic participation is necessary." What sort of participation is lacking?
A: There are two problems. 1. Some issues are easy to discuss – like famine. An editor says how dreadful and publishes an attack on it with a picture of someone with a child dying of hunger in her lap and an editorial, which does not require much skill and that has been a success and famine has got eliminated because no government wants to face crticism. The problem is something more serious and complex, namely regular under-nourishment of a massive kind in terms of numbers. No one is dying of it but the chances of dying is there and weigh statistically and then the numbers count up.
The other problem is Hindutva. Not only is it trying to take India away from secularism but distracts from development issues which are more important like hunger.