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Amartya Sen in the Asia House Library

Amartya Sen gave an exclusive interview to our Web Editor Naomi Canton ahead of his speech and Q+A session at Asia House on 30 June 2014.

Renowned Indian economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says the Indian Government has not invested adequately in education and healthcare for its citizens and doing so is the only way for India to sustain economic growth.

The comments by 80-year-old Dr Sen, who was born in West Bengal in British India and who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998, counter the argument by many in India who believe that investing in infrastructure, creating jobs, increasing energy supplies and focusing on industrial growth, are the way forward.

India has seen its economic growth drop from an average of more than 8.5 per cent between 2003/4 and 2009/10 to 4.5 per cent in 2012-2013 and 4.7 per cent in 2013-2014.

But Sen, who studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, does not believe that a focus on building infrastructure, providing power and easing regulations, will solve India’s problems. He believes the “development of human capability” is fundamental to economic growth, that good quality healthcare should be available to all Indian citizens and there should be a focus by the Government on achieving 100 per cent literacy among the population.

After the interview Sen gave a speech at Asia House about what India has failed to learn from the Asian experience. Many representatives of the Indian media were present. They included The Hindustan Times which ran a story following the event titled Modi has every right to rule: Amartya Sen. CNN-IBN ran a similarly titled story which can be read here. BBC Radio Four’s The World Tonight ran this.

Amartya Sen chatting on the sofa

Amartya Sen chatting on the sofa of the Asia House Library

Narendra Modi’s BJP party won the 2014 Indian general election with an outright majority on the platform of promising jobs, infrastructure and economic growth. Dr Sen was an outspoken critic of Modi’s policies before the election. In his interview at Asia House he said: “He was not my favourite candidate, people know that,  but he has now won. India is a democracy and so he has the right to govern. He has not yet announced his policies, so we will have to examine them and if we have some critical things to say on that, then that should be based on understanding of what he is announcing that he will do, rather than expectation of what he will do, as that would be very unfair to him.”

When pushed on what he feels the one thing Modi must do to revive India’s battered economy, he said: “I don’t think there is only one thing, but basically there is an approach, namely the approach has to be, that there is nothing as important both for spreading the fruits of economic growth and making it sustainable and to enhance it, than the development of human capability and that requires educational expansion and healthcare, both of which are in a mess in India and it’s not much better in Gujarat,” he said in an apparent dig at the BJP and Modi supporters who have always hailed the western state of Gujarat, which Modi was Chief Minister of until he became Prime Minister of India in May 2014, as an example of a highly developed state which they say has seen fast economic growth, good infrastructure and prosperity and is a state the rest of India should emulate.

Asia House Web Editor Naomi Canton interviewed Amartya Sen

Asia House Web Editor Naomi Canton interviewed Amartya Sen

Sen, who currently teaches philosophy, mathematics and economics at Harvard University, said he was more impressed with the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh.

“Once among the poor Indian states, these three states which have focused on education and healthcare, are now among the top five Indian states in terms of per capita income, in addition to being among the top states in life expectancy, low mortality, low fertility and so on – that’s the line in which I think Indian policy has to be reshaped – and I hope that’s what the present government will do,” he said.

Sen, an Indian citizen who currently lives in the USA, has worked abroad since 1971 but remains outspoken on Indian affairs. When asked why he does not live in India, he said: “Mainly because I teach at Harvard, so I have to live in the USA. When I taught at Delhi University, I lived in Delhi. When I taught at the LSE in London and Oxford I lived in England, so it depends on that.”

Not all Indians agree with Sen’s views however. A BJP leader Subramanian Swamy once described him as “not Indian in the proper sense of the word” after Sen said, before the 2014 election, that he did not support Modi.

Sen was born in Santiniketan on the campus of Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University, which is in present-day India. His family is from present-day Bangladesh and he spent much of his childhood in Dhaka.

When asked why the urban middle classes in India appear to be not bothered about the hundreds of millions of their fellow citizens living in poverty, he said: “This is because the relatively prosperous section of India, which numbers approximately 200 to 300 million, their lives do improve with  the per capita income going up – whether or not schools exist and hospitals see patients – because they manage alright on the basis of their superior income ability. But that is no reason why they should not worry about others,” he said.

Since Independence, India has not suffered any famines and Dr Sen, who has done a lot of research on the causation and prevention of famines, puts this down to democracy and the fact the Indian public and the free media would not tolerate it.  Millions of Indians died in the Bengal famine of 1943 which took place under the British rule of India, for example.

“After India became a democracy, people sympathised with famine victims in a way they have not before, but they have not had that noticeable amount of feeling towards the people who get a very bad school or no school at all, or very bad medical care,” he said.

As for how to achieve poor inclusive and sustainable economic growth in India, he said: “There is nothing as good for sharing and sustaining economic growth than having an educated healthy labour force. The education in schools in India is very bad and there are not enough schools and the hospital system is very badly organised,” he said, adding this was all covered in his book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions (2013).

Regarding the ‘Modi fever’ boosting the Nifty and Sensex to record highs, Dr Sen said: “You would expect that.” But as for whether it is sustainable, he said: “That will depend on what happens next.

“It is not surprising the Indian stock market is booming at this stage a month after the election, but the difficult days are yet to come.

“But the stock market is only one way of judging things,” he added. “There are other indicators such as people’s life expectancy, mortality rate, literacy rate, ability to read and write and count and calculate.

“India’s performance in the competitive test like PISA is dreadful,” he said, referring to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

As for whether India is seeing the right levels of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) right now, he said:  “We don’t know that. It depends on what the competition of that is. FDI can be very useful sometimes and sometimes it is not, you can’t generalise about FDI,” he said.

“In education and healthcare, there is a lot that one can do in international collaboration,” he concluded. “I think mainly giving jobs and creating employment is very important.”

Amartya Sen looks pensive enjoying a cup of tea inside the Asia House Library

Amartya Sen looks pensive enjoying a cup of tea inside the Asia House Library

To listen to the audio of the interview, click below:

Dr Sen also gave a speech about what India has failed to learn from the Asian experience and then answered questions from the audience. The audio can be listened to below:

To see a slideshow of the event click below:

To watch the video of Amartya Sen’s speech click below:-

Keep an eye on the What’s On section of this website here for more stimulating discussions like this.

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Dr Mukulika Banerjee and Patrick French at Asia House

With the voting in the Indian election ending on May 12, it couldn’t have been a more topical time to hold a debate on the biggest election in the world at Asia House.

The session at Asia House, the last pre-Festival event before the Festival began, entitled ‘Why India Votes’, featured Salil Tripathi, a contributing editor at Mint and Caravan in India; Patrick French, historian, writer and author of India-A Portraitand anthropologist Dr Mukulika Banerjee, author of Why India Votes?, who runs the South Asia Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The big question on everyone’s lips right now is: who is going to win the Indian general election?

The 16th Lok Sabha (the popular chamber of the Indian Parliament made up of MPs directly elected by the public) has 543 seats or parliamentary constituencies up for grabs and any party that gets more than 272 seats can form a government. In recent years, parties have had to form alliances and rule in coalition as none have won a majority since 1984.

The ruling coalition in India is the Indian National Congress-led UPA, which has been embroiled in many corruption scandals. Its leader, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has  announced he will resign after the election. The party has not announced its prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 general election although Rahul Gandhi, a descendant of Jawaharlal Nehru, appears to be the new face of the party. The main opposition party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It has declared Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat, as its prime ministerial candidate. Another party making the news is Aam Admi Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal that initially stood for anti-corruption, but is now also staunchly opposed to the BJP.

French made his prediction as to who will win. “Congress will just tip over 100. But BJP and its allies will not get 272 and will have to rely on some kind of external support,” he said. “If it reaches a point where it’s unclear who will be prime minister then the BJP will not ditch Modi. It’s extremely likely at this point that he will land up in the hot seat,” he stated.

He added: “I would be surprised if the AAP gets more than 10 seats but I think as a party they are here to stay; as long as you have corruption and inefficiency at the level it is at the moment you are going to have people that want to change the political system.” He said the fact that those with close links to political families could not stand as MPs for the AAP was “revolutionary.”

When it comes to political dynasties, the BJP was “not nearly as bad as Congress,” he said. “The situation in this country has got worse. Lots of young scions are coming up.” Every MP in India aged under 30 is the son or daughter of a politician, he pointed out.

French said there was an assumption among young people with family links to politicians that they too would become politicians, in the same way sons and daughters of Bollywood stars assume they will enter the film spotlight. “In a representative democracy you might expect a few MPs to be from political families but not on this scale,” he said. “Within many parties there is no internal democracy. It’s not that the voters are clamouring for this person to be their candidate. It’s because they really have no choice. It’s because the party is imposing those candidates upon them.”

He said he was in the Hindi heartlands (Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) during March and he detected a “BJP wave” rather than a “Modi wave” that had a strong anti-incumbency sense regarding the Government in Delhi. This goes against the Indian media portrayal of there being a “Modi wave” in India, he said.

French said from what he saw, it was not that the 2002 Gujarat riots did not matter, but communal issues were not motivating the BJP supporters and were not relevant to many people’s decision to vote for the BJP, particularly in Uttar Pradesh.

“It’s not because it [BJP] is a communal party. There were people who were quite specifically saying they were voting for BJP because they felt it was no longer tied up with issues like Babri Masjid. They felt that that was the past and now it’s all about governance and a kind of pragmatic approach to an administration – that was the reason they were voting for BJP.”

He added though that he expected there would be very powerful regional allies who would push Modi in a way that “would be very unfamiliar to him if he became Prime Minister” and he would “find it hard to deal with that.”

“Everyone who has been trying to write Congress off for more than a  century has always been mistaken,” he added. “There is a strong possibility of a Modi or BJP-led coalition coming into power but I think Congress will do better than recent reports. Congress does actually have a deep-seated ability to turn out the vote, and an ability to, in a way, keep a certain minimum number of voters in important seats turning out. It won’t be quite as catastrophic as people have been predicting.” But he said it would be interesting to see if there was a move against the Gandhi family within the party after this election.

Banerjee said the Congress Party had contributed to an interesting debate on the streets,  referring to the Amartya Sen versus Jagdish Bhagwati debate.

“Rickshaw drivers, when I am talking to them, are suddenly talking about growth versus equity,” she said. “Every ordinary average Indian is having this debate. Is the UPA policy of putting huge amounts of money  into pro-poor programmes – is that the way forward – or is that is there another kind of growth model people associate with Modi?”

She said one rickshaw driver had said to her “making my life better is not necessarily good for the country. The Congress does that. But if the country progresses then of course I too will prosper.”

Banerjee continued: “I don’t think there is any doubt that Modi will win. It’s a question of how many seats and what coalition.”

She said she personally would like to see “a different kind of politician who believes in the common man, who has an idea of India shared by most Indians – but we will probably have to wait.”

Like French, she pointed out that incredibly influential regional political forces had emerged in India, including movements of other backward castes and so on, that did not exist prior to 1984. She said they had massive power bases with holds over enormous electorates, larger then European countries, but that Modi had spent the “last few weeks offending every and each  one of them.”

“They are all likely to do quite well in their states and the push back from them is going to be quite interesting that is perhaps what is going to make a possible Modi government a reasonable government,” she added.

She added she was curious to know how the people in India who were not bombarded by visual and oral messages from Modi on a daily basis and who did not read the front pages of newspapers, would vote. “Is it going to the hinterland and affecting people not in that information grid?”

Salil Tripathi, Dr Mukulika Banerjee and Patrick French at Asia House

Salil Tripathi, Dr Mukulika Banerjee and Patrick French at Asia House

She added she was worried by Modi’s recent “blatant violation of the Election Commission model code of conduct” by delivering a party political broadcast close to a polling booth, holding the BJP party lotus symbol, as he cast his vote on the day of polling, despite the world’s eyes being on him. “This is not the first time he has done this with the Election Commission, and I have no reason to believe he will be any different in power.” She said it was also bizarre as all political parties usually respected this public institution.

She said that so far there had been record turnouts in this election vis-a-visa the 2009 election, apart from in Mumbai. “We see a complete upside down world in this long period of electioneering that started in March and ends in May. There is an exaggerated sense of order and law and the organisation that the Election Commission brings; in a chaotic country, this is one thing that works, so people feel very invested in the fact that this is one thing that India actually pulls off well given its scale and diversity. It’s a very important expression of citizenship for people, it’s a fundamental right and they feel exercising this fundamental right is a duty.”

She said there was a massive enthusiasm for voting, particularly among the poor. The Hindi word for voting, matdan, said it all, she pointed out. “Poor people have pointed out to us ‘I am so poor I can’t do any other dan (giving). All other dan takes resources which we don’t have. This dan is free.’” To give (dan) is considered a virtue in India.

She said she had met 17-year-old female shop assistants in Mumbai who had got black marks on their fingers on the day of polling to pretend they voted, even though they were not old enough, such was their enthusiasm.

“Not one of the 400 candidates in the AAP thinks the AAP will form the government, but as they keep saying any parliament needs a sensible opposition to hold the government to account and ask the awkward questions to make parliament work. The amount of time spent debating new legislation and introducing new policies has been at an all-time low under the UPA,” Banerjee said.

She said the AAP was made up of a wide range of people, from all walks of life, reflecting the wide range of Indians in India – “a rich plethora of social movements which have done fantastic work – anti nuclear stuff, women’s rights, that had all remained local and invisible on the national stage,” she said.

The AAP was trying to bring these people together, whereas she described other political powers as being only about “genes, family, kinship, money, muscle power.”

Tripathi  commented on how the AAP included everyone from a former RBS chief, to an anti-nuclear activist who wants peace with Pakistan, to a mother whose son died in the Kargil War, to the former CFO of Infosys.  He then commented on how coverage of the election focused on Modi versus Kejriwal as though the Congress party did not exist.

“Opinion polls give anything from 160 to 317 seats to the BJP and NDA together,” he stated.

He summarised the Rs 5,000 crore (US$ 833 million) Indian general election as follows. “It is a festival of democracy, the greatest show on earth. It is also a logistical nightmare; it’s noisy. In the past it has been very bloody, it’s colourful and also witty. There is never a dull moment. Each time India votes it sets a world record because each time it is the largest number of voters and each time it’s also the largest number of young voters who go out to vote,” he said.

To watch a video clip of the event click below:-


Listen to the full audio from the event here


The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival takes place from 7 May to 21 May 2014. To see the full programme click here.

To read an interview with the Festival director Adrienne Loftus Parkins click here.

To read other stories on the Festival click here.

To read a range of exclusive stories and opinion pieces on the 2014 Indian elections click here.

The Festival hashtag is #FAL14. Follow us on Twitter at @festofasianlit and on Instagram.