Journalist | Writer | Analyst
14 August 2005
Arguments for a better world
Amartya Sen’s new book, The Argumentative Indian, is an original journey into the history of ideas. He says India’s traditions of democratic discussion and secularism stretch back longer than we care to think. Excerpts from an interview.
PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh’s recent speech at Oxford — where, inter alia, he praised Britain’s contribution to “good governance” in India – led critics to accuse him of being soft on colonialism. Your own book makes no overall assessment of India’s encounter with Britain but in emphasising our own traditions of democratic thinking, you are, in a sense, staking a position. What is your view of this debate?
AMARTYA SEN: I think writing about contemporary India has been so dominated by our understanding of the British period that it has tended to eclipse everything else. One result is that it has not allowed us to think in terms of the ancestry of some of the ideas that we have tended to think of as British, such as secularism, democratic politics. If you take democracy and public discussion, it is a tradition which stretches all the way back to at least Ashoka. If you think of secularism, religious freedom, there is Akbar. Now these have tended to be blotted out, because we often trace these ideas, which are seen as Western, to the manifest presence of the British. My book, to some extent, counteracts this.
I know there are a lot of issues about whether the British empire was a good thing, a bad thing or, as Karl Marx thought, a mixture. My position is similar to that of Marx in that respect. I haven’t seen Manmohan’s speech in Oxford. This is a subject that is prone to debating. While I welcome debates on any subject, I did not want a debate on that particular issue to blot out what I was trying to say in my book — that there is a long tradition of argument which had developed among the early Hindu and Buddhist thought and then early encounters with other cultures, including Muslim thought, and indeed was matured under a period when the Muslims were dominant in India. I did not want that story to be obliterated. And I also wanted to take on the view of India and Hinduism which the Hindutva people have sold us.
Apart from being a project of recovery of a certain tradition, is the book’s contention that the salience of argumentation has declined?
I wouldn’t say it has declined but I don’t think the historical trend is the thing to look at. It’s the potential that exists today which is important. It’s similar to what I think about the globalisation debate. Many say that the main critique of globalisation in the form it exists today is that the rich have got richer and the poor poorer. I don’t think that’s basically what’s happened. In many cases, that’s not true. In some cases, it’s true. But if you look at the bulk of the world’s population, that’s not the full story. If one is still worried about the form of globalisation, it isn’t because in general the rich are richer, it is because the poor could have become a lot less poor, could have had a better deal than they have ended up having, and they could still, if we reform the trading system, patents system, and indeed the financial leadership of the global economy.
Similarly, can we make greater use of our rich heritage of argumentation today? I would like to say strongly, yes. I don’t address the question of whether it has gone down compared to the past. The main point is that we can make much more out of our argumentative tradition than we have. For example, the last time you and I had a conversation, we drove it as much as possible in the direction of our ignoring medical care and nourishment across the country. (“India’s poor need a radical package”, The Hindu, January 9, 2005) It’s not that discussion on health care and nourishment has declined, but that there could be much more discussion of it, it hasn’t gone up adequately fast.
But in the sphere of economic decision-making, there’s a growing tendency to say, “Let the experts handle it”. For example, it is argued that monetary policy should be the preserve of an independent central bank, not an elected parliament. In India and the world, there has been a flattening of arguments on economic policy. We are told to trust un-elected technocrats, that political or popular concerns are invalid.
I don’t take that view, but this is a complex question. We can’t leave everything to the technocrats, because ultimately, the technocrats can establish relationships between cause and effect but they cannot provide the judgment of how to value the effects without public consultation, participation and reasoning. But at the same time, for public discussion, it’s very important to know what the technocrats think. Do they think, for example, that allowing retail trade by foreign firms will have a beneficial effect because of the way it reduces the margins between the retail price and the price poor producers achieve, and because of the effect it might have of increasing Indian exports through retail channels in America? Or would it be harmful because of the way it would affect the trade carried out by smaller enterprises, cutting down employment, adding to poverty? These are technical questions to be assessed. Ultimately, there has to be public discussion. So my answer would be that we need the technical opinion, the scientific assessment, but then ultimately it is for a public discussion to value the rather divergent gains and losses that may be generated. I don’t think things should be left to technocrats, but they do have a role to play in informing the public.
Technocratic opinion is rarely given in a vacuum. There are the realities of elite control and class bias … .
Class bias certainly will come in and one has to be careful about that. And that’s why one should pay much more attention to the details of the reasoning the technocrats provide, rather than their overall assessment of whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. I am much less interested in hearing what a technocrat’s overall assessment is than in his detailed analysis of the nature of the thing taking place. Second, the domain of argument is more extensive than our class background and yet we have to be aware that class may make it particularly difficult to draw attention to some issues.
In your book, you use the term “friendly fire” to describe schemes set up to perform positive social functions which end up hurting the poor. Many of our anti-poverty schemes would fit that description and we clearly need new institutions that can tackle the root cause by providing the poor with entitlements. Surely employment guarantee is one way to go forward?
Employment guarantee can be a very useful tool for removing poverty. That is a point that has to be accepted and asserted before anything else. But on top of that, we have to also look at to what extent spending as much money as may be needed to provide this guarantee all across the country would cut into the funding for education and healthcare and other things which are also very important for the removal of deprivation. There is a scientific aspect, political aspect, moral aspect and we have to bear in mind all of them.
One of the most interesting chapters of your book deals with the historical and intellectual interaction between India and China. Today, after many years of suspicion, the relationship is on the upswing. Yet, some say China is a threat to India, and that India should join together with the U.S. to contain, tether China. In your opinion, what are the areas of fruitful cooperation between the two neighbours?
There are many areas of fruitful cooperation between India and China, but containing China is not one of them. India and China have had extensive contacts with each other. India is the only country where Chinese students went for education. This was connected to Buddhism but they didn’t study only Buddhism but astronomy, mathematics, public healthcare. Indians also went to China, thousands of them in different time periods.
The two countries have learnt a lot from each other and there is still a lot to learn. Just to give an example, we have a lot to learn from what I would call China’s initiatives in the first period on basic education and healthcare. They didn’t do much in economics then but in the post-reform period, China has done a lot on economic reasoning and how to meet globalisation on its own terms without losing ground. But while that was a positive gain, some of the commitment that was there earlier disappeared. One morning, public health insurance for all was suddenly dropped, so people had to buy private health insurance. China is the only country where you have to buy your own vaccines for your kids. So that is not a lesson to learn.
So it’s really about taking a self-confident but receptive, non-nationalistic view, and not also getting caught in a global strategy or manoeuvre, of containing one country or another. That’s not our business. We are concerned with living in a peaceful world where Indians have much more freedom and well-being than they have today, and understanding China’s experience can help us do that.
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