Why Amartya Sen is dead wrong on secularism, Gujarat and Nalanda University

Like most economists, he can overstate facts.

 |  5-minute read |   08-07-2015

First up: Amartya Sen had every right to say what he said during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign: "As an Indian citizen I don’t want Modi as my PM." After all, in 2014, plenty of Indians said they didn’t want Manmohan Singh as their PM. That’s democracy.

Prof Sen though is wrong on several other counts in the spate of interviews he’s recently given to sell his new book of essays, The Country of First Boys.

On secularism

Sen says: "I think the threat to Indian secularism right now from the governing party is rather stronger than it has been in the past."

That’s debatable. More communal riots (and deaths) have taken place during Congress-led governments than during BJP-led governments. (This takes into account a statistical adjustment for the length of tenures of each government.) According to home ministry data the number of communal incidents rose from 580 in 2011 to 668 in 2012 and 882 in 2013.

BJP leaders are prone to making inflammable communal statements. Most are from the fringe; very few are mainstream. Congress leaders are cannier. Their communal statements are aimed at the majority and are thus regarded as more "acceptable". This is odd.

As I wrote in my piece, The Ayatollahs of Secularism: "Jawaharlal Nehru was a secular man. He would have been mortified at what passes off as secularism in modern India. In its purest, most classical sense, secularism requires treating religion as a private matter. It must not enter the public domain. Pray in public or pray in private. But keep your faith at home. Politicians who have little to offer by way of development – 24-hour electricity, water, housing, sanitation, roads, infrastructure, jobs – will use religion to divert the attention of the common man.

"The two real enemies of the Muslim – communal politicians masquerading as secular politicians to win votes and Mullahs deliberately misinterpreting the holy book to retain power over their flock – form a natural alliance. Together they have enriched themselves but impoverished India’s Muslims, materially and intellectually, in the name of secularism. These are the Ayatollahs of secularism."

On the Gujarat model

Sen says: "If you read the last two (issues) of The Economist, you will see that Gujarat had a very low performance, lower than Bihar, in terms of childcare and immunisation. In terms of many of the public duties of the state, Gujarat, under Modi, had failed…" It’s true that Gujarat’s performance under Modi’s chief ministership could have been better on social and health parameters. But Sen disingenuously leaves out an important fact on Gujarat’s overall development.

Take the most important parameter of all: poverty. Gujarat, according to figures provided by the UPA-2 government in 2013, had a poverty ratio of 16.6 per cent, compared to Maharashtra’s 17.4 per cent, West Bengal’s 20 per cent, Karnataka’s 20.9 per cent, Uttar Pradesh’s 29.4 per cent and Bihar’s 33.7 per cent.

What about inclusiveness? How did Muslims in Gujarat fare under Modi? According to the (then) Planning Commission’s data on poverty, the ratio of rural Muslims in Gujarat below the poverty line was the lowest across India (7.7 per cent).

Between 2003 and 2012, Gujarat’s Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) declined 33 per cent, from 57 to 38. The all-India IMR declined more slowly, by 30 per cent, during the same 2003-12 period. Over the last three years, Gujarat’s IMR has fallen 7.5 per cent a year, among the steepest falls in India and ahead of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of seven per cent.

On Nalanda University

Sen says: "Some of the stories that fed politically motivated discussion were not only baseless but peculiarly crude. For example, one of the BJP leaders (Dr Subramanian Swamy) declared that the Nalanda chancellor gets a salary of Rs 50 lakh. In fact, the chancellor gets zero salary. It was said that we’ve already spent Rs 3,000 crore. In fact, up to the end of the financial year 2014-15, the latest year, we have spent, including construction expenses, Rs 46 crore, which is less than two per cent of the amount we were accused of ‘squandering away’."

Again, Sen is only partly right. Some of the criticism directed at Nalanda University is motivated and false. But Sen misses the point. It’s not the Rs 46 crore spent on Nalanda University that’s relevant. It’s the dismal state of the university’s infrastructure, faculty and miniscule student body despite the expenditure of Rs 46 crore.

This represents an extremely poor return on investment which as an economist must gnaw at Sen’s conscience. In contrast, the new Ashoka University in Haryana has got off to a flying start. Funded by academics, investors and eminent citizens, Ashoka University demonstrates how a new university with world-class infrastructure can be built from scratch on a budget of less than Rs 200 crore.

Nalanda University has meandered on for several years during Sen’s chancellorship with little to show for the Rs 46 crore spent. It is a failure for which Sen must hold himself accountable.

Sen, meanwhile, is right to point out that the Modi government must spend more on education and healthcare. The reduction in the 2015-16 Budget on the grounds that an increase in devolution to the states from 32 per cent to 42 per cent under the 14th finance commission will make up the difference is flawed. Previous expenditure commitments on education and healthcare were ringfenced by the Centre. Commitments devolved to the state will now be vulnerable to local caprice and cuts.

Sen, like most economists, can overstate facts. Economics is not an exact science (like physics or mathematics). Often economics states the obvious by first complicating a problem and then simplifying it to arrive at a remarkably commonsensical solution.

Albert Einstein used to say that the clever simplify complicated things. Those attempting to be clever complicate simple things.

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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