Dear Dr./Bharat Ratna/former Master of Trinity/current Thomas W. Lamont professor at Harvard/Nobel laureate/economist/moral philosopher/Sanskritist/ greatest living authority on Adam Smith/the last great Bengali/lodestone of the greater good/town crier for the oppressed/the last word on social justice, welfare economics, good and evil, and many other things, etc., etc., Sir…
It is only a deep sense of inquiry (which you must agree is a good thing) and disquiet (which you have made a brilliant career out of) that compels me to write this.
Sir, you have suddenly been in the news for the last two weeks, which I am sure has nothing to do with the publication of your latest co-authored book, and have been making statements on various issues. There is this Gujarati economist—who possibly deserves the Nobel Prize as much as you did, and is stuck at Padma Vibhushan, one rung below you in the India honours list—who also has a co-authored book out and has been carping at you. For us Indians, it’s getting a bit too much. So, some questions.
Sir, do you really believe you are still an economist? Your career trajectory surely indicates that you have left that dismal science far behind. You have spent much of the last four decades studying philosophy, especially moral philosophy, and ancient Indian texts that no one other than you has heard of. Yes, your contribution to the field of economics is immense, and your Nobel Prize came 28 long years after the seminal contribution you made in social choice theory, and forced every economist worth his or her salt to re-examine all assumptions.
But what have you done after that? Your much-touted Kerala development model is a joke, especially among Malayalis who have a sense of humour. The state—which, anyway, is a money order economy—leads the country in suicide rates, the number of mentally ill people, domestic violence, alcoholism, bandhs and man-days lost, and lust for gold jewellery. Reams of statistics have been hurled at you, and yet you keep speaking about it, but then, philosophers don’t care about data, do they? Only economists do.
Any number of economists have expressed doubts about your data and your methodology in some of your most well-known works. For the food security Bill which you have been championing from every forum, you even went to the extent of concocting a random figure: that a thousand Indians will die per week if the Bill was not passed. And then, you brazenly admitted that this number was fictitious; “to capture people’s attention, you have to have a number” was what you said.
All government data shows that shoving free cereals down the throats of the poor (if the cereals ever reach them) makes no sense. India’s problem is malnutrition, which has to do with access to food other than cereals, sanitation and healthcare. The food security ordinance is ruinous for the economy and will help no one other than the already obese lower bureaucracy.
Let’s come to the growth versus development debate then (which should not be a debate at all, but you and that Gujarati have got into it). You have said that a focus on growth helps the “already-privileged”. In fact, if your own life is any indication at all, the “already-privileged” have it good any way, growth or bust. You created a world record when you became professor and head of the department of economics in Jadavpur University at the age of 23 (may be Robert Mugabe anointed a grandson as vice-chancellor of some university in Zimbabwe at the age of 18, I wouldn’t know). You weren’t even a Phd then.
But you were from the aristocratic Brahmo Samaj clique. P.C. Mahalanobis, czar of the Indian planned economy and another Brahmo, was your father’s friend and was impressed with you, and there you were, airdropped from a masters degree in Cambridge onto the throne. India was stuck in the Hindu rate of growth, but that didn’t hamper your career, did it? One can only hope that this extreme nepotism shaped your ideas when you grew older. But I have never heard you say that you were privileged in any way.
Ah, vice-chancellor? Who, may I ask, is Gopa Sabharwal, vice-chancellor of the Nalanda International University that you are supposed to be the big boss of, after A.P.J. Abdul Kalam left in disgust? Three names were forwarded to the government for the vice-chancellorship—Ramachandra Guha, Pratap Bhanu Mehta (I hope these two men need no introduction) and Gopa Sabharwal, an associate professor at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi. You put your weight behind Sabharwal, even justified it in public, and she has been drawing a salary of over Rs.5 lakh per month for the last two years, with no university in sight. I think, sir, you are in a rather weak position when you talk of privileges.
And you are the icon of secularism. So you’ve said recently that Narendra Modi should not be prime minister. Fair enough. You are free to voice your opinion. As you did in 2006 when you said in Britain that if a school had to be religion-based, it should be a Christian school. Many of your friends, you said, were educated in St Xavier’s, Kolkata, and they were fine men. But other religions you were suspicious about. How do you justify that, sir?
So my humble request, sir, is that you return to your philosophical texts and learn, once more, that silence is often more eloquent than words, and that—you needn’t go to ancient Sanskrit texts for this—people who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones. They fall right back on your head.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.