A shrunken debate
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The discussion on the political economy needs to be rescued from the current bout of bad taste
Amartya Sen has found himself at the centre of an unseemly round of name-calling this week. While promoting his new book, he said, when asked in an interview, that he would not want Narendra Modi as prime minister. That, coupled with his qualified approval of the food security bill, was sufficient for him to be painted and attacked as someone who peddles the Congress line. Meanwhile, his differences with fellow economist Jagdish Bhagwati have been magnified by social media chatter, to the point where Sen has been called a "socialist". Sections of the BJP have legitimised that point of view, even suggesting that Sen be deprived of the Bharat Ratna. The honour had been conferred on Sen during the term of an NDA government, after he won the Nobel Prize.
This is a sharp and undignified descent in public discourse, one that would limit all serious argument about the political economy by assigning party ID to competing views and those who make them. Sen's prescriptions may not appear self-evident or persuasive to many — this paper has had arguments with the ideas advocated by Sen and his long-time collaborator Jean Dreze, Joseph Stiglitz and others. These are matters of emphasis. For Sen and others, the stress falls on education, health etc, as prerequisites for a productive workforce and society; for others, growth comes first and is the best and most efficient way to resolve social lags. These differences must be explored and debated, rather than having one or the other caricatured and invalidated. We need a principled contest of ideas. India, as Sen himself has chronicled, has a long tradition of intellectual disputatiousness. Reducing everything to partisan punchlines is dangerous, especially if it threatens the expression of important divergences in economic and political philosophy, which inform policymaking.
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