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LEFT, RIGHT, CENTRE

- The television debate is no substitute for actual conversation

Two Indian luminaries of economics have made an awe-inspiring — some might say awful — display of fireworks. The eruption occurred over a review of An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, a book by Amartya Sen and Jean Dréze, in The Economist. It said that the book went much farther than Bhagwati and Panagariya, who lay out a route map for further market-based reforms in their recent book, Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries. Bhagwati thought that he always was and continued to be miles ahead of Sen and Dréze. To which Sen replied that he had been in favour of growth from early years, but that growth needed to be supplemented with public expenditure directed at improvement of health, education, nutrition etc. The public row between two eminent NRI economists immediately caught the attention of the Indian press. While Amartya Sen once wrote a book that noted and approved Indians’ argumentative nature, Jagdish Bhagwati loves an argument, and the media love a good fight. I myself felt sorry, for a friendly, reasoned argument between the two would be of considerable benefit to the rest of us.

I first met Jagdish Bhagwati in 1952, when I joined Sydenham College in Bombay to do a B Com in accountancy; he was two years senior, and was doing banking. Next year, we both went on a college trip to Kashmir. Jagdish was a great hit with the girls; he had an endless stream of jokes, which they lapped up. I could not make up my mind whom I envied more — Jagdish with his jokes, or Niazi with a motorbike on which he would whisk away the girls.

When I was admitted to King’s College in 1956, I wrote to Jagdish. He said he was going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but had asked a friend to look after me. The friend came to see me when I got to Cambridge, took me around, and made me comfortable. He was Manmohan Singh. A year later he went back to Chandigarh. When he returned to Oxford in the early 1960s to do his D Phil, he was married. His and Gursharan’s house was open to me while he was there. Amartya Sen had just left Cambridge to teach in Jadavpur University when I went up, but he was a legend. His Stevenson Prize essay on the choice of techniques was a classic. He came back a couple of years later with his bride, Nabaneeta. They had a tiny flat in Trinity Street, where I used to drop by often for adda.

After Cambridge, I went to teach in the Bombay department of economics in 1963. Ravi Hazari took me one evening to see Sachin Chaudhuri in his little flat behind Taj Mahal hotel. Economists dropped by to see Sachin every evening, and often got into passionate arguments. It was a bit like a Cambridge seminar, but more informal. The sessions could go on from six to ten in the evening, and interrupting was allowed; the only rule was sustained good temper. Sometimes at the end of the evening, Sachin would say, “Ashok! That was interesting. Why don’t you write it up for me?” I would write up a comment or an article, and it would go into the following Friday’s Economic Weekly. He did it to all the economists; that is how we learnt to debate, and Economic Weekly became the forum for discussion of Indian economy.

In 1966, I went to work in Delhi. I often used to drop by in Delhi School of Economics, where K.N. Raj, Jagdish Bhagwati, Amartya Sen and Manmohan Singh were teaching. I also taught there briefly. One got to D School in the morning and settled down outside the canteen with coffee. Over the day, all the teachers came, got together and left. There was a lot of chatting, discussion, leg-pulling and fun. I would also visit the homes of the four friends, which were close by, where Sarasamma, Gursharan, Nabaneeta and Padma Desai (who was also teaching), were always welcoming.

Those days of easy camaraderie did not last long. Jagdish left for MIT in 1968; Manmohan Singh left around the same time to join commerce ministry as economic adviser. K.N. Raj became vice-chancellor of Delhi University in 1969, where he faced terrible student trouble. In 1971, he resigned. In 1973, when I decided to take a professorship in the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, he came and tried to dissuade me; he felt I was needed in India. Four years later, when I was in University of Sussex, he came and asked me to join the Centre for Development Studies, which he was about to set up in Trivandrum. I accepted his invitation and worked in the Centre for a couple of years. The last time I saw Raj was a few months before his death. He was as full of jokes as ever; as I entered, he said, “First of all, tell me who you are.”

When I went to D School again in the early 1980s, the ambience had changed. The teachers were younger, and more specialized. They came and lectured; they spent less time in the School and more at home or in New Delhi. The informal chatting around the canteen had declined; and the discussion was no longer about the Indian macroeconomy. The Economic and Political Weekly also changed in the late 1980s. It turned Left; non-leftist content declined, and debates deteriorated. When I pointed this out to Krishna Raj, he implied that higher powers were responsible.

Prannoy Roy spent some time in the finance ministry in the 1980s before he left and started NDTV, on which he interviewed Amartya recently; Sagarika Ghose interviewed Jagdish on CNN-IBN. But the television debates that have taken the place of conversations are not the same thing. The compere is paid to look good and talk without a pause; he reports on the universe, and has neither the time nor the inclination to learn about economic issues. Before his half hour, he hurriedly makes up a couple of questions about the economy; at the end of the programme, he throws them at his luminaries, and tries to make them answer in 30 seconds. There is no repartee, no pro and con, and no development of ideas.

This is what I think Jagdish was referring to: he uses all media to joust with fellow economists, just like in an American university seminar, and Amartya refuses to play the game. The reasons lie in their convoluted relationship stretching back to the Cambridge of the 1950s. I continue to believe in robust economic debate, and I enjoy my 30 seconds on television, but I do think that television is not the best medium for economics, either as a source of entertainment or for advancement of knowledge. I wish Jagdish and Amartya would seriously address and debate the Indian economy. Economic Weekly is no longer there to give them an arena; but the Journal of Economic Perspectives would, I am sure, be happy to welcome them to its pages.