Exemplar descends to scurrility. This is exactly what the eminent economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, has done in his latest salvo against Amartya Sen. That Mr Sen and Mr Bhagwati, former colleagues at the Delhi School of Economics, have intellectual differences about the state of the Indian economy, its direction and its priorities, is obvious. Many would say that this is how it should be: two of India’s finest economists debating with each other without acrimony to enhance general comprehension and the quality of intellectual life. The operative words in the previous sentence are “without acrimony’’. There cannot be anything personal for either economist in the state and the nature of the Indian economy. But Mr Bhagwati has in his most recent comments crossed that very broad and discernible line that separates the personal from the intellectual. He has attacked Mr Sen in personal terms. This can only be seen as an abuse of intellectual licence. Mr Bhagwati is welcome to display his lack of taste but his comments reveal a very unsavoury aspect of public life in India.
In every sphere of public discourse in India, there has been an alarming and appalling decline of standards. This decline is most noticeable in the language that politicians use within and without the legislatures. During election campaigns, the harshness of the language used increases. Very seldom are actual issues raised or discussed; instead, abuse is heaped upon the opponent and his party. No political formation is completely free from this. It would also appear that the use of abusive language in no way affects the popularity of a politician; in some cases it, in fact, pushes up a leader in the popularity charts. Not to be aggressive and abusive is interpreted as a sign of weakness. This tendency is most visible in politics but other areas too are not free from contamination. Now it would appear that the rarefied atmosphere of academic and intellectual debate has also been polluted. Mr Bhagwati has brought in elements of a street fight and vendetta in his attacks against Mr Sen. This is really sad. A person of Mr Bhagwati’s academic eminence is looked upon as an exemplar, as the upholder of standards, whose behaviour should be emulated. The arena of academic debate and discussion is not one of gladiatorial combat where a rival can be smote hip and thigh. Mr Bhagwati has done himself, his academic peers and intellectual life in India a great disservice.