An uncertain glory: India and its contradictions By Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, Allen Lane, Rs 699
The most formidable challenge facing India and her policy-makers is to find the right balance between democracy, equity and economic growth. Since the inauguration of the era of economic liberalization, there have been many advocates of the idea that what matters really is economic growth. The other two of the triad, it is averred, are not that important or are issues that can be addressed later once India is firmly and irretrievably on the path of economic growth.
In this powerfully argued and empirically solid book, Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen refuse to take such a simplistic and one-sided view of India’s myriad problems. They do not for a moment argue that economic growth is unimportant or irrelevant. They believe, “Economic growth is indeed important, not for itself, but for what it allows a country to do with the resources that are generated, expanding both individual incomes and the public revenue that can be used to meet social commitments.’’
Social commitments, or call it welfare, are a key element of any democratic polity. A government that has been democratically elected almost by definition has a certain responsibility towards the welfare of the people whom it represents. It is here that the promise of Indian democracy remains woefully incomplete. India is stalked by poverty and the growing disparity between the rich and the rest. There is also “the persistent ineptitude and unaccountability in the way the Indian economy and society are organized’’. Drèze and Sen address these huge disparities and deficiencies. The book is in part an exposition of the state of the Indian economy and society; it also suggests certain modifications in the priorities or goals of policies. The authors are thus looking at what they style an “unfinished agenda’’.
The point is important because there is no denying the scale of the Indian economic achievement. In 1900, as one Indian economic historian tellingly noted, “the brightest jewel in the British crown was the poorest country in the world.’’ By the end of the 20th century, India had become the second fastest-growing large economy in the world. Yet this achievement or transformation in no way guarantees that economic growth is on a stable and sustainable track. Thus the phrase, “uncertain glory’’. The future of India hovers between the light and the dark, to borrow from the title of one of C.P. Snow’s novels.
Drèze and Sen argue that one reason why dark clouds loom over India is the failure of the economic reforms to eradicate some of the “deeper biases of the pre-reform period’’. Thus areas like public health, nutrition and primary education continue to remain neglected.
These concerns cannot be left to the government alone. The issues have to become part of public reasoning if the Indian democracy is to mature. Sen’s argumentative Indians are obviously not arguing about the right things. The media prefer not to focus on the problems and sufferings of the deprived. To counter this, the authors advocate what B.R. Ambedkar prescribed — “educate, agitate and organize’’. This will not only raise awareness but will also force governments to alter their policies.
Without undermining the strength and value of such a prescription, it is perhaps worth recalling that in his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar had warned against taking the exhibition of grievances outside the arena of Parliament and democratic institutions. Down that road, he said, coining a memorable phrase, lies the “grammar of anarchy’’. Where and how are agitation and organization to be contained so that they do not become the script for writing the grammar of anarchy? Drèze and Sen, in spite of their consistent and laudable championing of democracy and its institutions, do not quite look at this question.
The big unanswered question of this admirable book is one of agency. Who will carry out the task of transforming government policy to strike some sort of balance between democracy, equity and economic growth? How to educate politicians of all hues to slough off the attitude that equates populist measures with sustainable welfare? Who is to “educate, agitate and organize’’? Collective responsibility sounds nice on paper but is difficult to pursue in reality. Thus the issue of agency hovers over this book, perhaps suggesting a sequel. Such a sequel would certainly require Sen’s philosophical vision and Drèze’s detailed knowledge of Indian realities.
An Uncertain Glory is a book that needed to be written and readers will be grateful to the two authors for presenting the facts and their interpretation with an enviable lucidity that is totally free of jargon. This is a book that enriches public discourse and debate because it enables and forces readers to think and to question their own prejudices and assumptions. Poverty of thought is as much a part of India as the more tangible and more devastating poverty which is the central concern of Drèze and Sen.