about us
  areas of expertise
  our projects
  ideas & resources


  Index of Articles          Index of Perspectives            Next Article


      Jagdish Bhagwati’s Diatribes      

Omkar Goswami


Students and faculty of the Delhi School of Economics can never forget Professor Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri or MDC. A dashing figure, MDC was a teacher who made those interested in the subject clearly understand the core instead of overloading intuitive proofs with mathematical minutiae. He was also a master of some brilliant bon mots uttered in an inimitable style with an accent that was simultaneously Sylhet and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

One of MDC’s classic one-liners delivered at the end of a development economics course went something like this: “Look, at the end of the day, the basic difference between Bagicha Singh Minhas’ and Amit Bhaduri’s approach to development is that one was born in Hoshiarpur, Punjab while the other in Chittagong, Bangladesh.”

The line came back to me as I waded through the ‘great spat’ between Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya on the one hand, and Amartya Sen on the other — a quarrel in which Bhagwati has been staggeringly acerbic and catty.

Bhagwati and Panagariya have had their intellectual differences with Sen for a long time. On this occasion, it was triggered by a review of Sen and Jean Drze’s new book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions in The Economist. Upset by the reviewer’s claim that Drze and Sen advocate going “much further” than focusing only on the traditional levers of economic growth, Bhagwati and Panagariya engaged in hard words. To quote: “The truth of the matter is that Mr. Sen has belatedly learnt to give lip service to growth, which he has long excoriated as a fetish… he continues to assert that redistribution has led to rapid growth in Asia, a proposition that has no basis in reality and puts the cart before the horse” [The Economist, 13 July 2013, Letters]. Incidentally, the tone of this letter is positively courteous compared to an article of Bhagwati’s published in the Mint on 24 July 2013 [‘Why Amartya Sen is wrong’].

There is no doubt about the difference in development emphasis between Bhagwati (and Panagariya) and Sen (plus Drze). Coming as he does from a solid, middle-class Gujarati background of Bombay and having been a trade theorist at the MIT, Bhagwati has always laid primary importance to eradication of industrial and import licensing, trade, tariff and labour market reforms as key drivers of growth. Truthfully, he hasn’t focused much on social, political or economic inequalities, poverty, health and such issues. However, if asked to link the two, he will claim that “Growth has made redistribution feasible, not the other way round”. To me, Bhagwati is akin to the commercially responsible Dutch burghers who created the Holland brilliantly described by Simon Schama in his classic, The Embarrassment of Riches.

Born in Santiniketan and educated in Dhaka, Presidency College, Calcutta followed by a long stint at Cambridge where he did his second B.A. and Ph.D, Sen has always had a left-leaning, social conscience dominating bias in his research. If his numerous works on hunger, famine, illiteracy, inequality and injustice are not evidence enough, read his classic social choice theory piece, ‘The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal’ [Journal of Political Economy, 1970] to understand where Sen comes from.

Sen believes that his primary academic task is to focus on a more just society; and he believes that states which strive to construct such a polity also generate tail winds for sustained economic growth. To Sen, therefore, while conferring meaningful political, economic, social and educational rights upon those who need these the most may not immediately ‘create’ growth, these certainly ‘support’ growth in a more maintainable manner vis--vis nations with large and growing inequalities. MDC is so right. How you are fashioned determines what you write.

Academics is about debate. Bhagwati and Panagariya have every right to critique Sen’s work. Many have, including I on Sen’s work on the Bengal famine [see ‘The Bengal Famine of 1943: Re-Examining the Data’ in the Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1990]. But there is a method to criticism. Unfortunately, in this instance, Bhagwati has gone way over the top. Perhaps the eluded Nobel Prize now rankles too much.

Published: Business World, August 2013


                 Index of Articles          Index of Perspectives            Next Article