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Silly Season of Policy Debates

The media-manufactured debate of Bhagwati vs Sen has been without any content.
uly and August are the months of the silly season for the newspapers in the United Kingdom; with everyone on a summer holiday the papers are compelled to look for silly stories to ll the pages. The Indian media especially the nancial press seems to be in the midst of its own silly season. We are referring here to the screaming headlines surrounding the supposedly opposite perspectives on economic policy for India offered by the economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen. The context is the publication recently of An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen and that last year of Indias Tryst with Destiny by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. The media has successfully managed to portray the two works as representative of a clash between an economic policy that emphasises growth versus that which emphasises redistribution. Far from representing two diametrically opposite schools of thought, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati are both mainstream economists, the one a philosopher-economist who made his mark in social choice and the other a trade theory economist. Where they differ is in the relative emphasis they place within economic policy. To use the language of sound bytes, Bhagwati believes that India must remove all barriers to market-driven growth and that a rising tide would lift all boats. Sen would call for attention to be paid to the spread of the benets of growth and to the need for public interventions in specic areas where the market cannot play a positive role. Going by the headlines and pontication by columnists though, one would not realise that at the core this is the difference of emphasis rather than of diametrical opposites. But then the prospect of a public battle between a Nobel Prize winner and a Nobel Prize winner-inwaiting is too tempting for our print, TV and social media to miss; rather they would even manufacture a clash. There is, of course, a real set of issues involved in the distribution of any rise in national incomes. The global discussion dates back to the 1970s when it was noticed that in the developing market economies of both South America and Asia, whatever the pace of growth rapid, moderate or low rising national incomes had little impact on the lives of the wretched while the

propertied had done quite well for themselves. Enclave-based growth beneted few outside the enclaves. In capital-intensive growth, there was little impact on employment. Lately the question has been about the impact of growth on the environment and therefore on the natural resource base. More generally, it is about the relative shares of prots and wages in national income and whether the former is growing at the expense of the latter. But the issue of distribution has always been a red rag for the propertied class. Questions about who benets more and who benets less have been converted into the red herring of growth vs distribution and then dismissed with sophistry. To ask if it is not better to bake a larger cake rather than distribute the one on the table is to pose the question in a manner such that the answer selects itself. Any contestation then appears absurd. One would not be aware of any of these issues from the media presentation of contesting views. Shallow the current debate may be, but there is a politics at play here. The growth vs distribution poser is set against the larger backdrop of the National Food Security Ordinance. The manufactured debate is but a direct attack on plans for food security. In the process one is unfortunately witness to even doubts being expressed about the true scale of malnutrition in the country. The pernicious aspect of this debate is that the Bhagwati vs Sen perspective has been put in Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi terms. To clad the respective positions of the two economists as the media sees them in larger electoral terms is to play a dangerous game in which the framework has been set up and the outcome decided. Modis publicity machine has successfully portrayed him as a doer, while Rahul Gandhi is the bumbling heir who was born with a silver spoon. Therefore Bhagwati must be right and Sen wrong in economic policy prescriptions. This combined with Sens remarks about Narendra Modis better-known persona as chief minister when more than 2,000 Muslims were butchered in Gujarat has been enough to bring out the armies of social media and small-time political leaders who have made the vilest of comments. The growing intolerance of a section of the urban middle class has been on full display. The silly season has become an ugly season.

Economic & Political Weekly


august 3, 2013

vol xlviII no 31