Author: Minhaz Merchant
Date: March 2, 2017
Criticism of the Modi government while sparing erstwhile Congress-ruled governments does little for Sen’s stature
Amartya Sen is back in town. As usual, when he visits, a new book follows. In this case, Prof. Sen is here to promote an expanded version of his 1970 book, Collective Choices and Social Welfare. Sen, 83, a former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge University, now teaches at Harvard. In recent years he has been involved in a bitter war of words with the Narendra Modi government over his role as former Chancellor of Nalanda University. Sen makes no secret of his distaste for Prime Minister Modi’s style of governance. Under the BJP-led NDA, Sen says dissent has been stifled, autonomy of universities compromised, and institutions of governance subverted.
Some of this may well be true. But Sen misses the bigger picture. Universities in India have always been subjected to governmental interference. When the Congress-led UPA government was in office between 2004 and 2014, it passed the Right to Education (RTE) legislation that has not helped modernise the Indian educational system. Its implementation has been severely criticised by educationists.
Sen rarely critiques this failure or the appalling state of government-run primary schools where the educational foundation among the rural poor is laid. Who is responsible for the abysmal state of our schools? The three-year-old Modi government or 55 years of Congress governments under Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh? Sen’s trenchant criticism rarely extends to them, opening him up to the charge of intellectual flexibility. It is important to criticise the Modi government – on my part I have done so in several columns across a broad spectrum of issues. But visceral one-sided criticism traduces the critic, not the target of the criticism. A man of Sen’s acuity should know that.
Dissent is the life-blood of democracy. Sen is saying little original when he emphasises this, as he frequently does. But he errs grievously when he calls the Indian government a “minority government” as he did in one of his interviews last week. This is what Sen said: “Anti-national is a peculiar term to come from a minority government. It shows that there is a level of arrogance there. A 31 per cent vote share certainly does not allow you to label the remaining 69 per cent to be anti-national.” Sen’s comment represents a misstatement of facts. Every government in India since Independence has been, by Sen’s own definition, a “minority government”.
Even in India’s first general election in 1952, the near-monopolistic Congress led by Jawaharlal Nehru won a “minority” 45 per cent national vote share. In 1957 it won 47.7 per cent vote share. In the 1962 Lok Sabha elections, the Nehru-led Congress won 44.7 per cent. In her “landslide” 1971 Lok Sabha win, Indira Gandhi captured 43.6 per cent national voteshare. As Indian politics became more fractured in the 1990s, voteshares declined. Narasimha Rao won 35.9 per cent in 1991. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi accounted for 26.5 per cent national voteshare in 2004 and 28.5 per cent in 2009. None of these governments were branded “minority governments” by Sen. Such selectivity does him no credit.
At nearly 40 per cent, the NDA’s voteshare in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections came close to Nehru’s victories (when the Congress had little opposition) and is higher than Indira’s 1971 win which Sen would be mortified to categorise as having led to the formation of a “minority government ”. Promoting his book last week, Sen told The Economic Times: “But I am also worried that people are feeling less free and less confident to express their points of view. That decline has been quite prominent in India.” That flies in the face of facts. Ever since the Modi government took office, college campuses, TV panelists, newspaper op-eds and opposition leaders have engaged in more dissent against this government and more criticism of its actions (as indeed in democracies they should) than the silent Manmohan Singh and stentorian Sonia Gandhi ever had to endure. Freedom of speech has never been so robust. Albert Einstein used to say that the clever simplify complicated things. Those attempting to be clever complicate simple things.
- The writer is author of The New Clash of Civilizations: How The Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century.