The Indian media specialises in infotainment. An entertaining spin converts boring information into heated discussion. Some journalists have equated the Amartya Sen-vs-Jagdish Bhagwati debate with the Congress-versus-BJP debate in the coming general election. Rubbish! Sen does not embody the Congress, nor Bhagwati the BJP.
Both the Congress and BJP borrow ideas from both. The boring truth is that differences between Sen and Bhagwati are much exaggerated, as also between the Congress and BJP.
Narendra Modi and Bhagwati focus more on growth than distribution. Sonia and Sen focus more on distribution than growth. Yet, all four clearly favour both growth and distribution. The differences are on how to optimise the mix. These differences are debated with great heat. But the big picture remains that Sen, Bhagwati, Congress and the BJP all believe in both growth and distribution.
More to the point, the differences between Sen and Bhagwati are not the differences between the Congress and BJP. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued in a brilliant column that the Congress and BJP are two sides of the same coin. They are both incremental economic liberalisers and welfare junkies. “Both have roughly the same approach to institutions: they are instruments to be used by those in power, not instruments to protect against them. Both have come around to the same model of affirmative action.”
Both have neglected sanitation, rural education and tribal progress, despite lip service. Both believe in giveaways. Neither believes in small government. BJP chief ministers like Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan have expanded the role of the state in giving cheap food and mass food procurement. Raman Singh announced a massive bonus to his state’s farmers of Rs 270 a quintal for rice procurement, prince of all election freebies.
Frenemies for Coopetition
Both favour schemes and projects while in office, and then oppose the same when in Opposition. The BJP favoured FDI in insurance and pension funds when in power, but opposed these when in Opposition.
The BJP initiated the move for a goods and services tax, but now has many reservations being in the Opposition. The BJP is supposed to be more relaxed on labour laws (notably in Gujarat), yet contract labour use has risen hugely under the UPA, including in Congress-ruled states like Haryana. Even on secularism, let’s not exaggerate Congress-BJP differences.
The Congress lambasts Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Yet, in the 2012 Gujarat elections, Congress chose Shankersinh Vaghela, a defector from the BJP, to head its campaign. Vaghela had led the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in Gujarat, and left the BJP only because it did not make him chief minister. By choosing Vaghela as its Gujarat leader, the Congress adopted soft Hindutva. What does this imply?
It means that being for the Congress or for the BJP does not mean much in terms of economics and means only a little more in terms of secularism. Sen’s objection to Modi has nothing to do with economic policy. True, Sen is critical of some aspects of Gujarat’s development, such as relatively slow progress in social development. But Sen’s overwhelming objection to Modi is that he is a divisive figure in a nation needing harmony.
Voting for TV Mirchi
Bhagwati is categorical in saying, “It is nonsense to say I am batting for Modi.” He says he won’t vote for either Modi or Rahul Gandhi unless they openly debate key issues as in US electoral campaigns. Modi is a reformer. He has reformed his electricity sector impressively, reduced some subsidies and attracted a lot of big investment.
But he is not a standard right-wing liberaliser. Columnist Mihir Sharma has succinctly summed up Modi’s limitations as a reformer. Like the rest of his party, Modi has objected to FDI in retail. He has decried the increase in diesel prices that is essential for fiscal stability. He has opposed the cap on cooking gas cylinders, and announced a partial write-off of rural electricity bills.
He has objected to the proposed GST. He talks of minimal government, but says this does not mean small government. Modi has not attacked the provisions of the Food Security Bill or MNREGA, as Bhagwati has done. So, while Modi is a good manager and reformer, he is also a calculating populist, which Bhagwati is not. Some say the Congress has taken the idea of entitlements on food and employment from Sen.
Maybe, but Congress has also taken the idea of Aadhaar and cash transfers from Bhagwati. Some BJP governments have experimented with cash transfers, others boast of success in distribution of cheap grain.
Sen praises BJP chief minister Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh in this respect. The rather boring conclusion: there is much ado about rather little. There are differences between Sen and Bhagwati, and between Congress and BJP. Both are exaggerated. Sen is not Congress, and Bhagwati is not BJP. And the differences between Sen and Bhagwati are not the differences between Congress and the BJP.