Economists and the idea of India
As Election 2014 ends with the ninth and last phase being held today, it is probably a good idea to take a look at what was being debated over and over again, of course inconclusively. It is the idea of India, particularly the economic interpretation of what the world’s largest democracy must look like in monetary terms, both at macroscopic and microscopic levels. No wonder then that some of the great battles that were waged in the buildup to the biggest electoral exercise in history were between economists and their battalions of political and cultural interlocutors. With the vision of India at stake, old war horses like Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati renewed their adversarial arguments, while young guns like Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Ruchir Sharma presented opposite pictures of twenty-first century India. While Sen underscored, once again, the importance of welfare economics, and the pivotal of the state in ensuring basic rights such as food security, education, information, free speech, medical care etc, Bhagwati redesigned the GDP structure and significance of a double-digit growth rate, the import of ‘investor confidence’ and a market-friendly regime in the centre to boost that. Incidentally, the senior economists can be neatly divided into the two main political factions operating in India – with Amartya Sen openly siding with and endorsing UPA’s landmark legislations such as MGNREGA, food security, land acquisition act, RTI, among others, and Bhagwati fiercely criticising the same, while vouching for a more authoritarian, strong governance that helps private capital and industry flourish to lift the sagging fortunes of the economy, in other words, finding a niche in Modi-led NDA camp. Evidently, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the two economic polarities, and while development is freedom, what kind of development is in the offing remains the chief question plaguing our interpreters of monetary maladies and their socioreligious paterfamilias.
Cut to Banerjee and Sharma and the cut-throat, desiccated world of statistics. Both the economists provide a lot of numbers while dissecting the bodypolitick of Indian fiscal corpus, but what they dig out from that diligent excavation appear to come from two different universes of understanding. While Banerjee talks of ‘poor economics’, how incentivising education and job might serve better than just having in place state-led welfare schemes or private endeavours to reduce the income gap, Sharma talks big and in GDPs. The astronomical leap of faith in Sharma’s analysis places India firmly in the happy lap of BRICS, the breakout nations, which are the new drivers of global economic salvation. Sharma leaves out the unpretty details such as the per capital income, per capita consumption, state of education, health, longevity, life style and other indices of holistic growth. While the newer economists present a nuanced view, it seems a consensus is still missing in what is and can be the idea of India. Perhaps we need the French reincarnation (or so they say) of Karl Marx, ergo Thomas Piketty, to resolve the thorny issue?