Amartya Sen’s criticism of the ruling NDA government at different occasions has led him to face massive trolling from the right-wing in India. Orchestrated through IT cell run hashtags, op-eds, primetime debates, etc., the ‘criticisms’ are almost always a smear campaign on the character, nationality, religious beliefs rather than the ideas of this philosophy-economics giant. The recent spate of attacks on Sen came with him lending support to the ongoing farmers’ movement and observing that the farm laws require to be reviewed. The kind of backlash one of the most influential economists of our times is facing for criticising a government policy has once again revealed the crevices of the Indian democracy under a Hindu-majoritarian government.
Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and philosopher currently teaching at the Harvard University was conferred with the Nobel prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 and the Bharat Ratna- the highest civilian award in India in 1999.
His monumental work in the field of welfare and development economics, moral philosophy and mathematical logic made him one of the most iconic figures across the globe in the disciplines of economics and philosophy. In his six-decade-long career, he has brought out dozens of highly acclaimed books and wrote extensively in the most renowned journals. His ideas have been widely cited, discussed, debated, and developed upon.
The recognition of Sen’s work is not only for its academic merit but also because of its focus on human freedoms and capabilities within the purview of liberal economic theory. He rigorously studied and criticised the utilitarian framework for its emphasis on individual choice and decision-making, and propounded the need to go beyond this understanding. The conditions that lead to people making certain choices form the core of much of Sen’s work. He provided the famous framework of social evaluation and evaluation of individual well-being in the form of ‘capability approach’. As opposed to the utilitarian view of satisfaction of preferences and egalitarian distribution of resources, this approach looks at well-being and development in terms of human freedoms. The conceptualisation of freedom here, is one of positive freedom, i.e., the freedom to actually be able to ‘do and ‘be’ what one wants. Sen argues that this sort of freedom is actualised through the accesses available to an individual. The access to education, food, sanitation, political participation, social engagement, religious freedom and so on form the capability set for an individual and determine the choices they can make. Individual freedom, under this framework, is not a concept superficially allowing one to do whatever they desire, but a composite of the conditions, possibilities, life-chances available to them, that together determine what one can actually do or be. Sen’s idea of justice lies in the expansion of people’s capability sets, which requires societies to work on education, healthcare, infrastructure, social-political freedoms, democratic institutions etc. and that is what makes Sen’s ideas so relevant. Within capitalist democracies, this sort of understating of well-being and development creates possibilities for states to provide the basic means of subsistence to their people and work on expanding them. The idea that development must move forward from a GDP-oriented perspective to one that entails the expansion of human capabilities has had an immense influence on development goals, policies and frameworks set forth by the United Nations Development Programme, culminating in Human Development Indices and reports. Freedom, capability, justice and democracy form the core ideals of Sen’s work and have immense significance for a capitalist world-order actively abandoning Keynesian welfare models and adopting neoliberal policies.
Sen’s ideas provide a crucial framework for evaluating Indian democracy, particularly in a Hindu-majoritarian era. The promise of Indian democracy to allow for individual freedoms is a hollow promise unless the citizens have access to basic resources and freedom to avail those resources. To give an example, for a Muslim household to have economic stability in India, they not only require a secure job but also the social safety and non-discrimination to continue doing the job. This fits well for the new farm laws too that Sen criticised and received flak in return. The chimaera of ‘choice’ that government is portraying has no meaning in the face of unequal power and resources between the farmers and corporates if they were to compete in the same market. But a state-sponsored army of trolls that do not engage with anything Sen has ever written or spoken about cannot be expected to understand his criticisms of a failing democracy.
Sen is a liberal economist working within a capitalist framework. He can be squarely criticised for the defence of capitalism he builds by propounding welfarist policies. He does not provide a radical analysis of the capitalist system, nor does he see an in-built crisis in capitalism. His ideas face immense criticisms from neoclassical, neoliberal, as well as Marxist schools of economics. And Sen’s own position is such that he cannot be against such criticism. But the slanders that Sen has faced in recent times from the right-wing in India is not based on any engagement with his ideas. It is a mudslinging exercise, calling him an agent of the Congress party, a slave of the west, a Hindu-hater and what not. Sen is an important academician-intellectual of our times, one that has brought much glory to the Indian nation-hood which the right-wing has gloriously appropriated in its politics. The kind of attacks on him for voicing opinions, that too on a subject of his expertise, deserve the widest condemnation.