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The Argumentative Indian enters a debate he’d like Indians to engage with

New Delhi, July 22: Narendra Modi’s incipient bid for prime ministership has received stinging disapproval from public intellectual and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. “I do not want Modi to be my Prime Minister,” Sen told journalist Sagarika Ghose in an interview that aired on CNN-IBN “As an Indian citizen I could say we Indians don’t want a situation where the minorities feel insecure and could legitimately thing that there was organised violence against them in 2002. That’s a terrible record. As an Indian citizen I do not want an Indian Prime Minister who has that kind of record.”

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Sen’s remarks come at a time when Modi’s anointment as the BJP-NDA’s prime ministerial nominee for 2014 is being given final shape on the political anvil. RSS bosses have signalled approval from their Nagpur shadows. Modi’s party boss, Rajnath Singh, is on a PR mission the United States, calling him the most popular leader across the land and lobbying to have travel barriers imposed on the Gujarat chief minister following the 2002 anti-Muslim mayhem abrogated.  His party spokespersons are in overdrive, pre-promoting his candidacy and protecting him from censure by rivals for flagrant and provocative references to India’s Muslims. He has likened his grief over the killing of thousands of Muslims under his watch in Gujarat to emotions he would feel if a kutte ka bachcha, or puppy, were to come under the wheel of his car. He also chose to disparage the Congress’ brand of secularism likening it to the burqa, the public attire of many Muslim women. Some of these statements have been made in the course of Modi’s revved up effort to define his vision of India to varied audiences.

That vision, Sen has raised blunt and unequivocal apprehensions about. “I don’t have to be a member of the minority community in order to feel insecure,” he said, “I could be a member of the majority…and I will still say, Modi, no I don’t want (as Prime Minister). He could have done much more for the minorities than he has.”

The laureate professes a distaste for public spats — “I don’t like brawls” — but of late he has displayed a distinct inclination to play the argumentative Indian. He is in the middle of a high-voltage academic joust with Columbia-based economist Jagdish Bhagwati over economic prescriptions. Sen and Bhagwati have recently co-authored rival volumes promoting contending theses on the way to go. Bhagwati recommends growth, Sen emphasises integrated social development as fundamental to that end. But they’ve both gone beyond their respective books in conducting a gladiatorial duel that has grabbed global attention. Bhagwati tarried angrily with a review of Sen’s book in “The Economist” and wrote the newspaper a letter saying Sen had “belatedly learned to give lip service to growth”. Sen, currently based at Harvard, was swift to dart his own missive. He had resisted responding to Bhagwati’s “persistent and unilateral attacks” in past, he wrote, “But this outrageous distortion needs correction.”

For all his stated dislike of squabble, Sen couldn’t be unaware that his remarks on Modi will become fodder for overheated political mills in the run-up to 2014. In articulating his aversion to Modi, he may have handed out just the kind of pre-poll graffiti rivals relish scrapping over.

Sen’s reservations about Modi clearly go beyond his understanding of the Gujarat leader as a communally divisive figure. He questioned his governance record as well and said he did not approve of the Modi model. “The Gujarat model draws on very good strengths that Gujarat traditionally had,” Sen said, “Emphasis on physical infrastructure interests a lot of businessmen, and he (Modi) has certainly achieved quite a bit on that.  But he could also have taken note of the fact that Gujarat’s record in education and healthcare is very bad.”

In the economic context, Sen was more approving of the direction Bihar chief minister and Modi’s bête noire, Nitish Kumar has chosen. “Nitish Kumar’s focus on education and healthcare is definitely admired and efficient. What he is doing…he is trying to learn more from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. He is trying to have a healthy educated labour force. …Yes, I do think his record at the moment is very good.”

Answering another question on comparisons drawn between Modi and Nitish, Sen said, “That comparison is slightly unfair. Nitish is dealing with the poorest state in India, Modi is dealing with a relatively richer state. I think in his condition Nitish is showing great vision in a way that will be very important for the future of Bihar…..Modi could have been more secular, made the minority community feel more secure.”

Sen also ticked off India’s middle-class — which perhaps also forms the spine of Modi’s appeal beyond Gujarat — for being selfish in objecting to economic hand-outs to the poor. “The middle class is surrounded by subsidies but the gigantic head of fiscal responsibility only rises when there is a scheme for the poor. I find the double standards of the prosperous very worrying,” he said. “Subsidised electricity for the middle class, subsidised fertilizer, subsidised cooking gas, no taxation on many taxable items like import of jewellery. These are being accepted by the poor of India because the majority are poor,” Sen argued, “I am not asking for the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, I am asking for an intelligent thinking of what justice demands. What I want is people should look into their need also, but not overlook every time fiscal issues are raised…they should not say we can’t do this for the poor because we can’t afford it.”

Sen may genuinely dislike being dragged into brawls; he never said he doesn’t like inspiring them. The one he’s just touched off could spill well beyond the arena of electoral politics around Narendra Modi.

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