ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Silly Season of Policy Debates

The media-manufactured debate of Bhagwati vs Sen has been without any content.

July and August are the months of the “silly season” for the newspapers in the United Kingdom; with everyone on a summer holiday the papers are compelled to look for silly stories to fill the pages. The Indian media – especially the financial press – seems to be in the midst of its own silly season. We are referring here to the screaming headlines surrounding the supposedly opposite perspectives on economic policy for India offered by the economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen. The context is the publication recently of An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen and that last year of India’s Tryst with Destiny by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. The media has successfully managed to portray the two works as representative of a clash between an economic policy that emphasises growth versus that which emphasises redistribution.

Far from representing two diametrically opposite schools of thought, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati are both mainstream economists, the one a philosopher-economist who made his mark in social choice and the other a trade theory economist. Where they differ is in the relative emphasis they place within economic policy. To use the language of sound bytes, Bhagwati believes that India must remove all barriers to market-driven growth and that a rising tide would lift all boats. Sen would call for attention to be paid to the spread of the benefits of growth and to the need for public interventions in specific areas where the market cannot play a positive role. Going by the headlines and pontification by columnists though, one would not realise that at the core this is the difference – of emphasis rather than of diametrical opposites. But then the prospect of a public battle between a Nobel Prize winner and a Nobel Prize winner-in-waiting is too tempting for our print, TV and social media to miss; rather they would even manufacture a clash.

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