Putting the Donkey Last

If only Bhagwati and Sen would start talking with India instead of to India - and the difference is not a preposition.

WrittenBy:Chitra Subramaniam Duella
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Co-authored by Anand Ranganathan

You can take an Indian out of India, but you cannot take his foot out of his mouth.  In an interesting piece about himself in Mint, noted economist Jagdish Bhagwati has this to say about Indians, “As it happens Indians traditionally are more into falling at the feet of great figures like Sen and me”. Speak for yourself, oracle.

He also uses the term “I” 25 times in the piece to drive home the point that he is intellectually superior to Dr Amartya Sen. Frankly, we couldn’t care less and some of us may have moved on from Asani Sanket!

We are neither intellectuals nor economists.  When we were learning English, we were taught to put the donkey last i.e.my friend and I, Isabelle and I, my friends and me. We deeply distrust people who call themselves intellectuals because we were raised to believe that if you are good you tell the world, but if you are brilliant, the world will tell you. Like a big tree that silently bends down with the weight of its fruits so passers-by wandering in the jungle can rest in its shade and enjoy nature’s bounty. The term “low-hanging fruit” was born a little before the power-point presentation.

We don’t think there is any Indian tradition of throwing ourselves at people’s feet. Those who bend in subordination cannot understand those who bow their heads in respect. Big ships salute each other as they cross the oceans in recognition of the journey. Pirates shoot at each other. There is a tradition in India of seeking blessings of elders, teachers and women and men of exceptional skill and knowledge, people who have traversed oceans of knowledge.

Both Bhagwati and Sen are men of learning and their tedious sparring does not help India. If they were concerned and compassionate about India, they would have united their strengths to rid the country of its most debilitating man-made disease – poverty. It is like two major thinkers in the world of public health arguing over malaria control strategies while the vector – the humble mosquito – is busy killing people. Endemic corruption in India is the root of all evil, the vector of vectors – neither Sen nor Bhagwati have addressed it in a systematic solution-driven manner

Both are making a contribution to a thought process from a position of scholarship.  However, both seem to be under the delusion that they speak for Indians. Actually, they speak of Indians as they speak about “the poor” – as if they were inanimate objects in a calculation or economic model. They are talking to India, not with India and the difference is not a preposition. Analysis that involves human beings requires compassion and not a head-count.

Which brings us to the point of this piece – time has come for Indians to tell Indians who claim to speak for us to speak for themselves. Time has come for leaders across the political spectrum to keep quiet if they are incapable of engaging all of India’s 630 million voters in a respectful manner mindful of our diversity, difference and poverty. Harvard or Cambridge will not teach you self-respect which is a reasonable indicator of how you respect others.

Language is critical. It shows a way of thinking. We think politicians who refer to other politicians “incapable of being sweepers” have little regard and respect for those who make a contribution to keeping India clean. In fact, we think people who call each other sweepers in a derogatory manner are speaking about themselves.

Those who want to speak to us as leaders will have to earn that right everyday with their speech and action. Leadership is a quality. Some are born with it, some acquire it – but in the public arena, everybody has to earn it.

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