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Dec 27, 2010 at 10:22am IST

PM's integrity is irreproachable: Amartya Sen

Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's advocate. At the end of the year that seems to be one of the most troubled in recent times, we look back at 2010 with the Nobel Laureate, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.

Professor Sen, you've come to India at a time when country is particularly troubled by the spate of scams and scandals that have in a sense come to obsess public consciousness. How do you view this situation?

Amartya Sen: Well, you know, there are two things. One is the fact that there are so much scams and corruption around. It's very sad, and the recognition of that is also sad. And yet the recognition of it is also the way of doing something about it. I don't think scams and corruption in any sense are new in India. But the fact that people are recognising it more clearly, that must be a rather positive thing.

Karan Thapar: Except for the fact that in this one year alone we've had the IPL, we've had the spectrum scam, we've had the Commonwealth Games, we've had a spate of housing scams and multiple mining scams. Do you ever ask yourself the question, Why is India so prone to scams and scandals?

Amartya Sen: Well Karan, I'm not sure that India is more prone to scam than other countries. There are a lot of them elsewhere too. I'll begin with the United States. Some are the ones that have come to light in the context of the crisis of the year 2008, the financial scams were just quite extraordinary. I think we have societal problem there about, you know, the incentive structure we want in which there's a lot of reward from scams. There's also one in which the morality of shunning scam, even though often aired, it doesn't have really got its root down on the soil, I think.

Karan Thapar: But you know that people in India said that with the end of the license permit raj, the advent of a more liberal, open economy and with the deepening in of the democracy, opportunities for scams would diminish. But many Indians feel the very possibly the opposite seems to have happened.

Amartya Sen: Well, I think that would be wrong to judge that because I think the opportunity of scam was with you certainly while license raj. But quite a lot of license scams were small, petty licensing in exchange for money.

Karan Thapar: So would you also then say that with entrepreneurship increasing, with opportunities for making profit growing, we're going to see not just more scams but bigger scams as well?

Amartya Sen: Well, I think every thing is growing bigger at this moment, so I think the scams are growing bigger too. I don't think that's a surprising feature. By the way, small scams are terrible things too. Small corruption, that you can't get your little kerosene license without greasing some palms that affects a lot of people extraordinarily. I don't think this quantified as only the large ones. This is quantitative corruption of every kind.

Karan Thapar: One of the things that perplexes people at this particular moment is that we have a Prime Minister whose personal integrity is irreproachable, and yet to many people it seems that he is presiding over possibly one of the most corrupt governments India has ever had. How do you explain that apparent paradox?

Amartya Sen: Well, the corruptions the present government has revealed are clearly quite large. But I don't think they are a very new phenomenon. I think if there were similar investigations in the previous governments, I think, the story would have been much the same. Indeed, quite a lot of indications are the similar. No I think what we are looking at is, we are overestimating the power of the Prime Minister, which in a way is paying him a tribute. And at the same time it were using it as a critique. I think there is no question in my mind that Manmohan Singh has a level of integrity which is certainly higher than other prime ministers of the world.

Karan Thapar: But when you say I am overestimating the power of Prime Minister, are you suggesting that he is actually a little helpless when it come stop controlling corruption?

Amartya Sen: Well I think everyone is to some extension helpless because they are dealing with a - I am not providing any justification for that because there is still a question. And I am sure the Prime Minister himself would look back and say what is it that I could have done earlier. And people would learn from others.

Karan Thapar: Would he be in a sense reproaching himself?

Amartya Sen: That I don't know. But Karan I must finish what I was saying - namely the important thing is to recognise that in a kind of parliamentary system we have, without a kind of firm majority of any party, with a kind of coalition, without any recognition. When you are trying to stay in power then you have to placate a certain number of people who have the governing ability of people who kind of let you retain your government and the governing ability of India. There is a certain prune in the direction of lethargy. Not lethargy but delay in not being able to do what in a first time when you see a corrupt pattern.

Karan Thapar: Is that an explanation- to many it will sound like an excuse for the inaction of the Prime Minister?

Amartya Sen: It's an explanation of what every Prime minister would be in a position. You know I think it is very important to do- I am a great believer of public critique. But the public critique has to be constructive, has to deal with those things which are alterable and are within the power of those persons that you planning to criticise. Now it may turn out that Manmohan Singh might decide that there are few things he should have done earlier and this is a good thing for him to investigate and ask himself. But to suggest that the entire structure of problem here - the societal problem, the coalition problem, the difficulty, are generated by the Prime Minister, in a sense provide a critique that generate any kind of denial that sounds like an excuse. Then it looks like what you are trying to say is - to critique something which may not be in the power of the person at a particular person to alter. There are things within the power of that particular person to alter and I think public critique must be much more productive if it concentrates on that.

Karan Thapar: Can I put this to you - when you say that you are critiquing something that may not be within the power of Prime Minister to alter, are you suggesting that he is weak, ineffective and can't. Are you suggesting that the system won't let him even though he is trying or is it that he is unwilling to do so because it will shake his governance to the point at which it could collapse? Which of the three is this?

Amartya Sen: Well I don't think any of these are very straight forward pictures that you are trying to describe there. I think the main issue in this context is that running a government requires a great deal more than personal integrity and honesty which of course Manmohan Singh is beyond reproach I believe. It also requires being vigilant about colleagues. It also requires being able to take action and be free to take action without fearing the losing of majority. It also requires you to regard the alternative that would happen when you unleash a problem of a political chaos of that kind.

Karan Thapar: You mean he is not a free agent and can't take action?

Amartya Sen: I don't think it's just about Manmohan alone. I don't think anyone is really a free agent in this context. If you think even the previous government - NDA government - there number of cases when corruption issues came (But nothing of the order and the magnitude that we are seeing now). Yeah there are quite a lot of them. You know I think as we investigate them, you know we have things like Commonwealth Games

Karan Thapar: Or spectrum scams, IPL.

Amartya Sen: Yes you see that is one of the problems - any of these issues.

Karan Thapar: But aren't you suggesting that would worry and trouble the audience. You are suggesting that the system, the power of the Prime Minister doesn't permit effective action against scams. We are going to have to live with this because we can't do anything about it?

Amartya Sen: Well, I don't think you have to live with it. What you have to do is rather than turning to be a personal critique that you - Dr Manmohan Singh, I accuse you of that. If you recognise that there is a systemic problem in the nature of society, in the nature of the politics, and the nature of the political, social and particularly economic and moral ethic that have come to prevail. If you are making the point. Then the answers have to be sought and they could be found. Work how to deal with them rather than saying I accuse you and point a finger at a particular person.

Karan Thapar: Can you not be guilty of doing the opposite? The more you see in systemic terms, or in terms of the nature of the society or the system, the less you want to point it at one person and yet you are absolving a man - it happens to be the Prime Minister- who could act, who could atleast create consciousness of action. Today the country feels he isn't doing anything - he is either turning a deliberate blind-eye or worst still he is unwilling to act.

Amartya Sen: Yeah I don't know when you say that- this could indeed be the case. I am saying that in this particular case, I am suggesting here is that in some ways by converting a much more general problem into one of a personal failure you are refusing - and I am accusing you here Karan - of guilty, of not taking on the big problems that you have to take on. You can shoot Manmohan Singh, you can shoot his successor, but if the main problem still remains you'll have the satisfaction of two heads that you can hang up on your wall. But the problem will remain the same. I am trying to say, all my life I have written about public critique but public critique has to be intelligent. And addressed to those issues that are important diagonals and on which the general public can take interest, an informed interest and act.

Karan Thapar: So what you are saying to the people - and there is a very large number of them who feel that perhaps the Prime Minister is inactive, not doing enough, not speaking enough about corruption. What you are saying to them is don't be unfair, don't point the finger directly at Manmohan Singh. Look at the bigger issue of responsibility?

Amartya Sen: I am in no way going to deny the possibility that Manmohan Singh himself might decide that he should have done differently in some aspects. He may well decide that right moment, he also speaks the question since at the moment I teach at Harvard in the United States. Many of us feel that the same for the administration of Obama that he should have done differently in some many situations. When this question of tax-free leave for the super-rich, I expected Obama to make a starring speech. Which he didn't.

Karan Thapar: And that applies to Manmohan Singh?

Amartya Sen: There could be a case of starring speech. But the game isn't over yet. We may still get the starring speech. But Karan what I am saying is that if you diagnose the problem correctly as a problem of a general kind and for the society and the politics and the economy of the country. Then by more you point just at an individual accusations, you reduce the Prime Minister's power to that extent to take it up and then give that starring lecture we looking for because he is trying to defend himself. I would appear before them. I don't think - I am accusing you in this case- but if I were to take the view that any kind of personal angle is always the best way of making public critique. I think one is not being fare to understanding of public critique. That's world's experience in the last 100 years.

Karan Thapar: Professor Sen, in November in an address to Parliament, President Obama in a sense admonished India for its silence and reluctance to come out in support of Aung San Suu Kyi and democratic forces in Burma. He said and I want to quote, "When peaceful democratic movements are suppressed, the democracies of the world cannot remain silent. It is the responsibility of the international community, especially leaders like the United States and India, to condemn it. Do you agree?

Amartya Sen: I will go further. I think it's very important for India to speak up, it is for India to take action. The US has spoken up. I would like it to take more action. Chevron is one of the biggest operators in Burma. Europeans don't do much in total. Because you mentioned the US comparison - in one case its speed, inadequate action. In the other case, there is neither speed nor case. I would like to have speed and action for both.

Karan Thapar: The Indian position was that there was a time when they supported Aung San Suu Kyi in democratic movement in Burma. In fact in 92, they gave her the Nehru prize. Now they say, in return for the military hunting Mizo rebels, India is silent. Is that unfair, understandable?

Amartya Sen: It is not understandable and bargains are so difficult to define. If it is the bargain of any kind, it's a terrible bargain.

Karan Thapar: What do you say to those Indians who say national interest is a priority?

Amartya Sen: I will say three things. First of all, any nation has to consider national interests policy but also what its role is as a part global civilisation. Second, it has to ask the question whether it is indeed in a national interest of a certain purpose. Dealing with the north eastern rebellion, dealing with business options, is it in the national interest in a very big sense. Thirdly, not just short term, but in the long run. The US supported a lot of brutal dictators in Latin America. One reason why anti-Americanism is so strong in Latin America is because of the power. The dictatorship in Burma will disappear one day, they all do eventually. But the memory of what India did, what Thailand did, what China did and what Europe and America despite their speeches did not do would still linger for a long time.

Karan Thapar: In which case let me put it this way, India, as you know, is very keen to be recognised as a major player in the international stature it would like to be recognised as an emerging international power. Do you think there are moments when, it fails to accept the moral responsibilities that go with that aspiration?

Amartya Sen: Well certainly it does not accept its moral responsibility which it should. But given the global power lesson, not a very big one, that China is a global power but its only Burma that is terrible, it's only Sudan that's terrible, and in lot of other countries its terrible.

Karan Thapar: In India's case, this is not the first time that India has been silent. We have been silent on the hunger in '56, Czechoslovakia in '68, Afghanistan, just next door to us, in 99. Would you accept the point that President Obama made in that speech. If I can be frank, he said, India has often shied away on these issues.

Amartya Sen: Well I would agree. But you keep quoting Obama. Why is that you only take Obama's speech seriously? I have been saying that for a decade.

Karan Thapar: Can I quote you to yourself. You said, "It breaks my heart to see the Prime Minister of my democratic country welcoming the butchers from Myanmar and be photographed in a state of cordial proximity.

Amartya Sen: Yes it does break my heart, and I told the Prime Minister that he was describing me earlier on his close friend and he is.

Karan Thapar: What did he say?

Amartya Sen: Well, this was in a public meeting, there was huge number of people there. Well I listened to it, he didn't reply but I wasn't expecting a reply and I wasn't saying change the politics right now. It was something that I hope he would consider, think about it and place in cabinet and the way the country is governed bring that into the public domain.

Karan Thapar: That is a hope to which I would say Amen. It was a pleasure talking gto you Professor Sen.

Amartya Sen: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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