Amartya Sen’s ‘New Yorker’ Interview: What Opposition Can Learn

Opposition must build a credible and effective counter-narrative that takes into account aspirations of the people.

4 min read
Image of Amartya Sen used for representational purposes.

Amartya Sen’s recent interview with Isaac Chotiner from The New Yorker is a must read. One group in particular that can perhaps benefit (and learn) most from Sen’s insights are those who are currently in the political opposition.

As Sen explains how ‘fear’ has been made into an instrumental political tool for substantive, authoritarian agendas to be prioritised under the current government, his emphasis on observing democracy as an enabling process through a countervailing force, offers a justifiable path for the political opposition to fight against subjugation (and erosion) of foundational constitutional values, that safeguard a nation’s core of democratic pluralism.

In the interview, Sen’s expression on how his own politics was shaped offers a useful illustration.

Acknowledging the influence of Marxian thought in his early college days, Sen’s political beliefs remained ‘Left of Center’ then, being shaped by the words of those in the ‘student body’ who took interest in ‘the poor and downtrodden’. However, he became increasingly skeptical, seeing how most of them (the student leaders) appeared dismissive towards the voices of political opposition. One can see this even today, where an appeal for liberal, accommodating political thought and expression takes an exclusivist strategy to any conservative opinion.


Why a Disregard for Dissent?

A ‘bourgeois’ form of democracy, accompanying a disregard for dissent, and with the inability to provide an organisational channel to actualising political beliefs (via social, economic and political means) made Sen then — and perhaps most Indians even today — more skeptical of the nature of such politics.

For Sen, without a ‘countervailing opposition’ guided by an Indian’s argumentative instincts makes the practice of any political belief or ideology (whether on the left, center or right) undemocratic.

“I (Sen) decided that I had to combine some understanding generated by Marxian analysis with other political and intellectual lines of reasoning.”

A deep intellectual interest in the works of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and in Sanskrit literature helped shape his beliefs (and opinions) over time. And we see the evidence of this pretty clearly in his book The Idea of Justice.

Opposition Must Develop Effective Counter-Narrative

For the Opposition today, developing an effective countervailing narrative through debate and constant engagement remains key, to counter any tunnel-vision ideological agenda (channelised through majoritarian narratives). Drawing from Sen’s own thoughts, there is a pressing need for contrarians (or those in opposition) to develop, design and organise political narrative that builds upon other political lines of reasoning, but at the same time remains sensitive to the people’s needs and aspirational values.

The reason why our founding constitution emerged as an elegant charter articulating fundamental rights and duties, was due to the nature and quality of constituent assembly debates, which featured some of most educated (and well-read) Indian minds of the time. Even when means of political communication remain technologically very limited (without social or electronic media) and debates were restricted primarily to Parliamentary proceedings, educated minds would still persistently agree to disagree to hammer collective solutions — something which is largely missing today.


Opposition Had Enough Chances to Make Their Presence Felt

Barring a handful of eloquent speakers (and debaters) in the Opposition, there is simply no strong voice nor organisational capacity that can counter authoritarian forces at this point. The Opposition — whether the Indian National Congress or other regional groups (belonging to the other side of the aisle) — remain utterly disorganised, confused and directionless today.

And while this allows a government with an electoral majority to do what it wishes to do, the nature of social, economic and political processes (and outcomes) that follow, remain undemocratic.

One can say that a collective value for human rights and democratic pluralism is possible through greater political discussion and awareness, and with the education of the masses.

In recent memory alone, there are enough instances that could have allowed the Opposition a chance to make an impact in this regard — a crippling economy with high unemployment and struggling agricultural sector; incidences of hate crimes against minorities; recent political events in Kashmir (which seemed to have a created a larger international response than a domestic one from our Opposition); implementation of NRC in Assam, and a deeply-problematic set of labour codes (that offer greater benefits and decision-making power to employers than workers) are all cases in point.

To Protect Democracy, We Need a Strong Opposition

Unfortunately, there is little that we can see the Opposition do about such issues on the ground, generating only selective protests and Twitter slogans.

To protect the core of a pluralistic nation, as Sen (rightly) asserts — any strong, politically effective organisation — such as the current Modi-led BJP, requires an equally strong and effective Opposition.

But Sen feels there is still hope. “It’s a sad story, but I (Sen) think it is a mistake to play up the sadness too much because it is still in our hands. When I grew up in British India, the British were immeasurably more powerful than the Indians were at that time, than (M.K.) Gandhi was, for example, and yet it became possible to win that war…”

Perhaps we need another Gandhi, in his political spirit and organisational ability — if not with the same surname — to arrive on the scene.

(The author is Associate Professor of Economics, OP Jindal Global University. He is currently Visiting Professor, Department of Economics, Carleton University. He tweets @prats1810. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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