Clash of India's top economists mirrors its political face-off

INDIA - Two of India's top economists are publicly sparring over what should be the best growth model for the country, a grand battle of ideas that could be reflected in national elections due next year.

On one end is Professor Amartya Sen, 79, the Nobel-winning welfare economist who bats for more public spending to build an educated, healthy workforce needed for long-term growth. His rival, Columbia University economics professor Jagdish Bhagwati, also 79, argues higher growth is a pre-condition for state-funded welfare, not the other way round.

The slagging off is more than just academic hair-splitting. It reflects the differing economic visions of India's top political rivals - Mr Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress party and Mr Narendra Modi of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and chief minister of the state of Gujarat.

One of them could become the next prime minister of India.

While many see Prof Sen as backing the Congress' poverty reduction model through public spending, Professor Bhagwati has supported Mr Modi's focus on growth in Gujarat. At a time when India is growing at its slowest in a decade, next year's election is being seen as a battle of economic ideas of the two politicians.

"The academic debate has polarised on political lines," Mr Gurcharan Das, a leading Indian public intellectual and close associate of both economists, told The Straits Times. "It would seem that they are backing one political party against another, although for the record they both have denied any political bias in their economic analyses."

The professors represent two of India's best economic minds in Western academia. Prof Sen teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard. Prof Bhagwati is a leading light on global trade.

Their contrasting viewpoints have long been known, but the debate has sharpened around new books they have on how best to re-energise India's economy. Reacting to a review of Prof Sen's An Uncertain Glory, Prof Bhagwati, whose book, India's Tryst With Destiny, lauds growth through market reforms, accused the Harvard professor of offering only "lip service" to growth. "He is a Johnny come-lately (on growth issues)," he told Times Now television, adding that Prof Sen's views were hurting India's economic progress. Prof Sen countered that growth has been a running theme in his writings since 1960.

Last week, the debate got caught up in politics over whether Mr Modi should be prime minister and whether his development model was "inclusive".

When asked, Prof Sen said he would not want Mr Modi as premier, citing the Hindu nationalist politician's alleged failure in 2002 to stop religious riots in Gujarat in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.

That invited an avalanche of criticism from the BJP, which saw Prof Sen as a Congress votary.

The spectacle has transfixed India's 24/7 television media which has run the views of the economists to the accompaniment of dramatic background music.

"In this political slugfest we must not forget the significance of this academic debate," Mr Das said. "This debate will profoundly inform India's future economic policy."

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