Monday, February 23, 2015

A tale of two "Nobel" Indians

Like all good middle class Bengali boys - I grew up to revere Amartya Sen as a post-Tagore era icon. That his first wife lives in the neighbourhood (a distant relative) and his older daughter a contemporary added to his aura. We were told - he would have won the Nobel long back had it not been for his left oriented economics (suggesting that the Nobel Committee had a clear right-wing free-market tilt). It would be dishonest not to admit - a slight surge of sub-national chauvinistic pride - when he ultimately won the prize and was later conferred the Bharat Ratna.
However, as one grew up some of that halo faded, hearing critique of friends, who were well-known economists in their own right and thought their "Amartya kaku" (uncle - as some of them were allowed to call him) hadn't made any significant contribution to the field in more than three decades and become a faux-philosopher rather than an economist. This was evident in some of his later writings - the most quoted book - title being The Argumentative Indian. One also chuckled at stories of how in his heydays he could have given the likes of Tharoor stiff competition in a certain department.
But that is not to diminish by any measure Amartya Sen's stature or achievements as one of the greatest scholars of modern India. As for his political views, I, for one, never had any issues about his criticisms of Modi, which as an independent thinking individual he was perfectly entitled to - though I felt, as an influential public intellectual, he could have avoided an overtly partisan anti-Modi campaign before the elections given his easy access to the media. But, again that was a matter of personal prerogative. It was clear that he had endeared himself to the ruling dispensation and his academic collaborator was one of the leading brains behind many of the welfare economics based schemes of the government. Therefore, it wasn't a surprise to see him chosen as the chancellor designate of the Nalanda University project. One thought it was lucrative sinecure of sorts - for it is difficult to imagine someone at his age having the energy or drive to discharge any executive responsibility - especially living outside the country for better part of the year.
But, it always struck me as odd - as to why, if creating an international centre of higher learning was indeed his mission - didn't he start closer home with his own alma mater Santiniketan? The Sen family (especially from his maternal side) had three generations of association with Tagore and, in fact, it was "Gurudev" (as Santiniketan inmates called Tagore) who had christened him "Amartya". What Tagore dreamt of as a "World University", was now going to seed with years of neglect and internecine politics. Sen still has a home in Santiniketan and spends considerable time there. What could, therefore, be a more appropriate institution for Amartya to turn-around and re-instate it in its rightful place in the global universe of liberal education.
The answer to my mind could be two a) He was apprehensive of getting mired in the centre-state cross-fire and b) Santiniketan did not have deep pockets.
While I am sure Sen didn't expect Nalanda to be bereft of politics. Though I can't vouch for the figures of Rs 2,200 crore corpus and US $85,000 per annum. of tax-free remuneration plus first class air-travel etc - Nalanda was not short of funds we all know. So, it may not be too far off the mark to conjecture - the latter was an important consideration for Sen to opt for Nalanda - unless, of course, he was guided by an overwhelming desire to leave behind his own grand legacy a la Tagore. But, if that was indeed the case - then, I am afraid, Sen has very little to show (except for an apology of a make-shift campus) in the six years that he has been at the helm. At 81 even if the government agreed to extend his tenure for a second term -  he would be better off passing on the reigns to a younger and more competent hand  who can take his dream to fruition.   
But, instead of choosing the route of a dignified and honourable exit - that he decided to attack the government with blazing guns - first by a strategically timed "open letter" leaked to the press followed by back-to-back TV interviews raises not just eyebrows but some serious doubts about his intentions. Many think it can't just be his deep rooted political prejudice towards the prime minister but suspect, an insecurity about a possible scrutiny into the affairs of Nalanda - which could taint his image at the end of what has undoubtedly been an illustrious life. 
Pachy
He is called "Pachy" by friends and colleagues alike. He converted  the Tata Energy Research Institute to The Energy Research Institute - but that's another story. Whether he put India into the world climate change dialogue map or India put him there is also a matter of debate. For a while - the media was unsure about whether to call him a Nobel laureate but changed their mind when he got caught on the wrong foot, as it were, by making an unsubstantiated prediction on the Himalayan Glaciers melting by 2035.  He is also the author of a novel (Return to Almora) - which some felt could  have easily qualified for the "Bad Sex Prize". But, now he is in the news not for some fictional account but what seems like a sleazy reality show.
A few years back - I recall at their annual jamboree in Delhi's Hotel Ashok - the then very flamboyant environment minister paid him a backhanded compliment for making  climate change "sexy" - referring tongue in cheek, I thought, to many smart ladies in his team.
Though he may not quite be an Indian edition of Dominique Strauss Kahn (as some reports are making him out to be) - Pachy is not the first and probably won't be the last big name to be involved  in a sexual harassment case.  It is only natural and fair as the legal framework and organisations become supportive - more and more victims will find the courage to speak up on sexual harassment in the workplace even against the high and mighty.
I admire the courage of this young woman - who has gone and filed a police complaint which has in turn encouraged other victims to speak up. But, I think we still have some way to go in the media coverage of these cases. Some of the accounts I have read - whether of this case or other incidents in the recent past (like one involving a retired judge of the Supreme Court) even in very responsible dailies tend to border on the salacious.
For example one respectable mainline newspaper talks of office gossip at TERI about the "fifth floor girls" (referring to the floor in which Pachauri had his office). While "naming and shaming'' could well be a part of the retribution and may act as deterrent - making the allegations sensational doesn't serve any useful purpose and calls for far greater maturity and sensitivity - both towards the victim and the alleged offender (which includes the family members on either side). Abroad such reports (even in tabloids)  are much more factual confined to pertinent to details without embellishment.
But, to me the moral of both these is we should not deify our stars - because even "Nobel" Indians can have feet of clay.


Article first published in the @DailyO_ (click here to read)