Amartya Sen, 'The Argumentative Indian' In a new book, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen maintains that democracy is about much more than elections, and that India's democracy flourishes amid a long tradition of dispute, discussion and debate.
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Amartya Sen, 'The Argumentative Indian'

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Amartya Sen, 'The Argumentative Indian'

Amartya Sen, 'The Argumentative Indian'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Some critics of the effort to establish democracy in Iraq argue that there's too much emphasis on elections and not enough on civil discourse. Others question whether the Western idea of democracy can be transplanted to the East, which are just two of the questions that Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen addresses in a new book of essays about his country, India. He argues, among many other things, that civic discourse is at least as important as balloting, and that there is an ancient Eastern tradition of debate and discussion that flourished in both Hindu and Muslim India. While the West takes much of the credit for the installation of democracy in a country that many Westerners view as backward, rural society driven by mysticism and a rigid class-based system, he provides historical and cultural arguments as to why India already had many of the ingredients to make democracy succeed. This emphasis on debate and skepticism is reflected in the book's title, "The Argumentative Indian."

Later in the program, Minister Louis Farrakhan joins us. Ten years after the Million Man March, he's organized a Millions More event this weekend in Washington.

But first, Amartya Sen and "The Argumentative Indian." If you have questions about religion and politics, democracy and India, give us a call: (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Amartya Sen joins us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston, and thanks very much for being with us today.

Dr. AMARTYA SEN (Author, "The Argumentative Indian"): Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: And I want to say that your book covers a wide range of subjects, from Indian film and literature to nuclear power, relations with Pakistan, China. But I did want to get to this question of democracy and dissent, about which much of your book is about. And I wanted to ask you about--there's an argument you use--you cite early on in the book to talk about the cultural background of discussion and debate in India. It's the story of Krishna and the warrior Arjuna tussling over two morally contrasting positions. This is in the Bhagavad Gita. Tell us a little bit about this, and how you see it applies to India today.

Dr. SEN: Well, that particular debate occurs in the epic poem "Abhara(ph)," of which Gita is a part. Though Gita is often taken to be a Hindu document, it's, in fact, a small part of a big epic. Now here, there's just before the war, the two sides have gathered together. This is the central event of this story, covering nearly all of the north India in the Indo-Gangetic Valley. And Arjuna, who is the invincible warrior on the good side, on the side of the right and good, wonders whether it's right for him to fight, because even though the cause is good and he would certainly win, it will lead to a lot of death and he wants to say that it isn't--it may not, in fact, be the right thing to do, to pursue the call of the right without looking into the tremendous effect of, you know, collateral killing, as it were, that will undoubtedly occur. And Krishna tries to dissuade him by saying that `You have to do your duty, irrespective of the consequences,' and that's what the debate is about.

And this debate has been picked up by many people. T.S. Eliot, for example, in the "Four Quartets," talks about that, taking Krishna's side. And I think, if I remember it right, `Lie in fright and do not think of the fruit of action. Fare forward. Not farewell, but fare forward, voyager.' On the other hand, Arjuna's position is that you have to farewell and not just fare forward based on duty.

Now this is a big debate and, of course, it's a kind of subject of which--I think I discuss in the book a great many other examples.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Dr. SEN: It's a kind of the subject matter of a political debate. And these--I mean, this particular one has been invoked, for example, by J. Robert Oppenheimer shortly as the first nuclear bomb explosion took place. He actually knew some Sanskrit, quoted Krishna's words about that, about this happening. But of course, in the context of nuclear thing, too, one could ask, even in the very time whether it was right to have dropped a bomb in two cities of Japan, though the cause was good and perhaps might have reduced the total number of people dead and certainly led to Japanese surrender. But the question was: Was that the right thing to do, killing so many innocent people who were not involved in the war?

And I think this is the kind of political debate that occurs again and again in texts. I don't think India is unique in this respect; I think it occurs in most cultures. On the other hand, there's a long history of that, even going back to the Vedas, the Rig Veda from 1500 BC, the debate at one stage about whether God exists. Did he make the world, and does he know that he has made the world if he does exist? And it's meant to be a classic Hindu document, and yet it also gives room for a debate from an entirely atheistic point of view.

CONAN: Now...

Dr. SEN: So I think it's that tradition of making room for dissent which I think is extremely important for contemporary democracy. And I think to attribute the success of Indian democracy to British influence only, I think, is a great mistake. I mean, that influence would have applied to 200 other countries which also emerged from the British Empire. I think the development of an argumentative tradition was extremely important for conciliating democracy right from the day of independence.

CONAN: I wonder--you do trace that argumentative tradition back not just to Hindu texts and Hindu religion, but also to the Mogul period when India was ruled by Muslims.

Dr. SEN: That's right. Yes, I think one has to emphasize that it is not a story of a religious issue. In fact, some of the earliest discussions on the importance of disagreement were arranged by Buddhists--the Buddhist Council held first in the sixth century BC, then the next one in the fifth and then the biggest one in the third. There are ways of getting together to settle disputes, and the great champion of that, Ashoka, one of the great Indian emperors, third century BC, even tried to write down rules for conducting public debates. And the one you were referring to in the Mogul period, particularly Akbar--but he's not alone in that--as a Mogul king was very keen not only in arranging dialogues between Muslims and Hindus and Christians and Jews and Jains and Parsees and others, but also codified the importance of minority rights and the need to--people to be able to participate in these discussions.

And if I may say, since so much is said about the Western origin of tolerance, that while Akbar was arranging these things, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for heresy. And...

CONAN: Well, I don't mean to laugh at his pain, but at the comparison.

Dr. SEN: Yes. Yeah. I think it's--so I think you're quite right, Mr. Conan, when you began by mentioning two things about whether--the importance of civil discourse--and that I do emphasize very much--and the idea that democracy is a Western idea, which I think is almost wholly mistaken.

CONAN: Our number, if you'd like to join our conversation with Amartya Sen, is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And let's turn now to Suri(ph), and Suri's calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

SURI (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hello. You're on the air.

SURI: OK. Thank you. Dr. Sen, this is an honor to talk to you on the air.

Dr. SEN: Oh, thank you.

SURI: I just wanted to mention that I remember reading, when India's democracy--or freedom was being discussed in the British Parliament, that Dr. Anivi Sinh(ph) brought out that the Indian rural side had Gran Panchayats(ph) active for many centuries.

Dr. SEN: I think that's right. You're quite right. But I think, you know, one has to note the fact that there have been international influences running in different direction. I think Buddhism carried a lot of the argumentative tradition from India elsewhere, particularly to China and Japan. But similarly, I think the Gran Panchayats you're talking about--there is some evidence that they were, in fact, influenced by Greek experience in local elections. And the panchayat is very important to recognize because there were very powerful electoral lobbies in India from about third century AD. It moved with the Greek contact with India.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SEN: But there's also the point that it is rarely only about election. As Mr. Conan began saying, there's also issue of civil discourse. So while a part of the tradition could be traced to the electoral features in the Indian elections, in Indian polity, a part of it is, in fact, much more general, much more cultural. The willingness to listen to a different point of view than--in fact, even when an argument is defeated, making room for it and keeping it alive in the form of articulated statements--that's exceedingly important.

And I do want to emphasize, even though my book--this particular book is on India, that there is a global tradition here. This whole idea that it's all Western is quite mistaken. For example, if one looks at Nelson Mandela's "The Long Road to Freedom," the--he points out how his idea of democracy was formed by watching the meeting that regularly took place in the regent's house in his local government, in the tribal government, and where every point of views were expressed.

So I think I don't want to be just kind of making a point about India, though the book is about India, and India has been particularly lucky in having a very long and very written-up argumentative tradition. But it is actually global heritage. And the...

CONAN: But...

Dr. SEN: When somebody says the West should be imposed on other parts of the world, I think what I find particularly arrogant in this is the idea that it somehow belongs to the West and that it's for the West to decide whether to impose it or not to impose it, rather than recognizing the global background to public discussions, to elections and the combination of the two. In fact, I would tend to think of elections as being part of the dialogue; it's a bigger way of interacting with each other. But you're quite right that in the British Parliamentary discussion, the Indian local government tradition--where certainly attention to it was drawn, and rightly so.

CONAN: Suri, thanks very much for the phone call.

SURI: Thank you.

Dr. SEN: Yeah, I wanted to thank you, too.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break now. And if you'd like to join our conversation with Amartya Sen--he's the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics--you'll be--many of you will be pleased to find out that there's very little economics in this book, "The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity." Our phone number, if you'd like to join us, is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail; the address is totn@npr.org.

We'll be back after a short break. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Our guest today is Amartya Sen. He's the author most recently of "The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity." Just before the break, we were talking about the long traditions of multiculturalism, tolerance and dissent in Indian society.

And, Amartya Sen, I think it was one of your own teachers who once said that if you make any generalization about India, the opposite is also true.

Dr. SEN: That's right. This is John Robinson, yeah.

CONAN: There is plenty in the Indian tradition of intolerance...

Dr. SEN: Yes.

CONAN: ...and stifling dissent and submissiveness, as well.

Dr. SEN: Yes, absolutely. But that's true of almost everywhere. You see that even when we talk about, say--rightly about the great liberal tradition that the European Enlightenment has brought in and the practice of democracy and liberty in Europe and North America has been strong. But then again, there have also been the Nazis and the fascists and also the very authoritarian administration of British, French, Portuguese and other empires across the world. The contradiction there of the foremost democracy in Europe, namely Britain, running the foremost authoritarian regime in Asia is itself quite interesting.

So you're absolutely right that there are--except that there are many different things, and it's a question of which we regard to be important today and which have also historically played a part in this particular case, making democracy, contrary to expectations, such an instant success in India.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller involved in the conversation. This is Vinit(ph), Vinit calling from Palo Alto in California.

VINIT (Caller): Hi, Neal. Great program.

CONAN: Thank you.

VINIT: My question for Mr. Sen is: What does he--what do you think about the existence of dissent and democracy among the younger people in India, among the bigger cities and in modern day? Because I've spent a significant amount of time both in the United States and in India, and just from what I've seen, like, people engage in democr--debate far frequently in Western nations than they do in India. I feel like just among everyday citizens, it's still not on people's minds. I mean, it's one thing--especially people who have, like, you know--because of globalization, they have many new jobs in India and stuff, but even having those new jobs and even having Westernization, to an extent, being brought over, I still don't see, like, a lot of time spent, especially among young people, debating and questioning those things.

Dr. SEN: I know--I'm not sure, Vinit, I agree with that, actually. India's a large country, and perhaps in your observation you have, you know, run into something which I haven't run into so much. But certainly from my young days in Calcutta or in Dhaka, which is now in Bangladesh, or later in Delhi, I think there's a tremendous amount of disagreement about the young people. One of the interesting things is that, say, in my college, President's College in Calcutta, the most important events were just organized debates which took place, like, once or twice a month to which people came. They were among the most well-attended things just to hear arguments on different sides.

So I'm not sure I would agree with that. And if we look at the--even when I was a professor at Delhi University, I had to deal with some of the elections that took place, both among the teachers as well as the students. And again, quite a lot of the debates were on foundational matters, some of them not to one's liking. I think the emphasis on the sectarian communal or the Hindu aspect often had a greater role in some of the points of view than I would have liked, but they had a particularly good reason to present it since they believed in it. And there were debates on that.

So I'm not sure that I fully agree with you, Vinit, on that. And, in fact, in the book, I quote the fact that--how easy it appears in the Indian culture to have argument, have disagreement. In fact, I quoted a 19th-century Bengali poem by Raja Ram Mohun Roy, one of the great thinkers of early 19th century, where he is describing the horror of death. And I'm translating that Bengali verse into English; it reads something like this, saying, `And just imagine how terrible the day of your death will be. Others will go on speaking and you will not be able to argue back.' Now this whole idea that the horror of death consists of not being able to argue back places argument in the center of living in a way that, I think, has been true in this argumentative tradition for a very long time.

CONAN: Vinit.

VINIT: Do you think as time goes on, as India becomes wealthier, sir, do you think there's a risk that a certain amount of complacency might set in among the general populace, especially the younger and, you know, the emerging rich that, you know, that might risk more political debate and discourse, or do you think that's not really a big worry?

Dr. SEN: Well, I think it may be the case that people get so concentrated on other things that this would die. I don't see that happening. You know, I think the important thing to recognize is that the debates have tended to concentrate on serious things. I think one of the lapses of the Indian polity was the way the minority rights--even though enshrined in the constitution, even though defended by strong majority in the community--were sometimes violated, particularly, for example, in Gujarat, where there were, you know, violence in which most of the victims happened to be Muslim.

Now the fact that that became a part of the public debate and, indeed, led to and had a major role in the defeat of the political parties which were implicated in that, indicates how effective these debates could be. And in that context, it's important to bear in mind at the moment, today, India, with its 80 percent or more--nearly 82-percent Hindu population, has a--is ruled by a Muslim president, a Sikh prime minister and the leader of the ruling party, Congress, is a Christian, namely Sonia Gandhi, born in Italy. And the fact that the debate--the attempt to debate those things had really not gathered any momentum, and the debates have really concentrated on whether their policies are right, I think, is a bit of a tribute. And I think there's some lesson to learn on that, especially in the context of multiculturalism even in Britain, not to mention Iraq, when very often people are defined in terms of their community as if that is the--that identity is going to form everything else.

And I think just as important as the propensity to argue is having a sense of judgment as to what to argue about. So I don't--I'm really not that much of a pessimist. I sense, Vinit, of you're being a pessimist, and I celebrate pessimists because pessimists make optimists win in the sense that because you warn us, we have to act on that and that really is a good guarantee. So I welcome it, I appreciate it, but I'm not sure I share your pessimism.

CONAN: Hmm. Vinit, thank you very much for the call. We want to move on and get some other argumentative Indians and others on the line, as well. Appreciate it.

VINIT: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

VINIT: Goodbye.

CONAN: Let's turn now to Derek(ph). I don't know if Derek's Indian or not. Derek is calling us from Round Lake, Illinois.

DEREK (Caller): Actually, I'm not Indian. I'm an American of European descent.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

DEREK: I travel to India very often on business. I think this conversation here is a little bit--has major intellectual flaw, meaning that you try to compare the development of Indian democracy vs. the European, Western European standards, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. India is basically autocratic state where the elites vie for power with absolute disregard to the majority of the whole population. The elites are Hindu, and whether it is the BNP(ph) Janata or Congress Party, what have you, they simply play the game while absolutely have total disregard for the majority of the population. Sure, there are laws on the books specifying specifically, of course, electing laws or ballots, what have you, but frankly, the rules are not being followed. Therefore, this whole argument of having democracy in India is really, I think, totally meaningless.

Dr. SEN: Yeah.

DEREK: The bottom line is the rich reap--you know, rule the country and they simply have absolutely no regard for the majority of the population. They have absolutely no compassion whatsoever--whether it's coming from religion, whether it's coming on the basis of the European-English commonwealth-based system--there's absolutely no regard whatsoever. So I think having a civil conversation, you know, about democratic characteristics of India is totally meaningless at this point.

Dr. SEN: Yeah.

DEREK: And so basically, the country is run by autarchy, which is a very, very ludicrous...

Dr. SEN: Derek, can I get a chance to respond to you?

DEREK: Sure. Sure.

Dr. SEN: Because you're quite right to raise the question because the treatment of the Dalits and the fact that the equality here has not been achieved successfully at all is certainly right, just as right as the position of African-Americans in the United States is, as the position of the large immigrant community in many European countries happen to be. This doesn't make one say Britain is not a democracy, United States is not a democracy; that's not the constructive way of looking at your comment.

Your comment could be constructed to say that a lot more has to be done for these rights of people, these minority--Dalits are a large minority--and they have to be--their rights have to be asserted more and their rights have to be brought more into the public domain of discussion. And that's what the Dalit leaders have tended to do. Bear in mind, the Indian Constitution was actually written--the leader of the constitution assembly was, in fact, himself a Dalit, and the emphasis--and they were the first country to have affirmative action, way before it started in the United States. For some years, it even had seats for Dalits in the parliament. Dalits have a reserved position in state--in the recruitment of civil servants, in the admission to schools and colleges. And a lot of people may find it wrong, but it was done because the idea was to focus on this particular failing on the Indian side.

So I don't acknowledge the description that you're presenting, but I think the main thing to look at here is: What are the ways and means of dealing with the African-American problem in America or with the Dalit problem in India or with the immigrant problem in Europe? These are the constructive ways of looking at it.

DEREK: Yeah...

Dr. SEN: And I had hoped that you might turn to that, because that is...

DEREK: You make--yeah.

Dr. SEN: ...indeed, the issue.

DEREK: You make a good point, but I think there's absolutely no reference whatsoever to the situation of African-Americans or Europeans in Europeans, because you're looking about people who live in totally different civilizational planes.

Dr. SEN: Well, I don't think you're right on that, Derek.

DEREK: I think I am.

Dr. SEN: I think--I don't know which civilization you have visited there.

DEREK: I have been in India many times myself.

Dr. SEN: Yes, I know. But I mean--you know, some of us have also been born there and visited there and been there. You know, I don't know that there's any particular fruitful point in this--at this time...

DEREK: Well, maybe I'm being very confrontational.

Dr. SEN: ...debating. But, you know, the whole idea--if you take African-Americans...

DEREK: Yeah.

Dr. SEN: ...I think the American society does not accept that it is a standard thing to have reserved position in civil servants for African-Americans or for admissions. That's a subject of great debate; in fact, it's about...

DEREK: Well, but look...

Dr. SEN: ...a subject of Supreme Court judgment...

DEREK: ...from 50 years...

Dr. SEN: And where these barriers were broken in the Indian context earlier, I think one has to draw a balanced line between smugness of saying everything's fine, which would be entirely wrong, and a complete hopeless of a civilizational blame, that it's a terrible civilization, nothing could happen there, to which you seem to be turning. And I think that would be just as bad in the American context, in the European context as, I believe, your argument be in the Indian context, I'm afraid.

DEREK: Well, the last 50 years actually there's been a lot of changes down in--you know, if you look North American, African-American...

Dr. SEN: Well, you don't see that change in the Indian context.

DEREK: ...Christianized Europe...

Dr. SEN: We have a Dalit president of the country...

CONAN: And...

Dr. SEN: ...we have Dalit leaders of political parties. There's still a long way to go.

CONAN: And...

Dr. SEN: We look at some evidence on one side and ignore the similar evidence on the other side, but doesn't seem to be a good time to think we're proceeding, Derek.

CONAN: And why don't we just leave it there, for the moment, if you will?

Dr. SEN: Yes. Yeah, OK.

CONAN: Derek, thank you very much for the call.

Dr. SEN: Thank you, Derek, for your question.

DEREK: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Amartya Sen. His book is "The Argumentative Indian." He's also a Lamont University professor at Harvard University and a Nobel laureate in economics.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This--Vijay. Vijay calling us from Philadelphia.

VIJAY (Caller): Yeah. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

VIJAY: Dr. Sen, it is an honor to talk to you.

Dr. SEN: Oh, thank you.

VIJAY: I just wanted to get your thoughts on three countries that are immediate neighbors and were arguably most of history part of the argumentative tradition that you talk of. I mention Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but they don't seem to be doing too good of a job with their democracies. What happened there, and why have they had so many problems while we have succeeded so well? Thank you.

Dr. SEN: I think ...(unintelligible). It's a very interesting, very difficult question. I think two things to say there. First of all, I think the premature, the kind of military rule that emerged--premature was their own word--the unnecessary militarization that occurred played a very big part in the demise of democratic movement in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which was part of it, and Nepal, of course, is a very different type of history with its own problem of being caught up partly also between the China-India difficulty. But looking at the two larger countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it's a very peculiar record because Pakistan in terms of civil society had made major progress. For example, the Human Rights Commission, which in India had a constitutional status, guaranteed by the constitution, just as the South African Human Rights Commission. But the Pakistan Human Rights Commission is just an NGO and yet under the visionary leadership of human rights lawyers like Asma Jahangir or I. Rehman, the Pakistan Human Rights Commission has done lots to defend the right of women, of minorities and so on.

Now it has been thwarted in the direct--from going in the direction of a more full-fledged democracy and I think certainly in the time that's available I won't try to give my pieces as to what has basically gone wrong. I think to a great extent India's ability to keep the military within the barracks had played a major part. And some...

CONAN: And perhaps Pakistan's birth in war has prevented them from doing so.

Dr. SEN: Exactly right, and it began in a kind of great situation of bloodshed and so on...

CONAN: Yes.

Dr. SEN: ...where the country was being divided on the basis of Hindu majority or Muslim majority, and that attempt at not--you know, for example, Pakistan when it was set up already had the features of being an Islamic democracy. That was the original thing, where the president could be a Muslim; Indian president happens to be Muslim at the moment, but that's a minority. But that could not happen in Pakistan. And I think in many ways the entire problem, I think, in which Pakistan was born had problems, but I think it's very important to emphasize the progress that has been made. I don't mean when the US government goes to Pakistan it tends to speak only with the president and the generals and the army, but Pakistan has a massive civil society and its newspaper really play a big part. They already had many little weeklies, like Friday Times and Herald and newspapers like Gadong(ph), the Daily Times, The Nation and others, have given opportunity to express different points of view. It's question of consolidating that that we have to look at. I don't feel as hopeless about it as one should, and I'm sure you would probably share that hope that we all have.

CONAN: Vijay...

Dr. SEN: Pakistan will move towards democracy.

CONAN: ...thank you very much for the call. We're going to take another short break and when we return we're going to continue our conversation with Amartya Sen, and we'll be speaking also with Minister Louis Farrakhan about this weekend's Million More event here in Washington, DC. And what's change for African-Americans in the 10 years since the Million Man March?

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Today we're continuing our conversation with Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen. His new book is "The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity." He's with us in the studios of member station WBUR in Boston.

And I wanted to ask you: We began this conversation discussing the debate over responsibility and duty, if you will, back in the...

Dr. SEN: Yes.

CONAN: ...Bhagavad Gita, and this was in the context of just on the eve of a just war, as the general sees it, and I wanted to ask you about that conversation in the context of the nuclear weapons now in the possession of India and Pakistan and whether this debate continues in India today.

Dr. SEN: Well, I think it does. Actually, I personally think it was a great mistake probably for India to go ahead and do the nuclear blast in '98 for both moral and political, on one side, reason and well as prudential reasons. And I think you're right to refer to it during here because any kind of nuclear war and the collateral killing and damage that it would produce would be so terrific that the moral question remains central. But I think even aside from the moral and political questions, there was also a pragmatic issue. I mean, India has blasted a bomb in 1974 though it didn't acknowledge it. But it was generally known it had that capability. It gave Pakistan an opportunity to try out a bomb, which they hadn't done before, and quite rightly they could say, `Well, Indians have done it. That's why we're trying it.' And it also neutralized India's great superiority on conventional forces that India had over Pakistan.

Now I don't particularly want India to have asymmetric power of any other country. On the other hand, purely from the prudential angle, it did not serve the purpose for which the nuclear bomb was being advocated by people, and indeed the whole idea that India's taken more seriously today because of the bomb is absolutely rubbish. India is taken seriously because its economy is doing well, its democracy is seen as a success, and the bomb is something which Pakistan also has and so has Israel and many other countries. So I think in general one has to separate out these issues, but I think it was a great mistake moral, political and prudential, and the interesting thing here, Neal, is that while in the elections in '98 which led to the new government which ordered immediately the nuclear explosions to occur, in the run-up to the election the nuclear thing was a big issue. But even though there are people running around, say, hailing the bomb, immediately after the bomb in a country of a billion people, you always find a lot of people on the street jubilating almost anything.

But the interesting point is when next year the same parties had to face the election, the nuclear issue was completely dropped. It was no longer being claimed by those who were advocating the nuclear thing in early '98. In the following year's election, they were all going that, `Well, it was something happening in India anyway, no special credit.' What it really indicated is that the public enthusiasm in terms of actual voting was far less than what they thought, and indeed, it didn't seem like being a vote-getter. And that again was possible because of the tremendous amount of public discussion that occurred on the nuclear issue as to what it really means. The fact that suddenly Bangladesh was the safest country in South Asia because it did not have a nuclear bomb and no one would like to do a first try on it. I mean, all these issues came out very sharply. So I think it's both an example of how many interesting point of views were ignored earlier, but also the power of public reasoning which actually, basically changed the voting climate on that issue.

CONAN: India and Pakistan were on the verge of another war just--What?--three, four years ago. And I wonder how you think the presence of nuclear weapons in both countries may have affected the decision to back off a crisis which was becoming increasingly emotional at the time.

Dr. SEN: I don't think that it played that part really. First of all, the important thing to recognize is not so much that they backed off from the war but that it went so far in the war almost immediately afterwards the nuclearization. There hadn't been that for decades before that. So I think the nuclear played very little part; I personally am very skeptical of the deterrent role even in the Cold War. I mean, after all, I think they were very lucky in that there wasn't a `hot war' between the United States and the Soviet Union. And we know that even one of the greatest leaders of the world, namely, John F. Kennedy, at the time of the confrontation with the Cuban Missile Crisis, was quite willing to use the bomb, and he thought that if that were to happen, then civilization and humanity as we know it will go, and he thought at that time, you know, from the tapes of the period and in the memory, that he thought the chances of the Russians not backing down would be somewhere between one-third and one-half.

Now taking that kind of a risk and in this case by one of the greatest leaders of contemporary world, on behalf of humanity where there was half to one-third chance of it being wiped out indicates what a tremendously dangerous terrain we were in in the Cold War period, and I'm very active in the Nuclear Threat Initiative, one of those things set up by Ted Turner and Sam Nunn, and I think we have still a lot of battling to do to recognize that nuclear presence is really far less of a deterrent and far more of a danger, and I think it played very little constructive part in the Indo-Pakistani confrontation. I think it backed off in a way that would have been even more rapid had the nuclear question not befuddled the issue that was being addressed at that time.

CONAN: Amartya Sen, I can't thank you enough for joining us today. We appreciate it.

Dr. SEN: Thank you very much, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and author most recently of "The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity." He joined us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston.

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