Owning Amartya-da

The Nobel Prize is a pampered institution. Nobel laureates more so. So when Amartya Sen won this year´s "Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences", the tom-tomming of his achievement hardly came as a surprise. But what was exasperating was the way those who had nothing remotely to do with Sen fell over one another to own his legacy. If Indians were more than proud that one of "us" had attained the "ultimate" award, the Bengali Indians went absolutely wild over "our" Amartya Da. Not to be outdone, the Bangladeshis went about reminding everyone that the "amiable" Amartya Sen had spent his first 12 years on their soil. As for the politically inclined, both the right and the left found ample proof in Sen´s works that he was one of them. Amartya euphoria stretched to ridiculous levels. A Calcutta caterer cashed in by declaring: "We´re proud to have served food at his daughter´s wedding." A Bangladeshi participant on an Internet discussion group revealed pearls of information about the house Sen had lived in during his Dhaka days: "The present owner of the house is Mr Amanullah…The original structural design of the house has not been altered much except for receiving a few coat of paints." Then there were the new-born babies who now will have to live up to their "Amartya" moniker (hopefully without the marital disasters of the thrice-married economist). Deification was also part of the mania. In Calcutta, India´s Nobel cradle, puja pandals were erected in the name of Sen, with the protagonist looking more dishevelled than ever.

The Indian and Bangladeshi media boasted to all who wanted to know that it was the father of all Indian Nobel laureates, Rabindranath Tagore, who had christened Amartya. The most cloying compliment came from the prominent Indian weekly, Outlook, which called him a "prophet". Another Indian weekly, Sunday, was not too far behind in the superlative game, unabashedly trumpeting that "the world´s greatest economist is an Indian".

For Bangladesh´s Daily Star newspaper, Sen was right up there with the likes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But more important was the West Bengal-Bangladesh connection. Said the paper: "The announcement of his winning the prize sent waves of joy around the Subcontinent…but the celebrations paled in comparison to the pride and sense of achievement that had swept across West Bengal and Bangladesh."

Now to the man himself; how gung-ho is he about his roots? Well, disappointingly enough, this is what Sen had to say to The Asian Age : "I think it would be pompous and arrogant to think it is a great credit to Bengal, Bangladesh or India. I would have to be aggressively self-confident to take that view."

Meanwhile, among the many bouquets that Sen received, there were also a few brickbats. Some accused him of indulging in jargon-ridden economics which does not have the possibility of ushering in social change. The harshest critic was Gene Epstein writing for the investment weekly, Barron´s: "I see scant evidence of the brilliance that so impressed the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and far more of the mind-rot that is so characteristic of academic economists." (see longer excerpt below)

It is indeed tempting to call Amartya Sen, first and foremost, a South Asian. But it would still be hard to believe that a region´s greatness depends on the number of Nobel laureates, especially when a strong bias within the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for the GangaBrahmaputra delta regions leave the rest of the Subcontinent in a Nobel drought.

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Himal Southasian