Saturday, February 7, 2015

Ramachandra Guha on the Narcissism of our Scholars and Scientists

The Staggering Vanity of India's Powerful
Ramachandra Guha
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian, biographer, author of, among other books, Gandhi before India, A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian history of a British sport and India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy.)

After Narendra Modi's recent meeting with Barack Obama, there was some criticism of his wearing a suit whose stripes spelt out his own name. The criticism was not unmerited; it was a tawdry, tacky, thing to do. Yet Modi's expensive display of self-love was entirely characteristic of how powerful and successful Indian males tend to behave in public.
Consider this. India's most famous and highly decorated scientist is C.N.R. Rao, a Fellow of the world's most prestigious scientific academies, and a recipient of his country's highest honour, the Bharat Ratna. Some years ago, an admirer decided to lobby the Bangalore Municipality to name the circle outside the Indian Institute of Science (of which Rao had been director) after the great man. Now circles and roads are normally not named after living people. But here was C.N.R. Rao in the flesh, actually present when a circle named after him was being inaugurated.
Next only to Rao in the hierarchy of Indian science is R.A. Mashelkar. Mashelkar is a former director general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and much else. He has not, so far as I know, had a circle or building named after himself. Yet his conduct in public is scarcely less boastful, as witness his editorial in a recent issue of the journal, Current Science. Entitled '"Indovation" for affordable excellence', it is mostly about the author himself. In a mere couple of pages we are told of a paper by Mashelkar in the Harvard Business Review which "provoked worldwide discussion" and was the subject of a "special session" at the World Economic Forum; that a TED lecture he gave "has received more than half a million views and has been subtitled in 23 languages"; that Mashelkar is the president of something called the Global Research Alliance; that the European Union invited him to give a talk to "an audience of around 2000"; that when he was director general of the CSIR he set up "a public-private partnership called New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative".
Mashelkar's article runs so contrary to the spirit of science that I wonder how it was accepted for publication. How did the editor of Current Science allow the essay to pass without major cuts and changes? Either the editor is plain incompetent, or, what is more likely, too intimidated by Mashelkar's reputation and influence to have asked him to revise his essay.
Founded by C.V. Raman, Current Science is modelled on the American journal, Science, and the British journal, Nature. Like them, it publishes original scientific papers as well as shorter commentaries, book reviews, and obituaries. But one would never find in Nature or Science editorials remotely as self-promoting as this. As he was crafting his essay, did Mashelkar not realize that this was not a self-written Wikipedia entry or a funding application but in fact a scholarly editorial in what is presumed to be the flagship journal of a nation's scientific community? Reading Mashelkar's editorial in Current Science, I was reminded of a story involving the great British-born biologist, J.B.S. Haldane. In the 1950s, Haldane embraced Indian citizenship, and set up a laboratory at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta. One of his students bored him with stories about his impending marriage, his family lineage, and his own academic record. At last Haldane held up a hand, and remarked: "You only talk about yourself. But science begins with an interest in the world outside yourself." To be sure, not all Indian scientists are as boastful as Rao or Mashelkar. One of my own intellectual heroes is the late Obaid Siddiqi, who founded theNational Centre for Biological Sciences, arguably India's most high quality scientific laboratory. Siddiqi, who combined intellectual brilliance with personal rectitude, recruited a team of gifted young scientists and then left them the institute to run. He nurtured an atmosphere of egalitarianism in the NCBS, where juniors could fearlessly challenge seniors and where honorifics such as 'Sir', 'Professor'. were rigorously eschewed. Sadly, not many Indian scientists are cut of the same cloth as Obaid Siddiqi. In their youth, C.N.R. Rao and R.A. Mashelkar undoubtedly did first-rate scientific work. But, rather than allow younger people to take over scientific leadership as they themselves grew older, they consolidated their own position and power. Worse still, they encouraged flattery and chamchagiri, as manifested most spectacularly in Rao allowing a circle to be named after him.
Where our scientists go, our social scientists can scarcely be far behind. Consider the conduct in this regard of the two most influential economists of Indian extraction, Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen. Educated Indians know their names, and know also that they have been involved in a long-running debate about economic policy. Bhagwati is a proponent of the free market, and of opening out the economy to foreign investment and foreign competition. Sen thinks that distribution is as important as growth, and places greater emphasis on the role of the State in nurturing human capital. At the level of political influence, Sen was highly regarded by Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Council, whereas Bhagwati is much admired by Narendra Modi.
These intellectual and ideological differences have led to the construction of Bhagwati and Sen as rivals and adversaries. But there is one thing that unites Bhagwati and Sen- both are still living, and yet both, like the scientist C.N.R. Rao, have had things named after themselves. Bhagwati has taught for many years at Columbia University, which now has a Jagdish Bhagwati Chair in Political Economy, occupied by Bhagwati's co-author and protege, Arvind Panagriya. Meanwhile, the Indian Council of Social Science Research has endowed annual Amartya Sen Prizes for Excellence, these handed out at a ceremony presided over by Amartya Sen himself.
B.R. Ambedkar famously said that hero-worship is antithetical to the democratic spirit. This is true in politics, and perhaps even more so in the sphere of science. Respect for senior scholars for what they have achieved is fine; but when respect shades into deference and even reverence, it is not conducive to independent and original thinking. No wonder that Indian universities and research institutions lag so far behind in global rankings.
While drafting this column, I was discussing its argument with a friend, who asked whether, like C.N.R. Rao, the cricketer Anil Kumble was present at the naming of a circle after him in Bangalore. I answered that I did not know, but in any case one did not hold sportsmen to the ethical or aesthetic standards that scholars or scientists were supposed to adhere to. One of Jagdish Bhagwati's own close friends and former colleagues is Robert Solow. When Solow (arguably the world's greatest living economist) was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did someone else at the MIT hold the Robert Solow Chair in Political Economy? Like Amartya Sen, Martin Rees was once Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. But does that distinguished British astronomer annually hand out Martin Rees Prizes for Scientific Excellence? These were -are -the pertinent questions, and I suspect that in each case the answer is "No".
In allowing (or encouraging) things to be named after themselves, C.N.R. Rao, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati have not done anything that is illegal. What they have done is not even immoral. But it is unquestionably in poor taste.
Which brings me back to Narendra Modi and the suit he wore with his own name on it. In societies whose spirit and form are egalitarian, or where the aesthetic ethos is one of refined understatement, what he did would be completely out of place. But in a country where hero worship is so ubiquitous, where the vanity of the powerful and the famous is so staggeringly large, it was an entirely normal thing to do. When India's top scholars and scientists are so flagrantly narcissistic, one must not be too harsh on a self-made, semi-educated, political leader for being so.

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