About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.



My Friend Sancho

My first book, My Friend Sancho, was published in May 2009, and went on to become the biggest selling debut novel released that year in India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and had earlier been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


My posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner




The India Uncut Blog

15 October, 2017

Two Dreams

This is the 53rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I, ECONOMY

I had a strange dream the other night.
I happened to get into a fight.
Modiji bashing me,
Jaitleyji smashing me,
As they both said, ‘Hey, you look alright!’

JUDICIAL OVERREACH

I had a strange dream the other day.
A High Court judge came to me to say,
“Amit, you are so fat.
We will have to fix that.
Please stop eating crackers right away.”

*

And here’s a bonus limerick for the MAMI film festival that’s going on now:

FILM FESTIVAL

Chacha is banal. Chachi’s a drain.
Bua and Phoofa are such a pain.
Sasuma brings me grief,
But I have found relief:
This week I am on the MAMI train.

Posted at 8:10 AM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

08 October, 2017

The GST Rhymes

This is the 52nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

GST 1

I had been giving Jaitley some grief.
So he came home to give me relief.
“Amit bhai, kem chho bro?
You will be glad to know,
Khakras are now cheap beyond belief!”

GST 2

My CA said, while doing billing,
“Accountants are making a killing.
You are going berserk
With all the paperwork,
But hey, my life is so fulfilling!”

Earlier…

Posted at 9:48 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

01 October, 2017

The Fall Guy (and the Stampede)

This is the 51st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FALL GUY

Yashwant-bhai told me, quite sedately,
“Amit, have you seen the news lately?
Our nation has been shamed.
Modiji can’t be blamed,
So I will blame it all on Jaitley.”

ELPHINSTONE

There is more to Mumbai than the rain.
Human life keeps going down the drain.
Just another stampede
That will never impede
Our rush towards a grand bullet train.

Posted at 6:33 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

24 September, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Limericks

The 50th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India, appeared today. I might be the only person in the world who gets paid for writing limericks, and the credit for this section has to go to Neelam Raaj, the editor at the Sunday ToI who saw me messing around with limericks on Twitter and asked me to write some for their columns page. I’ve never seen any other newspaper in the world run verse on their edit page, so this is a bold conception to begin with, and would never have occurred to me.

Until then, I’d been doing it for fun, but once you start getting paid for it, and published on a platform like that, you need to take it seriously. No guidelines existed, though: many folks—including Shakespeare—had tried the form, and a handful (like Ogden Nash) did some amazing work in it, but limericks have been more lighthearted bar-room amusement than a serious form. I would have to be my own guide. So, within a few weeks, I formulated the following set of three rules for myself.

1. The basic form of a the limerick must be sacrosanct. A limerick is not just a rhyme scheme of aabba, but also a syllable scheme of 99669. (One can do TT66T or 99559, but this pattern is important for the musicality that distinguishes limericks) I didn’t care about this when I would write them for Twitter, but decided that it was important to be disciplined about this.

2. The limerick should contain normal sentences with perfect grammar. They should not only be musical when read aloud, but also normal sentences that would not sound not out of place in conversation. As a nod to one poetic convention, I capitalise the beginning of each of the five lines. But the grammar otherwise is as it would be in prose. (This capitalisation is also necessary because it appears in a narrow column on the ToI page,and the longer lines sometimes get broken in two. The capitals indicate where each of the five limerick lines begin for someone who is reading it for the first time and may not be familiar with the form.)

3. The content of the limerick has to be worth putting out there even as prose. That is, the limerick needs to say something that would be worth saying even if it hadn’t been crafted into this form. A limerick should never have the sole purpose of saying, ‘Look Ma, I can rhyme!’ Indeed, guidelines 1 and 2 above are the easy part. So whether it’s a quip or satire or serious commentary, it should stand on its own, outside the form.

I’ve attempted to use this form not just for light-hearted quips, but also for serious commentary. Sometimes, I’ve blown it, especially with regards to 3, but at least I know what I don’t like about those. Equally, I’ve sometimes messed it up even after getting all three guidelines right because I chose a non-musical sentence construction, like the time I put three stresses one after another. (This is called a Molossus.) Iambic works best, and when one deviates, one should know why.

So yeah, a lot of effort goes into making it look easy. That said, writing verse is a de-stresser for me, and thus the opposite of any other writing I do. Rhyme & Reason is a work on progress, so I hope it keeps getting better. You can check out the archives here.

Posted at 11:07 AM by Amit Varma in Personal

Mentally Deranged

This is the 50th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I WAS THERE!

There’s a TV anchor with much flair.
He was caught lying. There was fanfare.
What’s the point of this rage?
This is the post-truth age.
Super Arnab can be everywhere.

MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR

Kim said Trump is mentally deranged.
Expect more insults to be exchanged.
I suggest, to stop doom,
Those two should get a room.
They sound like lovers who are estranged.

Posted at 5:04 AM by Amit Varma in India | Media | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

22 September, 2017

The Paradox of Democracy

This is the 42nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Many political parties are great at campaigning and winning elections. They all botch up governance. Here is why.

I just finished reading How the BJP Wins, an excellent book by the journalist Prashant Jha on the BJP election machine. It left me in awe of Narendra Modi’s political talent and Amit Shah’s management skills. Between them, they crafted a narrative that had wide resonance, constructed a masterplan based on reconfiguring caste alliances, and put together a ground game with booth-level granularity that won the BJP election after election. They redefined political campaigning in India, and the book deserves to be a case study on how to win elections. And as I finished the book, I was left with a disturbing question:

Why is it that the same group of men who are so good at campaigning are so bad at governing?

This is not a partisan question. Every party that has ever been in power in India has aced the campaigning (after all, they won) and provided appalling governance. The problem here is not competence: the BJP showed immense intelligence, ingenuity, will power and hard work on the campaign trail. The problem here is incentives.

The incentives of a party fighting elections are straightforward: they want to win the elections. The spoils of power are tempting, and everyone works hard. But once they come to power, their incentives are not quite so straightforward.

Consider the two things they needed to come to power: money and votes. Let’s start with money. All democratic politics is about the interplay between power and money. You need humungous amounts of money to win elections. Special interest groups or wealthy individuals provide this money. They do it as an investment, not out of benevolence. And when their horse wins, they want an RoI. They used money to buy power; now they want the power to be used to make them money.

So the first incentive for a politician is to make money for the people who gave him money. It’s as crude as that. In a local election, this could mean that a contractor funds a party so he gets pothole repair contracts from them once they come to power. (And of course, he messes up the repairs so he gets another contract the next year.) At a national level, it means policies that affect crores of people get framed to benefit certain funders.

For example, small traders have traditionally been a strong support base of the BJP. What do small traders want? They want to be protected from competition. How does this reflect in the BJP’s policies? They have traditionally been against Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail. What is the impact of keeping FDI out of retail? Less competition, and therefore less value for consumers. So this notional value that the consumer loses, where does it go? To the small trader, naturally. Basically, the government redistributed wealth from common consumers to a special interest group, all no doubt with rhetoric that sounds noble.

At an individual level, think of the big industrialists who backed this government, and the many ways in which the government pays them back will become obvious: the infrastructure projects, the defence contracts, and a million little invisible favours.

Besides funders, the politician in power has to keep voters happy. Specifically, he has to please those particular vote banks that brought him to power. This can happen through direct patronage. It can happen through policies that seem to benefit the vote bank in question. Note that policies that appear compassionate might actually be harmful in the long run.

For example, farmers are a big vote bank. But the average farmer will prefer mai-baap benevolence to deep structural reforms. Imagine a politician telling a farmer: “I will remove the minimum support price, remove all price controls, and abolish APMCs. Like it?” Ya, I know. Forget it and give the loan waiver already.

All politics, therefore, amounts to bribery. Whatever you do in terms of governance is not to make sure the nation is better off, but to give RoI to your investors, and inducements to your voters. Governance does not sell.

Government, of course, does not consist only of politicians but also of bureaucrats. Their incentives are aligned towards increasing their own budgets and power. To the extent that they are rent-seekers, they want to expand the scope of that as well. Why would anyone stop a gravy train they are on?

This, then, is what I call the Paradox of Democracy. A party that needs to win elections can never govern well because it needs to win elections again. And it does this by redistributing wealth from all of its citizens to some of them. I rarely quote myself, but I can’t resist ending this column with a limerick I once wrote:

POLITICS

A neta who loves currency notes
Told me what his line of work denotes.
‘It is kind of funny.
We steal people’s money
And use some of it to buy their votes.’

*

Also read:

Politics = Bribery
The Great Redistribution

Posted at 3:43 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Inside the BJP Machine

This book review was first published in Pragati.

Prashant Jha’s book, How the BJP Wins, is an incisive look at how Narendra Modi and Amit Shah transformed Indian politics.

India is polarised when it comes to evaluating Narendra Modi’s performance, but unanimous on the subject of his political talent. Whether you love him or loathe him, it is clear that Modi has changed the landscape of Indian politics. This did not happen by accident. Prashant Jha’s book, How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine, aims to reveal the method behind the madness.

The BJP’s rise in the last few years has, in Jha’s words, “altered politics, created new social coalitions, dissolved older fault lines, generated new conflicts, empowered some, alienated others and is having a profound impact on state institutions.” Jha, without taking sides or getting into ideology or governance, aims to demystify the electoral machine that Modi and Amit Shah built. He does an exceptional job, travelling widely, speaking to many insiders and resisting the temptation to editorialise.

Despite being written so soon after the UP elections, which features prominently in this book, it is no quickie. It contains deep insights into how the BJP planned and executed its ascent, divided into these five areas.

One: The Narrative

Over the years, Modi has redefined himself from a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ to a ‘Vikas Purush’ to a ‘Garibon ka Neta.’ It is hard enough to build a successful brand once, but Modi has managed to redefine himself time and again, adding new layers to his appeal without losing the old ones. How does he do it? Well, consider that all of the three formulations above depend on simplistic binaries. That simplicity is the key.

Jha writes, in the context of Demonetisation, though this could hold in any other context:

[Modi] distils the most important policy decision of the times in simple, accessible terms. He frames it as a binary between right and wrong. He projects himself as the man fighting the good battle, on the side of the people, victimized by the bad guys. But while willing to fight, he also positions himself as a leader who can throw it all away, for he has no vested interests, nothing to lose. He also acknowledges the pain, but taps into the sense of righteousness, the sense of sacrifice and makes citizens feel they are participants in a great national mission, distinct from the prosaic and banal.

Jha breaks down one of Modi’s speeches in Moradabad to show how masterfully it is constructed. As contrast, he describes a speech by Rahul Gandhi in Bareilly that is not just complicated but also incoherent:

Instead of keeping the story simple, he added too many elements to it and complicated it for the crowd. After throwing in China, Himachal Pradesh, apples, Obamaji, he focussed on Bareilly’s own specialisation – this was clearly not the most effective way to explain a simple point.

Messaging matters, and Modi nailed it, not just by perfecting a simple, explicable message, but also by broadcasting it better than his opponents could manage. Consider how he continued so many of the UPA’s welfare schemes and claimed them as successes of his own administration. “Welfare delivery may or may not be sharper,” writes Jha, “but it is, as an observer put it, louder.”

Two: The Ground Game

Jha describes Modi and Shah as “ruthlessly expansionist, in terms of both territorial limits and social base.” One of the seminal moments in the BJP’s history was surely when Shah was appointed as the BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh. He asked the RSS for reinforcements, and they sent over “a rising organisation talent” Sunil Bansal. Bansal became Shah’s right-hand man, and together, they set about understanding UP.

In Bansal’s words, Shah “only got charge of UP in 2013. But within six months, he had travelled to every corner of the state. He knew issues in each region. He knew which leader fit in where.”

Shah and Bansal soon identified “six issues that were dominant in popular consciousness – law and order, women’s safety, corruption, jobs, migration and ‘appeasement.’” They narrowed this down to two, and came up with the slogan, Na gundaraj, na Bhrashtachar/ Is baar Bhajapa Sarkar.

Getting the messaging right is well and good, but how do you get it across, and how do you get people to the voting booth after that? Shah and Bansal set about revamping the organisation with stunning granularity, picking teams for each of the 147,000 booths in the state, fixing targets and responsibilities for each individual in the chain of command, including in terms of recruitment. Shah set a crazy target of getting one crore new BJP members, and “by 31 March 2015, the BJP had 1.8 crore new members in the state.” (Both the means and the number itself are dubious, but that’s part of the game.)

“Between August 2014 and March 2017,” writes Jha, “Shah travelled to almost every Indian state twice, covering over 5 lakh kilometres, to understand, supervise and direct party units.” As the chapter entitled ‘Shah’s Sangathan’ makes clear, Shah did not travel so much to micro-manage, but to put processes in place. Every cog of the machine had to function smoothly and in consonance with the others. Only then would it pull off the social engineering that Shah knew was required to win elections.

Three: Reconfiguring Caste

The chapter titled ‘Social Engineering’ is the most fascinating in Jha’s book. India votes on the basis of identity, and the caste landscape of UP seemed insurmountable for the BJP. But Shah “is slowly transforming the BJP into a party of the less privileged castes, while retaining the support of the privileged” – and UP is a fantastic case study of this.

How could the BJP move from being ‘a relatively exclusivist Hindu party’ to ‘an inclusive Hindu party’? In Jha’s words, “By identifying the most dominant political caste (which is not necessarily synonymous with the most dominant social caste) in a particular setting, and mobilizing the less dominant against them, Shah is weaving together unprecedented social coalitions.”

Jha elaborates:

The calculation is simple. All Indian states are plural in their composition. With the rise of Mandal politics, assertion of OBCs and their mobilisation, the more numerically and socially dominant of these groups – from peasant backgrounds – have also become politically dominant. But precisely because of that, a range of other castes – both the traditionally powerful and the more marginalised – feel alienated. And thus, the trick is to mobilise these castes and construct a coalition against the dominant caste – which is, in the post-Mandal era, usually the numerically largest middle caste of the particular setting.
In Maharashtra, for example, the dominant political caste is the Marathas. The BJP had traditionally employed a pro-OBC strategy, and for the last assembly elections, they “stitched together an alliance of upper castes, OBCs and, to a lesser extent, Dalits.” It got 52% of the upper-caste vote and 38% pf the OBC vote – and swept to power.

In UP, Shah came up with ‘The 60% Formula.” He knew that Muslims (20% of UP’s population), Yadavs (10%, and loyal to the SP) and Jatavs (10%, loyal to the BSP) would not vote for them. That left them with “55 to 60% of the electoral playing field.” This meant upper castes, OBCs who resented the Yadavs, and Dalit sub-castes who resented the Jatavs, the elite among the Dalits who had cornered the gains of the previous BSP administration.

How would the BJP reposition itself to appeal to all these people? Its methodology had three components:

Changes in the party’s organisation structure to make it more inclusive; reformulation of its messaging, so that backward communities felt both a sense of victimhood and a sense of emancipation; and alliances with parties with a base among these communities, despite the BJP’s [recent] overwhelming dominance.

In 2014, Shah “got a quick survey done of the composition and structure of the party in UP. And to his shock, […] he discovered that among party office-bearers across the state – from Lucknow down to the district level – only 7% were OBCs and 3% were Dalits.”

This dominance of the party by Brahmans, Thakurs and Banias had been a traditional problem for the BJP. But how could the party be revamped without upsetting existing office bearers?

[Shah and Bansal] then figured a way out. The party could increase the number of positions instead of eating into the existing pie. Shah gave his go-ahead. This became the license for the party to increase positions at all levels in the party, especially for OBCs and Dalits. Twelve new office-bearers were added in each district. A hundred new members were added to the state executive committee. Those who remained office-bearers were not removed, which helped in mitigating resentment.

Within a few months, the BJP had “a pool of a thousand new OBC and Dalit leaders.” As many as 34 of the 75 district presidents were OBCs, with 3 from the scheduled castes. The president of the state BJP was also an OBC: Keshav Prasad Maurya.

The BJP went beyond tokenism, though. Jha quotes Badri Narayan, a scholar on the subject, as saying:

What Kanshi Ram did for Jatavs, the RSS and BJP are doing for the rest of the Dalits. They are helping create their community leaders. They are helping document their caste histories. They are exploring heroes of their community. They are inventing and celebrating their festivals. They are placing shakhas near Dalit bastis.

The BJP applied this formula across states, and the results were overwhelming. But through all this, it did not forget its roots.

Four: The Sangh Parivar

Speaking of the BJP and RSS as separate entities might be a false dichotomy. All of the BJP’s key leaders – Modi, Shah, Bansal, Maurya – are products of the Sangh. Modi and Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, are good friends.

Jha describes the RSS campaign in 2014 – as opposed to the BJP campaign – as “a much quieter, parallel campaign […], the invisible campaign we did not see.” The main driver of this campaign was Ram Madhav, a pracharak based in New Delhi. He brought both technology and a data-driven approach to the Sangh grassroots.

Madhav started by buying Lenovo tablets for all the regional pracharaks, and training them in how to use it. Then he supplied them with “detailed constituency-wise booklets for each candidate,” prepared by Prashant Kishore’s team, and granular voter data across constituencies prepared by Rajesh Jain. “This data was then used by the Sangh to do the quiet door-to-door campaigning, and work on voter mobilisation which was critical to bringing them out on polling day at the booth level.”

After 2014, Madhav moved on to an important role in the BJP, which goes to show that the BJP is the Sangh.

That said, the Sangh made it a point to stay in the background. As an elderly, anonymous pracharak told Jha:

Let me explain it to you in another way. A parent takes care of the child, educates him, helps him settle down, provides him a home, but doesn’t go around announcing it. [As for doing visible organisation work], that is not out work. […] Our work revolves around quiet sampark, contact, on a door-to-door basis – encouraging people to vote for a leader and a party which thinks of the nation, increases India’s prestige worldwide, improves the army’s morale and believes in vikas for all.

And ah, one more thing, which is the note that Jha ends his chapter on: “The two (BJP and the Sangh) remain integrated in their quest for Hindu unity, and Hindu rule.”

Five: Hindus vs Muslims

At one point in the book, Jha is in the Lucknow office of the BJP – 800 Whatsapp groups are run from there, by the way – and tells a party leader that much of the news they spread about Muslim atrocities is fake. The reply:

Bhai saheb, that does not matter. The point is to show we are the victims. This will get Hindus angry. They will then realise they have to unite against the Muslims.

This is party strategy, and I wonder whether it reflects the bigotry of the party, or an amoral supplier’s response to the bigotry that exists in his marketplace – society itself. Jha doesn’t address this – it is a feature of the book, not a bug, that he doesn’t get side-tracked by digressions – and he lays out many of the ways in which the BJP is trying not just to bring disparate castes together, but to eventually construct a unified Hindu vote. And the way to do this is by demonising the other – the Muslims of India.

Some of this messaging is direct and to the point, as in the case of Love Jihad, Kabristan-Shamshaan and KASAB (the Congress [KA], Samajwadi party [SA] and Bahujan Samaj Party [B], their enemies in UP). Some of it is via proxies, such as the Anti-Romeo squads (“actually the Anti-Salman Squad”) and the gauraksha rhetoric, which hit out at Muslim livelihoods. All of it is meant to construct a simplistic Hindu-Muslim binary, and thus consolidate the Hindu vote.

It has worked. Jha writes of how a newly elected BJP MLA from UP explained his victory: “It was an India-Pakistan election.”

The Challenge Ahead

Jha ends his book with chapters on the BJP’s spread beyond North India and musings on its future. The key challenge before the BJP is this: their expanded electoral base means that they now represent multitudes, and contain contradictions. How long can the BJP claim to represent the interests of such a diverse collection of people? Surely at some point, something will give.

The largeness of the BJP’s social coalition holds an opportunity for the opposition, which is blowing it. Here’s what Jha writes about Rahul Gandhi (early in the book, and not in this context):

Rahul Gandhi did not appeal to the Lucknow Bania, he did not appeal to the Gorakhpur Thakur, he did not appeal to the Moradabad Dalit, he did not appeal to the Bundelkhand Brahman, he did not appeal to the Allahabad Kushwaha, he did not appeal to the Muzaffarnagar Jat, he did not appeal to the Saharanpur Saini. He did not appeal to the rich trader, he did not appeal to the middle-class teacher, he did not appeal to the young man who works as a taxi driver in Delhi and had returned home to vote, he did not appeal to the farmer with marginal landholdings, he did not appeal to the woman who was below the poverty line, he did not appeal to a college student now ready for the job market.

In other words, Gandhi is the opposite of Modi, diminishing the Congress as much as Modi and Shah have grown the BJP. Things change very fast in politics, of course, and nothing can be taken for granted. The BJP can be beaten – but before that, one must understand how they won to begin with. Jha’s book is an excellent guide.

Here’s a thought…

While reading Jha’s book, I was filled with awe for the BJP’s election machine. And it struck me, what if Modi and Shah put as much effort into governance as they do into campaigning? This country would be transformed. But they won’t – and it’s worth reflecting on why that is the case.

Posted at 2:25 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics

10 September, 2017

Death of a Writer

This is the 49th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THE KILLERS

What is the difference between ISIS
And home-grown terrorists? It is this:
ISIS takes full credit
For the crimes they commit.
Our boys are cowards in the abyss.

IMMORTAL

It’s not easy to kill a writer.
Get dry wood, fuel, cigarette lighter.
Flick a switch, set a fire.
She will merely perspire.
Words live forever, you can’t fight her.

Posted at 5:37 AM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

01 September, 2017

Agarkar’s Donkeys: A Meditation on God

This is the 41st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

It should be our default position that God does not exist, all believers are delusional and all godmen are frauds.

Dear readers, let me begin this column with a question for you: “If donkeys were to paint their own God, what do you think the picture would be like?”

This question was asked in the late-1880s in a classroom in Fergusson College in Poona, where Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, the second principal of that institution, was giving a lecture on logic. What would the Donkey God look like? Agarkar answered his question silently, raising both his hands above his ears and shaking them.

Agarkar was an atheist and a rationalist, and the institution he built carried that reputation as well. The anecdote above is from BR Nanda’s biography of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and also mentions the time a gentleman named VR Shinde introduced himself as “a Fergussonian” to the Christian reformer, Pandita Ramabai. Her response: “Oh! You come from that Atmosphere of Atheism!”

I graduated from Fergusson College more than two decades ago, and though I am an atheist now, I didn’t have an opinion on the subject of God at the time. There was certainly no Atmosphere of Atheism then, and I suspect that while there has been much progress since Agarkar’s time, his views would be as unpopular today as they were then. We have made wonderful progress thanks to technology, but the human brain is one gadget that cannot be upgraded. It fell into its current design in prehistoric times, and there have been no updates since. Many modules that were features then are bugs now, including a propensity to construct (or be drawn towards) simple narratives that help you navigate a complex world. Religion is the perfect app for that ecosystem.

I wrote about atheism in the very first installment of Lighthouse, this column for BLink. I won’t repeat myself here, but in these days of resurgent religion and gimmicky godmen, here are five things I have to say that I think the good Mr Agarkar would agree with.

One: There is no God. By this, I am taking a default scientific position on everything: unless something can be proven to exist, the default position is that it does not. The existence of God, in many shapes and sizes, has been asserted for millennia without any evidence. The burden of proof is on those who say that God exists, not on those who claim otherwise. (You cannot prove a negative.) Thus, atheism is the common-sense default position, and not something radical.

I should point out here that when I say There is no God, I do not mean There is definitely no God. Instead, I mean There is no God, unless proven otherwise. Please think for a moment about this subtle difference: Atheism is not a belief that there is no God, but an absence of belief in God.

This is an important distinction because it answers those who classify atheism as a belief system just like religion. As a letter writer to the Economist put it many years ago, atheism is no more a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Two: If there was a God, he’d be a terrible, immoral God, worthy of our contempt. Everything that happens in the universe would be caused by Him. Every rape, every murder, all the suffering of starving infants, all the pain. It doesn’t matter how you justify it, if God exists, he’s a sadist creep. Richard Dawkins once described the God of the Old Testament in terms that would, more or less, fit all Gods:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirst ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Three: All religious people are delusional by definition. This follows from point one. It is problematic that you believe in something that cannot be proven. It is pathetic that you reside this belief in someone else’s imaginary friend. At least have an original delusion.

It astonishes me that religious belief is actually looked upon a prerequisite for high office. It should be a disqualifier. Even in the USA, for all the hoopla about the first black president, I wait for the day they have an openly atheist president. There was recent praise for a Supreme Court judgement in India by a five-member bench where each judge belonged to a separate religion. If they were all believers, then this only means that they were delusional in different ways. Big deal.

Four: All Godmen are frauds. Don’t fall for the false dichotomy of good godmen and bad godmen, where the bad ones are rapists and paedophiles, while the good ones are sophisticated and gentle. They are all frauds. They are delusional to begin with – unless their piousness is also faked – and masters at mass manipulation. They all use other human beings as a means to an end, and are therefore on the same moral plane. They all deserve our contempt.

Five: We don’t need God to be moral. The ‘morality’ that comes from religion is morality for the wrong reasons. We do certain things because we want to belong in a group. We behave in a particular way because we want to go to heaven or earn good karma, in which case our behaviour is an instrument towards a selfish purpose, and not an end in itself. The best kind of morality arises from reason. It can come from empathy for others. It can come from self-interest, for we are all in this together. (This is a subject for a whole different piece, actually.)

To end this column, here’s a thought experiment inspired by Agarkar’s donkeys: If we make God in our own image, what would your God look like – and what would that say about you? I can easily imagine mine. He would be an atheist God, lacking self-belief, horrified at His own actions. He would also wonder who created Him.

*

Also read: A Godless Congregation.

Posted at 12:21 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse

27 August, 2017

Rights and Riots

This is the 48th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PRIVACY

The Supreme Court upheld our birthright.
I jumped with joy. I screamed with delight,
“Governments, leave us alone!
We are fine on our own!
You are nothing but a parasite.”

RIOTS

There are mobs out there on the rampage.
We must not give in to their outrage.
To crush them is our task,
But we must also ask,
What is the deeper cause of their rage?

Posted at 3:25 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

20 August, 2017

The Wheel Turns

This is the 47th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THE WHEEL TURNS

Sikka is great, everyone chanted.
They hailed Mistry, and then recanted.
Whoever is to blame,
The lesson is the same:
Never take anything for granted.

EK PREM KATHA

I said to my love, “How do you do?
I will build a toilet just for you.”
She gave me one tight slap,
And said, “Bro, cut the crap.
First get swachh yourself. Until then, boo!”

Posted at 4:33 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

13 August, 2017

Searching For Macho

This is the 46th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

SEARCH

Once I was searching for a torrent,
When a woman who was abhorrent
Popped up in front of me,
As naked as can be,
And said, “Sir, where is your search warrant?”

MACHO

Donald Trump was mad at Mister Kim.
He said, “I am more MACHO than him.
I have ORANGE aplomb.
I also have a BOMB.
I can do ANYTHING on a whim.”

Posted at 8:33 AM by Amit Varma in Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

06 August, 2017

Immortal Mishtake

This is the 45th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

NO AADHAAR

A friend told me, “You need Aadhaar, mate,
If you want a death certificate.
You just can’t get away.”
I jumped and said, “Hurray!
I will live forever at this rate.”

MISHTAKE

Sushmaji told Modi, “What a scam!
How could you gift away our Doklam?”
Modi said, “Galti se,
I just gave it away.
I thought they wanted dhokla. Goddamn!”

Posted at 11:28 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

04 August, 2017

Misogyny is the Oldest Indian Tradition

This is the 40th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Women are treated as the property of men in India. This is not merely reflected in our culture, but is enshrined in our laws.

Early last year, a 13-year-old girl was raped in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. In October, she gave birth to a child. A month ago, she married her rapist. Or rather, she was married off to her rapist. Village elders intervened and felt that to be the honourable course of action.

This is not new, and this anecdote will soon be statistic. Rape victims have been married off to their rapists before. The thinking behind this: now that the girl is ‘damaged goods’, no one will marry her, so why not let the onus fall upon the man who ‘damaged’ her. It’s almost as if a man walks into a shop and breaks a vase, and is then forced to buy it. Who else will buy the vase?

The key word in the paragraph above is not ‘damaged’ but ‘goods’. In India, women are treated as the property of men. It is not only backward villages in the hinterland where this attitude exists – it is enshrined in our laws. I ask you to consider Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code:

497. Adultery

Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall be punishable as an abettor.

The italics are mine. Consider the words without the consent or connivance of that man. As if a woman’s husband is her owner, and you are wronging him by sleeping with her – even if she consents, which would be a crime on her part.

Now take a look at another law from the IPC:

498. Enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman

Whoever takes or entices away any woman who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of any other man, from that man, or from any person having the care of her on behalf of that man, with intent that she may have illicit intercourse with any person, or conceals or detains with that intent any such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Again, the woman’s consent doesn’t matter, as per this law. Two consenting adults could have sex, and it would qualify as a crime on the woman’s husband. (And not the man’s wife, mind you, showing that it is not marriage that is the issue here but gender.)

This misogyny is common in our laws, but you could argue that the IPC is a colonial relic from Victorian times. We Indians treat our women well. Nonsense. Treating women as property is an old Indian tradition, and finds reflection in our epics. In the Mahabharata, for example, Yudhishthir gambles Draupadi away, as if she is not an autonomous human being but his possession. Read up on the way Kunti, Amba, Gandhari and Madri were treated, and you will see that their fates were never in their own hands. (I recommend reading Irawati Karve’s Yuganta for her brilliant analysis of how the Mahabharata treated women.) And don’t get me started on the Ramayana, and Ram’s treatment of Sita.

This attitude percolates down to modern-day India. Reports on rapes will often mention the marital status of the woman, especially if she was a newlywed. (Do a Google search for “housewife raped.”) This carries the implication that the crime is more serious than if she was single, because it is also a crime against the man she was married to.

This is not an attitude only villagers have. A few years ago, the cultured, well-to-do (and repugnant) Tarun Tejpal, in an email to the woman he was alleged to have raped, offered to apologise to her boyfriend. Why? If he had committed a crime against her, why on earth should be apologise to her boyfriend? What kind of patriarchal nonsense was that? (Perpetuating patriarchy and purple prose are the least of the notorious Tejpal’s sins, of course.)

And just look at Bollywood. The Bollywood hero is the perfect archetype for the entitled Indian male. Most Bollywood wooing is basically sexual harassment. You could argue about whether popular culture reflects society or shapes it, but they amount to the same thing.

This dehumanising of women – as a means to satisfy various male urges – might account for our skewed sex ratios. If girls are looked upon as a liability, no wonder the rates of female foeticide are so high. At one level, there is even a perverse rationale to this: why give birth to a girl child in one of the most misogynist countries in the world?

There has been much posturing from our governments – not just the current one – about how much they care for our women. I call it Patriarchal Paternalism. #SelfieWithDaughter is just optics, and all the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojanas of the world will amount to just talk unless things change at a fundamental level. Social change does take time, and will not happen overnight. But the government could make a start by changing some of our ludicrous, outdated laws, like the ones mentioned earlier in this piece. Do you think that will happen?

Posted at 2:55 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse

Beware of the Useful Idiots

This editorial by me appeared today in Pragati.

Many of the intellectuals who supported Narendra Modi in 2014 should have realised their mistake by now. They haven’t. Here is why.

Almost a century ago, Vladimir Lenin is said to have coined the term ‘Useful Idiots.’ The term referred to those intellectuals or eminent people who gave a movement respectability by association, but weren’t actually respected within the movement itself. RationalWiki defines a Useful Idiot as “someone who supports one side of an ideological debate, but who is manipulated and held in contempt by the leaders of their faction or is unaware of the ultimate agenda driving the ideology to which they subscribe.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. Useful Idiots abounded in Lenin and Stalin’s time – many were sent to the Gulag once their utility diminished – and authoritarian despots since, from Hitler to Mao to Chavez – have had their own set. And of course, if you live in India in 2017, there are Useful Idiots here as well.

I want to make it clear that I am not referring to any of the people I mention in this essay as idiots. I will use the term ‘Useful Idiot’ only in the sense outlined above. Some of the Useful Idiots that will come to mind are accomplished individuals, even giants of their field, and their behaviour is as much poignant as it is deplorable. Some of them are people I admired or liked, and as I look at them, it strikes me that in a parallel universe, I could be in their shoes. We are all frail.

Act 1: The Longing for Better Days

When Narendra Modi spoke of Achhe Din, it had enormous resonance for many people. Here are things reasonable people can agree on: India had been ravaged by over six decades of mostly Congress rule; the bad economic policies of Nehru (otherwise a great leader) and Indira had kept us in poverty for decades longer than we should have; government was basically a mafia, and we were ruled by a kleptocracy rather than served by public-spirited statesmen; the ‘liberalisation’ of 1991, forced upon us by a balance-of-payments crisis, had helped but only a little, as many reforms remained to be done; the current dispensation did not show the will to make reforms; the people of India languished as a parasitic beast called government sucked us dry.

In every tunnel, the eye searches for light. It was easy to be seduced by Modi’s rhetoric. (Much of that rhetoric – ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ – came from outside intellectuals, and not inner conviction.) It was tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt for the riots of 2002 – after all, it is a liberal principle that a man is innocent until pronounced guilty. It was tempting to see him as the messiah.

I am not saying that the beliefs above are correct. (I myself did not hold them, and was undecided.) I am saying that they are reasonable. It was reasonable to look at 67 years of opportunity cost and ask, What could be worse? It was reasonable to look at the derelict UPA government and ask, What could be worse? I would even say that it was reasonable to recognise that things could indeed be worse under Modi, but consider it a chance worth taking.

With the benefit of hindsight, I feel it is unfair to gloat about the people who got this wrong, as they clearly did. Anyone can be wrong once. But to be wrong repeatedly, when all the facts are before you, when the stakes are so high, is unpardonable.

Many of those who supported Modi did so assuming that the social wing of the Hindutva movement would be kept in check while long-awaited economic reforms would happen. The eminent economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya voiced their support of Modi. (Their books contain an excellent diagnosis of India’s condition, as well as a road map for the future.) Many people on the ‘economic right’ (more on this phraseology later) walked into his camp. Modi got a resounding victory, and had the mandate he needed to carry out sweeping changes. He did nothing.

Act 2: Mugged by Reality

I outlined, in a keynote speech I gave a few months ago, all the evident failings of Modi’s government since 2014. I don’t want to spend too much time on them, so a brief summary: no reforms; a move leftwards to a Nehruvian command-and-control view of the economy; a continuation (and even expansion) of most of the flawed schemes of the previous government, often with fancy name changes; maximum government, minimum governance; a rollout of GST, which they had earlier opposed, with so many slabs and exemptions that it was a wet dream for those hoping for another Inspector Raj; demonetisation.

And that’s just the economics. (Saffron is the New Red.) At home, Modi mishandled Kashmir, with violence escalating. And the social wing of the Hindutva Project that he clearly believes in is tearing Indian society apart. Quips about it being safer to be a cow than a woman have become a cliché.

As Arun Shourie famously said, NDA = UPA + Cow.

Many who had supported Modi in 2014 now realised that their optimism was misplaced and the worst-case-scenario was unfolding. Public intellectuals like Sadanand Dhume deserve credit for changing their mind when they were mugged by reality, and for having the intellectual honesty to continue to speak truth to power. But many did not.

Demonetisation (or DeMon) was described by a friend of mine as a litmus test that revealed which intellectuals cared about their principles, and which just wanted proximity to power. DeMon, on which I published many pieces, was the largest assault on property rights in the history of humanity. It led to people dying in queues, businesses shutting down, livelihoods being decimated. There was no way any of its goals could be achieved, and there was no way taking 86% of the money supply out of circulation would fail to devastate the economy. All this was evident from the start. Any economist who supported DeMon lacked either intelligence or integrity. I don’t even know which is the charitable explanation.

Modi is a master of optics, and controlled the narrative to actually make short-terms gains from DeMon. But it was worrying and depressing that so many people who should know better continued in their steadfast support of him. Why did they do so? I posit four reasons.

Act 3: Living in Denial

Here are four possible reasons why these Useful Idiots continued to stay Idiots.

One: Rationalisation

These Useful Idiots, having gone public with their support of Modi, had their reputations and self-esteem at threat. They could not simply change their minds. Also, they badly wanted to be right. So they rationalised away Modi’s inaction. When he did not reform, they called it ‘gradualism’, and pretended that change necessarily had to happen slowly. Let him settle in. Give him time. The political economy is complicated. And so on, despite the fact that the man wasn’t even trying.

Confirmation bias also kicked in. Every time he said something they wanted to hear, they clapped vociferously. Every time he did something they would have condemned under previous administrations, they stayed silent. Every time violence erupted against Muslims or Dalits or anyone near a cow, they blamed it on ‘fringe elements.’ They could rationalise everything until DeMon. But how could they continue to do so after that?

Two: The Carrot

The Patronage Economy swung into place after Modi came to power. Ignore the rumours about the BJP’s IT cell having prominent people on their payroll. There were enough legitimate ways to reward cronies. Rajya Sabha seats, Padma Awards, sinecures at government institutions, lucrative directorships in PSUs, seats in the Niti Aayog, and so on. I bought a recent issue of a magazine that supports the BJP, and most of the advertisements inside were by PSUs. Their editor keeps writing in praise of free markets, but is no more than a parasite living off taxpayers’ money. The irony.

To pre-empt the inevitable Whataboutery, let me agree that such a Patronage Economy existed for decades under the Congress as well. But the honourable thing to do then is to dismantle it once and for all. Instead: jobs for the boys!

Three: The Stick

This government is vindictive, and it appears that it will remain in power for a long time. Who would want to mess around? I know of two free-market supporters in Niti Aayog (not Panagariya) who were appalled by DeMon. But they were given orders to support it publicly. Both of them did so, in ways that would make you cringe. Indeed, friends from within the establishment have told me that those orders were given to all their Useful Idiots. Silence was not an option. Even the previously venerable Jagdish Bhagwati debased himself. (In his case, it could have been any of the above three factors. Does it matter which?)

There were Useful Idiots who had spent their lives on the periphery, dreaming of power. Now that they were establishment intellectuals, why would they risk losing that position? For the sake of principles and truth? Come on!

Four: The Lust For Power

For some of us, power is the means to an end. For others, it is an end in itself. Everything you do to get there is a façade. I have been stunned and saddened over the last few months to see how so many people I knew have been transformed by proximity to power. These Useful Idiots never actually believed in anything: their principles were all Useful Principles. Once close to power, they discarded these principles; just as their masters will one day discard them.

A friend I respect told me a few months ago, “Amit, the economic right must ally with the social right. Then we will be an unbeatable force.” I disagreed. Although ‘right’ and ‘left’ are now useless terms, I’d fall into the economic right because I support free markets. I support free markets because I support individual freedom. And individual freedom is incompatible with the agenda of the social right – which, in India, basically means bigots and misogynists. I told my friend that he was wrong, and that people like him would merely give respectability to this ‘social right’, which would eventually spit them out like paan on the roadside. That process has begun.

Arvind Panagariya left Niti Aayog recently, reportedly under pressure from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, his reputation in shreds. Modi and gang have consolidated their political capital, and no longer need these Useful Idiots. These Useful Idiots will rationalise, will enjoy the trappings of power and money, and will be cautious about pissing off The Supreme Leader. They may even sleep well at night, for self-delusion is the essential human attribute.

I feel sad for what they have done to themselves. But I feel sadder for what is happening to this country.

*

Also read

Saffron is the New Red —Amit Varma and Barun Mitra
The Landscape of Freedom in India—Amit Varma

Posted at 2:47 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

Bollywood Explains Economics

A few weeks ago, I started a new section in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, called Housefull Economics. The idea behind the section is to use popular culture as a peg to explain fundamental concepts of economics and political philosophy. This is not my personal column—others will also contribute—but I did write the first five pieces for it. Here they are:

1. Ek Baar Jo Maine Commitment Kar Di—Salman Khan explains the importance of constitutional rules. (June 28)

2. My Shoes Are From Japan—Raj Kapoor brings us two important lessons about globalisation. (July 5)

3. Alone in the City—Amol Palekar expresses his discontent at FSI and Rent Control. (July 12)

4. My Love, I Know What You Want—Amitabh Bachchan explains how prices work. (July 19)

5. Why Is There A Commotion?—Ghulam Ali argues against punishing victimless crimes. (July 26)

Posted at 2:31 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Housefull Economics

30 July, 2017

Nitish and Nawaz

This is the 44th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

SPIN AND TURN

Ashwin and Jadeja felt the burn.
Ash said, “Amit, I feel great concern.
We could be in the bin.
Modi’s so good at spin,
And Nitish is a master of turn.”

SHARAAFAT

Nawaz Sharif is out of the game.
I asked, “Tell me bro, who is to blame?”
He said, “Amit, don’t poke.
It’s all a cosmic joke.
See the damn irony in my name!”

Posted at 11:32 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

23 July, 2017

Why Do You Love Potholes?

This is the 43rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

KAUR BLIMEY

On Thursday, I watched Harmanpreet Kaur
Play a knock that left me wanting more.
What a game? What a show!
And now I want to know
Why had I not heard of her before?

POTHOLES

I hauled a neta over the coals.
I said, “Bhai, why do you love potholes?”
He said, “Bro, they’re a dream.
They’re my revenue stream.
Kickbacks from repairs are my bankroll.”

Posted at 10:05 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

16 July, 2017

Notes and Jokes

This is the 42nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

DEMON NOTES

Urjit Patel let out a big groan.
I said, “Urjit Bhai, why do you moan?”
He replied, with a sigh,
“Amit, I will not lie.
I’ve been counting the notes on my own.”

DEAR MR MODI

I know that there’s nothing that you abhor
Like being made fun of. Well, just ignore.
Do not try to suppress.
Be a sport. Show finesse,
Or else the world will laugh even more.

Posted at 8:24 AM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

09 July, 2017

Two Old Men

This is the 41st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

AFFECTION

Netanyahu was looking happy.
He said, “Modi gave me a jhappi!”
I said, “Bro, you must chill.
Otherwise, Modi will
Take it further, and give a pappi.”

FEDERER’S LESSON

MS Dhoni has turned thirty-six.
Some ask, should he still be in the mix?
Well, like that old codger
By the name of Roger,
Maybe he has not run out of tricks.

Posted at 9:17 AM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

07 July, 2017

It is immoral to have children. Here’s why

This is the 39th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One peculiar quality of Indian society is its rudeness. People meet you for the first time at a party and think it is perfectly okay to ask you personal questions. For example, my wife and I often get asked why we have chosen to not have children. It infuriates me that the questioning always flows in this direction. I wait for the day a couple with kids is asked, “Oh you have kids! But why?” And everyone at the party stands and stares at them.

Our decision to not have kids came from separate sets of personal preferences about how we wanted to live our lives. But going beyond personal preference, I have recently come to the conclusion that it is immoral to have children. This might make you gasp – after all, we are biologically and culturally programmed to have kids. Here’s my argument.

Let me start by stating three principles that I think you would agree with. One: We should not cause suffering to others. Two: We should not kill anyone. Three: Consent is all-important, and we should do nothing to others without their consent.

Do you agree with those three principles? Well, then, consider that when you have a child, you are basically bringing a person into this world without their consent, where they are guaranteed to a) suffer and b) die. You are breaching all three of those principles. How can this possibly be ethical?

As my friend, the writer and podcaster Naren Shenoy, once said, “If you really love your children, you won’t have them.”

My contention here is not new, by the way. In philosophy, it’s referred to as Anti-Natalism, and arguments for not having children can be found in the works of Sophocles, the Buddha, the Arabic philosopher Al-Ma’arri, Schopenhauer and Kant. Its most recent standard-bearer is the philosopher David Benatar, who wrote a provocative book on this titled Better Never to Have Been.

Benatar’s argument is a utilitarian one, and boils down to the amount of suffering that humans are inevitably exposed to. “For example,” he writes, “40% of men and 37% of women in Britain develop cancer at some point. Those are just terrible odds. To inflict them on another person by bringing him into existence is reckless.” He points out that the consequences of bringing humans into the world go beyond the kids themselves. “Assuming that each couple has three children, an original pair’s cumulative descendants over ten generations amount to 88,572 people. That constitutes a lot of pointless, avoidable suffering.”

Woody Allen perhaps put it more eloquently: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it’s all over much too soon.”

I don’t actually agree with Benator’s argument. There are those who would say that the joy of being alive outweighs the sadness, and it ends up being subjective in the end. I find that to be the basic problem with utilitarianism: there’s no way to calculate these things. I’d rather just go back to first principles, and as a libertarian, the first principle I hold most important of all is Consent. In this case, consent is impossible, and therefore the act itself is wrong.

There are two common types of arguments offered for having children. One, that parenting is rewarding, and it’s good for the parents, who become better people or have someone to look after them in their old age, and so on. This is a selfish argument. If we did everything to maximise our own happiness, and didn’t care about the impact on others, then conversations about ‘morality’ would be pointless.

The second argument is, what about the species? It is true that all our impulses have evolved through natural selection so that our genes may be propagated onwards. Many of these have also been codified through cultural norms. That is why not only do many of us feel driven to have children, but all cultures also place a high value on it.

However, unlike all other species, we have evolved to be thinking creatures that can actually fight our biological programming. As Rust Cohle, the Anti-Natalist character in the TV series True Detective says, “The honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming: stop reproducing.”

When asked by strangers why I don’t have kids, I don’t launch into the above argument. Instead, I like to quote a poem by Philip Larkin, that encapsulates all of this quite perfectly. It’s called ‘This Be The Verse’. Here goes:

THIS IS THE VERSE
by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Posted at 3:17 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse

02 July, 2017

A Protest. Then A Celebration

This is the 40th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

NOT IN MY NAME

When the country is torn, bit by bit,
Those who are silent are complicit.
If it fills you with shame,
Then shout: “Not in my name!”
Shake your apathy. Do not submit.

SMRITI MANDHANA

Indian cricket’s got a new face,
A left-hander with timing and grace.
Her strokeplay, by and by,
Makes me wonder why I
Thought women’s cricket was commonplace.

Posted at 8:36 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

25 June, 2017

Procrastination (and Kumble vs Kohli)

This is the 39th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PROCRASTINATION

Do you know what’s my greatest sorrow?
Time is something you cannot borrow.
So the days go by,
As I watch paint dry,
And sit here waiting for tomorrow.
 
K VS K

Kumble said, “Get me out of this jail.
It’s so sad that I’m the one to bail.”
Kohli said, with a groan,
“It’s my house they will stone
When we lose. That’s why I should prevail.”

Posted at 9:56 AM by Amit Varma in Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

Saffron is the New Red

This essay, which I co-wrote with Barun Mitra, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on June 21.

If God existed and was not blessed with divine computing power, She would have sat through the last century with an abacus in each hand, counting the deaths caused by those on the Left and Right. On the left, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, this many million. On the right, Hitler, Mussolini, Mugabe, that many million. At the end of the exercise, God would have sighed, or perhaps giggled. So much fighting over differences when humans were all the same?

Our hypothetical God would have felt quite as bemused looking at India today. Our discourse is polarised, and the differences in the political battlefield seem too vast to be reconciled. And yet, it is our case that despite our parties seeming to hold opposite visions of what India should be, they are not just all equally bad, but they are bad in the same way. In moral terms, they are identical.

What is common to them is that they all behave as if the end justifies the means.

The Moral Question About Ends and Means

Here’s a fundamental question in philosophy: how do we judge the morality of an action?

Deontologists would say that there is something intrinsic in an action itself that determines its morality. There are certain first principles from which you arrive at sets of rules. For example, you could arrive at the rules, One should not take the property of others by force and One should not kill others. By these rules, theft or murder are wrong in and of themselves. They violate those rules; there is nothing else to consider.

Utilitarians would say that whether an action is good or bad depends on its consequences. Before we pronounce theft or murder to be bad, we have to consider their effects. There are all kinds of hypothetical situations in which theft and murder could be justified because they lead to a net increase of ‘utility’ in the world – however we define it. For example, stealing from one rich miser could enable 10 hungry paupers to be fed for a night. Or imagine a thought experiment where an alien civilisation threatens to wipe out a city unless they conduct a child sacrifice to appease these overlords.

Briefly, utilitarians believe that the end justifies the means. Deontologists disagree. In our view, there are three basic problems with the former position.

Utilitarianism Problem one: Calculation

How does one calculate utility? If you believe that the end justifies the means, you can make up any end you like, and argue that it gives you license to employ any means you like. One of the facilities that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, after all, is the ability to rationalize.

During Emergency, for example, Sanjay Gandhi famously pushed through a program of forcible mass-sterilisation of men. This was based on the premise that over-population is a problem, and his program was a small cost to be paid for the nation. This was a false premise, but even if we assume for the purpose of argument that it was correct, there remains the problem of calculation. How does one calculate the benefit to the nation from this? How does one calculate the pain caused to the victims of the program? How does one offset one against the other?

These are impossible calculations. One can therefore wing it and state any end and make up any calculations and do any damn thing one pleases.

Utilitarianism Problem two: The Distinction Between Persons

In his classic book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls wrote: “Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.” Utilitarians, like Godlike engineers, aim to calculate the overall utility of an action. Even if this was possible – it is usually not, as we argued above – it would still not be sufficient because victims of the actions would be different from beneficiaries of the action. How can one justify hurting person A by saying it causes pleasure to Persons B and C.

Take the sterilisation example again. The costs were borne by the victims of the forced nasbandi. The benefits that Sanjay Gandhi claimed were dispersed among another group of people entirely, maybe future generations yet to be born. How can this be justified?

Utilitarianism Problem three: The Question of Justice (or Individual Rights)

Harming one group of people for the benefit of another, or of “society at large,” is unjust to the people being harmed. They have rights. The job of the state is to protect those rights, and not infringe them. The whole concept of rights ceases to have meaning if one can hold that the end justifies the means. Society and the rule of law become a charade then.

To go back to the sterilisation example, the state tampered with the bodies of tens of thousands of young men against their will. Were they the property of the state? Was it not the state’s job to protect them from such violence? What is the basis of our justice system then?

Another example would be an innocent man tied to the front of a jeep.

None of us are means to an end

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” — Immanuel Kant.

“Every man has a property in his own body. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” — John Locke.

The quotes above sum up our position. Human beings have rights. Those rights exist prior to the State, and are not granted by it. The State’s job is merely to safeguard those rights. And the end can never justify the means. Individual rights are paramount.

By this way of thinking, the purpose of the state is to safeguard these rights. To do so, however, the state has to be given a monopoly on violence. This means that those individuals who run the state are handed enormous power. Power always corrupts, and thus, the state always grows, and goes well beyond its only justifiable mandate. The servants become rulers.

Coercion and Social Engineering

This brings us to what the Left and the Right have had in common throughout history: they have disregarded individual rights and behaved as if the end justifies the means. Their ends have been different – but the means they have employed have been the same: coercion.

Take a look at Stalin and Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot. It is clear that they all had visions of the kind of society they wanted to see, and to achieve their respective ends, they were willing to employ any means possible. You can differentiate between them based on their stated intentions, but we believe that the morality of an action is independent of such justifications. They were morally equal, regardless of the precise body count they left behind.

And what of India?

Saffron is the New Red

Narendra Modi, a master salesman, positioned himself as a changemaker prior to the 2014 general elections. But his government has turned out to be more of the same. While he spoke of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance,” we see just the opposite, as government has grown under him. Instead of charting a new way forward, Modi has renamed old government schemes to pretend he thought of them. (Most of them are so dubious that it is baffling someone should want credit for them.) While the social policies of his party can be described as right-wing, his economic policies are resolutely left-wing: and both these formulations rely heavily on coercion.

In other words, like every Indian prime minister before him, he believes the end justifies the means.

Consider the signature policy of his government: Demonetisation. Its stated aims were dubious, kept changing, and were not achieved. Now, think back to those parts of this essay where we used the forced sterilisation of the 1970s as an illustrative example. What if we use DeMon instead?

Not only did the goalposts of DeMon keep changing, it was impossible to calculate its alleged benefits, and you could rationalise all you wanted. The people who suffered – almost all of India, especially the poor – were not the beneficiaries, if at all there were any besides corrupt old-note launderers. And it was an infringement on the rights of 1.3 billion people, which made it, as we like to point out, the largest assault on property rights in human history. Indeed, in moral terms, there is no difference between Notebandi and Nasbandi.

This also applies to Aadhaar. Our problem with it is that it is being forced upon the people of India. Whatever the stated end might be, the means are wrong.

Every government in India has practised left-wing economics, with its inevitable coercion. (Big government requires much taxation, which is never voluntary, and much rent-seeking.) Most governments in India have also believed in different forms of social engineering. Many of those who sanctimoniously criticize this government are actually on the same moral plane. And this government is no better than the previous governments it disparages. (This is not meant to encourage Whataboutery, which is usually meant to exculpate, while our intention is to condemn equally.)

The Politics of Respect

What kind of politics would we like to see then? Well, one in which politicians actually respect the true bosses of a democracy: its citizens.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” That is dead right. We believe that respecting individual rights should be an end in itself. It will then become a means through which society will grow and prosper. If we are to talk of consequences for a moment, we now know, looking back at history, that economic freedom leads to economic prosperity, and personal freedoms, such as the freedom of speech and association, lead to cultures becoming more and more vibrant. In every way possible, freedom makes humanity better off. (Even if it didn’t, we would still argue for individual rights, but our case is strengthened by the fact that it is correct even by the yardstick of utilitarians.)

Freedom, thus, should be both the means and the end. Anything else is immoral.

Posted at 9:41 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

Politics = Bribery

This essay, which I co-wrote with Kumar Anand, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on June 13.

A year ago, one of us (AV) wrote a limerick that expresses a fundamental truth about politics. Here it is:

POLITICS

A neta who loves currency notes
Told me what his line of work denotes.
‘It is kind of funny.
We steal people’s money
And use some of it to buy their votes.’

We remembered this limerick now in the context of farm-loan waivers. This weekend, the Maharashtra government announced loan waivers for farmers in the state. A few weeks ago, the Uttar Pradesh government had also announced large farm-loan waivers. This is spreading to other states, and might end up as a Waiver Cascade (WC).

Beyond Moral Hazard

The most obvious unintended consequence of these waivers is what economists call Moral Hazard. Simply put, when farmers know that their loans are likely to be waived, they are incentivised to take loans they do not intend to return. (The same phenomenon applies in the case of the Too Big To Fail banks bailed out by the Fed in the US after the 2008 crisis.) This does nothing to solve the problems inherent in the system, and may even perpetuate them.

But this essay is not about farm-loan waivers per se. Nor is it about agriculture in India, which has been crippled by decades of bad policy. Instead, we want to talk about politics.

Redistributive Bribery

As we described in our recent essay on public choice economics, politicians come to power on the back of a) special interest groups and b) vote banks that they pander to. Once in power, they pay these groups back – with our money. Most governance amounts to a transfer of wealth from the people at large to special interest groups or vote banks. We call this Redistributive Bribery.

Farm loan waivers are an obvious example of this – the money to pay for the waivers does not fall from the sky, but comes from all of us. But practically all government action falls into this framework, whether or not money is directly involved. Most regulatory measures and government schemes follow this pattern, which is not hard to figure out if one thinks about who the beneficiary of each such action is.

To illustrate, here are four categories of Redistributive Bribery, with examples.

One: Direct Subsidy to a Vote Bank

Farm-loan waivers are an example of this. Farmers are an important vote bank everywhere, and this noble action for their benefit makes many non-farmers feel noble and compassionate. It probably hurts the farmers more than it helps them, by trapping them in a cycle of dependency, but that’s unintuitive and unseen.

Note that we are not picking on any party. Farm-loan waivers predate the BJP. Because the Congress has been the most successful party in our history, it has also done the most pandering. The BJP’s accusations of pseudo-secularism, which found resonance with many, was essentially a claim that the Congress was pandering to Muslim votebanks with measures like the Haj Subsidy. The Samajwadi Party in UP wooed the same vote bank with our money.

Another recent example is of Devendra Fadnavis announcing that his government will redevelop a group of chawls by building 16000 “affordable homes”. These come at the cost of Rs 16000 crore, at one-crore-per-home. You can bet that the beneficiaries of this largesse will vote for Fadnavis – and that those who the money is taken from won’t even notice.

There is no end to this sort of direct subsidy to vote banks. Free televisions, free laptops, free rice – they are all Redistributive Bribery.

Two: Direct Subsidy to an Interest Group

Interest groups spend lots of money getting their favoured politicians into office. Naturally, they want a return on investment. And politicians are keen to deliver, for they need funds for the next election also. It’s a cycle. And one of the two ways through which this happens is direct subsidies.

This can take various forms. Companies getting soft loans from Public Sector Banks, many of which turn into NPAs, is one example of this. So is the acquisition of land by the government to give to big businesses, such as in Gujarat, when then Chief Minister Narendra Modi helped set up the Nano plant. Some of this land can be got dirt cheap, as in the case of Modi’s Gujarat and the Adani group. The allocation of natural resources can fall under this category, as does the granting of government contracts for various things.

Having used the money of these interest groups to get to power, politicians then use that power to generate more money for the interest groups. That’s the whole game.

Three: Regulation to Favour Vote Banks

Wait, you say, surely regulation isn’t redistribution. Well, it mostly is, though in an indirect and unseen way. Consider Rent Control.

Rent Control is a regulation meant to benefit a particular vote bank: renters. But think of its long-term effects. It removes the incentives of property owners to look after their property, and buildings become dilapidated over time. It is a disincentive to new construction in areas where rent control is in effect. It distorts the market and reduces supply, thus driving up prices for everyone not already living in a rent-controlled property. Those lucky few enjoy the benefits paid for by the loss of many, most of whom don’t even realise what they’ve lost.

For all practical purposes, it is a redistribution of wealth from the many to the few. Indeed, think of other regulations that favour a specific votebank, and you’ll find that at its heart, it amounts to redistribution. Whatever the noble stated intent might be, it’s done for votes and is, thus, bribery.

Four: Regulation to Favour Interest Groups

Small traders and businesses have been a crucial support group for the BJP. No wonder, then, that the BJP opposes Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail. Putting a cap on FDI is a great example of how regulation amounts to redistribution. Consider the effects of such a protectionist measure.

The more the competition, the more consumers benefit. When FDI in retail is not allowed, the market is less competitive than it would otherwise be, and consumers lose value. Maybe the goods they buy are not as cheap as they would otherwise be. Maybe they cost the same, but provide less value for money. All of us common people, consumers, citizens, are thus losing value, which has been redistributed away to a specific interest group.

(Again, it’s not just the BJP. Consider that Arvind Kejriwal, who also depends on this base for both votes and money, also opposes FDI in retail. There is only one plausible reason for such bad economics, which is that voters and donors need to be bribed. So much for being anti-corruption.)

It’s not just restricting FDI in retail: All protectionism, without exception, amounts to redistribution of wealth from the common masses at large to special interest groups. Another example is black-and-yellow cabs and auto unions lobbying the government against Uber and Ola. The ban on surge pricing in Uber came out of such lobbying, and we have seen the effects in Bengaluru: a shortage of cabs, as always happens with price controls. Consumers suffer, and the value they have lost has gone to that one interest group.

Concentrated Benefits and Diffuse Costs

All political parties engage in Redistributive Bribery. It is the oldest scam in politics — and perhaps even the basis of it. So why do we put up with it? We do so because while the benefits are visible, the costs are not.

When a poor farmer is given a loan waiver or a small trader is protected from rapacious multinationals, we all clap, feel compassionate and give ourselves a pat on the back for nobility. But we don’t see the full picture, because we cannot see the losses. If the government imposes tariffs on foreign producers of widgets, and domestic producers benefit from the reduced competition, we don’t see the value that all of us lose because of this. Indeed, it is not even possible to calculate it. The loss from much regulation and subsidy is often more than the gain, because incentives change for all involved. A positive-sum game becomes a zero-sum or negative-sum game.

Economists refer to this as ‘Concentrated Benefits and Diffuse Costs.’ To take the example from our previous essay on Public Choice, if Company A gets a subsidy of Rs 1.3 billion from the government, it has plenty of incentive to lobby for it. None of us common Indians will bother, because its only one buck each.

What’s the Plan of Action?

In theory, politicians are supposed to get elected by promising and delivering good governance. In practice, they bribe their way to power in the ways described above. They were meant to be angels, but are actually vampires. We’re stuck in a horror movie. What are we to do?

Well, we need to think more deeply about who pays for the costs of every government action. We all do. This includes the poorest among us, since everyone pays indirect taxes, and suffers from the absence of the better world that is not allowed to come into being. If this outrages you, express that outrage. There is nothing else to be done.

*

Also read: ‘Wonder Woman, the God of War and Public Choice Economics.’

Posted at 9:26 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

Wonder Woman, the God of War and Public Choice Economics

This essay, which I co-wrote with Kumar Anand, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on June 8.

The most beautiful moment in the film Wonder Woman is a small, human moment. Diana Prince, out in the real world for the first time, makes her ice cream-eating debut while rushing somewhere in a crowded marketplace. Blown away by its taste, she turns to the vendor with a surprised smile on her face and tells him, “You should be very proud!” She learns one important truth about the real world: ice cream is awesome. Later in the film, she learns another.

(Spoiler alert: we give away a crucial part of the plot in the next paragraph, so stop reading if that matters to you. But do come back later after watching the film!)

The reason Diana aka Wonder Woman steps out in the real world is that she hears that a terrible war is raging, and concludes that it is caused by the God of War, Ares. She has been raised by the Amazons to kill exactly that one God when he returns to action, and she now decides to fight him and end this war. She heads forth into battle, decides that German General Ludendorff is Ares, and goes off to fight him. She catches him, kills him, and then finds to her astonishment that the war continues to rage around her. Killing the God of War made no difference.

Moments later, she discovers that the God of War was someone else, not Ludendorff. But killing that dude won’t make a difference either, because of one essential truth: Humans are human. They are flawed; they will fight. You don’t end war by killing the God of War.

The film ends on a syrupy, sentimental note, as she finds notes of redemption in these flawed humans, but that moment of dissonance she faces before that was familiar to us. We, too, have faced that dissonance in our lives, when a God died and we realised that the problems in our world are rooted in human nature. That God was Government.

Public Choice Economics

We grew up in India as believers in the biggest religion in the world: the religion of Government. Like all religions, this one claims to reveal the One Big Truth, and worships the biggest God of all. It holds that Government is the solution to all our problems. Put in rational terms, we are taught that markets are imperfect, market failures are inevitable, and we need Government to set everything right. This was economic orthodoxy until recently.

But in the middle of the last century, a new academic discipline sprung up that aimed to unmask the true nature of this false God: Public Choice Economics. Pioneered by scholars such as Gordon Tullock and James Buchanan, Public Choice Economics had one key insight to offer: that governments aren’t supernatural entities, but consist of humans. And humans respond to incentives. Therefore, to understand government, we must understand the incentives of the people it is made up of.

Incentives, Incentives, Incentives

Now, markets also consist of humans responding to incentives. But these are good incentives. Markets are networks of voluntary exchanges that are basically a positive-sum game: in every voluntary transaction, both parties benefit, else they wouldn’t be transacting. The only way to make a profit is by adding value to someone’s life. The greedier you are, the harder you work to make others better off. These are great incentives.

There is nothing voluntary about government. It has a monopoly on coercion and violence, and its very existence is an act of coercion – no one pays taxes willingly, or asks to be licensed and regulated. Now, we believe in a limited government (with its consequent coercion) to the exact extent that you need to protect individual rights and provide the rule of law that markets (aka society) need to function. But leave aside the broader philosophical point and just consider the incentives of the humans in government. Those are all messed up, because unlike markets, they are zero-sum or negative-sum, and the easiest way to make money is not to improve the lives of others, but to exploit them.

Let’s break up the different types of incentives at play with government.

The Money Incentive

Milton Friedman famously expounded on the Four Ways of Spending Money, which you can see summed up in the table below. (You can read about it in a piece one of us wrote recently.) In a nutshell, government brings together the worst conditions for spending money – you are spending someone else’s money on someone else, and are likely to care about neither the money being spent nor the service being provided. These are the worst possible incentives.

image

To use an example from the piece we linked to above, consider the question of why Mumbai’s roads always have potholes. The municipal officer in charge has a tenured job, zero accountability, and his incentives are aligned to making sure that he picks the most expensive contractor so he gets the biggest kickback, and that the repairs are done so badly that future repair work is necessary, with all the kickbacks they entail. This is inevitable not because that government officer is a bad person, but because the incentives are what they are.

The Bureaucrat’s Incentive

Consider the incentives of bureaucrats. What motivates them? In the words of economist William Niskanen: “Salary, prerequisites of the office, public reputation, power, patronage… and the ease of managing the bureau.” In other words, they want to expand their scope and power, which usually has no connection with the work they are supposed to perform.

Parkinson’s Law illustrates the state of the bureaucracy beautifully: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The two implications of this, according to C Northcote Parkinson, after whom the law is named:

One: “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.”

Two: “Officials make work for each other.”

This is why government departments tend to grow endlessly and not get anything done. Here’s an example of this: Have you heard of the Churchill Cigar Assistant?

The Politician’s Incentive

The politician’s aim is simple: he wants to come to power. For this, he needs lots of money. (A humble corporator’s election expenses can run to many crores.) Where does this money come from? It comes from interest groups who want to use the coercive power of government for their own ends. You could be an industrialist who wants mining contracts, or soft loans from public banks that private banks would never give, or protectionist measures to safeguard your business from competition, or state subsidies of some sort, and so on.

These interest groups use their money to get their favoured politicians to power. (Canny interest groups will keep politicians on all sides happy.) Those politicians, once elected, use their power to generate more money for those interest groups and themselves. All of this comes at the expense of the common citizen.

If Company A wants a subsidy of Rs 1.3 billion, consider that every Indian pays an average of one rupee for this subsidy: too small for them to care, even if they figure out what is happening. Public Choice economists refer to this as a case of ‘Concentrated Benefits and Diffuse Costs.’ Company A will lobby vigorously for its 1.3 billion, but the common citizen will just let the one rupee go.

While the example above is of a direct subsidy, most regulation actually has the effect of indirectly redistributing money from relatively poor citizens to relatively rich interest groups. (Read ‘The Great Redistribution’ for a sense of the process.) And all electoral politics comes down to using money coerced from all of the people to bribe a specific section you consider your vote bank: consider the rash of farm-loan waivers across India right now. (Don’t get us started on the incentives that puts into play. Groan.)

The Legal Mafia

Instead of thinking of the idealised notion of government, we should see it as what it is: a legal mafia. You give one set of people power over another. Power corrupts. This set of people soon realises that the easiest way to make money is by Rent Seeking: exploiting this power they have over others. (This beats profit-seeking through voluntary exchange, which requires you to actually add value to people’s lives, which is harder.) They leech off others, extracting hafta.

In theory, government is a noble defender of our rights. In practice, it is an ever-growing parasite. This is not an unfortunate accident, but the norm. It is embedded in the DNA of government.

Government Failure

Priests of the religion of Government often talk about why government is necessary because of market failure. We have two points to make here. One, the case for market failures is overstated, and those that take place usually do so because of the interference of government. Two, no one talks about Government Failure. Because of the incentives involved, Government Failure is actually not just pervasive, but also inevitable.

Look around you and tell us one thing that the government of India does properly. (From its stated aims, that is. If you look beyond those, we concede that it does an outstanding job of sucking our blood dry.) Its biggest failure is perhaps in its core function of ensuring the rule of law. It is our case that India does not have a rule of law, especially for the poor, and we somehow get by despite the government because of a) frameworks of societal trust, and b) sheer dumb luck.

As an illustration of that, consider the police’s reaction to the recent case of a woman who was abducted by three men in an autorickshaw. These men threw her infant child out, killing him in the process, and then gang-raped her. She went back to her baby’s corpse, carried it in the metro to a doctor, and refused to believe that the child was dead. When she went to the cops to complain, they refused to register her rape case. Why? Because they were too busy organising security for a presidential visit.

This is not an aberration. This is typical of India. Every time that poor woman buys something, for the rest of her life, the government will cut taxes that it will then redistribute to rich industrialists and interest groups. This is India, under the spell of this evil religion of Government.

The Problem is not the People

We often point to government misdeeds with shock and horror, and then demand that action be taken on the individuals responsible. To think this solves the problem is as delusional as Diana killing Ares and expecting that the problems of the world will be resolved. The individuals in the government are just human beings responding to the incentives before them. The real problem is the system. And the key problem with the system lies in power. When you give one group of people power over others, nothing good can come out of it.

The job of government is to safeguard the rights of its citizens, and not to run their lives. The whole idea of a constitutional republic is that the constitution places limits on the power of the state. But the state, after all, is run by people. People crave Power, and even a libertarian utopia will creep towards fascism unless there are strong safeguards in place. As that old saying goes, the price for our liberty is eternal vigilance. But before even that, it is important to recognize what the problem is, and what we need to be vigilant of. Public Choice Economics provides a framework for understanding that.

The God we need

Wonder Woman ends on a needlessly sentimental note (according to only one of us, ie, AV!), but it is a film after all, with superheroes and Gods. We don’t have those in the real world. If we did, though, we would need only one God for the world to function perfectly: the God of Incentives. We would name him Milton.

Posted at 9:07 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds

Legalise Prostitution to Fight Trafficking

This essay, which I co-wrote with Manasa Venkataraman, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on May 24.

It would be amazing if prostitution was legal in India. Over here, we use the law as an enforcer of morality, and prostitution is considered deeply immoral. The word itself is a pejorative. ‘Whore’ and ‘randi’ are used as terms of abuse, and the choice cuss word for our age is ‘presstitute’, implying that the press is prostituting itself, as if we are not all prostitutes.

All of us trade on our skills or assets to make a living. Writers sell their writing skills. Lawyers get paid for legal expertise and experience. You could be a construction worker or a fashion model or a software engineer or a banker, and you’d be doing the same thing that a prostitute does: trading on a part of yourself to the mutual benefit of both parties involved. Why, then, is prostitution effectively banned in India? (Strictly speaking, it is soliciting in public which is banned, which in practical terms renders prostitution itself effectively illegal.)

Also, what is the impact of this on our society?

The Moral Dimension of Banning Prostitution

A few years ago in a talk show, Kiran Bedi insisted that all prostitution involved coercion. No woman would want to be a prostitute of her own volition, she argued. On the show with her were actual members of the flesh trade, who laughingly told her she was wrong, and that they had joined the profession of their own free will. Bedi refused to engage with them, and just blocked them out. The dissonance was too much.

There are other jobs as well that one would hate to do. (Working crazy hours in a sweatshop or toiling in a farm as a labourer under the hot sun or spending one’s best years underground in a toxic mine.) Why do people willingly do them, then? It is because, of the options open to them, they feel that this is the best. If they had a better option, they’d go for it. They don’t. It’s sad, but it is what it is.

To deny them of their No. 1 choice, therefore, is to condemn them to alternatives they consider worse. This is repugnant and immoral. If there are women who would willingly become prostitutes, then to ban prostitution is to rob them of choice. It is an attack on their personal autonomy. It strips them of dignity, far more so than any customer could by having consensual sex with them.

‘Consensual’, of course, is the key word there, and the nub of the confusion. What implications does criminalising prostitution have for consent?

The Practical Impact of Banning Prostitution

Prostitution, per se, is a victimless crime. What happens when you criminalise it is identical to what happens when any other victimless crime is banned. (Such as drinking alcohol, gambling or inhaling cannabis.) The underworld gets involved, and that’s when the shady business starts.

In the context of gambling, you will note that matchfixing happens wherever gambling is illegal. Spurious liquor thrives when bootleggers are the sole source of alcohol. An unholy nexus springs up between the underworld and local politicians (The Bootlegger and the Baptist, basically), and everyone else suffers.

In the context of prostitution, this means that the business is all underground, and therefore not regulated. No safeguards can be instituted by either industry organisations or the government. Most importantly, the rights of the women working in the business cannot be protected. They can be coerced into the business, and exploited while in it.

Everything that is appalling and unwholesome about prostitution is actually true of trafficking. There is a difference between prostitution and trafficking, and criminalising the former enables and abets the latter. But Indian law seems not to understand that difference.

Prostitution vs Trafficking

The Oxford Dictionary defines prostitution thus: “The practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.”

India’s Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act defines prostitution as “the sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for commercial purposes.” The italics are ours.

In other words, Indian law, like Kiran Bedi, assumes that coercion is a given. According to the law, prostitution and trafficking are the same thing. If we accept this definition, it would seem natural that prostitution should be banned. But the definition is wrong!

Why is our law like this? Is this some kind of patriarchal virtue-signalling? Is this Victorian morality at play, part of a weird colonial hangover? These questions are moot. Whatever the reasons are, for both our law and our social attitudes towards prostitution, we must move forward. And there is hope.

The famous Justice Verma Committee report categorically stated that voluntary sex work does not equal exploitation, contrary to our penal code. And the Gujarat High Court gave a great judgement recently when it ruled that a transaction between a sex worker and her customer is purely commercial, and when both parties have consented to it, the law has no business interfering.

What does legal prostitution look like?

What would happen if prostitution was legal? Take a look at Amsterdam, famous for its red light areas, and where the law’s approach to it is based on the simple yet sophisticated model of consent. Under Dutch criminal law, there are specific protections covering coercion and violence against prostitutes, and the whole business is above-ground and relatively respectable. Social attitudes towards prostitutes are similarly enlightened. (The causation probably goes both ways.) We do not think that ‘presstitute’ would be a pejorative term over there.

India will not turn into Holland overnight if prostitution is legalised. But there is both a strong moral and practical reason for decriminalising it. The moral reason is that the law would then cease to prevent women from making decisions about their own bodies. The practical reason is that it will get the underworld out of the business, and make trafficking less likely. It is a no-brainer. It is about time.

Posted at 8:52 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom

18 June, 2017

Farm-Loan Waivers (and Macho Lifesavers)

This is the 38th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

EASY OPTION

It’s the season for farm-loan waivers.
They don’t do farmers any favours.
They just perpetuate
Their deplorable fate.
Handouts can never be lifesavers.

WHO’S MORE MACHO?

Trump and Modi are all set to meet.
Trump will be full of orange conceit.
Modi will keep it cool:
“Your hands are minuscule.
My 56-inch chest can’t be beat.”

Posted at 2:35 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

11 June, 2017

Theft, Surveillance, Bullies

This is the 37th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THEFT

We are paying Krishi Kalyan Cess.
Even then, farmers are in a mess.
This only illustrates
How governance abates,
While our taxes remain in excess.

CONSENT

A friend asked, “Why be against Aadhaar?
We give our data to the bazaar,
Like Google, for instance.
Then why this resistance?”
I said, “Because Consent matters, yaar!”

*

And here’s a bonus limerick that didn’t appear in the paper:

NDTV

Most bullies are wimps, really afraid
That someone will rain on their parade.
Like Modi and his men,
So macho, except when
Someone fights back. Then they call a raid.

Posted at 9:16 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

09 June, 2017

Tyranny in the Post-Truth Universe

This is the 38th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”

These are the opening words of Timothy Snyder’s book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder argues that we must not take democracy for granted. (The book was triggered by the rise of Donald Trump in the USA, but applies equally to us in India.) “The European history of the twentieth century,” writes Snyder, “shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. ”

Everywhere you look, perhaps in human nature itself, tyranny lurks. By understanding how it arises, we can pre-empt it. Snyder offers ‘twenty lessons from the twentieth century,’ and I read them with a deep sense of familiarity. All the lessons of the book apply to us, though in one important way, tyranny in the 21st century might actually end up being worse. I shall get to that, but first, here are some of the lessons.

Lesson number one: ‘Do not obey in advance.’ In authoritarian times, Snyder writes, “individuals think about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”

This reminds me of what LK Advani asked a group of editors after the Emergency of 1975: “You were all asked to bend — but why on earth did all of you crawl?”

Lesson number two: ‘Defend institutions.’ Both in the US and in India, we take refuge in the institutions that are meant to safeguard us. But who will safeguard the institutions? “Institutions do not protect themselves,” writes Snyder. “They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.” He adds that one common mistake is “to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced they will do.”

Consider, as a parallel, what Narendra Modi’s government is doing to our institutions, right from co-opting the RBI as a wing of the Finance Ministry, to using the CBI to carry out raids on political enemies. A friend in government recently told me, “We own the Supreme Court.” Indeed, institutional capture is central to the agenda of this government.

Lesson number three: ‘Beware the one-party state’. Lesson number six: ‘Beware of paramilitaries.’ Lesson number 17: ‘Listen for dangerous words.’ Lesson number 19: ‘Be a patriot.’ (As opposed to a nationalist.) All of the lessons are pertinent, but the one that struck me the most was Lesson number 10: ‘Believe in Truth.’

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” writes Snyder. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

Snyder cites the historian of Nazi Germany, Victor Klemperer, to describe the four modes through which truth dies and a post-truth world emerges. The first mode is “the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.” Snyder talks of the study that found that during the 2016 US presidential elections, “78 percent of [Trump’s] factual claims were false.” BWF (Bhakt Whatsapp Factories) probably achieve a higher percentage, but beyond the fake news sweatshops, there is much untruth in government spin as well—for example, during demonetisation.

The second mode is “shamanistic incantation.” Klemperer spoke of the “endless repetition” that served, in Snyder’s words, “to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.” The constant painting of all political opponents as anti-national by default is an example of this, as are the false binaries that are employed. If you don’t support Modi, then you believe that “Bharat ke tukde honge.”

The third mode is “magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction.” Modi embodies this, by doing the precise opposite of what he had promised in the runup to 2014. He had promised “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”, but what he is serving up is “Maximum Government, Minimum Governance.” On economics, Modi’s government, in its expansion of state power and disregard for individual rights, is to the left of Nehru. In both his authoritarianism and his dangerous economics, Modi is a true heir to Indira Gandhi. And yet, his followers keep seeing him as a break from the past.

The fourth mode is “misplaced faith.” As Snyder sums up Klemperer’s insight about the Nazis, “Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant.” Much as I deplore labels and pejoratives, there is some logic to referring to Modi’s followers as bhakts.

“Post-truth is pre-fascism,” Snyder writes, but there is one important way in which this age of post-truth might be a permanent one. We live in a time of social media, which I believe to be a huge net-positive, but it does have this one bad effect of enabling echo chambers and alternate realities. Back in the day, we all got our information from mainstream media, and even if there were ideological biases, there was at least a consensus on facts. Those gatekeepers are irrelevant now.

We can now believe whatever we want to, and cocoon ourselves in with likeminded groups, often very large, that confirm our biases and worldviews. This leads to self-reinforcing loops that then polarises discourse. We each just live in our own version of the world, and the real world doesn’t matter anymore. It’s 1.3 billion reality shows.

This is scary, and I don’t know how we will ever come out of it.

*

Also read: ‘Why Both Modi and Trump are Textbook Populists’

Posted at 1:26 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

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