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 July, 2018

Eminence, Preeminence

This is the 85th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

EMINENCE

I told Jayant Sinha, high on grass,
“Bro, you have to garland Hima Das.”
He said, “I don’t agree.
She has lynched nobody.
So I will have to give this a pass.”

PREEMINENCE

The tycoon said to me, “Listen bro,
The wealth that I have is not for show.
I bought the UPA,
I own the NDA,
And I will buy the next guy also.”

Posted at 12:43 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

08 July, 2018

I am a Feminist. You should be too

This is the 8th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Would Aditi Mittal have become a stand-up comedian had she not studied in a girls’ college? Appearing as a guest in the latest episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, she told me that studying at Sophia College enabled her to perform in front of others with confidence. Had there been boys in her class, she said, she would not have been able to claim the space of the class jester.

This came as a revelation to me, though it should not have. No male comedian would have experienced this; but every woman knows what it is like. Aditi’s point was that even though she was so privileged—born to English-speaking, liberal parents—she began her career facing obstacles her male peers never considered. At least she made it through: there are 235 million people who did not.

One reason for India being such a poor country is that we treat half of our greatest resource—our people—as inferior to the other half. This has a huge cost, which people have recently begun to quantify. Here are some numbers: only 26% of Indian women are in the workforce, next only to Saudi Arabia among G20 countries. A story in the latest issue of the Economist reveals that if female labour participation was as much as of that of men, there would be an additional 235 million women in the workforce. (Even many of those who do work now would be more skilled and productive if treated equally with their brothers in childhood.) According to a 2015 McKinsey study, our GDP could go up by 60% by 2025 if female participation in the workforce matched that of men. (For more, read Namita Bhandare’s outstanding series in IndiaSpend.)

India’s misogyny carries much more than just an economic cost. It is a humanitarian tragedy. No other term suffices when more than half a billion people are treated as subhuman and prevented from reaching their full potential. A recent study named India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, which is no surprise given that women are essentially treated as the property of men. (These cultural attitudes are reinforced by actual laws that take this approach.) Even though we live in the 21st century, our attitudes towards women belong in the 19th. We must fix this.

Let me declare it upfront: I am a feminist. And because that particular F-word has so many shades of meaning, let me define what I mean by it: Feminism is the belief that women deserve the same respect as individuals that men do. The same moral consideration. The same legal rights. My feminism arises out of my belief in the primacy of individual rights, with ‘Consent’ as an absolute value. Indeed, I tell my fellow libertarians that to be libertarian is, by default, to be feminist. A (male) friend of mine even says, “If you are not feminist, you are not a good human being.”

Why does feminism get a bad rap then? This is because just as there are all kinds of human beings, there are all kinds of feminists. Not all stop at the principle of equal rights, and offshoots of feminism can often contradict each other. (Google “gender feminism vs equity feminism.”) Many feminists feed into an identity politics in vogue today, which can be as toxic as the ills it purports to be fighting. Also, the tactics that some feminists employ can make some uncomfortable, such as the recent ‘list’ of alleged sexual offenders in academia, who were to be deemed guilty until proven innocent.

But even that list had an important function, which is the same one that the #MeToo movement highlights: women are angry, and won’t put up with this shit any more. Men seem to be oblivious to the extent and ubiquity of this anger, as well as to the fact that it is justified. Indeed, one central cultural disconnect of our times can be summed up like this: Women are angry. Men are clueless.

This is made worse by the fact that many men who declare themselves to be feminists are just being performative. (Basically, virtue signalling to get laid, as men are hardwired to do.) I find this irritating, but I won’t turn away from declaring my feminism either because of this or because of my discomfort with the tactics of some feminists. The reason for this is twofold: One, women being treated as second-class citizens hurts us all, and diminishes us as human beings. Two, it is a sad truth that because of the power dynamics around us, men can actually make more of a difference than women can, especially when outspoken women are being constantly minimised and mocked.

Therefore, it is imperative for us men to also fight this good fight. Not because of what our ancestors did or how our fellow men behave, but because it is the right thing to do.

*  *  *

Also check out:

‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen

‘These Funny Times’—Episode 75 of The Seen and the Unseen

 

Posted at 8:51 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | The Rationalist

01 July, 2018

Jumla

This is the 84th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

JUMLA

Modiji said, “I have so much spine.
I will arrest the rupee’s decline.”
Modiji talks the talk.
But he’s now in the dock,
And the rupee has reached sixty-nine.

JUMLA 2

There was a promise by Modiji.
“I’ll ensure safety of every stree.”
Sushmaji laughed out loud.
She said, “Bro, don’t be proud.
First get your bhakts to stop trolling me.”

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

24 June, 2018

Purists, keep quiet. Cricket is changing, not dying

This is the seventh installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

All around me, the air is filled with the anguished groans of cricket purists. England scored 481 against Australia a few days ago in a one-day match at Trent Bridge, despite a slowdown in which no boundaries were hit in the last four overs. In their previous ODI at the venue, against Pakistan, they had made 444. And it isn’t just this venue: everywhere, it would seem, mishits are going for six, record scores are being posted, and bowlers are settling down in bathtubs to slash their wrists.

The purist lament is simple: for a variety of reasons, the balance between bat and ball has been upset. Heavier bats, shorter boundaries, bad regulations, the malign influence of Twenty20 cricket. “In the good old days,” my friends declaim in sophisticated accents, “cricket was not a spectacle but a contest.” Also, though they do not say this, petrol was two rupees a litre.

As these notional nostalgics collapse at my feet, I want not to console them but to whack them on their unhelmeted heads. “Yes, cricket has changed,” I want to tell them. “But it has changed for the better. Get over yourself. Go watch a game.”

First up, let’s consider why the balance of the game has shifted towards run-scoring. Heavier bats are just part of the reason. The main cause is that batsmen have been forced to develop new skills because of the changed imperatives of T20 cricket. Having ten wickets in hand but only 120 balls in an innings means that the value of a run goes up, the value of a wicket goes down, and the cost of a dot-ball is immense. This mandates greater aggression.

Batsmen have thus developed a wider array of skills than previous generations needed to. (Consider AB deVillier’s 360-degree game.) Fielders are now better than ever in the past, because each run saved is that much more important. And bowlers have also adapted.

That old cliché of T20 cricket being a slugfest where you can replace bowlers with bowling machines is nonsense. Bowlers, who once focussed on restricting runs, have realised that the best way to keep the score down is to take wickets. Attack is the best defence. Modern spinners like Rashid, Chahal, Kuldeep are not scared to flight the ball in search of wickets, in contrast to the flat ODI spin bowling of the past. The top teams in this latest IPL were the ones who bowled to take wickets, not to restrict: consider how MS Dhoni used his CSK fast bowlers.

These skills have migrated to the other forms of the game—and have enriched them. The writer Gideon Haigh, in an episode of my podcast The Seen and the Unseen, once mentioned why he found the 2015 ODI World Cup fascinating. “You got Test match quality bowling—because the only way to slow down batsmen these days is to get them out—and T20 batting skills.” That illustrates how the game has evolved into a deeper, more complex beast—which is a good thing.

And yes, in all this, the ‘balance between bat and ball’ has shifted. But why was the older balance—say from the ‘70s, when 240 was a good score in a 60-over ODI—better in any way? Is it because that’s the one we are used to, and which forms our comfort zone and anchors our expectations?

Here’s a thought experiment: if T20 cricket had been invented before Test cricket, and Tests came later, how would people have responded? Would we wonder what the point of five-day cricket was, without the challenging constraint of having a limited number of balls to score your runs in?

Another thought experiment: if someone introduced a five-day baseball game, or a nine-hour football game, how would people react to them? Would they immediately diss the shorter form?

Beyond the skills argument, there is also a pragmatic reason to celebrate T20 cricket. Few people, even performative purists, have five days to watch a game of cricket these days. Or even one whole day. There are just too many other claimants for your time. Cricket was heading for commercial death when this new form came to the rescue: long enough to pack in immense drama; short enough to finish in an evening. In future, T20s will end up subsidising Test cricket and keeping it alive.

Indeed, I celebrate T20 cricket not because I like it more than Test cricket. They are different sports requiring different skills, and I find it graceless when fans of one sport disparage another. I celebrate it because T20s have enhanced Tests by bringing new skills and strategic learnings into the game. And they will keep Tests alive in commercial terms. That is why every purist should celebrate Twenty20 cricket.

Posted at 1:07 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | The Rationalist

17 June, 2018

Kim and the Fitness Challenge

This is the 83rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

MODIJI’S FITNESS

A fitness expert said to me, ‘Bro,
Did you see Modiji on the go?
That routine made no sense.
I am now very tense.
Is everything about him for show?’

WRONG KIM

Trump was confused when he first saw Kim.
He said, ‘I do not recognise him
Where is Kardashian?
I want to have some fun.
Get me a Kim who is not so grim.’

Posted at 7:57 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

10 June, 2018

Futile Exercise

This is the 82nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FUTILE EXERCISE

I got an invite that was meaty.
RSS sent me an entreaty.
“Sir, do come and give talk.”
I said, “I will take stock.
Do I have to watch you do PT?”

ASSASSINATION PLOT

I know I can be very boring.
Yesterday my wife was ignoring.
Then I thought of a ruse.
I came up with fake news.
It did not work. She is now snoring.

Posted at 10:50 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

08 June, 2018

Seven Lessons of Middle Age

This is the 50th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Don’t make your happiness dependent on other people, and all will be well.

When I look back on my younger self, the 24-year-old Amit from 20 years ago, I feel alarmed. There is just nothing he is doing right. His outlook to life, his ambitions, his work ethic, his food ethic, his attitude towards other people: they are all wrong. He is obnoxious, arrogant and delusional, and it seems certain to me that this cannot end well.

I cannot reach out across time and warn that kid, and he would not listen to me. This is a common lament of middle-aged people like me: Oh, if we only knew then what we know now. Still, I am lucky to get here and no longer be that guy. I know similarly aged people who have not lost their youthful delusions, and wake up every morning unhappy. I feel bad for them – but not too bad, for reasons that will be obvious by the time you finish reading this.

This is the 50th edition of Lighthouse, and my last column in this space, so in the spirit of a happy ending, I want to bow out with a list of learnings. Here are a few things I learned along the way from being that guy to this guy.

One: You are not special. You are one of over seven billion people on this planet, which is one of 100 billion planets in the Milky Way, which is one of 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. So forget what the self-help books tell you: you are not unique or different in any way. You are one accounting error of genetic composition away from a gorilla, and everything you are is a result of luck: the genes you happened to have, and the environment you were born and raised in. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it should be a relief.

Two: You are not entitled to anything. I am shocked sometimes to see how entitled some young millennials feel, till I remember that in my time, we felt as entitled. This is a quality of youth. (And the natural consequence of thinking you are special, which we are hardwired to do, for how else would we live?) But the world owes you nothing, and the more entitled you feel, the more you will be disappointed. If you feel entitled to nothing, on the other hand, everything good that comes your way will feel like a delightful bonus.

Three: Stop looking for validation. Our lives can be dominated by the need for the approval or admiration of others. This is foolish for one simple reason: others don’t give a shit, and are caught up in their own corresponding anxiety. They aren’t thinking of you all the time. You are only the center of your own universe. So stop caring about what others think of you. It doesn’t matter – unless you take it seriously, in which case you are doomed to unhappiness, as you will be sweating over what you cannot control.

Four: Focus only on what you can control. One sure route to be unhappy is to make your happiness dependent on things you cannot control. You will then feel helpless and exhausted as you are buffeted by the winds of chance. Instead, you should only feel good or bad about events in your immediate control. The rest is what it is. (If you take the route that there is no free will, you could even achieve a Buddhist sort of complete equanimity – or you could just panic. Leave that aside for now.)

Five: Focus on process, not outcome. This follows on from the last lesson: you cannot control the outcome, but you can control the process. The happiest writers are those who take joy in the writing, not in the awards or the money. If you are stressed about outcomes, you will spend your whole life stressed, because outcomes are never satisfactory, and when we do get what we want, we immediately revise our expectations. If you just take joy in the simple act of work, and leave aside the results, much of the stress in your life will just vanish.

Six: Focus on the positives. I know people consumed by negativity, who wake up every morning angry and bitter that the world has not given them their due. They are the sole cause of their unhappiness. The world is full of things that can make you either happy or unhappy. Focus on the positives. This creates a virtuous feedback loop: you feel better and work better when you do this, and that creates even more joy for yourself. Cut everything that is toxic and negative out of your life, including people who are always cribbing. Life is too short to spend it sunk in despair. (Some might argue that it is because life is short that we spend it sunk in despair – but you cannot control that.)

Seven: Happiness lies in small things. What makes you happy? If you make it dependent on the fulfillment of big dreams, or the actions of others, you will be chasing an elusive goal. The biggest lesson I have learnt is that happiness lies in small things: the rich taste of strong coffee on a rainy day; a few moments of laughter with friends or loved ones; getting lost in a book, or transported by a song, or giving in to the magic of a film. Look around you, and I’m sure you will find many things that make you feel blessed. What else do you need? Why?

Posted at 12:58 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal

03 June, 2018

We Should Regulate the Government, Not the Other Way Around

This is the sixth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

From the way this government behaves, you would think that the people of India are a great danger. A few days ago, the government floated a tender asking for vendors who would build for it a “comprehensive analytics system to monitor and analyse various aspects of social media communication and World Wide Web.” Put simply, a surveillance system that will track all your online activity, and know everything about you, so that you behave. This tender came on the heels of an earlier proposal mooted by Smriti Irani, then the I&B Minister, to regulate online media.

These specific proposals were par for the course. Any government looks for ways to expand its power over its citizens. As much as we should protest these attempts, we should also consider that the real problem lies elsewhere. The biggest danger to our democracy is not one set of people lusting for power, but the mindset that all of us have.

The Indian people still behave as if we are subjects of an empire. We have no rights except those that our rulers are kind enough to grant us, and they are our mai-baap. Yes, since the British left we have a procedure to elect our own rulers – but we remain the ruled.

In a democratic republic, the people should be in charge, and the government should serve. The only legitimate role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens – that’s what laws are for. And yet, in this inversion of roles that we have accepted, laws become the tool by which our rulers keep us in check. The mere rule of law is never enough for this, and the state always seeks to expand its power with that magic word, ‘regulation’. We accept and encourage this: whenever we see a social or economic problem of any kind, we assume that the solution must lie with government, and demand ‘regulation.’

We need to reverse our thinking. We should regulate the government, and not the other way around.

You should always be suspicious of any sentence with the phrase ‘government regulation’. Most of the time when someone proposes any kind of government regulation, it is something that will harm the common citizen, help a special interest group and expand the power of an oppressive state. Let me explain.

First of all, let’s take for granted that the fundamental role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens. It has to maintain the rule of law. In any marketplace, whether of goods, services or ideas, this is all it needs to do. Punish cheats and thieves. Enforce contracts. Ensure that all interactions are voluntary and there is no coercion. It needs to do no more than this.

Now, consider what happens when the government decides to ‘regulate’ something in the ‘public interest’. The state is not a benevolent godlike force that works in society’s best interests. Politics is an interplay of power and money, and those in power have always been captured by special interests. There is already a power imbalance in favour of these special interests. To grant the government more power is to increase that imbalance.

Usually, in any market, competition is the best regulation. A common form of government regulation is to increase entry barriers in a marketplace, thus reducing competition. This hurts the consumers – or us common citizens. It helps entrenched special interests.

This is as true of the marketplace of ideas as it is of the marketplace for goods and services. Social and online media are already subject to laws that fight criminal activity—including many laws against free speech that should not exist. Further regulation is an attempt to protect one set of ideas and intimidate another. This reduces the possibility of dissent. This is bad for democracy.

The issue here is not which party happens to be in power at a given time. Whenever you concede a certain set of powers to a government, imagine the worst possible person in charge. It could be Yogi Adityanath or Sonia Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal—whoever you dislike most. The state should have so little power, and such strong checks and balances, that the worst person imaginable being in charge will not be a threat to the nation.

So the next time someone proposes government regulation of any kind, with the most noble rhetoric behind it, raise your voice. It is the natural tendency of the state to try to grab as much power as possible. It is the duty of the citizen to resist.

Posted at 9:36 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Media | News | Politics | The Rationalist

27 May, 2018

Modiji’s Fitness Challenge

This is the 81st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FITNESS CHALLENGE

Modiji said, as he tried to squat,
“This is so much harder than I thought.
Let us do Photoshop.
I will seem so tip-top.
Optics matters. Performance does not.”

EAVESDROPPING

The other day, my toaster complained,
“In the kitchen, I feel so constrained.
All I hear is your gloom.
Shift me to the bedroom
At least then I can be entertained.”

*

And a bonus limerick that I unleashed on Twitter:

SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY

I woke up excited last Sunday.
My guru said it was a fun day.
But the day was such crap,
All of it on Whatsapp.
I will quit this addiction one day.

Posted at 11:51 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

20 May, 2018

Yanny, Laurel and Karnataka

This is the 80th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

WAR

Once I had a fight with my nanny.
She said she could only hear ‘Yanny’.
I said, “No! I will fight!
Only ‘Laurel’ is right!
Your insistence is so uncanny.”

KARNATAKA

My best friend happens to be a horse.
He said, “I must say I find it coarse.
It is so degrading
What you call horse-trading.
Such slander should fill you with remorse.”

Posted at 11:48 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

13 May, 2018

The Binnys and the Karnataka Elections

This is the 79th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

ONE MORE CHANCE

It’s a good week to be a Binny.
Walmart saved one from ignominy.
Rajasthan Royals came
And gave Stuart a game
So he could show he’s not a ninny.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Karnataka, my friends, has voted.
Will the Congress be now demoted?
Whoever wins the game,
Government will stay the same:
Inefficient and much too bloated.

Posted at 12:15 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

11 May, 2018

It’s Modi vs Modi in 2019

This is the 49th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In next year’s election, only Narendra Modi can beat Narendra Modi. And he might just do it.

I had a strange dream the other night. I dreamed that Narendra Modi was in a room, all alone, surrounded by full-length mirrors. Mirrors to the right of him, mirrors to the left of him, mirrors behind, in front, on the ceiling. He was in an ecstatic frenzy, turning hither, looking thither, admiring himself from every angle. And then, suddenly, he realised that these were not all just reflections. No, all these Narendra Modis in the mirrors were Narendra Modi all right – but they weren’t him. They were all different Narendra Modis, and at any moment, one of them could stride forward and attack him. He must keep an eye on all of them! A Narendra Modi could not be trusted!

Ok, so obviously I did not have that dream – or if I did, I don’t remember it. But I wonder if Modi feels like that sometimes. Surrounded by sycophants, does he feel he has nowhere to turn but to himself? And yet, after all these years of playing to different galleries, who is he really?

Enough metaphysics. The most remarkable thing about Indian politics in this decade is how suddenly and completely it shifted from revolving around one family to revolving around one man. The 2014 elections, like every elections before, was Congress versus Everyone Else – and the Congress is the fiefdom of one family. After 2014, Indian politics remained unipolar, though that pole shifted from being the Congress to being Narendra Modi. Just as all elections until now have been Congress vs Everyone Else, the 2019 elections will be Modi vs Everyone Else. Like him or hate him, you have to hand it to Modi: this is a phenomenal political achievement.

Modi has been helped by the lack of stature of the opposition leaders. I suspect he smiles every time he thinks of Rahul Gandhi. The young Gandhi – Rahul is 47, but still a toddler compared to the doddering dotards of Indian politics – is a shy, graceful man who is almost too nice to be in politics. He is also, despite much coaching and recent efforts to revamp his image, not the sharpest kid on the block.

While a new face of the party, he is also the old face of the party, and has no new vision to offer the country. He lashes out at Modi for all the right reasons, but all he promises is a return to the Congress of old, and he often defends even the disastrous economic policies of his grandmother, Indira. That Congress mindset kept India poor for decades, and it was partly a backlash to that that brought Modi to power. Gandhi does not seem to understand this, and so his party flounders.

But just as Gandhi is a gift to Modi, Modi is a gift to Gandhi. Young Rahul lacks the charisma or vision or political skill to become prime minister on his own, but he may yet get there because someone else might beat Modi for him. That someone else is Modi himself.

I predict that the 2019 elections will be decided entirely by Modi. There will be a fight between a positive vote for him and a negative vote against him. If the negative wins, then by default someone else will take charge. Despite the comic posturing of various regional leaders, it will probably be Gandhi. Lucky lad.

There are various reasons for this negative vote. Reason one: While he continues to excel in optics, he has failed in governance. Demonetisation crippled our economy, the botched implementation of GST hurt it further, and he has carried out no reforms. He has shown the command-and-control mindset of Nehru, who he no doubt has a man-crush on, going by how often he invokes him. And he is Indira’s true heir, both in terms of economics and that authoritarian streak. Law and order is also in bad shape, and the BJP state governments seem particularly clueless.

Reason two: In 2014, Modi put together a brilliant identity-based coalition that is now unsustainable. In UP, for example, the BJP cobbled together an unlikely coalition of the upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and not-Jatav Dalits. After they won the state elections there, they’d all expect patronage gains, and there’s never enough to go around. Something has to give. The perfect storm that saw the BJP get 71 out of 80 seats in UP, 25 out of 25 in Rajasthan, 27 out of 29 in MP and all 26 in Gujarat cannot be repeated.

Reason 3: In 2014, as people fed up of the previous regime engaged in wishful thinking, Modi could be like a Rorschach test, all things to all people. But those who saw in him a reformer or a statesman should know better now. The ugly, petty venality of some of his electoral utterances – such as his recent jibe at Rahul Gandhi about his Italian roots – might please the converted, but are sure to repel others.

Reason 4: His shudh Hindi is impressive, but the South is fed up. You can’t condescend to Tamilians. You can’t tell Keralites not to eat beef. I don’t think the BJP think tank even understands South India.

When Modi came to power, someone in the know told me that Modi was boasting about being in power for at least 10 years. A couple of years ago, I would have thought it likely. 2019 seemed like a done deal. But nuh huh, not anymore. Modi might lose next year, struck down by the man in his mirror.

Posted at 3:45 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

06 May, 2018

Peace Everywhere!

This is the 78th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PEACE IN ASIA

I asked Donald, “Bro, what have you sown?
North Korea has changed its time zone.”
Trump told me, “Look at Kim.
See what I’ve done to him.
I want a Nobel Prize of my own.”

PEACE IN INDIA

Modiji said to Trump, “Hey white knight,
Well done stopping that Korean fight.
Here’s a challenge for you,
What I need you to do.
Come make North and South India unite.”

Posted at 11:40 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

22 April, 2018

It’s Too Late

This is the 77th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

TEMPORARY

A friend said, “Today is World Earth Day.
Do not eat too much at the buffet.”
I said, “Bro, take chill pill.
We will do what we will.
The earth will outlast us anyway.”

LATE

Yashwantji said to me, “Amit, bro,
Modiji threatens our tomorrow.
Hindutva gives me pain.”
I said, “Yo, please explain,
Did you protest sixteen years ago?”

Posted at 12:12 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason

08 April, 2018

Smriti and Salman

This is the 76th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FAKE NEWS

Smriti Irani said, looking pale,
“Amit, editors should go to jail
If they fail a fact check.”
I said, “Hey, wait a sec,
Is it true that you have been to Yale?”

ENTITLEMENT

Salman said, “Amit, I have a flaw.
I am too soft inside. I am raw.
I killed an antelope,
But I give my fans hope.
Surely I should be above the law?”

Posted at 9:44 AM by Amit Varma in India | Media | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

06 April, 2018

The Tamasha All Purists Should Love

This is the 48th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Twenty-20 cricket is the best thing that happened to cricket. It will keep Test cricket alive – and make it better.

The next few weeks will be hard on cricket purists. They will sit in the dark, drink whisky and listen to ghazals by Ghulam Ali. After months of exciting Test cricket, the IPL will dominate the headlines. The wives of these purists—for they are almost always men—will dress in scanty clothes and wear make-up to try and cheer them up. But their husbands will think of coloured pajamas and Russian cheerleaders, and gloom will descend like a fog that no fast bowler can penetrate.

I am a cricket purist. I love Test cricket. But if God existed, I would thank Her for Her kindness in bringing about the IPL. T20 cricket is the best thing that happened to cricket – and if five-day cricket is still alive 30 years from now, it will be because of the four-hour version of the game. Lest you think I am yanking your chain—and there is a special joy to trolling purists of any kind—let me lay out the four reasons for my saying this.

One, T20 leagues like the IPL increased opportunities for players. Before they came along, cricket was a monopsony. A monopsony is a marketplace with only one buyer. If an Indian player wanted to play at the highest level, he would have only one buyer for his services: the Indian team, or the BCCI. And to get there, he would first have to perform for his state association, and so on down the line. If he was treated unfairly somewhere because of bias or politics or nepotism, he would have no options.

But within a league like the IPL, there are multiple buyers for your services. The more the number of buyers, the more empowered a seller is, and the greater the price for his services. No wonder so many cricketers make a good living today, as compared to the past.

Two, there is more efficient discovery of talent. Consider incentives. A BCCI babu’s job, at any level, depends on politics, and not on how well he finds or grooms talent. (In any case, what can you compare his performance with?) But in the IPL, the bottom line of all the teams depend on how well they perform. As a matter of survival, they have to find and groom the best talent. The incentives are right, which is why all the IPL sides have excellent talent scouts, and so many fine players have emerged from this league.

Three, T20 cricket has led to the development of new skills. The compressed format of the game—only 20 overs for 11 players—has led to the cost of the dot ball rising and the cost of a wicket falling. Batsmen need to bat faster, and have developed new skills as a result: consider the 360-degree game of AB deVilliers, for example. Fielding and fitness levels have taken a quantum leap upwards—and despite the false cliché about this being a batsman’s game, so has bowling. A list of players who have had the greatest impact in recent seasons of the IPL will be filled with the names of bowlers like Bhuvi, Bumrah, Unadkat and Narine.

These skills enhance the other forms of the game as well. Batsmen counter-attack more in Test cricket—and bowlers figure out more ways of keeping them quiet or getting them out. There’s an added element to the drama.

Four, T20 cricket has made the game financially viable. Through most of the last century, Indians had just two forms of entertainment: cricket and Bollywood. No wonder there was an audience for five-day epics. But there are so many ways to pass the time today. The opportunity cost of a Test match is five days, and even that of a one-day match is eight hours. People don’t have so much time to spend on a sport. Even my fellow purists don’t actually watch enough Test cricket to make it profitable.

If the eyeballs are not there, where will the money come from?

There are many good arguments for T20 cricket. It has given a better life to cricketers, expanded the talent pool, enhanced the skills in the game. But the most important one if that by bringing down a match to the length of a football or tennis game, it has expanded the audience for the game. Cricket would otherwise have died. Now it won’t. Earnings from T20 cricket will subsidize the other forms of the game – and Test cricket will survive only because of this.

So all you cricket purists, put away your cassettes of Ghulam Ali ghazals, and stream some party music instead. Life is good.

*

Earlier pieces by me on this subject:

Opportunity, choice and the IPL (2008)
The Lesson From This IPL: Frontload Your Innings (2014)
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)
The New Face of Cricket (2015)
What Cricket Can Learn From Economics (2016)
National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting) (2016)
The Winning Mantra for this IPL: Attack, Attack, Attack (2017)

Posted at 1:18 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Sport

01 April, 2018

Two Lessons

This is the 75th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

LONELY

A friend asked, “Amit, why do you groan?”
I said, “These days I am all alone.
I once had many friends.
Now I must make amends.
I uninstalled Facebook from my phone.”

LESSON

I asked Steve Smith, “Hey, why such distress?”
He said, “Bro, I am in such a mess.
This is not as I planned.
Darren quit. I got banned.
The lesson here is Never Confess.”

Posted at 8:29 AM by Amit Varma in Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

25 March, 2018

Zuckerberg’s Reply

This is the 74th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THE DIFFERENCE

I told Mark Zuckerberg, “I’m not sure
That my data is super secure.”
He said, “Bro, it’s your call.
You can just uninstall.
But what about Aadhaar? What’s your cure?”

THE SECRET

Modiji said to his friend, Putin,
“Bro, tell me, how do you always win?”
Putin said, with a smile,
“My old friend, use your guile.
Once you get power, never give in.”

Posted at 7:53 AM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

18 March, 2018

Aadhaar, Adityanath

This is the 73rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

DEADLINE EXTENSION

My wife said, “Stay away, no kisses.
First link your Aadhaar to your Missus.”
I said, “Love, give your cheek.
Your plea, so very bleak,
Is one the Supreme Court dismisses.

REVERSAL

Adityanath said, “I am the King.
In Gorakhpur, I am everything.”
Then he got his ass kicked.
The voters can be strict.
Could this be the start of a downswing?

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

16 March, 2018

The Nehru Defence

This is the 47th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Narendra Modi seems to have one answer for every attack on him. But Jawaharlal has been dead for 54 years.

The Candidates tournament for the World Chess Championship is going on right now. Eight of the best chess players in the world are playing each other twice for 14 rounds of gruelling action. The winner will take on World Champion Magnus Carlsen for the title later this year. It is a close tournament and anyone can win, but I am a chess nostalgic with a fondness for symmetry, and I’m rooting for Vladimir Kramnik.

Kramnik first won the title at the turn of the century, beating Garry Kasparov at his peak. His masterstroke in that match was reviving an old opening for black called the Berlin Defence. Kasparov could not breach that wall, and the Berlin has since become an impregnable cliché in grandmaster circles.

This tournament is being held in Berlin, and I write this column after the third round, in which Kramnik played the Berlin against pre-tournament favourite Levon Aronian and won a spectacular game to go into the lead. It is as if the fates gathered around and decided, He revived the Berlin. Now Berlin will revive him.

Back in India, on the political chess board, Narendra Modi has found a similar defence for all seasons. It’s called the Nehru Defence. No matter what attack is unveiled against him, he counters it with the Nehru defence. Economy’s doing badly? Nehru started it. Problems in Kashmir? Nehru, doh. Modi hugs foreign leaders too much? Nehru hugged Edwina.

Well, not the last, but you get the drift. The obvious response to the Nehru Defence this is to point out that Nehru died in 1964. What he may or may not have done is irrelevant to Modi’s performance now. Modi may not like many of the policies that exist today because of Nehru, but hey, he got a mandate in 2014 to overturn them. Why hasn’t he?

There were a host of reforms Modi could have carried out in the last four years to make India more free. He hasn’t implemented any of them. Indeed, he has shown the same command-and-control mindset that was Nehru’s great failing. He has combined it with the authoritarianism of Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who he most resembles. If he hates them, then he hates them so much that he loves them. His actions indicate that he wants to be them.

What irritates me more than the irrationality and dishonesty of the Nehru Defence is how the discourse has been shaped by it. Everybody is thinking in binaries. One side thinks Nehru was a monster who ravaged India. The other side thinks Nehru was a great statesman who built everything that is good about this country. Both these narratives hold some truth, but you’re not allowed to acknowledge both. Either Nehru was evil or he was a God. You are either a patriot or an anti-national, depending on which simplistic fairy tale you believe.

These binaries apply to everything today, not just Nehru. This is a form of historical revisionism. Nothing can be grey any more. Everything must be black or white. You must take sides. Any attempt at nuance is considered a cop-out, and both sides could come after you. So it makes sense to either be unflinchingly partisan – or to stay shut altogether. And when those who care about nuance withdraw from the conversation, we are left with Republic TV.

Think about what this does to the discourse. Let’s continue the chess analogy. Aronian, Kramnik’s hapless victim and a cultured, thoughtful man, once said that a game of chess was like a conversation. One player asks a question; the other replies, and asks one herself; and so on, in the mutual quest for truth. I found this analogy moving – and also heartbreaking, because there is no space for such a respectful conversation in Indian politics.

If they play chess at all, the two sides in our politics – and there are two now, because of the forced binaries – are playing not against each other, but against imaginary opponents on adjacent chess boards. They are talking past each other, and each is convinced of possession of the truth. One side repeatedly plays the Nehru Defence. The other side, on the other board, plays I-don’t-even-know-what, it’s not coherent.

Maybe the game in question is not chess at all. Maybe it is mud-wrestling. And maybe in some parallel universe, a man in a pinstripe suit with a name on it wrestles a man in a sherwani. The man in the sherwani has been dead for 54 years, so he keeps getting flung to the ground. Finally, unable to take the gratuitous posthumous humiliation, he springs back to life and catches the man in the pinstripe suit, and then something strikes his eye. He realises that the name on the pinstripe suit of his opponent is not ‘Narendra Modi’ but ‘Jawaharlal Nehru’. What kind of man wears a suit like that?

Posted at 1:47 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

04 March, 2018

Two Deaths

This is the 72nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

TWO DEATHS

I know many movie fans who cried
When that great actress Sridevi died.
She brought us such magic.
It was also tragic
Watching the press commit suicide.

ORIGINS

Isaac Newton said, “I’m sanskaari.
I saw an apple drop from a tree
And thought of a mantra
From the Panchatantra
That gave the concept of gravity.”

Posted at 7:47 AM by Amit Varma in India | Media | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

25 February, 2018

Two Jokes

This is the 71st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FLAKE

Justin Trudeau is handsome and woke.
He is a virtue-signalling bloke.
See his Khalistan mess.
He’s really that clueless.
Frankly the guy’s a bit of a joke.

GOVT. ADS

One tendency that all netas share
Is one that should put you in dispair.
They love to advertise,
And all their sordid lies
Are funded by YOU, so please beware.

Posted at 7:51 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

18 February, 2018

Fraudsters

This is the 70th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BAKRA

Nirav Modi told me, “This is nice.
Eleven thousand crores will suffice.
I love committing fraud.
I will now chill abroad
While taxpayers like you pay the price.”

WHATABOUT

Narendra Modi said, “This is great.
Why is always me you berate?
When will you understand?
All netas in this land
Are thieves looking to eat off your plate.”

Posted at 8:15 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

11 February, 2018

Deflection and Reflection

This is the 69th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

A DEFLECTION

Masterji said, sipping single malt,
“Bal Narendra’s committed assault.
He keeps using his force,
And he shows no remorse.
He says everything is Nehru’s fault.”

ON REFLECTION

In case the stock market makes you frown,
If you think Dear Leader is a clown,
Don’t panic. Think it through.
Just take the long-term view.
Everything that goes up must come down.

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

09 February, 2018

It is Daft to Worry About Inequality

This is the 46th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Inequality and poverty are different problems, requiring different, even opposite, solutions. India’s problem is poverty.

Let me begin this column with a question, dear reader, which I urge you to read carefully and answer before reading on:

In which of these two countries would you rather be poor: the USA or Bangladesh?

Most people I ask this to go, Duh, of course I’d rather be poor in the US than in Bangladesh. Well, here’s something I’d like you to consider: the USA has far greater inequality than Bangladesh does. A measure called the Gini Index measures inequality across the world, and the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom all have greater inequality than Bangladesh, Liberia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. And yet, that second group of countries is by far poorer than the first group

It has become fashionable these days, especially in elite, privileged circles, to agitate about inequality. But as my question and the data above make clear, inequality and poverty are very different things. Some of the poorest countries in the world are among the most equal. (Some Communist countries of the last century came close to achieving equality in poverty.)

So here’s my contention, in three propositions:

One: India’s big problem is poverty.

Two: The more we reduce poverty, the more we are likely to increase inequality.

Three: It is perverse, therefore, to worry about inequality. We should only keep our eye on poverty, and not worry if inequality goes up.

There is a fundamental fallacy at the root of the obsession with inequality. We think of the world in zero-sum ways. That is, we behave as if there is a fixed pie, and the rich can only become richer if the poor become poorer. In this vision of the world, the more inequality increases, the more abject the suffering of the poor. Redistribution is the only solution.

And yet, this narrative is wrong. The world is not zero-sum but positive-sum. The size of the pie increases with every voluntary transaction. Every time I buy a cup of coffee from a café, both the café and I are better off – otherwise we would not have transacted to begin with. The amount of value in the world has gone up.

The more you allow and enable such voluntary exchange, the more people trade to mutual benefit, and we all become better off. And the larger these economic networks of voluntary exchange, the greater the scope for such mutual enrichment. That is why people migrate to cities from villages, and rarely the other way around.

In fact, within a country, cities are far more unequal than villages are. If inequality was such a bad thing, why would so many poor people vote with their feet by migrating to cities? They embrace this greater inequality because they want to escape poverty.

The reason India remained a poor country for so many decades after Independence is that, with the zero-sum vision of our leaders, we frowned upon free markets. While the rest of Asia shot ahead, we restrained the natural ingenuity and enterprise of our people with our mai-baap vision of politics. We did reform a bit in 1991, but too little and too late. Our poverty levels did go down a bit, though, even as we grew more unequal, illustrating the fact that there is no correlation at all between poverty and inequality.

I don’t want to talk only in terms of abstract ideas, so let me illustrate one way in which reducing poverty would raise inequality. There is consensus among economists today, even left-wing ones, that we have crippled our manufacturing sector for decades with a series of bad laws, such as our labour laws, which don’t allow small businesses to grow, and force much of our nation into the informal sector. These regulations stopped us from becoming a manufacturing superpower like China. What would happen if these restrictions were to magically disappear one day?

You would have growth in the manufacturing industry. There is no question that there would be far more employment generated, which would reduce poverty. You would also have some of these businesses achieving scale and becoming behemoths. Poverty would go down and our per-capita income would go up; but because of the winners at the top, inequality would also go up. Would this be a bad thing? I don’t think so.

The zero-sum instinct is ingrained in us: we evolved in prehistoric times when we lived in small tribes amid scarcity, and the positive-sum view of the world would have been unintuitive. It is also natural to resent the super-rich among us, especially when they behave in ostentatious, obnoxious ways, and game the system with their money, which happens a lot in our crony socialist state. Maybe a country that has eliminated poverty can have the luxury to think about Inequality. But not us.

It is a moral shame that seven decades after Independence, we still have millions of people living in poverty. We need to fight this. We should not be distracted by false metrics.

Posted at 12:36 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

04 February, 2018

A Special Cess

This is the 68th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BUDGET

My finances were in such a mess.
I said, “I demand an Amit cess.”
A gentleman named Shah
Said, “Arre bhaiyya, wah.
Super idea, I must confess.”

FIRST PRINCIPLE

Tom Friedman has defended Aadhaar.
He said, “Facebook has your data, yaar.”
Oh, what a clueless gent.
Facebook has our consent,
And consent must be our guiding star.

Posted at 10:08 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

A Special Cess

This is the 68th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BUDGET

My finances were in such a mess.
I said, “I demand an Amit cess.”
A gentleman named Shah
Said, “Arre bhaiyya, wah.
Super idea, I must confess.”

FIRST PRINCIPLE

Tom Friedman has defended Aadhaar.
He said, “Facebook has your data, yaar.”
Oh, what a clueless gent.
Facebook has our consent,
And consent must be our guiding star.

Posted at 10:08 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

28 January, 2018

A Fuss Over Pakodas

This is the 67th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BRAVERY

The Karni Sena kicked up a fuss.
Their boss said, “No one listens to us.
Our protests were a flop.
But now we cannot stop.
Let us go and attack a school bus.”

NO WORRIES

Jaitley told Modiji, with much dread,
“A massive jobs crisis lies ahead.
There’ll be no bread to eat.”
Modiji said, “That’s neat.
Just let them eat pakodas instead.”

Posted at 10:04 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

21 January, 2018

Diplomacy, Stormy Daniels and the Karni Sena

This is the 66th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

DIPLOMACY

Modiji found himself in full flow.
Netanyahu said, “Please take it slow.
You are a handsome man.
I am a massive fan,
But please don’t give me more jhappis, bro.”

OUTRAGE

Donald Trump hooked up with a porn star.
There was much outrage in the bazaar.
The Karni Sena said,
“We demand Stormy’s head
And that Donald should commit Jauhar.”

Posted at 8:41 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

14 January, 2018

Old Monk in the Supreme Court

This is the 65th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

OLD MONK

I told the bartender, with a wink,
“One Old Monk.” Now he began to think.
He looked me up and down,
And told me, with a frown,
“I can see that, but what will you drink?”

SUPREME COURT

Four Supreme Court judges met the press.
They said, “Everything is such a mess.
We just don’t understand
What that Virat has planned.
Cricket is causing us so much stress!”

Posted at 1:11 PM by Amit Varma in Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

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