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.
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On November 8, 2016, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi announced that 500- and 100-rupee notes would cease to be legal tender from midnight that day. This removed 86% of the cash from circulation, an unprecedented event in human history. Demonetisation, as it was then called, or DeMon or Notebandi as it is also known, had humanitarian and economic effects that might take years to play out. In episode 2 of The Seen and the Unseen, Amit Varma is joined by Suyash Rai, an economic analyst from Delhi, as they examine whether demonetisation achieved any of its intended effects, and try to come to terms with some of its unintended (but foreseeable) consequences.
Both Varma and Rai have been early critics of this demonetization, and have written extensively on the subject. Some of their pieces:
Narendra Modi Takes A Great Leap Backwards—Amit Varma, The Times of India, November 20, 2016
The Humanitarian Cost Trumps Any Economic Argument—Amit Varma, India Uncut, November 24, 2016
The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi—Amit Varma, Hindu Business Line, November 25, 2016
Three Reasons Why A Cashless Society Would Be A Disaster—Amit Varma, The Times of India, December 18, 2016
Narendra Modi Makes Some New Year Resolutions—Amit Varma, The Times of India, January 1, 2017
Tackling Black Money—Suyash Rai, NIPFP, November 17, 2016
A flawed policy: The real problem with demonetisation is not just in implementation—Suyash Rai, Scroll, November 22
The Demonetisation Decision: Event, Impact, Narrative and Meaning—Suyash Rai, The Wire, December 4, 2016
As Donald Trump raised his tiny paw and took the presidential oath this Friday, I had just finished reading an outstanding book that, I thought, explained Trump as well as many other leaders on the world stage today. In ‘What is Populism?’ Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton professor, lays out all the ingredients from which you can cook up a populist movement. I was struck by how closely our own prime minister, Narendra Modi, matched Müller’s definition. Consider the following characteristics that characterise populists, as defined by Müller.
One, they claim that not only do they represent the people, but that whoever does not support them is, by definition, not part of ‘the people’. Müller says this is “the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.” As Trump put it in May last year, “the only important thing is the unification of the people— because the other people don’t mean anything.” Think of how the BJP treats Muslims and Dalits as second-class citizens.
Two, populists are not just anti-pluralism, but they’re also anti-elite. Müller writes, “Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work (…) and, in right-wing populism, also against the very bottom of society.” Think of Modi’s railings against the “Lutyens elite” as an example.
Three, they portray themselves as victims even when they are in power. As Müller puts it, “majorities act like mistreated minorities.” Modi still rants against the elite even though he is now their leader, and paid BPJ trolls still call journalists ‘presstitutes’ even though they control much of the media. Trump, who has been a crony capitalist insider all his life, is a classic example of a pig calling the pigsty dirty.
Four, populist parties tend to become monolithic, “with the rank-and-file clearly subordinated to a single leader.” Trump decimated the Republican Party on the way up, just as Modi is now the Supreme Leader within the BJP, which once had multiple leaders of stature.
Five, populists pride themselves on their “proximity to the people.” Modi being a ‘chaiwalla’ is a key part of his narrative, and as that famous photoshopped picture of him sweeping a floor shows, the common-man element is important to him. As it is, indeed, to other populists. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez both hosted shows similar to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat.
Six, populism is simplistic, so populists can only think in simplistic terms, which leads to “an oversimplification of policy challenges.” Modi’s Demonetisation is an example of this, as is Trump’s attribution of America’s job losses to immigration and outsourcing.
Seven, they populists tend to believe in conspiracy theories, which “are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.” Indeed, the RSS’s view of history is itself a sort of giant conspiracy theory.
How do populists behave once in power? Müller outlines three things that they tend to do.
One, they “colonize or occupy the state”. They fill up all the institutions with their own people, co-opt those that are independent, and reshape the system to their will. Think of Modi’s appointment of incompetent cronies to the Censor Board and FTII, the replacement of the Planning Commission with Niti Aayog, and the recent virtual demotion of the RBI to an arm of the finance ministry.
Two, they “engage in mass clientelism: the exchange of material and immaterial favors by elites for mass political support.” Think of the sops Modi offered before the Bihar elections, or the ones expected in the next couple of budgets leading up to important elections.
Three, they shut down dissent in civil society, starting with NGOs. Müller writes, “rulers like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and PiS in Poland have gone out of their way to try to discredit NGOs as being controlled by outside powers (and declare them ‘foreign agents’).” Sounds familiar?
Modi fits Müller’s populist template so precisely that he seems like a bot generated by a populism machine, and not an actual person. It made me wonder: if a near-identical form of populism persists through vast stretches of time and geography, does it then reflect something innate in human nature?
I’ll leave you with a pleasant thought, though. Here’s why I think both Modi’s and Trump’s populism will ultimately fail. The narratives of populism, based on some of the people being all of the people, only work in broadly homogenous societies. The USA will be a minority-majority country by the middle of the century (ie, whites will be less than 50% of the population), and a Trump won’t be possible then. As for India, our diversity is our greatest defence against creeping fascism. Populism might work at the state level, but nationally, we are too diverse. That puts a ceiling on how much support Modi can get, which I believe already peaked in 2014, when he could be all things to all people. I think he already senses this. How will he respond?
India has a panoply of laws that prevent corporations from getting into farming, and which prevent farmers from escaping agriculture, by virtue of not being able to sell their farm land for non-agricultural purposes. The Seen Effect of this is that they are protected from exploitation by rapacious capitalists. But are the Unseen Effects worse?
Amit Varma is joined by guests Pavan Srinath and Karthik Shashidhar, who explain that a key reason why Indian agriculture is in such a dreadful state today is the bad laws governing it set by different governments.
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.
The essay went on to illustrate this with what is now known as the Parable of the Broken Window. Economists consider this one of the earliest—and certainly the clearest—explications of the concept of opportunity cost. More than that, though, it laid out a way of thinking about the world that went beyond economics. The great economics journalist Henry Hazlitt wrote his seminal text, Economics in One Lesson, based entirely upon Bastiat’s essay.
So why is a 19th century essay relevant today? Well, it wouldn’t be if its concepts had been internalized by everyone. But they haven’t been, and governments constantly make disastrous policies that could have been avoided if policy makers simply looked at the world through the lens of the Seen and the Unseen. That is exactly what I will attempt to do in this weekly podcast. Every week, I will get experts from different fields to lay bare the inner workings of their domains, and to show how policies framed with the best intentions often have the worst consequences.
A new episode of The Seen and the Unseen will be uploaded every Tuesday. I hope you enjoy it!
Mahendra Singh Dhoni made his name
With his skill for finishing a game.
The hardest thing to know
Is when to just let go.
His timing has been perfect again.
The Indian male is quite a beast.
One half devout, just like a priest,
But the half that prevails
Seems to treat all females
As mere dishes laid out at a feast.
Every December, I like to meet the high and mighty of the world and ask them about their New Year Resolutions. Last year I met Donald Trump. “I’m going to control my foot in 2016,” he told me. “It keeps going into my mouth. It’s like my foot has a mind of its own. What to do?”
“You could try building a wall between your foot and your mouth,” I suggested. “A really yuge wall, like, I know you’ve seen a lot of walls, and this will be the best.”
He rubbed his minuscule hands together, deep in thought, and offered me an orange.
This year, I decided to go closer to home. I dropped in to meet my old friend Narendra Modi. “Wassup, Vallabhai?” I said. It’s an old joke between us.
Modiji gave me a warm hug. “It’s so good to see you after so long,” he said. “I mean, it’s good that it’s been so long since I last saw you. What brings you here?”
“An Uber,” I said. “Listen, I just dropped in to ask what your New Year Resolutions for 2017 are. What new things are you going to do?”
Modiji sat back, and a grim look came over his face. “I have made many resolutions,” he said. “First of all, I need to finish my war against black money. I thought demonetisation would do it, but my own damn IT department did a study that showed that only 6% of black money was kept in the form of cash. Even that was converted from old black money into new black money through new black markets. So phussss.”
“So what are you going to do then?”
“Well, I was told that a lot of black money is kept in the form of gold and real estate. So I will tackle them both. First, I will demonetise gold. I will declare that from now on, gold is aluminium. And boom, in one blow there will be no more gold in the country. Until I declare something else to be gold.”
“Er, this is not how it works,” I said. “You are not God. You can’t just pass a law and change the world like that.”
“You know nothing,” he said. “I am the Badshah of Jumla, and the Emperor of Spin. I am the King of Narrative, and I always win. Did you notice that I just rhymed? That’s what happens when you read Rhyme & Reason every week in the Times of India.”
“You can read?”
“No, a babu summarises it for me. Not Bajrangi. Anyway, so after gold, I will tackle real estate. I will demonetise real estate, Mitron, I mean, Amit. All land holdings of more than 100 square feet will no longer be legal. I will kill black money, I’m telling you.”
“No, you won’t, Modiji, you’ll devastate the poor people of this country all over again. How will you win elections like that?”
“I have a plan for that. All this land that will now belong to the government, I will redistribute it among the people of India. I will deposit one acre of land into every Jan Dhan account.”
“Modiji, oh my god, who has been advising you? You can’t deposit land into Jan Dhan bank accounts.”
“Yes, you can. Only, it won’t be actual physical land. It will be digital land. India needs to move beyond real estate into a landless economy. Everyone will be a homeowner.”
“But how will they withdraw this land?”
“We won’t let them withdraw it. Can you imagine the chaos if people start withdrawing land from Jan Dhan accounts? Amit, you also na, what all you say!”
I sighed, and offered him the orange I’d saved up for a year. “It is vegetarian, isn’t it?” he asked. “I mean, it’s not a steak or something?” To be fair it did look kind of weird.
“So what are your resolutions besides killing poor people, I mean, black money? Any plans of exercise, diet etc?”
“I have already started an exercise regime,” he said proudly. “Look!” He pointed outside the window, where three babus in safari suits were doing on-the-spot jogging. “I have delegated my exercising.”
“Er, ok,” I said. “And any plans to diet? You’re so full of yourself, you must surely be overweight.”
“I will go on a Vedic diet that made our ancients extremely healthy.”
“What do you mean, healthy?” I said. “They’re all dead.”
Modiji glared at me. “Amit,” he said, “your humour is terrible. I must save India from the likes of you. I am going to send all Amits to Pakistan.”
He threw the orange at me, and I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was on a flight to Islamabad. Amit Shah sat besides me, squirming in his middle seat.
“What the hell did you just do?” he barked at me. “Why couldn’t your name have been Arun, dammit?”
This is the script of a musical play starring Arnab Goswami and a few eminent world leaders. At the start of the play, Arnab is at the front of stage, while Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi stand behind. There’s also a chorus of 30 cows, spread out among the audience.
Arnab: Hello and welcome! I’m Arnab the magician. It’s time now for an awesome competition. The strong men of the world are here, all set to go. Who’s the most macho of them all, the nation wants to know.
30 cows: The nation wants to know! The nation wants to know!
Arnab: There will be all-out attack, and no surrender. Please welcome, from the US, our first contender.
Donald Trump strides out on the stage.
Trump: My name is Donald Trump, I name buildings for a living. If you troll me on Twitter, I’m most unforgiving. I love India, mitron, and cricket most of all – especially Rahul Dravid, because he’s such a wall. I eat Mexicans for breakfast, and Moslem Men for lunch. When it comes to immigrants, oh boy, I pack a punch. My ego is so yuge, the biggest in my class. Oh, before I forget, I’m gonna kick China’s ass.
Vladimir Putin now walks on.
Putin: My friend Donald, poor guy, he never understands that no macho man can ever have such tiny hands. While Donald’s been busy laying luxury resort foundations, I’ve been killing millions, and conquering nations. You must have seen that picture of me bareback on a horse. After the shoot was over, I ate it with no remorse. When my wife wanted a new purse, I wrestled a crocodile. In front of me, with good reason, Donald is servile. He’s a little man, with little hands, and a little something in his pants. I’ve been saying it all along, you can’t be macho with a little dong!
30 cows: A little dong! A little dong!
Trump: My hands are small, you see, only to compensate. It’s because the size of my dong is very very great. I have even appeared in a movie made by Playboy. I’ve always been the biggest bully with the biggest toy!
Arnab: Stop this nonsense, change the subject, I’m feeling nauseated. I’m a middle-aged Bong with a tiny dong, and my ego is deflated. That’s why I’m always so aggro, it’s a kind of compensation. But the TRPs are great, and hey, I do it for the nation. Anyway, Mr Putin, you cannot win this way. Is there perhaps something else that you would like to say?
Putin: I’m more macho than this fool Trump, that’s all I have to say. After all, for many years, the man’s been in my pay. I now rule two countries, I am such a stud. If you mess with me, my friend, I will drink your blood.
30 Cows: Drink your blood! Drink your blood!
Arnab: Mr Putin, I am impressed, you meet all the criteria. Now tell me something, did Netaji really die in Siberia? Or maybe, oh my goodness, could he still be alive? Anyway, you win the trophy, c’mon, gimme five.
Modi strides forward.
Modi: Wait a minute, Arnab, what’s the freakin’ hurry? I’ll give you a tight tamacha, your vision will be blurry. This Russian fool, he think he’s cool, well, here’s the truth that pinches: See my chest, it is the best, all of 56 inches!
30 cows: 56 inches! 56 inches!
Modi: Killing people, invading countries, all that’s so old school. (And oh, my friend, Donald, your hands are miniscule!) Massacres are child’s play, when you’re off your rocker. But can you reach into every pocket, and empty every locker? I’ve just pulled off a surgical strike against the poor of my nation. No more cash for them, unless they give the BJP a donation. We’re going cashless, I am matchless, Arnab, you silly clown: Give these men ghagra cholis, and give me the crown!
Arnab: Mr Modi, most impressive, but you’re still a pretender. Hold your horses, because you see, there is one more contender. Men, you see, beneath their bluster, can be quite weak. But here comes a fine lady who never turns the other cheek.
Mamata Banerjee enters the stage, wearing a sash that says, ‘Most Macho Person.’
Mamata: Hello boys, I’m pleased to meet you, ridiculous wimps. You behave like such gorillas, but you’re really tiny chimps. You boast about how strong you are, and about your brains. You’d be bawling on the floor if you ever went through period pains. Mama’s here now, and she’s gonna whack your asses with her magic broom. So get up, get out, and when you get home, tidy up your room. Trump, Mr Macho, eat a nacho. Putin, so potent, you look like a rodent. Modi, have you realized that you will be demonetised. Mama’s here!
30 cows: Mama! Mama! Mama! Where is my Pajama? Mama Mama Mama!
Earlier: The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi
I am a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, but the man had some strange views. In Hind Swaraj, written shortly after he turned 40 in 1909, Gandhi tore into some of the symbols of the modern age. “Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin,” he wrote. “To study European medicine is to deepen our slavery.” He railed against the railways, saying “it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.” He argued against lawyers, despite being one himself, saying they had “impoverished the country.” But here’s a thing to note: despite these personal views, he never once suggested that railways, hospitals and lawyers should be banned.
There is a notion being spread these days that is as absurd as the ideas above: it is the notion that there is something wrong with using cash, and that we should head towards being a cashless society. This is nonsense. A cashless society would be a disaster for India. Here’s why.
One, a fully cashless society would mean the end of privacy. There would be a digital trail of every action you take through your purchases and transfers. If you buy AIDS medication or a porn magazine or book a hotel room for a romantic alliance, this information can be accessed by the government – or any hacker with the requisite skills – and used against you. India has no privacy laws, and data protection is also a big worry – every week we hear stories of some some big hacking or the other, from the Congress in India to the Democratic Party in the US.
Two, a fully cashless society could mean the end of dissent. The government can use any data it gathers against you. (Even if you commit no crime, there is much you may be embarrassed by.) What’s more, they could make any opponent a pauper with one keystroke, freezing your bank account while they investigate alleged misdeeds. Just the fact that they have this power could have a chilling effect on dissent. Those in government now may well salivate over this, but tables turn fast, and when they are in opposition, would they want their opponents to have such power over them?
Three, a fully cashless society endangers freedom. Cash is empowerment: ask the young wife who saves spare cash from her alcoholic husband; or the old mother who stuffs spare notes under her mattress for years because it gives her a sense of autonomy. Indeed, in a misogynist country like India, cashlessness would hit women the hardest.
It is a myth that an advanced society must necessarily be cashless. In Germany, a country which knows the perils of authoritarianism, more than 80% of transactions are in cash, as citizens safeguard their privacy and freedom. Even in the USA, 45% of transactions are in cash. Note that Germany and the USA actually have the banking and technological infrastructure to enable cashlessness. In India, 600 million people have no bank account, and less than 20% of all Indians have a smartphone. Internet penetration is iffy, as is power. (By ‘power’, I mean electricity, not the government’s control over you.) Trying to make India cashless is akin to putting a bullock cart in an F1 race, and whipping the driver because he’s too slow.
It is true that many technologies imperil our privacy, like any app we download on our phones, for example. But those actions are voluntary, and we can choose to avoid them. That is the crux of the matter. My objection here is not to cashlessness per se, but to the coercion implicit in the currency swap of November 8 and its aftermath. A cashless society would only be good if we evolve towards it, not if we are forced into it.
At the moment, the common Indian is wary, for good reason. Digital payments involve transaction costs, are unreliable because of infrastructure issues, and hey, who would trust an Indian bank after what the RBI just did? The beneficiaries of forced cashlessness are not consumers, but vested interests like banks and payment companies. Indeed, this might even be the largest redistribution of wealth from poor to rich in the history of humanity.
The BJP itself continues to take cash donations and shift goalposts. When the demonetisation was announced, they said it was meant to attack black money and counterfeit currency. Once it became apparent that those reasons were nonsense, the government tried to change the narrative into one about a cashless society. Within a fortnight of that, they are already backtracking and saying they meant ‘less cash’ when they said ‘cashless’. The truth is this: demonetisation was a humanitarian disaster that is crippling our economy, and no matter how many times Modi and gang try to rationalise it, it cannot be done. One day, these men will stop trying. When they cannot justify any more, they will distract.
So I finally saw ‘Dear Zindagi’ (after invoking it for the sake of my column last Sunday), and I was appalled. The one kind of Bollywood film I abhor is a shallow faux-serious movie, which is exactly what this is—give me honest escapism over this any day. Before enumerating what I didn’t like about it, here’s what I did like:
1. Alia is brilliant in the film, such an exceptional actress. She’s blown me away before in ‘Kapoor and Sons’ and “Udta Punjab’, the only two other films of her that I’ve seen. Unlike so many of her Bollywood peers—especially the men—she doesn’t emote or ‘act’ as much as she sinks into the skin of a role. That should be fairly basic, but in Bollywood it needs to be drawn attention to, especially given who our superstars are. Her friends and family are also well cast. And the film itself is slick.
That’s all, sadly. Now for the things I did not like:
1. I read somewhere that the film was being praised for acknowledging mental health issues. But the treatment of Alia’s depression is Bollywoodized. In the real world, no mental health issue can be explained purely by circumstances or cured by thinking differently. The cause of depression is never one flashback away, and the cure to it is never the kind of banal self-helpisms that Shah Rukh’s character unleashes. Which brings me to my second point.
2. Practically everything Shah Rukh’s character says is nonsense. 90% of it is banal—like Ravi Shastri talking about cricket—and the other 10% is downright wrong and dangerous—like Modi talking about economics. The kind of psychotherapy he is shown doing is basically quackery, and the way he talks you’d imagine he’s never read a book in his life and spends 20 minutes each week on brainyquotes and Wikipedia. Simply put, the guy’s a buffoon.
3. I’ve often maintained that Shah Rukh Khan is the worst actor in history. I know Amitabh was his idol when he entered the industry, and while Amitabh has done some monumental hamming in his time, Shah Rukh knocks him out of the park. Watching Shah Rukh ham it up in scenes with the wonderfully naturalistic Alia is as painful as watching Amitabh ham it up in Piku in scenes with the brilliant Irrfan Khan. Is the contrast not obvious to viewers? Am I the only one cringing?
4. The film is otherwise filled with predictable narrative cliches. The parents are cartoon characters, not real people. The conflicts are cartoon conflicts, even though Alia’s lovely acting manages to make it seem real. All loose ends are neatly tied up by the end. Barf.
What irritated me the most, though, was the shallow, ignorant treatment of mental health. It’s an issue that needs to be talked about and acknowledged, and films like this actually do a disservice to that end. To repeat: depression, or any kind of mental health issue, cannot be explained by circumstances, and cannot be cured by the barrage of banalities Shah Rukh unleashes in this film. I wish the director-and-writer, even if she didn’t actually know any people with mental health issues (which itself would be astonishing, given how common it is) had at least bothered to research the subject. A pity.
They warned her about misogyny.
She said as she shaped her destiny,
“It’s a man’s world, indeed,
But I will not pay heed.
I will make those men bow before me.”
Sanjay Gandhi came back from the dead.
He went to meet NaMo, and he said,
“I loved to hurt the weak,
But nasbandi seems meek.
I wish I’d done notebandi instead.”
Last Tuesday, I went to watch ‘Dear Zindagi’ at a movie theatre near me. Before the film started, two old men came and sat in front of me. One was a short bald man with John Lennon glasses who looked like Ben Kingsley, and was wearing a hoodie over what appeared to be a dhoti. The other was a white-haired man with a flowing white beard and a flowing white robe. The bearded man nodded to me as he sat down, and then turned and said to his companion, “Mohan, I’m really looking forward to seeing Alia today. Such a good actress. Almost as if she was trained in Shantiniketan.”
“Yes, Robida,” said Mohan. “I can think of all kinds of non-violent acts she and I could do together.” Both men chuckled.
Just then, the national anthem started playing. I stood up, as did everyone else in the hall – except these two men.
It was the morning show and the hall was half empty, which I suppose was good, otherwise some macho self-righteous fool would have wanted to display his patriotism by asking these two men to stand up. But no one said anything. The anthem got over and the screen went blank. As I sat down, the bearded man turned around and caught my eye. I couldn’t help asking him, “Hey, I don’t mean to intrude, but why didn’t you guys stand for the anthem? Aren’t you proud of being Indian?”
Mohan turned around and gave me a kindly look through his Lennon glasses. “It was an act of civil disobedience,” he said. “And we were showing our love for this country, and our patriotism, by sitting.”
“I’m sorry?” I said. “The patriotic thing to do is to stand. We must honour our country.”
“And what does it mean to honour our country, young man? First of all, ask yourself, what is our country? Is India equal to the national anthem? Or the national flag? Or are there certain values that our country stands for that are more important than these symbols?”
I didn’t know what to say, so like any young person in these times, I said something random. “Freedom. We would never had the chance to stand for a national anthem before 1947. So I stand today to celebrate freedom.”
Mohan giggled, as if the gorgeous Alia had just landed up beside him in a slinky leotard and started tickling him. “Freedom! And how do you define freedom? We did not become a free country when the British left. Yes, we got political independence, but that isn’t freedom. Oh no, the freedom we fought for was the freedom of individuals to live their lives without oppression. Basically, to not be forced to do anything. The Supreme Court has made it compulsory to stand, which is why Robida and I kept sitting just now. There is nothing as unpatriotic in a free country as coercion.”
I gaped at him as he continued: “All we did in 1947 was replace a British empire with an Indian empire. We retained most of the laws in the archaic Indian Penal Code which the British had framed to subjugate us, including laws against free speech, homosexuality and even women’s rights. The state censors films, bans books, as if we are infants and not adults. I have a friend who started a university in British times without needing a license,” – he glanced at Robida – “and today, to start or run a business, we need to beg or bribe brown babus. Robida once told me that the British occupation of India was the ‘political symptom of our social disease’. That disease is now terminal.”
“What is that disease?” I asked.
Robida gave me a sad smile. “That disease is having the mentality of subjects. What does a democracy mean? It means that the people are the rulers, and the government is there to serve us. But our governments rule us instead of serving us, and we are happy to be ruled. If we are going to play ‘choose your ruler’, what is the point of being free?”
“Look around you,” said Mohan, “and think of all the different kinds of coercion in your life. These days, I am told, you even have to queue up to withdraw your own money. You are even being forced into a cashless society, which will be the end of freedom, for the government will control all your money and can shut you down anytime. That would have been such a wet dream for the British.”
“Ouch” said Robida, “here comes the part of the film I really hate.” The censor certificate flashed on the screen.
“Alia!” exclaimed Mohan, and turned around. The film began, and I lost myself in the anaesthetic comfort of everyday pleasures.
Also read these earlier pieces by me:
Once there was a young girl in a queue.
A young boy joined it, all set to woo.
She looked him up and down,
And told him with a frown,
“‘Yes’ if you have change, otherwise ‘Thoo!’”
Mahatma Gandhi came down to earth
For just a visit (not a rebirth).
He screamed in double quotes,
“Take my face off your notes.
It’s eroding my sense of self-worth!”
November 2017. This is an excerpt from a screenplay of a musical play performed recently at the Kala Natak Academy, inaugurated by the prime minister Shri LK Advani. It stars Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and a chorus of 30 cows. While reading it, please sing it in your head with a grand dramatic voice.
[Silhouette of Narendra Modi sleeping on a bed. Loud snores emanate. At the foot of the bed, a minion sits. Loud footsteps are heard. Arun Jaitley enters the room.]
AJ: Modiji, Modiji!
Chorus of thirty cows: Modiji, Modiji!
Minion, thrusting his arms out towards Jaitley: Do not wake him, Do not shake him. He is sleeping, he spent all of last evening weeping, for this nation, the creation of a Hindu god in a Himalayan location. Do not wake him! Please forsake him!
AJ: He must be woken! My spirit is broken! Forget the nation, I’m out of ration. I have no cash. The supreme leader has obliterated my stash, it’s all trash. He could have let me know at least. Oh, the beast!
[There is a loud grunt, and Modi rises, and then gets out of bed. He is wearing only his Modi kurta.]
Modi: Oh here you are, my little one. I am lohpurush, you’re a brittle one. As for your notes, why don’t you… write on them? As for your notes… a blight on them! You have been rather slow, lately. Don’t you see the plan, Jaitley? Like me, you must learn to see far. What happened to my churidar?
30 Cows: Churidar! Churidar!
[Minion scurries off to fetch churidar.]
AJ: You say you want to attack black money. Are you being funny? This won’t hurt black money, truth be told. Hoarders keep their wealth in real estate and gold. In benaami investments and banks that are offshore. Why did you let go of the panama chors? The IT department found only 6 percent of black money is held in cash. So stop talking trash.
30 cows: Talking trash! Talking trash!
[A minion brings a churidar. Two burly bearded bare-chested men wearing harem pants appear and lift Modi by the armpits as he tries to peel on his churidar. Jaitley continues:]
AJ: More than 90% of the cash out there is white! Those who have earned it feel it is their right. Their right to spend as they please, to save as they please. It’s their money, not yours to seize! 600 million people have no bank accounts! 300 million have no ID, and this is tantamount to theft from the poor, into the pockets of the rich. A reverse Robin Hood displaying a kleptomanic itch.
[Modi has put on his churidar, and the burly bearded bare-chested men in harem pants disappear under the bed. Modi is tying the naada of the churidar. Jaitley continues:]
AJ: Modiji, I have to tell you, this will cost you votes. As much as 86% of the money in use was 500 and 1000 notes. Cash was used in more than 90% of all transactions. This has set off a series of destructive chain reactions. Farmers are screwed, workers are screwed, small businesses are shutting down. A recession is a best-case outcome, the worst is a meltdown. And after all this, you accuse me of not looking far. Modiji, how long does it take you to wear your churidar?
30 Cows: Churidar! Churidar!
Modi: Jaitley, you must understand, my churidar is tight. And you’ve missed the point completely, clearly you’re not bright. The poor do not matter: Let their blood splatter, let the economy shatter, ignore the presstitute chatter. I am the ruler of this nation, this is my domain, with a treasury to fill, an army of bhakts to maintain. This move is genius, such a lovely redistribution. The people’s wealth is now the government’s, a perfect solution. I don’t really care about a little collateral damage. If there are riots, well I’m sure, the army will manage. Besides, my PR is quite superlative. I happen to have complete control of the narrative!
30 Cows: Narrative! Narrative!
AJ: Modiji, you must remember, India is democratic. Right now the BJP feels much like the Titanic. We’re sinking sinking sinking! What on earth were you thinking? Optics has its limits, and no matter what you call it, the narrative won’t work when you hit people on their wallet. It’s clear that all this power has gone to your head. If we don’t get rid of you, this party will be dead!
[Rajnath and Sushma walk in, holding a chair on which Advani is sitting.]
Modi: What do you mean? What is this crap? I am the Supreme Leader. I’ll declare an Emergency, and put you all in a feeder. Forget the aam junta, they are all kambakhts. I’ll drown out their voices through my sweatshop of trolling bhakts. The people are an instrument, a way to feed my pride. I don’t give a damn how many poor folks have died.
Sushma: And that is why, Modiji, you have got to leave. Politicians should serve the people, not rule them till they grieve. You made a big mistake demonetising those notes. Now we have to dethrone you to somehow save our votes.
[The burly bearded bare-chested men in harem pants emerge from under the bed, put a bag around Modi’s head that says ‘Garbage Disposal’ and carry him off. Rajnath and Sushma lower the chair, and Jaitley helps Advani on to the bed.]
Advani: I’m so glad to be on top, this is my rightful place. Because of that fool Modi, I am now a moderate face! I saved his ass once, and that led to my downfall. The moral of the story: The higher you rise, the harder you fall.
30 Cows: Moo! Moo!
My other pieces on this subject:
Every time a poor person dies, India's GDP per capita goes up. #Modinomics— Amit Varma (@amitvarma) November 23, 2016
So I put up the tweet above yesterday to illustrate a point I’ve had to make repeatedly about the demonetisation: When the humanitarian costs of a particular move are so huge, it is pointless to even discuss the economic impact. I often quip, if Modi killed the poorer half of the country, some ‘respectable’ economist in his pay would publish a sober, reasoned argument that hey, India’s GDP per capita just went up, this is good for the economy. (And they wouldn’t disclose their affiliation while doing so, but leave that aside for the moment.)
Similarly, if Modi was just to announce that all money in everyone’s bank account was to be confiscated by the government, no doubt certain economists would pop up to point out the long-term economic benefit of this: the fiscal deficit wiped out, more money available for infrastructure spending, and of course, an end to black money. But such a rationale would not just be besides the point, it would be immoral—for obvious reasons.
The thought experiments above are not very far from what is happening. The legitimately earned wealth of tens of millions of people has been eroded, businesses have shut down, the economy’s come to a standstill and the death toll is rising every day. It’s heartbreaking—and yet, we have sober economic arguments going this way or that way.
Frankly, I believe that a recession is inevitable, and that the economic costs of this will far outweigh any economic benefits, as is always the case with such social engineering. But that argument of mine is besides the point, because the moral costs make it moot. Lives are being lost, livelihoods are being destroyed, and taking a neutral stance, or making ‘balanced’ arguments, is, in my view, is as odious as actively supporting the butchery that is underway.
My guest column in the Times of India last Sunday: Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap backwards
And Peri Maheshwar’s excellent FB post on this yesterday.
In 1958, Chairman Mao ordered that that all sparrows over China should be put to death. It was hailed as a necessary step by a strong leader. Farmers were suffering because sparrows tended to eat their grain seeds. For the good of the nation, they had to be protected. Thus began The Great Sparrow Campaign. A countless number of sparrows were indeed wiped out—but there were unintended consequences.
Sparrows ate locusts, and once the balance in the ecosystem changed, locusts proliferated and destroyed China’s crops. There was famine, hunger, starvation: no less than 45 million people died in the three years following Mao’s orders. At the start, Mao exhorted them to bear with the inconvenience. But then the pain piled up.
Mao’s infamous Great Leap Forward included plenty of edicts besides the death warrant to sparrows. They all stemmed from the delusion that the leader of a country, as if he was God, could redesign an entire society to conform to a master plan. The 20th century is full of cautionary tales that warn against such delusion, such as the communism of Mao and Stalin, and the fascism of Hitler. Yet, we do not learn.
Narendra Modi’s demonetisation of old 1000 and 500 rupee notes is one such monstrous folly. It is a blunder in every imaginable way. It doesn’t achieve its intended purpose. And its unintended consequences could devastate the lives of the poor, and cripple our economy.
Modi claims that this move is an attack against black money and corruption. This is not true, and here are four reasons why. One, as per a recent estimate, only 6% of black money is kept in the form of cash. Two, new 2000 and 500 rupee notes are on the way, and a black market for conversion from old to new is already thriving. Three, as various economists have pointed out, this attacks the stock and not the flow of black money. To strike at black money and corruption, you need to strike at their root causes.
Corruption and black money are a consequence of big government, of one set of individuals having discretionary powers over the actions of others. If Modi was serious about tackling black money, he’d bring about institutional changes that would take us towards the minimum government he had promised in his 2014 campaign. Instead, government keeps getting bigger, controlling more and more of our lives. More government = more corruption.
The fourth and most compelling reason is this: these aren’t really high-denomination notes. Modi has probably not bought anything from a store in 15 years, so he imagines that the poor do not use these notes. Well, consider that the last time a demonetisation took place in 1978, a 1000 rupee note, in terms of purchasing power, could buy goods worth Rs 12,000 today. Rich people did hoard their black money with it, but the poor did not use them. (The move failed nevertheless.)
A Rs 500 note today, by contrast, is the equivalent of a Rs 50 note in 1978. These notes constitute 85% of the money in circulation, as opposed to 0.6 in 1978. Over 90% of the transactions in India are cash transactions, and more than 90% of the cash in India is not black money. This is everyday currency.
This is why the consequences of Modi’s move are so severe. According to an RBI note from March this year—and contrary to the government’s PR—only 53% of Indians have bank accounts. How do you think the other 600 million store their savings? Over 300 million people have no government ID, and there are crores of people stuck without a way to convert their hard-earned cash. Even if they did have accounts, there are reports that the government will take six months to print enough replacement notes. Every day the death toll goes up, but rural suffering and anger cannot be captured by bare numbers.
Apart from all the individual suffering, our economy is being eviscerated. Cash is integral to most of the economy. Farmers are being unable to sell perishable produce, to buy grains for the new harvest or to pay labourers. Transporters are unable to transport goods across distances. Commerce has shut down in many places, with small businesses going bust. In some places, the barter system is back, as if we’ve gone centuries back in time.
This is not an issue of implementation. Even if implementation was perfect, this would be a historic blunder because social engineering never works, and carries moral costs because of its unintended consequences. When people have to queue up to withdraw their own money, on which limits are placed, it is an attack on property rights that is more out of the Communist handbook than any right-wing philosophy. Indeed, Burkean conservatives and Hayekian libertarians alike would be aghast at Modi’s actions, as he propels India towards the Soviet Union so admired by Nehru, with its state oppression, artificial shortages and infamous queues. But Chairman Mao would approve.
1. My earlier piece on the subject, ‘Modi Goes to Daulatabad’.
2. Devangshu Datta’s piece in Scroll providing some useful facts and figures, ‘In one stroke, demonetisation has shaken the trust our monetary system is based on’.
3. Ajay Shah’s lucid analysis in Business Standard: ‘A monetary economics view of the de-monetisation’.
4. Swaminathan Aiyar in Times of India: ‘Why small finance faces a big wipeout’.
5. Salil Tripathi in Mint: ‘No, the poor aren’t sleeping peacefully’.
6. Ajaz Ashraf’s excellent piece in Scroll illustrating the impact of demonetisation on small businesses: ‘Informal credit systems: Modi has crippled a very Indian way of doing business’.
7. TN Ninan in Business Standard: ‘Our post-truths’.
8. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in Indian Express: ‘You have been warned’.
Exactly one year ago, on November 17 2015, I sat opposite Steve Bannon in his NYC office as he asked me if I’d be interested in starting Breitbart India. I had won the Bastiat Prize (for the second time) a few days before, and a lady who was one of the funders of Brietbart, and of certain leaders in the Republican Party, got in touch with the organisers to ask if she could meet me. (It’s not fair of me to name her because she’s not really a public figure.) She’d been impressed by my speech, and thus this meeting.
I didn’t know much about Breitbart, though I’d glanced at it. I did not know they were alt-right—I didn’t even know the term then. All I knew was that they were a conservative site, and that was enough for me to say no. I was a libertarian, I said, pro-immigration, pro-gay rights, and it didn’t fit. Furthermore, I advised them that there was no point in Breitbart setting up in India.
‘It’s incongruent,’ I said. ‘There is no analog of American conservatism in India. The Indian right is driven by bigotry and nativism, with no deeper guiding philosophy behind it. [Consider the irony of these words.] You will not find any Burkean conservatives here. Don’t come.’
‘Well, we think that Modi is India’s Reagan,’ said Bannon.
I laughed, and told them that Modi was no Reagan. I explained why he was a statist, top-down thinker, someone who would only expand the power of government over common citizens, more like the Leftist Indira Gandhi than Reagan. They nodded. The thrust of my decision to not consider the option they were offering me, though, was that I was libertarian, not conservative.
The lady did try her hardest to convince. ‘I’m actually a libertarian,’ she said, and then launched into a diatribe on gay marriage, saying, ‘I don’t understand why they ask for marriage. We gave them so much. What’s wrong with civil unions?’
A little later she said again, ‘I’m actually a libertarian.’ And then launched into a diatribe against immigrants in America, and how the cultural fabric of Europe was being torn apart by their immigrants. It was kind of funny, though at the time I was more flattered than amused. Still, I had to say no.
Bannon is now the right-hand man of someone who has really small hands and will be the most powerful man in the world starting January. Now that I know more about the alt-right, that thought is scary. I’m still glad that I didn’t explore their offer further. I could have been somewhat richer, maybe even influential, if I’d taken it up—but I sleep well at night now, and that’s what matters.
I must point out here that my meeting with them was very pleasant, and they were warm and courteous despite my not coming on board. Also, unlike many from across their aisle (whom I deplore quite as much), they were intellectually honest. They had their priors and their first principles, and everything they said and did stemmed from there. One may disagree with those ideas, even find them repulsive, but they’re not hypocrites.
In another context, I also believe that no matter what happens, I’ll always be anti-establishment. There have always been but two political philosophies, David Boaz once wrote, liberty and power. Everyone in politics fights for power; every libertarian must fight for individual freedom. Until Modi became PM, I was the fiercest critic of the Congress and their ruling family, who kept India poor for decades longer than they should have. When Modi took over, I expressed cautious optimism at first, but get threatened almost daily now for my vehement opposition to Modi. (He is right-wing on social issues, left-wing on economics, and thus an enemy of freedom in every respect.) Whoever is next, I know, with a sigh, that I shall be against them too.
Sometimes, this makes me feel crushingly alone. I often joke that there are only three true libertarians in India, a number I have modified to two because one of them is not unequivocally against the social engineering of Modi’s demonetisation. (My friend Barun Mitra is the other true libertarian, my fellow holder of the flame!) If I am to be true to myself, I will always remain on the outside, ridiculed by everyone else, condemned to the eternal vigilance that Jefferson spoke of, which will always be the cross of libertarians to bear.
Of course, I also have my other passion, writing fiction, to sustain my spirit. I hope you didn’t read my shitty first novel. I hope you will read the one I’m writing now.
Misogynists of the world, unite.
Racists and bigots, you won the fight.
You’ve got your president.
Now begin your descent
Into hatred, your sacred birthright.
On Tuesday, India underwent
Surgical strikes that were meant to dent
All unaccounted gains.
Still the question remains,
Who will account for the government?
We live in an age of grand delusions, so it is appropriate to invoke the name of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. When Narendra Modi recently announced the demonetisation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, I instantly thought of Tughlaq, as did many others, if Twitter memes were anything to go by. Tughlaq was a 14th century sultan of Delhi who overestimated the extent of his knowledge and power, and committed a number of legendary blunders, most famously shifting the capital of his kingdom from Delhi to Daulatabad. Modi’s recent edict also involves daulat, and, indeed, a shifting of capital.
To begin with, one must give credit where it is due. Modi is a brave man. Firstly, prime ministers, once in power, are tempted to not do anything which can carry unpredictable adverse consequences. Just play it safe and be a gradualist, one step at a time. A move like this, with all its unintended consequences, requires courage. Secondly, this specific move harms the small traders who operate in a cash economy and have been the BJPs backbone for decades. Modi has taken the risk of alienating them.
That said, courage does not always go hand in hand with wisdom, and this move is a mistake at multiple levels. It is also an illustration of a mistaken mindset on multiple levels. Here are four things I’d like you to consider.
One, think about the stated intent of the move: to eliminate black money and reduce corruption. While it is true that it will bring much existing black money into the white economy, it is merely a reboot. New 500 rupee notes will soon be introduced, as will 2000 rupee notes, and after a month or two of adjustment, life will go back to normal. Also, a vibrant black market has already sprung up offering to exchange old notes for new notes at a fee. Guess where the profits will go.
The larger point, though, is that most truly rich people don’t keep their wealth in the form of cash, but in the form of real estate, gold, deposits in foreign bank accounts and other benaami investments. They will be largely unhurt. This brings me to my next point.
Two, it is the poor who will be hurt the most by this. A large chunk of India’s economy, especially at the bottom of the ladder, is a cash economy. Small traders and businessmen deal in cash for convenience, and pay their workers that way. I pay my domestic help in cash, and her savings are entirely in 500 and 1000 rupee notes. Yes, she can go to a bank and convert them, but that requires an ID, and not all poor people have IDs. Also, there is the significant transaction cost of doing so, as well as the opportunity cost of the time spent. (In case you wonder what kind of poor people have plenty of cash but no ID, google your way to an excellent tweet storm by Twitter user @AmbaAzaad that outlines the kinds of poor folk who are likely to be hurt by these.)
Three, let’s go back to the larger issue of corruption and black money. What is the root cause of corruption? As Lord Acton famously said, power corrupts. The more power you give one set of individuals over another, the more corruption you will have. In my classical liberal worldview, the only legitimate function of the state is to protect the rights of its people. However, our government is orders of magnitude larger than it ought to be. The people who run the country, ostensibly and comically called public servants, are like rulers, and we, their subjects to be brutally exploited. To end corruption, you need to vastly reduce the power that government gives one set of people over another people.
And what is black money? When a government is a thousand times larger than it should be, a rent-seeking parasitic beast that sucks the lifeblood of the people without creating any value, it is natural to be disdainful. The so-called cash economy at the bottom of the pyramid is incredibly productive, for people can only create value for themselves by creating value for others. Unlike government. Of course, much of this cash isn’t even black money per se, and even when it is, it is surely better off being put to productive use than being sucked away as hafta by the one legal mafia that rules us, and their cronies.
I am not saying that we should not pay taxes: it is the duty of every citizen to do so. But consider that if the government took only the taxes it needed to serve us, instead of to rule and exploit us, this mindset of evasion would not exist. And here’s the irony: Modi knows this! One of his campaign slogans in 2014 was ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’, and he unleashed much rhetoric, correctly so, about how Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s statist policies had impoverished our country. And yet, under his prime ministership, the government has only grown, and we pay higher taxes than we did before. This is because, at its heart, his political philosophy is the same as Nehru’s and Indira’s, which brings me to my next point.
Four, Modi, like Nehru and Indira, is a top-down thinker who believes that an economy and a country can be run from above, as if the government is a proxy for god. This is, in the words of the great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, a fatal conceit. Hayek also wrote at length about the limits of knowledge, which should be a lesson in humility for all politicians. The unintended consequences of Modi’s edict involve many unknown unknowns, and I feel that he has not been respectful enough of the poor people potentially at the receiving end. Will they be respectful of him in 2019?
The greatest danger to any land
Is a government that goes out of hand.
A true patriot’s task
Is to constantly ask
Probing questions, and to take a stand.
A Delhi grandma, in confusion,
Looked around for her eye solution.
Her eyesight was just fine.
The reason she felt blind
Was, of course, the Delhi pollution.
There is an excellent essay by Radhika Vaz on Scoop Whoop titled ‘Why The Campaign To Have Mothers’ Names On Cricketers’ Jerseys Is Vomit-Inducing For Feminists’, and I urge you to read it. I agree with almost all of it. There’s just one bit I have a small quibble with. This is when she writes:
I don’t want token gestures and tearjerkers. I want the real deal – I want women in cricket to be paid as much as the men, to be trained as well as them and to be treated like the champions they are.
This is a good time to ask the question: Where does the money in cricket come from? The BCCI is not a benevolent godlike entity having a supply of money that comes from heaven. Instead, their money comes from viewers like you or me, who spend our time watching the game. (That time carries an opportunity cost, needless to say.) That time is then turned into money by the BCCI, which has sold those telecast rights to a channel who then sell advertising space to brands that are paying for our attention. So there are conduits in the way, but how much money goes into the game is a direct function of how many people watch the game. The BCCI’s coffers are filled by us. Our time is their money.
Now, the brutal fact is that most of us choose to watch men’s cricket much more than women’s cricket. (We might make this choice for a variety of reasons, including sexist ones, but those are not germane here.) So most of the money that the BCCI has is because people watch men’s cricket, and it’s only fair that if I create value for the BCCI by watching the Indian men’s team, that money should go to the men’s team and not to the women’s team, who I chose not to watch. To take it from the men and give it to the women would, in fact, be condescending and patronising, and any feminist should be against such handouts. I’d imagine the appropriate feminist response to be, “We’ll earn our own way, thank you, we don’t want your bloody handouts.”
Interestingly, the BCCI does already subsidise other parts of the game somewhat for its longer-term health. While the international men’s team gets all the eyeballs (and thus draws all the money), the BCCI pumps a large part of that money into domestic cricket, in nurturing a feeder system for the game. It almost certainly spends more on women’s cricket than women’s cricket brings in, and I think that’s great for the ecosystem and no one should grudge them that. However, to say that it is the right of women cricketers to be paid as much as male cricketers is a step too far. They simply don’t create as much value in monetary terms, and any demand for equal monetary compensation is thus unfair.
The counterpoint to this would be tennis, which, if I am not mistaken, pays men and women equally despite men bringing in more eyeballs (and thus money). I don’t object to that, just as I don’t object to the BCCI’s policies. They can do what they want, and if we disagree, we can take our eyeballs elsewhere. Sadly, most people in India, including women, will continue to watch cricket; and when they do, men’s cricket far more frequently than women’s cricket. I’m assuming Vaz watches at least as much women’s cricket as men’s cricket, but most of us don’t, and its the choices we make that determine how they get paid.
This is a minor quibble, and it’s possible that I misinterpreted this part of Vaz’s fine piece, and she wan’t really blaming the BCCI for the disparity in pay. It is also a fact that women are usually discriminated against in the workplace, and that reflects in their pay, which is unequal everywhere. Still, I hear people make this complaint in the context of sport, where it really doesn’t hold water—thus this post.
PS. I started writing about cricket a decade-and-a-half ago, and this is probably the first post where I’ve mentioned the BCCI in a non-negative way. I’m buying myself a cookie for that.
FAMILY BUSINESS 1
The Tatas built an unwieldy beast,
Bleeding profusely, to say the least.
Cyrus tried for a fix.
Now he’s out of the mix
Because Ratan remains the high priest.
FAMILY BUSINESS 2
Once the Yadavs had a pillow fight.
Shivpal threw bolsters with all his might.
Akhilesh slipped and fell.
Mulayam had to yell,
“Save me from this Samajwadi plight!”
Anurag Thakur was in a fix.
Although a master of politics,
One day he told the press,
“I simply must confess,
That man Lodha has hit me for six.”
Mumbai’s havaldars were in a fix,
As movie lovers scrambled for tix.
One cop said, “What drama!
They would call me ‘Mama.’
Why is there a ‘MAMI’ in the mix?
Ravana, a man of great acclaim
Said to me, frustrated, all aflame,
“I’ve been trying to click
A selfie with a stick
But my ten heads won’t fit in the frame!”
LAND OF GROPE
One day the Statue of Liberty
Broke down & walked off into the sea.
She said, “Trump’s such a pig,
If he should get this gig,
Call me the Statue of Misery.’
It’s rare that when a prize is given to someone, it is the prize that is elevated, not the recipient. That is exactly what has happened with the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Bob Dylan is an artistic legend who needs no validation – but the Nobel Prize itself has taken a lurch towards relevance.
The first thing to note is that Dylan did not get the prize for his ‘poetry’. Instead, according to the Nobel Prize citation, he got it “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel committee did not force-fit his lyrics into an existing category, but accepted that literature exists outside the conventions typically assigned to it. This renders criticisms of Dylan’s lyrics from a poetic standpoint moot, because they weren’t written as stand-alone poems, but as songs set to music. The Nobel Prize citation recognises them as literature, nevertheless—and that’s spot on.
What is literature? Definitions are troublesome, but I love Franz Kafka’s description of an ideal book as an “axe for the frozen sea within us.” For more than half a century now, Dylan has been wielding that axe and reaching into millions of frozen seas. His songs range from the political to the deeply personal: he captured the spirit of the times with the same acuity with which he wrote about his own existential struggles. His art evolved as he aged, and some of his meditations on ageing and death (listen to ‘Not Dark Yet’) are as powerful as any literature you will read.
Dylan’s impact is incomparable: He changed the landscape of popular music in America, influencing generations of songwriters, but his influence goes beyond the world of music. He is the most cited songwriter in US judicial opinions, showing how deeply his songs permeated into the culture. No previous winner of this prize has moved so many people to tears or rage or joy or wonder.
If you Google a definition for literature, the first one you will come across reads: “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” This is the crux of much criticism of this award: Dylan wrote great songs, but they’re not primarily written words, so how are they literature? Here it must be asked: Why “written words”, and not just “words”? Long before printed books existed, epic poets wrote their poems to be performed. We consider them literature today. William Shakespeare, in fact, wrote little that was meant for the printed page; and yet, if his plays are not literature, nothing is. Writing or print is merely one medium for words: surely the medium does not matter, and the words themselves do.
I am going to stretch that argument further. Shakespeare’s plays were basically screenplays for theatre productions, so how are they different, in terms of category, from screenplays for movies? The most powerful art form of our times, in fact, is the TV series, so what about those? Would Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), William Goldman (All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) and David Simon (The Wire, Treme) be future candidates for a Nobel Prize for Literature? What about stand-up comedy? The greatest artistic genius of our times, in my opinion, is Louis CK. His masterpiece, the TV series Louie, cracks open my frozen sea time and again. Is his work literature? Could he win the Nobel some day?
The merits of specific artists are irrelevant to this discussion, though. What matters is that the Nobel Prize Committee, with this bold award to Bob Dylan, has acknowledged that literature exists outside the narrow confines of past conventions. For this, they must be congratulated.
I am a hawk when it comes to India-Pakistan relations. We have been suffering from cross-border terrorism for decades, and need to take a hard line towards our enemies. Every day our soldiers risk their lives for the country, and we must honour their service. For this reason, it infuriates me when people within India commit acts against the national interest. Expelling Pakistani artists from Bollywood is one such anti-national act.
To win a war, we must know our enemy. Here, it is both correct and incorrect to say that Pakistan is that enemy. Like India, Pakistan is many things, and contains multitudes. For the sake of analysis, let’s break it down and look at three different Pakistans, and consider, as economists would, their interests and incentives. (One can drill down deeper and say that there are as many Pakistans as there are Pakistanis, but let’s keep it simple.)
One, there is the Pakistan military establishment, which nurtures various militant groups. The military will always be hostile to us, because the conflict with India is the source of its power and influence. Two, there is Pakistan’s political establishment. The only thing politicians care about is getting to power and staying there. In a democracy, politicians depend on the people for their power, but Pakistan is no more a true democracy than General Raheel Sharif is my aunt. The political class in Pakistan has always been at the mercy of the military establishment.
Finally, there is Pakistan’s civil society. Their interests are the interests of people everywhere, including in India. They want to be prosperous and happy, and to enjoy the good life. Conflict is not in their interest: war of any kind is a negative-sum game, and everyone is a loser. But Pakistan’s civil society is weak compared to the military. Their interests are opposed to each other, and Pakistan’s economy is in such a dire state because their military and political establishments have always kept their own interests ahead of that of the people.
The power of the military and civil society are inversely proportional to each other, because influence within a country is a zero-sum game. The stronger the military, the weaker civil society—and vice versa. Since the military establishment drives the conflict with India, it is in our interests to weaken them. One path to this, it follows, is by strengthening Pakistan’s civil society. How do we go about it?
One way is trade. For civil society to be strong, it helps to be prosperous. (This is one reason why military dictatorships are more likely in poor countries.) Trade is a win-win game, so by keeping trade lines open with Pakistan, we benefit ourselves, and empower Pakistan’s people. The greater their dependencies on trade, the fewer their incentives for conflict.
Another way of changing these incentives is by cultural exchange. There is much rhetoric and brainwashing, on both sides of the border, that demonizes the other side. But the more cultural exposure Indians and Pakistanis have to each other, the more we realise how much we have in common, and the less we get taken in by the rhetoric. If you nurture the constituency for peace in Pakistan, you reduce the constituency of hate. And as the people shift, so do the incentives of the politicians. Banning Pakistani actors from working in Bollywood, for whatever tokenistic reasons, raises the temperature and helps their military establishment. Why would you help the enemy?
None of this is new thinking in foreign policy circles. In terms of trade, India unilaterally gave Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Pakistan in 1996. And while I am usually critical of Narendra Modi, his handling of the post-Uri fallout has been pitch-perfect. In his speech at Kozhikode, he took a hard line when he spoke of avenging the deaths of our soldiers, but also chose to pointedly address the people of Pakistan directly. “Ask your leaders,” he said, “both our countries got freedom together, so why does India export software and your country export terrorists?” He added, “That day is not far off when the people of Pakistan will get in the fray to fight against their leaders.”
This is clever on Modi’s part, but chest-thumping pseudo-nationalists, including many in his own party, do not understand these nuances. This is something that happens often with Modi. He talks the high road, but his minions walk the low road. (He often talked the low road as well while campaigning, but let that be for now.) I’ve often wondered why he allows this. Is he trying to be all things to all people? Is it some good-cop-bad-cop strategy? Whatever be his strategy on Pakistan, this too is a matter he must resolve.
A slightly shorter version of this feature on Sakshi Malik was published in the October 2016 issue of Elle India.
‘One billion voices.’
It is August 17, 2016, and two women in wrestling costumes eye each other warily. In a few moments, they will grab each other and start grappling. Both women have waited for this all their lives. This is the Olympic games. Six minutes later, one of them will have a medal, and will be a hero to millions. The other will be disconsolate, the dreams of a lifetime crushed.
Wrestling seems simple, involving strength and power, body against body, but actually involves enormous finesse and intricacy. “It is a sport that requires brain, not brawn,” the woman who wins this fight later tells me. Sakshi Malik, 23 years old, from Rohtak, Haryana, needs more than brute force alone to win. She and her opponent, Aisuluu Tynybekova from Kyrgyzstan, are almost playing chess with their bodies, trying to induce small errors from their opponent: errors of balance, movement, emphasis. It is a game of small margins: if Sakshi steps a millimetre in the wrong direction, or shifts her weight a micro-second too early or late, she will lose.
I ask her later, “What is in your head at a time like this?” Elite sportspeople tell me how they try to make their mind as blank as possible, banishing all unrelated thoughts to achieve maximum focus. Is it like that for Sakshi?
Sakshi laughs. “That is impossible,” she says. “At least for me it is. See, I can sit here and talk to you, and my mind can be blank and I can focus. But not there. Not in the Olympics, fighting for a medal. My mind was the opposite of blank that day.
“I thought about how my life would change if I won. I thought about how I would cope with losing, what people would say, how they would criticize me. I thought about my parents, my coach, my friends. I thought, the Olympics comes once in four years, I can’t let this chance go by. I thought of all of India watching me on TV. I had one billion voices inside my head.
“And of course, I also thought strategy. I knew what I was planning against my opponent. I know her strengths. I know her weaknesses. I had a plan. And then I fought.”
As she had in previous matches, Sakshi fell behind. ‘I never give up.’ She kept going, and turned the match around in the last five seconds. Uptil that moment, I calculated, her life had consisted of approximately 75,59,13,600 seconds. All of it was backstory now. All of it led to these five seconds.
The oldest sport
The backstory to Sakshi Malik’s triumph at Rio is much older than Sakshi Malik herself. No one can say for sure what the oldest human sport is, but wrestling is a reasonable guess. It involves nothing more than the bodies of the contestants, and simply requires one wrestler to pin the other down. Even toddlers grapple, and it may not be farfetched to say that the sport of wrestling is an elaboration and formalisation of some of our most basic instincts.
In his magisterial book, Enter the Dangal, Rudraneil Sengupta traces the history of wrestling from ancient times until now. One of the oldest depictions of wrestling, he writes, comes from wall paintings in a group of tombs in Beni Hasan in Egypt, dated to 2100 BCE. “There are nearly 400 illustrations of wrestling pairs engaged in compeition, wearing only loincloths, each pair rendered in different colours. The moves depicted are still in use in modern wrestling. […] From an analysis of the figures, it seems the objective is to get the opponent on his back with his shoulders pinned.”
There are stray depictions which are even older, and it is mythology more than cave markings that bear testimony to the importance of wrestling in ancient culture. Herakles from Greek mythology was a formidable wrestler, as was our very own Krishna. The epic battle between Krishna and Kamsa “revolves around a wrestling match,” writes Sengupta. Krishna’s diet, with lots of butter and milk, is a “pahalwan’s diet.” Krishna is one in a line of many, of course: Bhima and Hanuman were also mighty wrestlers.
Wrestling flourished through pretty much all of Indian history. The Mughal courts encouraged it, and Hindu kings gave wrestlers important positions in their courts. It was a dominant sport, for it took no resources to learn, and was, rather remarkably, the one sure vehicle for social mobility. “From at least as far back as 1480,” Sengupta writes, “the many kings and emperors of Hindustan hired mercenary troops from a vast pool of rural agrarian communities stretching from the Punjab in the West to Bihar in the East.” This ‘military labour’ market was meritocratic, for the lives and kingdoms of kings often depended on their armies, and they could not afford to discriminate. Becoming a mercenary warrior required being extremely fit, and learning how to fight. Wrestling, or kushti, was a necessary start to this process. And a military life was an escape from the civilian burdens of caste.
Some rulers, such as Shahu Maharaj, a descendent of Shivaji, explicitly framed it in these terms. Even when the British took over India, ending the competition for military recruits, they continued this thinking. In his book Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy, Dirk Kolff quotes a British recruiting officer as saying, “It was an almost daily occurrence for – say – Ram Chand to enter our office and leave it as Ram Singh.”
But, it must be asked here, what if Sita Devi were to enter that office?
‘Who wants to be a wrestler?’
Wrestling may have done a lot for caste mobility, but not, until recently, for gender mobility. We know this has now changed: women wrestlers have done very well for themselves in the last few years, culminating in Sakshi’s performance in Rio. And here’s the bizarre thing: while wrestling has a serious tradition across India, in states like Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal and all of Central and North India, it is the state of Haryana that dominates Indian women’s wrestling today. Now, Haryana is famously misogynistic, with a sex ratio of 879 women for every 1000 men (as per the 2011 census). So how did women’s wrestling take off here, of all places?
Students of history often argue over the Great Man Theory. In the 19th century, the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle argued that history is shaped by remarkable individuals, and “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” His theory had many opponents, including the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who wrote of these supposed Great Men: “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” (This was the 19th century, so forgive these gents for talking of men and not persons.) There is much to be said for both views, which contain nuances beyond the scope of this piece, but when it comes to women’s wrestling in India, it seems that Carlyle was on to something. There is one man, and one man alone, who made this happen, and without him we wouldn’t be here. His name is Chandgi Ram.
Chandgi Ram came from a village called Sisai in Haryana, and is one of the great modern Indian wrestlers. He excelled in dangals, the traditional Indian wrestling competitions fought on mud, winning coveted titles such as Rustom-e-Hind and Hind Kesri. He also represented India on the mat, winning an Asian Games Gold medal in 1970, and taking part in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He won the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri, retired as a legend, flirted with Bollywood, and eventually started his own coaching center, the Chandgi Ram Vyayamshala, as many retired wrestlers tend to do. For 22 years, he taught only boys.
In 1997, everything changed. The International Olympic Committee announced that from 2004, women’s wrestling would be an Olympic sport. In Enter the Dangal, Sengupta quotes Sonika Kaliraman, Chandgi Ram’s daughter and then 14 years old: “I remember I was playing with a tap in the courtyard, spraying water on the plants. And papa came back home looking all excited and the first thing he said was ‘They’ve put women’s wrestling in the Olympics! Who wants to be a wrestler?’ And he was looking straight at me.”
The gender may have been wrong, but the genes were right. Chandgi began training his daughters, Sonika and Deepika, but it was rough going. It took all of his goodwill to get the girls bouts in dangals, and the misogynists fought back. At one dangal, the girls had stones thrown at them, and men with sticks, abusing loudly, charged the playing area. On another occasion in 2000, some coaches and students at his own Vyayamshala attacked him, breaking one of his coaches’ legs and beating up Chandgi as the girls hid in a locked room. But Chandgi Ram the wrestler had never backed away from a fight, and Chandgi Ram the father and teacher would not do so either.
Sonika and Deepika had moderately successful careers, but Chandgi Ram’s legacy went beyond his family. Some of his wards started coaching girls as well: one of them, Mahavir Singh Phogat, trained his daughters and nieces, and made the Phogats the most accomplished family in Indian wrestling. Women’s wrestling gradually gained acceptance in Haryana, especially as medals came in. One of the centers where girls was allowed to train alongside boys was the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, Haryana.
‘My sport, my passion, the love of my life.’
Maybe great individuals make history. Or maybe it’s just luck. One day a young boy came to the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak and asked for the coach, Ishwar Singh Dahiya. He wanted Dahiya to coach him. Dahiya said ok; the kid looked enthusiastic. When the boy returned in the evening, though, Dahiya realised that this boy was actually a girl with short hair. Her name was Sunita. There were no girls at the center. What was Dahiya to do now?
“As I had already given permission,” Dahiya told the Indian Express, “there was no question of backtracking. That’s how the girl’s center started.”
Sunita brought with her another girl named Kavita, who won a medal in an Asian junior competition. And one day Kavita sat down to chat with a 12-year-old visiting the academy and told her about planes.
“Mujhe plane ka bahut craze tha,” Sakshi Malik tells me. “Kavita didi told me about flying on a plane on her way to wrestling competitions, and I thought, ‘Even I want to sit on a plane.’ I would see them going overhead and wonder, when will I get to fly?”
Sakshi enjoyed playing sports, and had played basketball, table tennis and badminton in school. (I can imagine her telling her fellow Rio medalist, PV Sindhu, “I can play badminton. But can you wrestle? Eh?”) But wrestling attracted her more. She was partly inspired by her paternal grandfather, who had been a wrestler. “I was also attracted to the costumes,” she says. “And within a couple of days of wrestling, I just knew, this is it. This is what I want to do. This is my sport, my passion, the love of my life.”
‘My perfect day.’
Sport at its most beautiful feels like art but has the mechanics of science. Before Roger Federer hit his first beautiful forehand, he hit thousands of ugly forehands, embedding the movement, the timing, the mechanics into his brain till it was second nature to him. All great batsmen will tell you that they are great not because of what they do on the field, but because of what they do in the nets. The buzzword in sport these days is ‘deliberate practice’, but you don’t need a sports scientist to tell you that it takes years of repetitive hard work to get to the point where you make the sport looks easy. The excellent is always carved out of the mundane. And so it was for Sakshi.
“I would wake up at 4.30 in the morning,” she says, “and work hard for three hours. Then I would rest in the middle part of the day. Then three more hours in the evening, training, training, training.
“There are so many different aspects we have to focus on to be a wrestler. Stamina, power, endurance, flexibility, speed. There is so much work required for each of those. Our coaches plan our sessions so we can be all-round wrestlers. But there is so much to do that there is no time for anything else.
“And we can’t eat before training either. So we are fighting our hunger as well. We can’t do normal things that the other girls do. My brother would say, ‘Hey Sakshi, eat this’ and I would say ‘I can’t, I have to go for training now.’ My friends would go on weekends for outings, maybe to watch a movie, and I would be training. If I had a day off, I would just need to rest, so that I could be fresh for the training session the next day. Training, rest, training, so jao. Rinse and repeat. Every day.”
Sakshi doesn’t say this in a tone of complaint, though. And then she elaborates: “People used to tell me, what kind of girl are you, you don’t pray to God. And I would tell them, but I do puja every single day. Wrestling is puja for me. Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, I am praying to God.
“In fact, if you ask me what is the best day of my life, I will say that any day where I do do time ki training aur din mein rest. That will be my perfect day.”
I believe I can Fly
Sakshi sometimes jokes that she became a wrestler because she wanted to fly in an aeroplane. What might once have been a goal was actually the first significant milestone in her career.
“In 2008, I went to the Children’s Cup. That was the first time I flew in a plane. The whole plane was full of us Indian kids going to the event. And we were so well looked after. We got a full kit, coat, pant, trolley, it felt so amazing to represent India. And then I won the gold! I was on the podium receiving the medal, and I could see the Indian flag, and the national anthem was playing. I can’t describe that feeling. There is nothing like it.”
2008 was also an important year because Sushil Kumar got a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, and a whole generation of kids began to believe that they could do it too. Sakshi was inspired by ‘Sushil Pahalwan’, as she calls him, but she hungered for more than just achievement – she hungered for knowledge. Every local or international competition she went to, she would sit and watch, soak it up, learn.
“Especially the Japanese,” she says. “They were the best in the world, and I was very keen to watch them closely, to see what they did differently. I wanted to understand what made them special?”
“And did you?”
“See, when you see them sitting somewhere, they will be so calm and collected. We Indian girls, on the other hand, when we hang out together, we are boisterous, always laughing, HAHAHAHA! But the Japanese are always composed. Everything is systematic and in order: kit, khaana, diet, sab systematic.”
“And on the mat? Do they wrestle differently? Do they do something Indians can’t do?”
Sakshi also had homegrown heroes. One of them was Geeta Phogat, of the famous Phogat sisters, who had won Gold in the Commonwealth Games of 2010. “Geeta didi was an early inspiration,” says Sakshi. “Whenever we were practising together, I would always go up to her and ask if she already had a partner. [Wrestlers train in pairs.] I always wanted to be her partner. I would learn all that I could from her. She was so aggressive. She never gave up in a fight. She always fought to the end.”
She was close to all the Phogat sisters, having travelled a lot with them for tournaments. Her fondness for Geeta is evident. “She teases me a lot, though I never tease her back, I respect her a lot. We are like sisters – but only outside the mat. On the mat, we are competitors, trying to beat each other.”
There is both irony and tragedy here. Geeta fought in the same 58kg weight category in which Sakshi found herself. Geeta had gone to the London Olympics, but only one of them could go to Rio.
‘Sabse Achha Insaan.’
By the time the trials for Rio came around, Sakshi had established herself as a serious contender. She had won the silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and the bronze in the 2015 Asian games. And in the trial for her weight category for Rio, she beat Geeta Phogat 8-1. But qualifying for Rio was another matter entirely.
There were three qualifying tournaments, and Sakshi lost in the first one. “I had a bad day. It happens. You can’t win every time.”
Then the Wrestling Federation of India decided to send Geeta for the second qualification event, in Mongolia. She was a senior wrestler, they felt, and deserved one shot at qualifying. As it happens, she failed—but had she qualified, Sakshi would have had to wait another four years. Now she had another chance, at the third qualifying event in Turkey. Her roommate for the trip was her close friend of many years, Vinesh Phogat, Geeta’s cousin.
“No matter what happens,” we told ourselves, “we must qualify. Otherwise four more years will go by.”
But there was the little matter of meeting their weight first. Wrestlers often have to lose a lot of weight before the weigh-in for the bout, in order to qualify for their chosen weight division. Sakshi and Vinesh were both struggling to do so.
“Maybe it was because of the temperature in Istanbul, but we just weren’t losing weight. We didn’t eat for two days, we didn’t even take a sip of water, and all this time we’re still training and sweating. It was pathetic, and I told Vinesh, ‘Kaise bhookhe hum pade hai. Isse achha tho apna normal life hai. Do time ka khaana jise mil jaaye, who sabse achha insaan hota hai.’
“Then the next day both of us qualified, and all the pain went away. We went out to celebrate.”
And how they celebrated tells you a little bit about the sacrifices they made, and the things we take for granted. They went to the mall and walked around.
‘One of us.’
August 17 was a bittersweet day. Both Sakshi and Vinesh had their bouts on that day, in the 58kg and 48kg category respectively. It was appropriate that the fate of the two friends should be so closely tied together. For years, since they were young girls with limber limbs and a hunger to learn, they had been close friends. They had fought, mostly on the mat, they had laughed and played and teased each other and carried each other, and they were together here as well. “We kept telling each other,” Sakshi says, “one of us will win a medal for India. “
Sakshi lost in her quarterfinal bout. Vinesh reached her quarterfinal, and was in ominous form, having won her pre-quarterfinal bout 4-0. She was confident, buoyant, the hard work of her whole life bringing her to this one inevitable conclusion, with her close friend nearby, willing her on. And then, in one heartbreaking moment, it was over.
Spectators mostly see the glory of the Olympics. The sportspeople on the podium receiving their medals, their eyes moist as the anthem plays. But sport is a zero-sum game: for one person to win, everyone else must lose. For every gram of glory at the Olympics, there is a kilogram of tragedy. The Olympics are where dreams come to die.
“One of us will win a medal for India.” Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher. But Sakshi was still standing.
Wrestling has a unique procedure called the repechage that Indians especially must appreciate. Basically, once the two finalists are decided, all the wrestlers beaten by them re-enter the competition and fight it out for the bronze medals. This is how Sushil Kumar in 2008 and Yogeshwar Dutt in 2012, both beaten in earlier rounds, had gotten back into the contest. And this is what kept Sakshi hopeful. Valeria Koblova, who beat her in the quarter-final, was “a very strong fighter”, she said. “I kept myself mentally prepared. I knew I would get another chance to go for a medal. And now, with Vinesh injured, it was up to me.”
After Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher, her coach had gone to Sakshi with tears in his eyes. “My eyes were also wet. Vinesh was such a big support for me. We’d discuss strategy before each bout, give each other confidence.” Now she was alone – with a billion voices inside her head.
‘Do you have any tips?’
Everything has changed. When Sakshi took up wrestling, the handful of other girls who also wrestled came from wrestling families. But now, starting with the success of Geeta Phogat in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the appeal of the game has widened. “There are so many girls at our academy,” says Sakshi, “that there’s not enough place on the mats for all of us. We have to train in shifts.”
And mind you, this is Haryana.
“People would taunt me earlier, say that wrestling was only for boys, who would marry us after this, what kind of girls were we? Family friends would come home and ignore me, treat me disdainfully. Now they come home to ask for selfies. They tell me, Beta, we are sending our daughter also for wrestling classes, do you have any tips?”
What is Sakshi like when she is not in training mode? “Ekdum shaant,” she says. “I am not a party girl at all. I like to stay home and chill, just relax.”
And what would she be if she wasn’t a wrestler?
“I would study hard, get a job, then get married, I suppose. I had no special ambitions at all.”
“What are your class friends doing now?”
“They are married. Most of them. Many of them have children also.”
A reminder: Sakshi is 23.
We are a story-telling species. We make sense of the world through narratives. We’re bound to fit Sakshi into some narrative or the other. She is a woman from Haryana beating a patriarchal system. She is an Indian sportsperson rising to the top despite the system. She is beti bachao. She is achhe din. She is falaana, she is dhimkaana. At some level, all these narratives are both lazy and condescending.
Sakshi Malik is a 23-year-old girl who found, early in life, something that she loved doing more than anything else in the world. It was like puja for her. The best day in her life was when she did nothing but that. It gave her entry into a world where she made close friends, experienced heartbreak, felt the ecstacy of standing on a podium with her anthem playing. It made her fly, literally. It gave her joy – and sport is so wonderful, so transcendent, that for a few moments it gave millions of us some joy as well. That is the medal.
Hillary Clinton drew lots of hate,
But believed in the electorate.
With a delighted shriek,
She said, ‘I may be weak,
But look at the other candidate!’
Donald Trump wanted to build a wall.
Humpty Dumpty told him, ‘Hey, bad call.
A bridge is much better,
Brings people together.
You might just be heading for a fall.’
At one point in the presidential debate earlier this week, Hillary Clinton said, “Mental health is one of the biggest concerns.” She was not referring to her opponent, but those words would have been apt in that context. Mental health is indeed a huge concern when it comes to Donald Trump. No candidate in US history has been so unhinged. Not only is Trump incapable of deep thought, he appears incapable of rational thought. His rare coherent sentences seem accidental, like the broken clock that is right twice a day. Even his hairstyle seems to reflect that the neurons below are firing in unusual ways. Indeed, his speech patterns are what you would expect from a malfunctioning AI bot. I’m not sure Trump would pass the Turing test.
Why, then, are so many Americans supporting him?
One possible reason proposed by the columnist Glenn Reynolds, which I have touched upon in an earlier edition of Lighthouse, is that a large number of Americans are closet racists, bigots, misogynists and nativists, but kept their preferences hidden because they seemed unacceptable in polite society. (Preference Falsification.) Social media allowed them to discover others like themselves, find enormous amounts of data that would feed their confirmation biases, and build progressively larger echo chambers. At the appropriate tipping point, along came Trump, articulating these basic instincts and bringing them into the mainstream. And boom, you have the Trump wave, in what social scientists would call a Preference Cascade.
I think there is much truth to this. I would also like to propose another reason: we are a species that relies on stories for explanations of the world around us, and Trump tells simple stories.
The world is complex and mysterious, and we make sense of it through stories. All our myths and religions evolved out of the need to find stories that would a) explain the world; and b) comfort ourselves. We have modified these stories as new evidence has popped up (eg, science), but have also stuck to older stories (eg, religion) for all kinds of reasons, from custom to the force of inertia to their beguiling simplicity. This last point is important. The world is so complex that simple stories appeal to us precisely because they stop us from feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Where did that tree come from? God put it there. Why was there an earthquake? God was punishing us for our sins. And so on.
Trump sells simple stories. Imagine a middle-aged white man in small-town America who has seen jobs disappear and incomes stagnate for years. If Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Paul Ryan explain to him why he is in this state, their complex explanation of a complex phenomenon will typically contain a mix of jargon, empty phrases and tired bromides, and might even be incomprehensible. Trump, on the other hand, will keep it simple. “You are losing your jobs because our government ships them overseas” is his anti-trade spiel. “You are losing your jobs because immigrants are coming in here and taking them away” is his anti-immigration spiel. Both of these explanations are wrong, but whether they are true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are simple.
Once people buy into these stories, they are so invested in them that they are not going to accept deeper explanations. And they don’t trust politicians anyway, regarding them, with some justification, as smooth-talking, power-hungry, sociopathic slaves to special interests. Trump made a fool of himself in this recent debate, but he did worse in many of his earlier debates during the Republican primaries, and that didn’t hurt him. His followers judge him on different parameters than pundits and conventional politicians do. Substance is irrelevent, and facts don’t matter. Stories matter.
I don’t believe Trump tells these simple stories because he is a master politician. I think he tells them because he is a simpleton. His ideas are mostly dangerous and wrong, and if there is any first principle he believes in, it is an infallible belief in his own excellence. He has already destroyed his party, and he will damage his country if he comes to power. Will he be president?
I have a pessimistic view and an optimistic view. My pessimistic view is that polls are underestimating his support, just as polls underestimated the Brexit vote, because of preference falsification. So he will do better than his polls indicate. My optimistic view is that demographics are against him, and he has antagonised many black, hispanic and female voters, whose numbers are too large for him to win. He won in the multiway Republican primaries because the floor of his support was high; he will lose in the November election because its ceiling is too low. That’s the story I’m telling myself, because much as I find Hillary Clinton deplorable, I’d prefer a bad president to a mad president.
There are few things as satisfying as being macho on social media, and this is quite the season for it. After the terrorist attack in Uri, every Righteous Internet Patriot (RIP) wants our government to teach Pakistan a lesson by going to war. I have two things to say about this: One, it is the worst of all available solutions; Two, it is the best possible stance to take. Let us unravel that.
War is a solution that would be worse than the problem. Let’s look at this conflict using the metric of human lives. A rational aim of any solution would be to minimise the loss of Indian lives. What is the cost we currently bear through Pakistan-sponsored terrorism?
In a reply to an RTI petition this July, the government of India stated that 707 Indian lives have been lost to terrorism since 2005. Over 11 years, that comes to 64 deaths a year. If the status quo is maintained, with the usual empty diplomatic posturings, this figure should not rise too drastically. But what if, in an exasperated search for closure, we go to war?
A modern war with modern weaponry could cost us tens of thousands of lives, and maybe millions if it turns nuclear. (This does not take into account downstream effects on survivors, the economy, the environment and so on, all of which would blight the future.) Whatever the precise number, the cost of war would be orders of magnitude worse than even the long-term cost of the status quo. For any rational person, therefore, war is off the table.
This creates an obvious problem. If the rational course for India is to avoid war no matter what happens, then Pakistan can keep escalating with impunity. They could kill hundreds of Indians a year, or even thousands, confident in the belief that because we are rational, because we can do the math, we will be restrained. So what are we to do?
The field of game theory contains an insight to this dynamic. The game most relevant to two nuclear powers is called Chicken. Here’s an illustration: two cars are racing towards each other, and a crash is imminent. (Mutually Assured Destruction.) The driver who loses his nerve and swerves first loses the game. Now, every rational driver will swerve before he crashes into the other guy. So a surefire way to win the game is to convince the other guy that you are irrational, prepared to die, and will not concede. (One way of doing this is by breaking the steering wheel and throwing it away.) Your opponent, if he is rational, must swerve.
Pakistan has played this game brilliantly with a so-far rational India. Their venal generals and mad mullahs, the world believes, are capable of going nuclear at any provocation. India’s rationality and restraint is applauded in diplomatic circles—but we’re being pwned in the geopolitical sphere by Pakistan.
One way out is for India to portray itself as equally irrational, and show a willingness to go nuclear—even if we actually remain rational and intend to avoid war. Richard Nixon did this during the Cold War in 1969, when he ordered the US army to full war-readiness, and sent 18 B-52s loaded with thermonuclear weapons towards the Soviet border, where they flew around in pretty oval patterns for three days. The Soviets, who weren’t exactly ballerinas themselves, were spooked. Nixon called this ‘the Madman Theory’.
Recent Indian prime ministers would have had a tough time portraying themselves as mad men. (Imagine Manmohan Singh letting off an evil laugh.) But Narendra Modi seemed to be suited for the role – until he became PM. Ironically, the rhetorical belligerance that Modi articulated towards Pakistan while on the campaign trail has been replaced by a subdued, reasonable demeanour on the world stage.
Modi cares deeply about how the world views him, and wants to be seen as a mature statesman. Sadly, he has succeeded. This is reassuring to those of us who fear excessive military adventurism—I live in Mumbai and would be bummed if Pakistan nuked my beloved city—but is counter-productive when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. If Pakistan’s generals saw Modi and his minions as unhinged reactionaries driven by bigotry, Islamophobia and a virulent nationalism, they might back off. But regardless of how he is regarded in JNU, his image on the global stage is exemplary. On all his foreign visits, he comes across as an avuncular dove, a personable connoisseur of the photo-op.
Our conflict with Pakistan will not be ended by diplomacy. China supports Pakistan, America needs Pakistan for Afghanistan reasons, and all diplomatic manouvering on this subject is just theatre. To get Pakistan to stop poking us, we have to play the game. Modi has so far been a master of optics – and playing Chicken with Pakistan is his greatest challenge yet.
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9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)