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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


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And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Essays and Op-Eds

Will cricket decline in India?

This is the 24th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

As the first Test between India and England moved towards a finish earlier this week, one of my friends announced that he was singing Raga Malhar. This is a legendary raga that is supposed to draw rain from the sky. And indeed, rain fell. If causation could be established, my friend would be a national hero, for millions wanted precipitation.

Like most Indian men, I’m crazy about cricket. Like unrequited love, this passion often seems futile and self-defeating. It’s also mysterious. Why do we invest so much time and energy into following this sport and no other? Why is it the only sport that Indians excel at (relative to others, of course)? In a globalized world, can cricket survive?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 26 July, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through


Celebrating Pratibha Patil

This is the 23rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

If you are an Indian, your heart should swell up with nationalistic pride today – and perhaps even explode. India elects a president as you read this, and it is likely to be Pratibha Patil. There has been much talk in the media about how she is unfit for that post, an opinion I have also expressed. But now I have seen the light. I was wrong.

Competence and intellect are optional attributes for a post that only has ceremonial value. Our president represents India to the world, and should be someone who people can take one look at and say, “Ah, so India is like that!” For various reasons, Pratibha Tai embodies much of India in her slender frame.

Consider, first, her spirituality. We are a spiritual nation, and Pratibha Tai actually converses with spirits. When she was nominated for the presidency, she revealed that she had been told by an enlightened soul that she was destined for bigger things.

“I had a pleasant experience,” she told an audience at Mt. Abu, where she had gone to meet a lady named Hridaymohini aka Dadiji, who runs a “World Spiritual University”. She had chatted with a gentleman named Dada Lekhraj, who died in 1969 but has presumably hung around since. “Dadiji ke shareer mein baba aye,” she told the audience. (“Baba came in Dadiji’s body.”) This, you will notice with pride, also has a touch of the erotic about it, which is quite appropriate in the land of Khajuraho and the Kama Sutra.

There are many advantages of having a president who can speak to spirits. She can chat with Gandhiji (Mahatma, not Sonia) over breakfast, and let us know his views on the world and Lage Raho Munnabhai. If George W Bush comes visiting, she can impress him by chatting with Saddam Hussein and asking him where those WMDs are. (“Dadiji je shareer mein Saddam aye.”) And so on. Lucky Dadiji.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 19 July, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Licensed to toast

This is the 22nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“You may now need licence to own toaster,” read the headline of a news report this Tuesday in the Hindustan Times. The article began: “You do not use the Toast Authority of India’s toasting services, but may soon have to pay a one-time licence fee for the toaster you own and an additional tax on any new toaster you buy in the future. Why? To support the Toast Authority of India and its employees.”

“Wait a minute,” you tell me, “you’re pulling a fast one on us. This is way too absurd to believe. Our gentle, compassionate government would never do something like that.”

Right. Well, I did make some of that up. The headline actually said, “You may now need license to own TV.” And in the para I quoted, replace “TAI’s toasting services” with Doordarshan, “toaster” with “TV” and “TAI” with “Prasar Bharati”, and there you have it.

Now tell me, is that any less absurd?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 12 July, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Thinking it Through


Arpita and the Bombay Plan

This is the 21st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Much amusement came yesterday when I read of Arpita Mukherjee ranting against singing shows on television. Arpita, in case you haven’t heard of her, is a singer who came to national attention by taking part in singing reality shows like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Fame Gurukul. She has an album out now called Yeh Hai Chand, and in the course of a recent interview she said, “Reality shows create unnecessary hype.”

She went on to disparage the voting mechanisms of such shows, and said, “most of the competitors who are not talented win music talent hunt reality shows.” Critics of such shows would no doubt be pleased at Arpita’s outburst – she is a beneficiary of the shows she lambasts, which seems to make her criticism credible. Fans of those shows would rail at her hypocrisy and ingratitude. Actually, her comments are entirely rational and predictable. In fact, she reminds me of JRD Tata and GD Birla.

In 1944, with India on the verge of independence, a group of industrialists that included Tata, Birla and other notables like Purushottamdas Thakurdas, AD Shroff and Kasturbhai Lalbhai came up with a document called “A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India” – also known, famously, as the Bombay Plan. In this, instead of arguing for free markets, they made a case for massive state involvement in the economy. Fans of big government held it up as a sign of validation – India’s biggest businessmen were putting their faith in central planning instead of free markets. In his wonderful book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha writes, “One wonders what free-market pundits would make of it now.”

Well, I find Arpita’s and the industrialists’ actions to be analogous, and not remotely befuddling. The shows Arpita criticises enabled her entry into the music business, but now that she has got her break, they are a threat to her. They provide an assembly line of singing talent to the music industry, acting as a filter for talent, and are the biggest source of competition for Arpita. Who likes competition?

Similarly, state controls on the Indian economy shut out competition, and helped entrenched players like Tata and Birla. It is a different matter that the controls and license raj went too far and hurt even the industrialists who had been in their favour, but they did prevent competitive markets, which was in their interests.

It would be presumptuous to conclude that either Arpita or the Bombay Plan authors consciously intended to shut out competition, but their incentives were certainly aligned that way. And while Arpita’s comments will have no impact on the viewership of reality shows, businessmen who fear competition have harmed this country immeasurably.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 05 July, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


A Liberal Complaint

This is the 20th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Erudita, the Goddess of Words, was snoozing up in heaven when she was woken up by a sudden noise. Deep down in the Vocabulosphere, there was turmoil. “I should go and investigate,” she thought.

She zoomed down. There, bang in the middle of the political spectrum, the word Liberal was pacing to and fro. Left to right. Right to left. Left to right.

“What’s the matter, Liberal?” She asked. “You seem agitated. Is everything okay?”

“Everything okay, everything okay?” mocked Liberal. “Everything is not okay. I want to quit.”

“Quit?” said Erudita. “You can’t quit. As long as humans need you, you have a job to do. Just do it quietly, and all shall be well.”

“Humans,” said Liberal, “are the problem here. A century ago I was happy and peaceful, sure of my identity. I knew what I meant. But in the last few decades, I have been brutalized. My original meaning has been wrung out of me, and now I stand for different things to different people. I have become a label, and a cuss word, and a badge to people who don’t even know what I stand for. Aaargh!”

“Whoa, hold on there,” said Erudita. “I thought you were one of the most important words in modern history, for everything that you embodied. What’s gone wrong? Start at the beginning.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 28 June, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


How voters fail democracy

My review below of The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Bryan Caplan, appears in today’s Mint.

Oh, how we bemoan politicians in India. We call them corrupt, undereducated, sometimes criminal, occasionally senile, and we complain about how they do nothing for the country. And then, again and again, we vote in the very people we rant about. Is this a failure of democracy? If so, what causes it?

The traditional answer economists would give you, from public choice theory, is “rational ignorance”. The costs of casting an informed vote outweigh the potential benefits. Our vote, let’s face it, would count only in the immensely unlikely event of a tie. To gather and evaluate all the information required in terms of the policies that a government should follow are too time-consuming for us. Thus, it is rational to remain relatively ignorant. And because of this rational ignorance, bad governments come to power, and are in the sway of special interests, for whom the benefits outweigh the costs of influence.

This is not just an elegant theory, but also politically correct. Voters aren’t stupid, it tells us, merely rational. Well, along comes Bryan Caplan, who teaches at the George Mason University in Virginia and is a popular economics blogger, to tell us that democracy fails not because voters are rationally ignorant, but because they are irrational. In the introduction to The Myth of the Rational Voter, he writes: “In the naïve public-interest view, democracy works because it does what voters want. In the view of most democracy sceptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want.”

Caplan’s book is written in an American context, and is yet profoundly relevant to India, and will evoke jolts of recognition from readers here. For a significant part of the book, he outlines the different biases that people tend to have, in the face of all evidence. There is the anti-market bias, people’s inability to “understand the ‘invisible hand’ of the market”. There’s the anti-foreign bias, a distrust of foreigners and an underestimation of the benefits of trading with them. There’s the make-work bias, which causes people to “equate prosperity not with production, but with employment”. And there’s the pessimistic bias, which makes people “overly prone to think that economic conditions are bad and getting worse”.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 23 June, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics


The politics of division

This is the 19th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Politics in India sometimes seems like a card game. A few days ago, when Pratibha Patil’s candidature for president of India was announced, the newspapers were full of how the UPA was playing the “gender card.” Her record in politics was not at the heart of her nomination – Patil is a woman, and because of that alone, politicians were expected to support her.

Vir Sanghvi wrote last Sunday of how Prakash Karat vetoed every name the Congress threw at him till he was outwitted by the choice of Patil. “If Karat had objected to Mrs Patil,” wrote Sanghvi, “he would have seemed anti-woman and so, he finally gave in.” A news report told us of how the Congress “attacked the BJP for not supporting Patil for the post of the President of India and accused the saffron party of being ‘blatantly’ against the cause of women.” (It can be presumed that had the UPA’s candidate been male, the BJP would have been “against the cause of men.”)

While the BJP did not succumb to this dubious logic, they were certainly worried. Their assumed ally, the Shiv Sena, had reacted to Patil’s candidature by applauding the fact that she was from Maharashtra. The Maharashtra card! (At the time of writing, the Sena is yet to make a final choice – they haven’t yet put all their cards on the table.)

Cards, cards, cards. Ten years ago KR Narayanan won support across the political spectrum because of the “Dalit card”. Five years ago APJ Abdul Kalam benefited from the “Muslim card”. Both men have their fans, and I even know one person who likes Kalam’s poetry, but the political support they got derived from their Dalitness and Muslimness respectively. Parties that could not afford to be seen as anti-Dalit or anti-Muslim found it hard to oppose them.

The office of president is largely ceremonial in India, and it doesn’t bother me if we choose our figurehead according to caste or religion or gender. But the very fact that these factors count underlines the grip of identity politics in this country. The primary factor in Indian elections is not governance but identity, not what you do but who you are.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The comfort of a worldview

This is the 18th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

The other day I was at a party with some highly intelligent people with strong views on the world. We talked about politics, economics, movies, and, as you’d expect from Indian men, cricket. Among the subjects that stirred up heated arguments were global warming, farmer suicides and the existence of God.

You might think that of all these worthy subjects, debating the existence of God is pointless. It is a matter of faith, and lies beyond reason. I agree. But I’d point out that for all practical purposes, the other subjects we argued about aren’t too different.

Everyone present there had strong views on global warming, but none of them completely understood the science behind it, or could explain the difference between a climate model and a ramp model. All of them vociferously offered conflicting solutions for our agricultural crisis, but their belief was rooted in intentions, without a historical perspective of what had actually gone wrong, and how markets and prices work. As the hours slipped by and the pegs piled up, we conducted opinionated drawing-room discussions on complex subjects whose intricacies none of us had mastered.

Now, this is not a condemnation. The world is terribly complicated, and it isn’t rational for each of us to try and master every subject around us. If that was a prerequisite to having opinions, we wouldn’t have any, and would wander around baffled by everything. It is natural and sensible for us to seek cognitive shortcuts to understanding the world. Such shortcuts often result in neat little packages known as worldviews.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 14 June, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Mobs are above the law

This is the 17th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I felt an intense desire yesterday to go out and burn a bus. There was no specific reason for this – it was like a craving for ice-cream – and I also figured that I would throw stones at shop windows afterwards. Being in a social mood, I called up a couple of friends to ask if they would like to join me. They politely declined. Oddly, they also asked if I was okay. “I’m just fine,” I told them. “You go have latte and feel sophisticated.”

But I understand their apprehension. Had a couple of us gone out and burnt a bus, we would have been arrested instantly, and later thrashed in the lock-up. On the other hand, had a couple hundred of us gone, nothing would have happened. We would have been allowed to burn buses and throw stones, and even hurt or kill a few people as long as they weren’t anyone influential. All we’d need was a banner or two, or even just some slogans to shout. “We want justice,” we could proclaim, while figuring out whether you set fire to the tyre before or after it’s around the hapless passerby. It takes skill.

In India, mobs are above the law. The events in Rajasthan in the last few days are an illustration of this. The losses to business because of the protests by the Gujjars and their clashes with the Meenas are estimated to run in the hundreds of crores, and I think you’d agree with me that a lot of it was avoidable. Most mob violence in India is.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 07 June, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


How to predict the next Indian Idol

This piece of mine has been published in today’s Lounge, the Saturday edition of Mint.

We’re the world’s largest democracy, but let’s face it, politics is boring. Who to vote for? Why can’t we vote by SMS instead of having to trot to a voting booth? Why don’t our politicians perform? Pah!

That’s why Indian Idol is such a perfect show for us. It gives us the power, it gives us the ease, and it even gives us something to choose from. We’ve given up on governance – let’s vote on entertainment.

And wouldn’t it also be nice is if you could forecast the winner long before the rest of the country knew who it was? Oh, how your friends would admire you then! You would be the Indian Idol Pundit!

Well, Lounge is here to help you pick the Indian Idol winner this year. Large quantities of telephone polling are not required. Public choice theory need not be studied. All wisdom will now be revealed in seven points in the next few paragraphs. Read carefully.

One: The winner will be the boy next door.

Indian Idol is not a singing competition but a likability contest. The winner is likely to be not the best singer, but a good singer with a pleasing personality. In the first season, Rahul Saxena, Rahul Vaidya, Amit Sana, Aditi Paul and Prajakta Shukre were all better singers than the eventual winner, Abhijeet Sawant. In the second season, NC Karunya was streets ahead of Sandeep Acharya. And yet, Abhijeet and Sandeep, besides being competent singers, also had boy-next-door charm. The girls found them cute – the boys didn’t feel threatened by them. Killer combo.

Two: The winner will be an early favourite.

Keep a close eye on who wins the early piano rounds. Both Abhijeet and Sandeep won their piano round in their season of Indian Idol. Most viewers tend to decide early on who they like. The rest of the season, they ignore that person’s failings – unless they are too glaring – and find reasons to reinforce their choice.

This is also why Ravinder Ravi, who won a piano round with a powerful performance in the first season, survived until the final five despite a series of monstrously besura performances: those who had chosen him as their winner overlooked his failings, and kept finding reasons to validate their early choice. This brings us to our next point…

Three: Don’t worry about the besuras

It really is no fun unless a lousy singer goes really far in the competition, despite the jury’s criticism. This happened to Ravinder Ravi in Season One, and it happened recently to Sanjaya Malakar in American Idol. Both times, immense worries were expressed that they would win. But that could never happen.

No matter how much support they get, and for whatever reasons, bad singers will always have more people against them than for. Now, when there are seven or eight contestants left, those votes against are diffused among many people. When there are four or five left, the supporters of good singers who are eliminated switch allegiance to good singers still in the show. It then becomes harder for the besuras to survive. This also works against polarising personalities who are otherwise good singers, such as the arrogant Rahul Vaidya in Season One: the ‘against’ votes count for more as the field narrows down.

But criticism can also help the besura singers, as the next point illustrates.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 02 June, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Indian Idol | Essays and Op-Eds


Keep the ‘Free’ in ‘Free Speech’

A version of this piece was published today as the 16th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I should be grateful that you are reading this column. I have often written about how free speech is threatened in India, but we are nowhere near as bad as some other countries, such as China or Iran or North Korea. There you’d probably read me one week, and then I’d vanish. Here the press is somewhat freer.

Nevertheless, I think you’d agree that things could be better. In India, films are routinely censored, books are often banned, and artists have been roughed up and put behind bars. Often, the constitution allows this and our laws support it, and there seems to be a common consensus that there should be limits to free speech.

A famous case for such limits was made by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr in 1919 in a US Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States. The defendant, Charles Schenck, had been indicted for distributing leaflets to people likely to be drafted for military service. The leaflets asked the men to “assert opposition to the draft” on the grounds that it went counter to the provisions against “involuntary servitude” in America’s 13th Amendment.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Schenck, and the judgement written by Holmes said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Since then, this hypothetical example, of a man falsely shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, has been brought up by people who argue for the imposition of limits on free speech. Naturally, having cited this example, they often tend to propose their own limits.

Well, my view is this: I don’t think that there is any need for limits to be imposed on the right to free speech that are not already implicit in the way they are defined. Shouting “fire” falsely in a crowded theater would be wrong even without any restrictions placed on free speech simply because the right to free speech is fundamentally a property right, and does not extend to other people’s property. Let me explain.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


God resigns

A version of this piece was published today as the 15th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the text of God’s resignation letter, which has been leaked to us by highly placed sources. The author wasn’t available for comment when we tried calling. If anyone would like to fill the vacancy, please write in to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Dear Humans

This is to inform you that I quit. I have enjoyed being God for an eternity now – thank you for the opportunity – but I cannot bear the thought of going on and on like this. Enough is enough. I have informed my angels of my impending resignation, though I didn’t expect them to rush off to buy horns and black clothing right away. This Sunday will be my last day in office, after which I intend to spend some time with my family. (Ok, I’m kidding about the family. Heh.)

I started off badly, I confess. I was a beginning God and there was no roadmap, so what do you expect? My brief was to create a star, a planet and a satellite with a golf course. The rest of the universe wasn’t in the plans – that’s all the failed attempts. I was finally told that I could stop when I made earth, even though I got the golf-course wrong. Still, I’m sure there are other entertaining things you can do on the moon.

Then I was asked to populate the earth, and that’s when I had the most fun. I tried various funky things – I thought bacteria were pretty cool, and would rule the earth for sure. I also thought that of all the prehensile organs I gave my creatures, the penis of the whale was much more useful than the opposable thumbs of humans. I mean, how much fun it must be to grip something with that?

But you guys triumphed, largely because I gave you greater computing power. Had I put in a few trillion neurons less, it could all have been different. (And perhaps I should have worked harder on the dinosaurs.) I admit I got carried away by you because you were the first creatures to notice that I existed. Look, validation matters, period.

Then, when you were just beginning to come out of caves and get civilized, I decided to take a nap. It’s hard work, all this creation, especially at the level of detail involved, and I was tired. And really, what could go wrong while I slept? Humankind was on the rise, using all its neural computing power to create new things, and I thought I’ll wake up refreshed and see a better world, and maybe I’ll get back to work on the moon after a snack or something. Golf is good.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 24 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


The Hindutva Rashtra

This is the 14th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the text of a speech given by Shri Adolf Shah at the Baroda University on 17 May 2022.

Dear Friends

I welcome you to Baroda University for this special ceremony. This day marks the eighth anniversary of Shri Neeraj Jain’s appointment as vice-chancellor of this university by our honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. We have seen some glorious days under him, and have grown almost analogously with our Hindu Rashtra, as India has officially been for the last decade. Indeed, these two stories are interlinked, and if you permit me, I shall take you through some of our most glorious moments. The monitor on top of the stage will instruct you when to clap; please do so.

Shri Jain first came to our notice when he protested against some paintings at the now long-defunct fine arts faculty around 15 years ago. Shri Jain said the paintings offended his religious sensibilities, and his valiant thugs manhandled the painter, who was sent to jail. Many people protested, including the dean of the faculty, who, in contrast with protesters of later years, was lucky to get away with just a suspension. It was an important moment for us, for reasons other than just the emergence of Mr Jain.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 17 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Halo Effect

This is the 13th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I am in Thailand as you read this, and no, I haven’t been deported by the Indian government for joking about our anthem and flag – things aren’t that bad yet. Instead, I’m vacationing, gathering up sea, sand and seafood. I knew I would enjoy the visit as soon as I saw Bangkok’s airport. Compared to Indian airports, it was a swank expanse of ease and luxury, and I immediately felt good about being here. 

On the other hand, when a foreign traveller comes in to Mumbai, as has been much written about, among the first things he is likely to see, from the air, are slums. The airport itself is shabby and disorganised, and delays and dysfunctional staff abound. And if he hasn’t organised transport in advance, he’d have to be lucky not to get ripped off. His first experiences of India are likely to be rather unpleasant.

Why should first impressions matter? Well, because of a cognitive bias called the Halo Effect. We tend to carry over impressions of one aspect of something to everything else about that thing. For example, if we get a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere, and a friendly passerby helps us out, we are likely to think of him as a good sort, even if we are later told that he also happens to be a wife-beater. Our early bias affects the way we view him, and we are more likely to gloss over his other failings.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 10 May, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


The Devil’s Compassion

This is the 12th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the transcript of a speech given by the demon Beelzebub at the 90th Annual Convention of Demonic Beings.

Comrades and Monsters,

Welcome. I can barely express my joy at the unspeakable horror of being present among such hideous monsters as yourselves – demonic beings dedicated to the ruin and damnation of humanity. In various ways, under the cunning guise of doing good, we have brought sadness and misery upon humanity. We have perpetuated poverty, hatred and ill-health. I wish today, for the sake of the young apprentice beasts present here, to speak about our primary tool of achieving all this: Compassion.

Humans, you see, are fooled by appearances. Come to them as a wrinkled monster with horns, and they recoil. Pretend to be a loving grandpa, and their defences are down. We senior demons realised long ago that to hurt the humans, we have to pretend to care for them. Even as we have nothing but their marination in mind, we must appear compassionate. Stating the most noble intent, we must unleash the very worst of policies. Even better, we must fool some humans, who themselves wish to appear compassionate, into pushing these very policies.

And how we have succeeded! Everywhere there are politicians sincerely pushing well-intentioned policies that are disastrous for the people they are supposed to help. Of course, some people see through our evil designs and protest, but they are dismissed as cruel and uncaring, for they are questioning compassion itself. The irony!

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Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Anthem and the Flag

This is the 11th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through. It has its genesis in this post.

It was a hot April afternoon in Delhi. The Rashtrapati Bhavan Barista was empty. A waiter lounged by the counter, patriotically indulging in the national pastime (see 94th amendment) of doing nothing much. Then two customers walked in: National Anthem and National Flag.

“Sit,” said Flag to Anthem. “It looks like it’s been a tough month for you.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 26 April, 2007 in Dialogue | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Indian Idolatry

This piece of mine has been published today in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscription link.) It was written on Monday, before Sanjaya Malakar got voted off American Idol.

By the time you read this, Sanjaya Malakar might well have been voted off of American Idol. If so, you won’t hear many groans of disappointment from India. Mr. Malakar, a 17-year-old of Indian and Italian descent, has mostly slipped below the radar here. But if he continues to capture the attention of millions of Americans the Indian media will change its tune, and not out of a newfound appreciation of Mr. Malakar’s singing ability. More likely, the local press will celebrate him as an Indian talent applauded by the West.

Hardly anyone here watches the American Idol singing competion, which is telecast on Star World, an English-language channel that, in India at least, caters to the elite. The domestic media have mentioned Mr. Malakar, now a finalist in the competition, just a handful of times, and that too in the context of the derision he has received in America. The dearth of media chatter here almost certainly results from the fact that the American press doesn’t have too many good things to say about him.

Of course, India has plenty of its own celebrities to gush over, some of them even less talented than the young Sanjaya. India produces more films than any other country in the world. Products from Bollywood (the Hindi film industry), Kollywood (the Tamil film industry) and Tollywood (the Telugu and Bengali film industries both claim that title) have audiences many orders of magnitude larger than those of the few Hollywood films that actually get released here. Successful music albums in local languages, mainly film soundtracks, sell in the millions, while the best a Western album can achieve is a few thousand. Indian Idol, the local version of the American show (which is itself an import to the U.S. from the U.K.), inspires national debate and heartbreak, while most people have probably not seen American Idol even once.

But even with this flourishing pop culture, many Indians still crave validation from the West. We see this every year before the Oscars, when a national soap opera unfolds surrounding which film will be chosen to be India’s entry for the foreign-language film category. (Only three Indian entries have ever been nominated, and none has won.)

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Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | WSJ Pieces


Don’t insult pasta

This is the tenth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I have a word of advice for the readers of this column: Do not make fun of pasta. My religious sensibilities will be offended, and I shall compel the government to take action against you.

You see, I belong to a religion called Pastafarianism, and we worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). We follow a religious text called the Loose Canon. If we stay true to its principles, we shall get to Heaven, where there are beer volcanoes and stripper factories. What’s more… wait, why are you snickering? Are you making fun of the FSM? Do you not realise that I am protected by Indian law against being offended?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 19 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


The Nehru-Gandhi legacy of shame

This is the ninth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I caught an episode of the charming show, Koffee with Karan, in which Karan Johar was chatting with Shobha De and Vijay Mallya. I enjoy the rapid-fire round on this show, because it reveals much about the celebrity-culture of our times, as well as about our celebrities. One question Johar asked De and Mallya on the show stood out: “Rahul or Priyanka?”

Now, Johar wasn’t asking De and Mallya which of the two Gandhis was better looking or suchlike. He wanted to know who they preferred as a politician. There was an implicit assumption that one of them is certain to be a future prime minister. This has nothing to do with with their political skills or leanings, of which little is known. It is all about their last name, which is the most powerful brand in the biggest market of India: our democracy.

Rahul understandably wants to exploit this, and build the brand: a few days ago, while campaigning in UP, he spoke of how the Babri Masjid would never have been demolished had the Gandhi family been active in politics. It’s natural for Rahul to invoke the Gandhi brand, given the resonance it carries in this country. But it’s also somewhat ironic. Despite their iconic status among our economically illiterate masses, the Nehru-Gandhi family has been nothing but disastrous for our country.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 12 April, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Don’t regulate either ghee or endorsements

This piece first appeared on Rediff.

Indian cricket has many problems, but imagine the following scenario: An investigative committee formed by the BCCI finds out that the reason many Indian players are unfit is pure ghee. On their time off, it seems, many of them eat food cooked in pure ghee, and as a result put on weight and become lethargic. It starts with Virender Sehwag, spreads to Sachin Tendulkar, and soon they all became pure ghee addicts and lost their vigour on the field.

The mandarins at the BCCI come up with an obvious solution: ban pure ghee! Or rather, ban the cricketers from having any food cooked in it, even in the off season. “Our cricketers are losing their focus on cricket because of pure ghee,” they argue. “We can only counter this with strong action.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Sport


The Matunga Racket

A version of this piece was published today as the eighth installment of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I had begun my piece on victimless crimes by asking you to imagine a dystopia where sex is banned. Smugly, I had referred to it as a mere thought experiment. I apologize for that: for millions of Indians, it isn’t a thought experiment, it’s reality. They’re gay.

I’m sure you all know about Section 377, the archaic law in the Indian Penal Code that bans “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While it seems to deal just with anal sex, the way the law has been used effectively makes homosexuality illegal in India. Still, until recently I assumed that this law would be used only occasionally, and that too for non-consensual sex, and that gay people had more reason to worry about social attitudes than the legal system.

Well, I was wrong. I met a couple of friends over the weekend who told me about how Section 377 is used as a tool of extortion. Note, I said “is used”, not “has been used” or “can be used”. There are systematic rackets run throughout the country to extort money from gay people scared of having a case filed against them under Section 377. These rackets are run by the police. One example of this is what activists refer to as The Matunga Racket.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Cricket and The Mad Dog Show

This piece has been published in the April 2007 issue of Cricinfo Magazine. It was written the day before India’s loss to Sri Lanka.

Imagine a man, dressed respectfully, and a scruffy dog he owns. The man catches the dog and sets its tail on fire. And then, as the dog runs around frenetically, the man says smugly: “Look – mad dog.” He even sells tickets. He calls it: “The Mad Dog Show.”

Indian cricket is The Mad Dog Show. Indian fans are like that burning doggie. The media is the respectable gentleman. Every time I see footage of mobs burning the effigy of a cricketer, and the voice-over of an anchor droning sanctimoniously in the background, I am appalled by the hypocrisy. “That is a beast you feed,” I feel like screaming. For all their talk about crazed subcontinental fans, the crazed subcontinental media is no different.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 03 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Sport


Don’t punish victimless crimes

This is the seventh installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Imagine a dystopia where a mad dictator comes to power and decides to ban sex and dating. Sex is ruining the moral fabric of our nation, he decides. Men and women must not be allowed to get together. What will happen?

Here is what I imagine: One, immense copulation will still take place behind closed doors, and as no one engaged in consensual sex will complain, the state will have to spend considerable resources and do invasive policing to make sure people don’t break the law. Two, the underworld will get involved in enabling encounters between the sexes, as those won’t be legal any more, and couples will no more be able to shoot the breeze at a Barista. Three, there will be more rapes, as repressed men denied normal outlets will resort to force.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


General Musharraf’s incentives

This is the sixth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

In our new age of terror, General Pervez Musharraf is both Gabbar Singh and Veeru. In the global War on Terror that began after 9/11, he is a frontline ally of the US, the man given the task of finishing off the Taliban and catching Osama bin Laden. He is also the pivotal figure in the local conflict between India and Pakistan, talking peace to the international community but taking a harder line with his domestic constituency.

Much of the talk about Musharraf that I see around me arises either from wishful thinking or from false preconceptions. Without passing any judgement on his performance, it would help to consider the incentives that drive him. If Musharraf is to look after his interests, as any rational person would, how should he behave?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 22 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics | Thinking it Through


A beast called government

This is the fifth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

There is nothing in the world as dangerous as blind faith. No, no, this is not yet another rant against organised religion: there is enough damnation already scheduled upon me. There is another beast that benefits from blind faith quite as much as religion, and that causes as much harm from our lack of questioning: a beast called government.

Don’t get me wrong, we need government. We need it to take care of law and order, of defense, and for a handful of other things. (I don’t have a very large hand.) But the governments we have, not just in India but virtually everywhere, are vast, monstrous behemoths that are many multiples of the size they need to be. The cost of this, of course, is borne by us: we pay far more tax than we should need to in order to keep government going, and to justify its size the government clamps down on private enterprise and individual freedoms.

Part of our blind faith in government comes from the way we view it. Governments are not supercomputers programmed to work tirelessly for the public interest, nor are they benevolent, supernatural beings constantly striving to give us what we require. On the contrary, governments are collections of people, individuals like you and me, motivated by self-interest. The actions of government are the actions of these men and women, and the best way to understand how they are likely to behave—and therefore, how governments are likely to behave—is to consider their incentives.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 March, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Television and cricket

This piece of mine has been published in the March 9, 2007 issue of Time Out Mumbai as “Field Days.”

Television was the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, and then the worst.

Once upon a time television pushed cricket into the modern age in India. As India opened up to the world a decade-and-a-half ago, in more ways than one, kids in small towns throughout the country tuned into satellite television and saw a brave new world. Instead of homegrown DD commentators uttering banalities in two languages, they saw the best cricket broadcasters in the world educating them on the game: From the likes of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Martin Crowe, they learned to appreciate the nuances of the sport. They picked up the values that would help them thrive in international cricket: once, pot-bellied Indian cricketers would saunter between wickets and refuse to dive while fielding because, apparently, Indian grounds were hard. Look at any Indian cricketer below the age of 25, and you shall see the good that television has done.

But television also made itself a slave to the monster it created. In a celebrity-obsessed era, viewers craved the familiar, and broadcasters stopped taking chances: at a certain point in time, it became default policy to hire ex-cricketers as commentators. Sometimes ex-cricketers provide the insight only a player can. But most ex-cricketers who have turned to commentary in the last few years have been hired for star value. They know it, and don’t work as hard at preparing for a game as they should, and it shows. Cliches abound, as they work on auto-pilot. It is no coincidence that India’s only world-class commentator is the only non-player who’s made a place for himself in the commentary box: Harsha Bhogle. It is unlikely that too many others will get a chance.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport


Your maid funds Unani

This is the latest installment of my column for Mint, Thinking It Through. It is an elaboration of my concerns behind my ongoing series, Where Your Taxes Go, and I’d like to thank all the readers and bloggers who have sent me links for that. Keep them coming, and keep expressing your outrage on your own blogs as well.

These are good times for Unani. In his latest budget, the honourable P Chidambaram allocated Rs. 563.88 crores for the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. I kid you not, I am not making this up for your satirical amusement. That departments exists. And you work your ass off, and make sacrifices, so that it can be funded. You and your maidservant.

On my blog, I have a section called “Where Your Taxes Go,” where I document strange instances of how our taxes are put to use. There is much there that is trivial and amusing—a moustache allowance for a havaldar in Lucknow, compensation for a bank employee mistakenly declared dead, salary for an 11-year-old teacher, relocation of monkeys from New Delhi to MP (only Rs. 25 lakhs). There is also much there that underscores the irresponsibility of our politicians—toilet refurbishment allowances for Jharkhand legislators, parliament hold-ups that cost 20k a minute, the 90 lakh free TVs that the DMK promised in Tamil Nadu to get elected there. Most of us are so used to government wastage that we shrug this off. “Pata hai yaar,” we say together in a gruff chorus of a billion nonchalant voices. “So what is new? Gorment is like this only.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 08 March, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Taxes | Thinking it Through


Do we really love cricket?

A version of my story below was published today in Mint.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it?

The historian Ram Guha once compared cricket in India to football in Brazil. It is easy to disagree with that, but hard to figure out which hairs to split. On one hand, cricket in India is surely followed more fervently, with temples made for some cricketers, with an obsessive passion that Brazilians, for all their lust for football, surely can’t match. People have even speculated, not entirely flippantly, on the economic impact cricket has on India because so many people stop working when a cricket match is on.

On the other hand, football matches between minor club teams in Brazil can attract tens of thousands of spectators, while Ranji Trophy games in India generally draw so few people that you could fit them all in a bus. Much of the following of the game in India revolves around celebrities, with few fans concerned about the nuances of the game.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it? Do Indians really love cricket? It is futile to generalise about an entire country – each individual has his own relationship with the game – but certain patterns of love and longing for cricket run through the country. And outside it.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport


Don’t think in categories

This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.

As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”

Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 22 February, 2007 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Reason vs Rationalisation

A shorter version of this piece was published today as the second installment of my column, Thinking it Through, in Mint. I also posted this on the old India Uncut.

Often when I argue with friends, or on the internet, I am dismayed by how intransigent some people are. No matter how many facts I throw before them, or how solid my reasoning is, I simply cannot convince them of my point of view. No doubt they feel the same about me. “He refuses to listen to reason,” they think, even as I bemoan how unreasonable they are.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to me: we live in deeply polarised times, and around half the world believes that the other half ignores reason altogether. Well, it is my belief that we overestimate reason to begin with. The Scottish Philosopher David Hume once described reason as “the slave of the passions,” and I believe that much of the time when we feel we are being reasonable, we are actually rationalising conclusions we have already arrived at, positions that we already hold.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Thinking it Through


Where’s the Freedom Party

My weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through, kicked off on February 8, 2007. It will appear every Thursday. This is the first installment, also posted on the old India Uncut.

It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.

Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Bollywood hails the free market

A version of my piece below was published on January 19, 2007 in the Wall Street Journal as “Bollywood’s New Capitalist Hero.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut. It isn’t meant to be a review of “Guru”, towards which I have mixed feelings, but a comment on one aspect of it.

Who would ever have thought that one of the villains of a Bollywood film could be import duty? “Guru”, the latest Bollywood blockbuster by the respected director Mani Ratnam, is that rare film—perhaps Bollywood’s first—in which free markets are lauded as a force for good. Aliens emerging from the Taj Mahal would be less surprising.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | WSJ Pieces


Why India needs school vouchers

This piece of mine was published on January 15, 2007 as an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscriber link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

On India’s Republic Day, January 26, the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society will launch a campaign for school choice. It’s an apt day for the event. While India’s constitution guarantees universal and free education, the government has utterly failed that mission. It’s time to encourage the private sector to step in.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


Fighting against censorship

A version of this piece by me was published on October 3, 2006 in the Wall Street Journal as “India’s Censorship Craze.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

American pop icon Paris Hilton corrupts Indian minds. That, at least, is the fear held by mandarins of Indian culture. So they’ve barred television channels in India from airing Ms. Hilton’s new music video, “Stars Are Blind,” in yet another example of the censorship fever sweeping the country.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


Empowerment, not slavery

A version of this piece by me was first published on November 8, 2005 in the Wall Street Journal as “Self-Delusion.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

Organized slavery ended decades ago, but to go by the criticism of some leftist commentators in India, one would imagine that it is alive and flourishing in the world’s largest democracy.

Recently it has become especially fashionable to hit out at call centers, or business processing outsourcing (BPO) units as they are officially known. A study published by an institute that comes under India’s Labor Ministry compared conditions in Indian BPO outfits with those of “Roman slave ships.” Chetan Bhagat, the author of a new book set in one such unit, “One Night @ The Call Center,” recently claimed that call centers are “corroding a generation.” It is common, almost clichéd, to hear call-center workers referred to as “cyber-coolies.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


The kidnapping of India

A version of my piece below was first published onOctober 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog

Imagine this scenario: someone kidnaps a child and, for decades, maims and exploits him. Then, in a sudden revelation, we learn that the kidnapper was once under the pay of a branch of the mafia that is now defunct. There is instant outrage, and everyone condemns the crime. “How could you have taken money from the mafia?” they ask.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


Good intentions, bad ideas

A version of my piece below was first published on September 15, 2005 in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions—and nobody knows that better than India’s poor. There can be no better intention than removing poverty but, for more than half a century, a well-intentioned and bloated state has only perpetuated it with misguided policies and regulations. And New Delhi still hasn’t learned from these mistakes. The Indian government is soon to embark on perhaps the grandest waste of taxpayers’ money yet: the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | WSJ Pieces


When it pours

A shorter version of my piece below was published on August 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal. It was also posted on India Uncut.

One moment you are connected to the world in a global hub of the worldwide village; the next, the lights go off, the phone networks cease to function, and the water rises outside, creeping up on cars and first-floor apartments like an insidious idea. What does it take to shut down South Asia’s financial capital, Bombay? A few hours of rain, that’s all.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | WSJ Pieces


Beautiful scatty minds

The piece below by me was published in the issue of Tehelka dated 30/07/05, in a slightly shorter form. It was also posted on India Uncut.

A couple of years ago, a tabloid in one of India’s metros called in a consultant to help them make the newspaper more reader-friendly. “Keep stories short,” he advised. Shorter stories, snappy paragraphs, simple sentences; suck the reader in and spit him out before he gets bored. This is the age of the short-attention span, and we see it all around us.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds


The myth of India’s liberalization

The piece below by me was published on June 16, 2005 as an Op-Ed in the Asian Wall Street Journal, titled “India’s Far From Free Markets” (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to visit Washington in a few weeks, and editorialists and commentators have already started writing about the emerging economic power of India. New Delhi’s decision to start liberalizing its economy in 1991 is touted as a seminal event in India’s history, the moment when it threw off the shackles of Fabian socialism and embraced free markets. It is the stuff of myth—and to a large extent, it is exactly that.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


The dialect of a cricket writer

This article of mine was first published on April 17, 2005 in the Indian Express as “Windbag and the willow”. This was also posted on Indian Uncut, and was shaped by the blogging I did on it all through March 2005.

THE next time you watch a cricket match, listen to the phrases that pop into your head with every piece of action. Have you heard these words before? I don’t know about you, but I am assailed by familiar phrases and sentences when I watch cricket, and I recoil each time one pops into my head. I am a cricket journalist, and it is my job to describe every game of cricket that I write about in a fresh manner, to give the reader a clear picture of what happened. And yet, that is so difficult.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Sport


Blogs—The New Journalism

The piece below by me appeared on January 19, 2005 in the Indian Express as “The world according to me”. That headline wasn’t mine, though. I’d also posted it on India Uncut.

Towards the end of December, just after the tsunami struck, I told a journalist friend of mine that I was planning to travel through coastal Tamil Nadu to report on the aftermath of the disaster. “Ah, excellent,” he said, “Which publication you going to write for?”

“I’m not going to write for any publication,” I replied. “I’m going to blog.” He looked at me incredulously.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | Personal


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