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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

Politics and the Role of a Lifetime

This piece of mine was published today in the Indian Express.

This year’s Oscars were quite good, weren’t they? For a change, some excellent films got nominated and actually won, with directors taking risks and actors pulling off difficult roles. But the finest acting, the most elaborately constructed show business, was taking place in other parts of America, as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain hit the campaign trail.

The most important political skill of all is acting. Politics is not about public service, as some people naively think, but about power. All of us lust for power to varying degrees, but politicians are more driven by it than others, by the very nature of their chosen calling. In a democracy, the only way to get power is by appealing to others, to pretend to be what they would like to see in a leader. This requires acting of the highest standards.

I don’t mean that all politicians are necessarily insincere. But there is deception at the heart of the political process, for politicians have to pretend that they want to serve the people, while what they really want is to rule them. Also, the right course of action may not always be the popular one, and to get into a position to do the right thing, politicians have to promise to do the popular thing first. How politicians project themselves in public can never, over the course of a career, be the same as who they truly are.

The American presidential elections are particularly demanding for the thespians who choose to stand. First, in the primaries, they have to appeal to the extreme left and right of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively; then, if they win their party’s nomination, they have to swing to the centre in the main election to appeal to independent voters. Throughout this process, they have to make sure that the roles they adopt don’t clash with things they might have done in the past — their whole lives become, retrospectively, an audition.

There are three ways of failing in a political campaign. One, the block of voters that you choose to appeal to may not be influential enough to win the elections for you. (Think Mike Huckabee, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul.) Two, you may not act well enough — or someone may play a part that appeals more to the voters you are targeting. (Fred Thompson and John Edwards.) Three, you may not suit the role you choose to play, as it may be inconsistent with your past actions, and would thus lose credibility. (Mitt Romney.)

The survivors at this stage of the elections are politicians who happened to make the right choices, and played their parts exceedingly well. John McCain, a few months ago, seemed to have chosen the wrong strategy. The persona and positions he chose would appeal to independents in the main elections, but seemed certain to hurt him in the primaries. He upset the conservative base of the Republican Party with his positions on immigration and torture. He was lucky that the other candidates were flawed in different ways, and a credible Reaganite conservative never emerged. Also, McCain’s refusal to pander earned him the reputation of being a man of principle and character, which will help him in November.

Barack Obama is now the favourite for the Democratic nomination after a brilliant campaign. He knew that he could not out-wonk Hillary Clinton on issues, so he focussed on persona. His background made him an embodiment of the American Dream, and he projected himself as someone who would transcend the divisive, partisan politics of the last few years. A country tired of political bickering took to him. Obama’s oratory is outstanding, and his consistent refusal to engage in the dirty, negative tactics that typify presidential elections has earned him respect.

Obama also fired up the base with populist rhetoric and leftist policy proposals that had only minor differences with Clinton. She couldn’t take him on when it came to issues, so she projected herself as an experienced warrior, in contrast with the callow Obama. He pointed to her support of the Iraq war, arguing that she might have experience, but he had consistently showed better judgment. He made her seem old, the kind of establishment figure the country was tired of.

If Obama wins the nomination, he may not find the main elections quite so easy. McCain will be shrewd enough to know that he can’t win in a battle of personalities, so he’ll divert attention to the issues. Having pandered to the base with template leftism, Obama will have to convince independent voters at the centre that he is their man. He is such a good performer that he might just pull it off.

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Click here for my posts on politics.

You can read my essays and Op-Eds here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 March, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics


There’s Nothing Wrong In Being ‘Commercial’

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today (pdf link).

Wherever there’s big money floating around, politicians emerge and start squealing. The recent auctions at the Indian Premier League have roused the ire of both the Left and the Right of Indian politics. On the right, the inimitable Balasaheb Thackeray has described the IPL auctions as the “gambling of industrialists”. On the Left, Gurudas Dasgupta is complaining that this will make “every youngster not a good sportsman but a man hungry for money.” 

Sundry politicians and commentators are telling us that this obscene spending will corrupt the spirit of the game, that these players are selling their soul, and so on. They behave as if “commercialization”, a term used repeatedly by shocked observers, is The Great Indian Sin. I have a question:

What, precisely, is wrong with commercialisation?

If Thackeray and Dasgupta pondered the history of human affairs, they would note that human progress is possible only because of the profit motive. The only way to make a profit is to fulfill the desire of fellow humans, by manufacturing goods or providing services that they need. The search for profit fuels innovation and enterprise. It leads to new technologies and better service. People trade to their comparative advantage, they specialize, and this makes economies more productive, and raises everyone’s standard of living.

Without such “commercialisation”, we’d be stuck in the stone age.

Profit

If Thackeray really has a problem with industry - for that is what the industrialists he condemns are all about - then he should step wearing clothes. All the clothes he wears are produced for profit, by industrialists, who clothe him not because they care for him or want to defend Hindu culture, but because he pays them money. How vulgar!

If Dasgupta has a problem with people “hungry for money”, he should immediately go on a fast. The people he gets his groceries from provide it in exchange for money, as do the restaurants that serve him food. There is only one appropriate response to this shocking commercialisation and rampant consumerism: Stop eating.

One blogger bizarrely compared the cricketers up on auction to prostitutes. Firstly, in the absence of coercion, I don’t see what is wrong with prostitution, or why we should look down on prostitutes. Secondly, if selling a service makes one a prostitute, then I am unquestionably a lady of the night, and this is my short, black, leather skirt that you’re reading. We are all whores in our own ways - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Back to the cricket. Besides the mere fact that money is involved, many people are also complaining about the amount of money the cricketers are getting. Some say cricketers should not be so well paid when other sportspeople in this country are so poorly paid. Other say that it is an outrage that Ishant Sharma should get more than Chaminda Vaas, and Rohit Sharma more than Ricky Ponting.

Look, who determines these prices? In the long run, you and I do. The businessmen putting that cash on the table do so because they estimate that those are the returns they’ll get on their investment. Those returns will come from us: We’ll buy the merchandise, we’ll watch the matches - which determine the value of TV rights - and their appeal to us will determine the value of the endorsements that flood in.

What if the team owners are wrong, and overpay for some players? Well, then they’ll duly learn their lessons when their team’s performance doesn’t justify the investment, and their bottomline suffers. What if some players are underpaid? Well, if they perform beyond their renumeration, they’ll receive their rightful value when the transfer season begins.

Twenty20 is a new form of the game, and the IPL is a new venture. It will take some time for the market to start functioning smoothly, and getting the values right. Until then, there is no point begrudging these cricketers their earnings.

The argument that this money would be better spent on other sports is bogus. If you feel Indian football should get more attention than Indian cricket, then here’s what you should do about it: Go out there and watch some local football games. Put your money where your mouth is. If you contribute your eyeballs, advertisers will open their chequebooks. If other sports don’t have a following in India, it is not because people don’t put money into them - it is the other way around.

Competition

Back to the IPL. Despite the BCCI bungling up sp much of the process, I think the IPL, if it succeeds, will be revolutionary. The reason for that is that it introduces into cricket the best guarantee of quality and efficiency: Competition.

The market for cricket has so far been a monopsony: There has been only buyer for a cricketer’s services. An Indian cricketer who wants to play cricket at the highest level can only sell his services to the BCCI, and is dependent of its selectors picking him - an imperfect process open to politics and the whims and fancies of individuals. That will change if the IPL takes off. A young, talented cricketer will have a number of people he can sell his services to, from the Bangalore Royal Challengers to the Delhi Daredevils to the Chennai Super Kings. If he is good, they will compete for him, thus guaranteeing him his true market value.

The BCCI, when it comes to cricket in India, has essentially had a captive market. The IPL teams will have to compete. The competition will threaten their existence, and they will have all the right incentives to excel. They will eschew the local politics of selection. They will search for differentiators in terms of training and scouting new talent. Like some football clubs do in Europe, they might establish youth academies to find and hone new talent. They will do so not out of love or duty to the game, but with regard to their bottomline. Cricket will benefit, as its machinery will flow that much smoother. 

Tests?

For a cricket purist like me, there is a flip side to this: What will happen to Test cricket? If the IPL succeeds, Test cricket will surely suffer. Already, one hears rumours of the ICC schedule being subject to the demands of Lalit Modi and his men. Given the amount of investment, in terms of time, that Test cricket requires from its viewers, it is possible that Test cricket will slowly die out.

Hordes of commentators and politicians will then start squealing about how the demands of the market have killed Test cricket, and how the market is a cruel, malign force.

Personally, I believe that Test cricket will have enough of an audience to survive—even if it ends up being a niche audience. But if it doesn’t, here’s my question: Should people who don’t watch Test cricket be forced to subsidize it? Remember, commerce is all about giving you what you want. If Test cricket dies, the killer won’t be commercialisation, or the IPL, or the greed of businessmen - it will be us.

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Also read:

Dear Navjot Sidhu
The Twenty20 Age Begins

IBNLive and Rediff links via email from Praveen Krishnan.

For more, check out my essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport


Welcome to the Free World

This piece of mine was published in the Indian Express today.

“Where in the world are truly free markets?” a friend asked me the other day. “The kind of economic freedom you libertarians dream of just doesn’t work. Freedom leads to chaos. All markets need to be regulated by the government, which alone can safeguard the interests of the people.”

“Have you been online recently,” I asked.

“Don’t change the subject,” he said.

“I’m not,” I replied.

A couple of years ago, the libertarian blogger Warren Meyer was asked why there were so many, well, libertarian bloggers. His reply, in a nutshell, was that the internet is a libertarian space. “Libertarianism resists organization,” he wrote. Libertarians tend to be “suspicious of top-down organization in and of itself.  Blogging is therefore tailor made for us - many diverse bottom-up messages rather than one official top-down one.”

In many ways, the online world is like the beautifully functioning free market that governments have never allowed in meatspace (the ‘real’ world). To begin with, the government does not pose an entry barrier to individuals who wish to have a presence online. You want to start a blog? It’ll take you three clicks to set one up. You don’t need a license for it, and you won’t have inspectors coming over and scrutinising your methods of work.

The blogosphere is a meritocratic space. Each blog finds the audience it deserves. If you like economics, you’ll find tons of good economics blogs, often much better than anything you’ll see in the mainstream media, because they’re written by specialists, not generalists. You want gardening? Literature? Technology? You’ll find content in any niche you can think of.

There is a lot of junk on the internet, but readers navigate through it easily, and soon settle on a few sites they regularly visit. Information percolates so quickly that a good new blog doesn’t take much time to build a readership. You write something nice, people who like it link to you, their readers check you out, and so it grows. Marketing and hype are generally wasted, and everything is viral. If you provide compelling content, readers come. If you write rubbish, readers go. Competition is the best regulation.

The blogger Ravikiran Rao once speculated on what would happen if the government decided to protect users from “bad blogs”, and regulate blogging. If government babus started deciding what content was appropriate for audiences, good bloggers would be intimidated away, not bothering to enter a space where there were so many hassles. Established bloggers would lobby for regulation to protect them from pesky newcomers. The quality of blogging would go down, not up - and readers would be shortchanged.

Far-fetched? Well, it works that way in many fields - such as, as Rao pointed out in his post, “private schools and educational institutions.” Indeed, in India at least, it is pervasive.

If only our government understood the power of free markets. I wish our bureaucrats read “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read, one of my favourite essays. It is a first-person account by a pencil of its genealogy – and by the end of it, you realise that a mere pencil is such a thing of wonder that no government could have put it together. It takes legions of people, possibly across continents, doing disparate things without knowledge of one another to make sure that when you need a pencil, and go to the shop to pick it up, it’s there. It’s a miracle, almost beyond comprehension, and certainly beyond planning or oversight. It takes a free market, not a benevolent central planner - economists call this process spontaneous order.

The internet benefits from this freedom. Consider Wikipedia, for example. It once used to be laughed at - how can a few volunteers produce better content than experts? - but is now a classic example of what spontaneous order can achieve. It is much broader than the Encyclopedia Britannica, and often deeper as well. It has its own self-correcting mechanisms, and its rules of use have evolved from the bottom up, and not been enforced from the top down. It shows that the voluntary actions of people working towards their self-interest is a far more powerful force than the self-important and sanctimonious supervision of governments. Online, we’re all free.

Supporters of free markets stress on the importance of the rule of law - and the internet is not a lawless zone. The laws of the real world apply to what we do online - sometimes to worrisome effect, as jailed bloggers in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have discovered. But on the whole, the internet is free of the kind of needless, suffocating government regulation and barriers to trade that bedevil the rest of the world. Long may it stay that way.

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Also read: In Defence of Blogging.

You can browse through more of my essays and Op-Eds here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2008 in Blogging | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds


Where is Inner-Party Democracy in India?

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today (pdf link).

The US primaries have been so much fun to follow over the last couple of months. The candidates of each party have gone from state to state mingling with people, answering questions, making the same speeches over and over again, revealing themselves, attacking others, trying to project themselves as something they aren’t even as 24-hour coverage allows them no time away from the flashbulbs, talking policy, spewing spin, and sometimes, rarely, letting the mask slip to reveal the man or woman behind the brand. There has been heartbreak and drama and tears and bravado and raw, naked ambition. All this to elect, not the president of the United States of America, but the candidates of the two main political parties, which are as democratic as the nation they aim to serve.

Contrast that with India. 

When the time comes to select the leader of the Congress Party, can you imagine Sonia Gandhi going from town to town trying to persuade Congress workers why she is the best person to lead them? Can you imagine LK Advani in a televised debate against Narendra Modi and Uma Bharati? Can you imagine the elite Politburo putting Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri in front of Communist Party workers and saying, “right, choose now.”

There is a cliché that India is the world’s largest democracy. Technically, that is true - there are more voters here than anywhere else in the world. But none of the parties we have to choose from are democratic within. They are feudal beasts. 

History

Ironically, it began thus. Just before India became independent, the Congress Party had to choose a president who would then go on to become India’s first prime minister. That leader was not elected from the bottom, but appointed from the top - Mahatma Gandhi chose Jawaharlal Nehru, and got the other possible contenders, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, to endorse his choice.

In India’s early decades, the Congress enjoyed a large majority by virtue of being a driving force behind India’s independence. Meanwhile, within the Congress, Nehru consolidated his power. Patel died in 1950, C Rajagopalachari, a dissenter when it came to Nehru’s economic policies, was marginalised, and Nehru faced no challenges while he was alive. 

When Nehru died in 1964, no one could have foretold that the Congress would become a feudal party. The main contenders for the prime ministership, K Kamaraj, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai, were all popular leaders in their own right. Shastri got the job, but didn’t live long. Indira Gandhi was appointed prime minister by a group of party heavyweights who thought they could control her. Heh.

A sycophant of Indira Gandhi, DK Barooah, would say years later, “Indira is India and India is Indira.” Well, Indira certainly was the Congress. She took over the party, filled the key positions with her sycophants, and even ran a dictatorship for a couple of years, aided by her son, Sanjay. The Congress became dependent on the charisma of her family and the brand value of her family name. After she died, Rajiv Gandhi took over. After he died, his Italian non-politician widow, Sonia Gandhi refused the job. She eventually returned to it, and her son Rahul is being groomed to take over.

India, meanwhile, has moved on from the Congress. For such a heterogenous country to be so dominated by one party was an aberration, and it will never happen again. Politics in India is now local. People choose their MPs based on local considerations, sometimes at the constituency level, and sometimes at the level of the state. National trends have ceased to matter. The coalitions that come to power after an election may change, but all talk of “the will of the people” is naïve generalization. 

There is no more something like a national mandate. Hundreds of millions of voters vote for hundreds of millions of different reasons. You can spin these reasons, but your spin affects nothing but the gossip of the chattering classes and newspaper columns by pundits.

Fragmentation

One would imagine that if all politics is local, parties are forced to be democratic. Well, here’s an exercise: Go out and try to be a member of the Congress Party. Or the BJP. Or the Shiv Sena. See what happens.

Our political parties are still ruled by closed elites, driving policies from the top rather than having their ear to the ground and listening to the people. Yes, the Congress has lost and lost and lost in the time that Rahul Gandhi has been active. But it is hard to say that the cause of this is the absence of inner-party democracy. Which party is democratic today?

All our politics is identity politics. Politicians go out there claiming to represent different minority groups - for all groups are minority groups in our countries, even Hindus, split by caste and region and language - and get people to vote for them for visceral, emotional reasons. The loyalties they evoke are tribal ones. I am a Dalit and I will look after all Dalits. Or I am a Yadav and I will look after the interest of all Yadavs. Or I am not a Muslim, but I will fight the BJP on the behalf of Muslims, and am the most viable alternative to the BJP out there.

And so on.

So naturally our politics is then feudal. Kanshi Ram becomes larger than life within his party and the groups that feel such tribal loyalty towards him, so his chosen successor Mayawati inherits that mantle. Their parties are their fiefdoms. You will never, I guarantee you, see Mayawati standing for elections within her party.

Obsolescence

India has among the oldest active politicians in the world. Manmohan Singh - nominated to his post by Congress owner Sonia, and not elected to it, for all practical purposes - leads the government at 75; LK Advani, the leader of the opposition, is 80. Contrast these leaders with Gordon Brown (56), Nicolas Sarkozy (53) and Angela Merkel (53). Barack Obama (46) is an embryo compared to our leaders.

The reason for this is obvious. In the absence of robust, inner-party democracy, young leaders find it hard to rise within the system - unless, like Rahul Gandhi, Sachin Pilot, Manvendra Singh, Akhilesh Yadav, Omar Abdullah and Jyotiraditya Scindia, they’re some bigwig’s son taking charge of an inheritance. The old fogeys stay in charge, consolidate their positions, and promote their sycophants. Is there hope for change, then?

I would say there is. We are a maturing democracy, and we are also a growing economy. As we open up to the world, we will become less insecure about our place in it, and more inclusive of new ideas and values. Identity politics will slowly become less pervasive, and people will demand more from their politicians. Their politicians will have to adapt to them.

The political parties who don’t listen to market signals will wither away. The ones that do will profit. And one day, I wishfully think, Indian parties will have elections as vibrant and democratic as the two large parties in America. Would you like to see that? 

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Check out more essays by me in my essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 February, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


Profit’s No Longer a Dirty Word

The Library of Economics and Liberty (or econlib.org) is one of my favourite websites, and has many superb essays on economics. I’m happy to say that an essay I’ve written for them has been published today: Profit’s No Longer a Dirty Word: The Transformation of India. Do read.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


India’s New Role Models

This piece of mine was published today in the Wall Street Journal Asia.

Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined that four of the 10 richest chief executives in the world could be Indian. But Forbes recently released a top-10 list showing how much India has changed. Lakshmi Mittal, the steel tycoon, was ranked second, followed by Mukesh Ambani (sixth), Anil Ambani (seventh) and Azim Premji (ninth); Warren Buffett came in first.

One can quibble with how the list was compiled, but there is no doubt that India has become a force in the world of business. The leading bidders for Jaguar and Land Rover are the Indian automobile companies Tata Motors on one hand, and Mahindra and Mahindra on the other. In 2006, Mr. Mittal brought the European steel behemoth, Arcelor, into his empire. Last year, the Tata Group took over Britain’s Corus, another large producer of steel.

Just as significant as the success of Indian businessmen abroad is a shift in the way they are viewed at home: The biggest names in Indian business are among the biggest heroes of India. The society pages of newspapers show them at parties, the gossip columns feature them, and young men and women name them as their icons, even as those youths prepare for their own MBA entrance exams.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early decades of our independence, businessmen were not looked upon highly. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously once told the business tycoon J.R.D. Tata that “profit” was “a dirty word.” Indian films routinely portrayed businessmen as evil capitalists out to exploit the poor. Ironically for a country that was so poor, the pursuit of wealth was looked upon with suspicion.

Mr. Mittal had to leave India to build his empire. Dhirubhai Ambani, Mukesh and Anil’s father, built his business by manipulating the system in the finest traditions of cronyism. The businesses that did exist were protected from competition by the high entry barriers placed by the government, at the cost of consumers.

All this changed when India liberalized in 1991. As India opened up to the world, its entrepreneurs sprang into action. The middle class grew, the quality of life in cities improved, and tens of thousands of young men and women went abroad as the software industry boomed. Indians realized that free enterprise was providing them with the opportunities they had lacked in the socialist years.

Consider that earlier this year, Ratan Tata, the successor to J.R.D. Tata’s empire and the chief of Tata Motors, unveiled the Nano—a car expected to retail for approximately $2,500. Some complained about the increase in pollution that it might cause, and other worried that it would add to traffic congestion in big cities. But most of India applauded.

Mr. Tata’s ingenuity and vision will bring vehicle ownership within reach of millions of people who could otherwise have never dreamed of it, and it demonstrates what business does best—improve the lives of people, and help them fulfill their dreams, all in the quest of that “dirty word,” profit.

The heroes of the old India were film stars, cricket players and, perhaps, freedom fighters and politicians. The heroes of the new India include businessmen. In 2003, when MTV India held a poll among its predominantly young viewers to pick the Icon of the Year, Anil Ambani won. The people he beat included filmstar Shah Rukh Khan and cricket hero Sachin Tendulkar.

India’s successful businessmen, even as they enter lists such as the one compiled by Forbes, embody the hopes of their country more than their elected government possibly can. India is finally beginning to give them their due.

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For more such pieces by me, check out my Essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | WSJ Pieces


We Indians Are Proud Of All The Wrong Things

This piece of mine appeared today in Mail Today.

Sometimes satire simply cannot keep up with real life. A few days ago I read a piece in the Indian Express about a 28-year-old gentleman based in Bhopal named Prakash Kumar Thakur. Thakur specialises in persecuting those who ‘insult’ India’s national flag. He recently filed a court case against Sania Mirza because she was photographed with her feet on a table on which the Indian flag was also kept. The case was filed under something called - I’m not making this up - the Prevention of Insult to the National Honour Act.

The maximum sentence under this act is three years in jail. A distraught Mirza reported that she considered quitting her sport. Thakur reacted to that response by calling it “emotional blackmail.”

Thakur, the report tells us, had earlier filed cases against Sachin Tendulkar and Mandira Bedi. Tendulkar had cut a cake designed like the tricolour. Bedi had worn a sari with the flags of various countries, including India, on it. 

Thakur’s advocate, RK Pandey, had filed a similar case against MF Husain. They recently also sued a publisher of a class VI textbook for not printing the tricolour properly.

In the best line of the report, Thakur is quoted as saying: “Me and my friends will move around the city from 2 pm onwards on Republic Day collecting flags lying everywhere and destroy them in private with full dignity.”

Yes, even flags have dignity. And, presumably, feelings. I hope Thakur and his friends had a good time yesterday.

Patriotism

The national flag is not the only symbol of national pride that patriots like Thakur worry about. There’s also the national anthem, which was allegedly “insulted” last April by NR Narayana Murthy. Indeed, in Mumbai, it is played in cinema theatres before the start of every film, and it is compulsory to stand. 

This is what we’ve reduced patriotism to.

In my view, there are two kinds of patriotism. The first kind involves feeling that your country is, in some way or the other, greater than others. Often, self-esteem is involved. Patriots of this kind will want others to share their feelings about their country. They might feel offended if someone suggests that their country is not all they imagine it to be.

The other kind of patriotism involves loving certain things about one’s country. This is a personal love, different in each individual’s case, and patriots of this sort will enjoy their patriotism without demanding that others share it.

If we were to be flippant about such grave matters, we could call these kinds of patriotism Mera Bharat Mahaan and Mera Bharat Mujhe Pasand

I see myself as the second kind of patriot. When I think of the things I love about India, I think of concrete things in the real world, such as its food, its music, the languages that I’m fortunate to know. These don’t blind me from the many things wrong with the country - nor do I have any desire to impose my preferences on others.

The Mera Bharat Mahaan kind of patriot, on the other hand, is involved with a narrative of greatness. A key part of his identity is his Indianness. For this reason, he needs to believe that India is a great country, superior to others. 

Symbols like the flag and the anthem are, thus, important to him. They represent his nationalistic fervour. Equally, a display like the Republic Day parade makes him feel proud. Its purpose is validation.

Pride

This need for validation was understandable in our early years as an independent country. We’d just gained independence after decades of being humiliatingly colonised. It was a mini-miracle that we existed, bridging such linguistic, religious and cultural divides. We needed to believe in ourselves as a nation. 

And, let’s face it, there was a bit of a collective inferiority complex running through the country.

Sadly, even after 60 years of independence, that craving for validation remains. Why else do we make such a hue and cry every year about India’s entry to the Oscars, and ignore our own national awards? Why else do we rush to claim any foreign achiever with an Indian background as a national hero? (Sunita Williams, born in Ohio and raised in America, has been awarded the Padma Bhushan this year.) Why else do we go gaga with excitement when we hear of Madonna practising yoga or Gwen Stefani putting a Bindi on her head? Why else do we celebrate when Shilpa Shetty wins Big Brother, and ignore poor Rahul Roy, who won the desi version?

India has advanced leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades, but we still haven’t acquired the self-confidence that a mature democracy should have. Too many of us are still sensitive about symbols of our nationhood, and that’s a pity. We are proud, I believe, of entirely the wrong things.

As a nation that won its independence with such difficulty, if there is one thing we should be proud of, and should continue to aspire towards, it is freedom. Not just the freedom to vote, but freedom in every social and economic sense. As long as we don’t infringe on the freedom of others, we should be free to express our sexual preferences, to trade with others, to watch the films we want, to read the books we want, to say what we want. And yes, free to disrespect a flag or refuse to stand up when the anthem is played. 

What’s the point of being a free country otherwise?

Freedom

The main issue involved in all the cases that Thakur has filed is not patriotism - Thakur has the right to feel warmly towards the national flag. But he does not have the right to impose his feelings and his preferences on others. The issue here is freedom.

India, sadly, has never given freedom of expression the level of protection it deserves. Article 19 (1) (a) of our constitution speaks of protecting free speech, but Article 19 (2) immediately limits it by making it contingent on concepts like “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to interpretation by bureaucrats, judges and mobs. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) has a number of laws which effectively make it a crime to give offence. 

Section 295 (a), a non-bailable act, is particularly notorious: It punishes actions “intended to outrage religious feelings”, and has been used against Ravi Shastri when he said he liked eating beef, and against a publisher for publishing a Santa and Banta jokebook. 

The IPC, of course, was drafted in the 19th century. It needs an overhaul - as does the attitude towards national pride that many of us have. We are a vibrant democracy now, and the idea of India cannot be harmed any more by a few displays of disrespect towards emblems and symbols. We should stop insulting our country by behaving otherwise.

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My thanks to Himanshu for pointing me to the IE story. Some related pieces by me: The Anthem and the Flag. Don’t Insult Pasta. Indian Idolatry.

You can check out more essays by me in my essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 January, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India


Cracking the Logic of Life

This review of The Logic of Life by Tim Harford has appeared in today’s edition of Lounge, the Saturday edition of Mint.

If Tim Harford was born 150 years ago, he would have provided strong competition to Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s creation, unveiled the mysteries of human behaviour using nothing but cold logic and immaculate observation. Harford’s undercover economist does the same in his two books, The Undercover Economist (2005) and his new release, The Logic of Life. But there is one difference between the two: While we ordinary mortals can never hope to match Holmes’s skills, we can all aspire to be like Harford’s invisible alter ego.

Harford uses the tools of economics to crack some of the mysteries of life. Those tools are available to us as well, and are easy to use. Indeed, by the time you finish reading The Logic of Life, you might feel equipped to do a little sleuthing yourself.

The engine at the heart of The Logic of Life is rational choice theory. “If you do not understand the rational choices that underlie much of our behaviour,” Harford writes, “you cannot understand the world in which we live.” His basic premise: “Rational people respond to trade-offs and incentives.” Using this as a starting point, he then demonstrates how drug addicts, teenage muggers, suburban sprawl, inner-city decay and endless meetings at the office are all rational.

It is not Harford’s point that “people are always and everywhere rational”. They obviously aren’t. But, he writes, “[P]eople are rational nearly enough and often enough to make the assumption of rational choice a very useful one.” He elaborates: “In the hands of economists, ‘rational choice theory’ produces an x-ray image of human life. Like the x-ray, rational choice theory does not show everything. Nor is the picture necessarily very pretty. But it shows you something important, and something that you could not see before.”

This might appear to rest on a picture of us as “consciously calculating beings.” But rational behaviour doesn’t always arise out of a conscious process. Harford writes: “We often aren’t conscious of the calculations of costs and benefits that we make when we act rationally—just as, when someone throws a baseball for us to catch, we aren’t conscious of our brain solving differential equations to work out where it’s going to land.”

Another objection to this focus on rational behaviour might be that much of our behaviour is driven by our emotions. Harford writes: “[O]f course we feel passionately about sex, love, crime, and all sorts of other things… The whole purpose of acting rationally is to maximize our emotional pay-offs.”

Is there an issue that involves our emotions more than love, or the mates we choose? In my favourite chapter of the book, “Is divorce underrated?”, Harford demonstrates how economics can unveil the mysteries of love and mating.

“Lovers plan, strategise, negotiate and deal with the harsh realities of supply and demand,” Harford writes. He recaps how men and women are hard-wired differently by evolution, and how women are more attracted to high-earning men than the other way around (he presents data to back this up.) This explains why there are more women in most cities than men—men are more likely to respond to rising rents by moving out, while women have more reason to stay, because they are more likely to meet desirable mates. This also explains why “unskilled urban jobs [like waitressing and secretarial work] that could easily be done by either sex would tend to be done by women.”

“[I]n places where men are scarce,” Harford writes, “women respond by staying in school longer. In cities where men are particularly rich, women are particularly plentiful.” Harford writes about how the contraceptive pill has changed society by changing our incentives. Because the pill makes it “easier for men to get sex outside of marriage”, there are fewer marriages.

Women respond to this by studying harder: “four US women [graduate] from college for every three men.” Being able to delay having babies also enables women to make income gains because of “the economies of scale in education and work which reward those who spend a long time in college and then work long hours early in their careers.”

This also explains the “divorce revolution”. The family has always been a powerful unit, and a rational one, because of the economic forces of the division of labour, economies of scale and comparative advantage. But the contraceptive pill changed the equations within a marriage, as women became “more highly educated, career-minded and employer-friendly”. They were also aided by household technology, which vastly reduced the time that household chores took up. As the incentives changed, so did the need to be married, or to stay inside a bad marriage. All these trends, of course, were entirely rational—but this rationality was hardly a conscious process.

The Logic of Life is so compelling not just because of Harford’s sleuthing, but because he is such a powerful storyteller. Writers of popular thrillers would be proud of the narrative momentum he maintains in his chapter on game theory, “Las Vegas: The Edge of Reason”, which brings to life fascinating people like John Von Neumann, Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson and Thomas Schelling. But it is packed with insight as well—it explains how addiction can be a rational thing, how it involves warring parts of our brain, and how I can explain my coffee addiction to my partner—hopefully without altering her incentives too much.

It also uncovers minor mysteries along the way, such as why advertising for nicotine patches and gum seems to lead to an increase in teenagers taking up smoking: “The advertisements tell them that there are new ways to help them quit, so rationally it is less risky to start the habit.”

Throughout the book, Harford doesn’t merely speculate, but uses research and empirical data to reveal the rational thread running through our behaviour. The economics and the writing are first class, and The Logic of Life is both entertaining and enlightening. Picking it up, I assure you, is quite the rational course of action.

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Also read: My review of Harford’s earlier book, The Undercover Economist: Economics as a guide to human behaviour.

Slate has published a couple of excerpts from The Logic of Life: 1, 2.

Also check out Harford’s website and blog—the latter is one of my favourite blogs.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 January, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds


How To Save The Hapless Cricket Umpire

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today under the headline “High tech input can give better umpiring”.You can download a pdf here.

I feel sorry for Steve Bucknor. In 2004, he had a horrid Test at Sydney, making a series of errors that prevented India from winning the series. A few months ago, he had a lousy World Cup final, displaying a shocking ignorance of the rules. And now, after another Sydney Test full of blunders, his career is close to winding up. It’s been tough, but my pity isn’t based on the brickbats flung his way being undeserved – he has long been an incompetent and arrogant umpire. I feel sorry for him because all this is really the ICC’s fault.

In 1988, Bucknor was a FIFA referee at a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles. Why isn’t he still a FIFA referee today? Well, FIFA has a compulsory retirement age of 45 for its umpires. They feel that a referee’s job imposes physical demands that make it hard for someone above that age to do the job effectively. So they say, “Thank you, you were good, but run along now.”

The physical demands on a cricket umpire don’t seem to be so great. He may be on the field of play longer, but has no running around to do. Nevertheless, it is my contention that umpiring requires an extensive use of physical faculties that decline with age. And for a man is his 60s to be doing the job is ludicrous.

Consider what an umpire has to go through. He has to stand on the field and concentrate hard for six hours of play – this sometimes for five days in a row. His eyesight has to be perfect. He has to be quick – the shift in focus from the bowling crease, which he needs to watch for a no-ball, to the batsman isn’t easy. He has to evaluate what he sees within split seconds, factoring in all the optical illusions that typically come into play, such as the parallax error. (Because the umpire stands at a height above the stumps, balls that would go over the stumps appear to be hitting.) His depth perception has to be perfect, and his brain has to process all these multiple inputs to come up with a correct decision.

Age

The faculties required for all this diminish with age. You wouldn’t put a 60-year-old man in a Formula One race, because he could kill others, and himself. (Besides, he would be no good.) A 60-year-old man umpiring a cricket game can end careers, or decide matches, and series. (Besides, he would be no good.)

What is happening to Bucknor is not new. We saw this happen to David Shepherd as well. Shepherd, one of the great umpires of the game, declined rapidly towards the start of this century, making a series of infamous howlers in the 2001 England-Pakistan series. It was all downhill from there – and what a pity it was.

Should the ICC have a mandatory retirement age, like FIFA does? While it would act as a safeguard, I will be perfectly happy if they don’t. While Bucknor and Shepherd felt the ravages of age, some remarkably well-preserved umpire might not. But what ICC does need to do is recognise that a good umpire isn’t good forever, and have regular tests and evaluations carried out. The ones it has in place are obviously not good enough.

And it should also pay attention to the feedback that captains are required to give on umpires at the end of every series. Sourav Ganguly, India’s captain in the 2003-2004 series against Australia, gave Bucknor an extremely negative report. The ICC should have paid attention to it then. I wonder why they didn’t.

Technology

Let us consider the role of umpires in cricket. Are they participants in the game of cricket? Do the crowds come to see them at work?

My answers are no and no.

Umpires are nothing more than facilitators. Eleven men take on 11 other men, and the sport is about them. Umpires are there to enforce the rules of the game, so that the result is fair, and the team that plays better wins.

So when the attention of the commentators or the crowds is on the umpires, something is wrong. It means they made a mistake. It is an aberration, something that should not happen. The ICC should do everything within its power to prevent it.

The ICC should recognise that umpires are just the means to an end. They are not the point of the game. It should also recognise that they need help. And the technology exists to help them.

How do we know when umpires make mistakes? Some mistakes are visible to the naked eye. But for others, we go to technology. We see a ball hitting middle-stump on Hawk-Eye and exclaim, “That’s plumb, how could he not give that?” We see a snick via the Snickometer, or notice via the tram lines on the screen that the ball pitched outside leg, and we go, “What lousy umpiring.”

We judge the umpires using technology. Would it not be fair, then, to make that same technology available to them?

Critics have created a false dichotomy between umpires and technology. Using technology does not mean doing away with umpires or having androids on the field. It simply means giving umpires the tools to do his job better. We make his life easier, and ensure more accurate decisions. Isn’t that the whole purpose of umpiring to begin with?

Hawk-Eye

But is some of the technology out there accurate enough? Some of it – using TV replays for line calls, for example – is non-controversial. Some isn’t. Hawk-Eye has been at the center of much controversy, and is mocked by many who then, ironically, use it to point out umpiring errors. Many of the objections against it, though, are based on misconceptions. I think Hawk-Eye would be a fantastic tool for umpires, and would make contentious lbw decisions a thing of the past.

(Disclosure: I used to work for Cricinfo, which was owned by Wisden, who acquired Hawk-Eye in 2006. I’m no longer associated with Cricinfo, which was sold to ESPN last year and is no longer associated with Hawk-Eye.)

The predictive technology behind Hawk-Eye is similar to that used in missile-guidance systems and instrument guidance for brain surgeons – it’s designed for extreme accuracy. To answer the objections against it in detail would require a full piece, but suffice it to say that whatever the umpire can do, Hawk-Eye can do with greater accuracy. Experts of the game implicitly acknowledge this by turning to Hawk-Eye whenever lbw decisions need to be evaluated.

The most popular misconception about Hawk-Eye is that it would take time to get a decision, as one goes to the third umpire for a replay, and so on. This is not true. What we see on television is a just a graphical representation of Hawk-Eye, and Hawk-Eye’s decision would actually be delivered within a second or two to the umpire, via a handheld device: out or not out, pitching outside leg or on line, and so on. At the click of a button, umpires would save themselves much embarrassment.

And contrary to an old canard, technology does not take “the human touch” out of anything. People like “maa ke haath ka khana” even when she uses a microwave. Umpires who use technology will remain human – but they will get more decisions right. We should give them the tools to make that happen.

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I wrote a piece on exactly the same subject four years ago after the last Sydney Test: “On age and technology.” Such hopes of change I had…

I also argued for Hawk-Eye in a series of posts on 23 Yards, which I now find long-winded and poorly written, though I hold the same opinions: 1, 2, 3.

Also on Hawk-Eye, read these two pieces by my ex-colleague, S Rajesh: 1, 2.

You can read more essays and Op-Eds by me here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 January, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


Our Unlucky Children

This is the 48th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last weekend, I went through the typical routine of watching a film and then doing a week’s worth of shopping. First I watched the beautiful Taare Zameen Par. Then I spent an hour inside the nearest hypermarket.

The amount of choice inside the hypermart was staggering. I counted more than 30 kinds of cheese, 60 kinds of biscuits, 50 types of papad, and quite as much variety across soaps, soft drinks, farsaan, cooking oil, pickles and so on. I needed shampoo, and I walked past two shelves of it before finding something for “normal hair.”

Some people complain that there is too much choice on offer, but I find the variety wonderful. It caters to individual taste. For example, there is shampoo available for people with “dry, rough, sensitized hair”, “dry or damaged hair”, and “weak, fragile, difficult to grow long hair”. To those of us who do not fall into these categories, these might seem excessive, but clearly they exist because they sell —and fulfil someone’s needs.

Isn’t it wonderful how the free market does this? Instead of shoving one or two types of each product down people’s throats, it effectively treats us as individuals. Entrepreneurs, seeking to find market niches to make a profit, end up empowering us as consumers. Without knowing anything about me, the market caters to my personal needs to a degree my grandparents would have found unbelievable.

Watching Taare Zameen Par, however, reminded me that in the area where it matters most, our children don’t have the same choices open to them.

Aamir Khan’s film is about a dyslexic boy let down by his school. His teachers do not recognize what makes him different and treat him as if he is stupid, shattering his self-esteem. Then Khan comes in as a sensitive teacher and turns things around.

This only happens in films, of course, and most kids in that situation would not be so lucky. They would be able to buy potato chips in the precise flavour they might desire—“classic salted”, “sour cream and onion” or 40 others—but would be denied of an education tailored to their needs.

This is not just something that applies to dyslexic kids. All children are unique. Some are better at languages than in math, some have short attentions spans, some have high learning curves, and so on and on. And yet, when it comes to education, they are treated as if their needs and abilities are identical.

This rigidity applies not just to schools but also to higher education. “Arts”, “science” and “commerce” are segregated streams, and a young man who wishes to study both physics and 19th century English literature would have a problem doing so.

You might argue that when it comes to education, it is logistically impossible to cater to individual needs. After all, schools and colleges have limited resources, and a teacher-student ratio can only go so far. Individual attention seems an impossible pipe dream.

I would argue, though, that our failure to imagine a way forward does not mean that none exists. All successful innovations work precisely because no one thought of them before, and they fulfil a need somewhere. If we give entrepreneurs the scope to innovate, they will find solutions. The problem with our education system is that the government has a stranglehold on it, and severely restricts private participation.

For example, it takes 14 licences from four authorities to open a private school in New Delhi, which could take years. There are all kinds of bizarre parameters schools have to fulfil to open a school—such as playgrounds of a specified size—and, most absurdly, they aren’t allowed to operate for a profit. They get around this by opening trusts and suchlike, which restrict their scope for further investment.

When will our government learn that the profit motive is a good thing? It spurs innovation and benefits fellow human beings, for that is the only way to make a profit.

Besides these entry barriers, there are other restrictions on what these schools must work towards. If they are not affiliated to a government-approved board with a government-approved syllabus, such as ICSE or CBSE, their students are going to find it hard to get into government-approved colleges down the line. Everything has to be government-approved, which stifles innovation.

I can barely imagine what products my hypermart would contain if all the industries that produced them were run by the government as education in India is. There would be fewer product categories, virtually no choice within those categories, and everything would be more expensive. Thanks to competition and relatively free markets, that is not the case.

When it comes to trivial things such as potato chips and garlic sev, we have been empowered with choice. When it comes to something as important as education, we have not. Isn’t that a disgrace?

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Also read: My piece on school choice in India, Fund Schooling, Not Schools.

My thanks to the members of the Satin e-group for their inputs on this piece.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 January, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Some Saxy Resolutions

This is the 47th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

It is January 3, and I have already broken my New Year’s resolution. Don’t ask. So, I decided to find out from some of the notable people in our country what their New Year’s resolutions were.

First I called up Sonia Gandhi. “My New Year’s resolution is to learn more Hindi,” she told me.

“Hindi?” I asked. “But your Hindi is just fine, Soniaji.”

“No, we lost the Gujarat elections because of my Hindi,” she said. “You see, while campaigning in Gujarat, I wanted to tell the people of Gujarat that we would develop Gujarat better than Narendra Modi. So, I asked one of my minions how one says that in Hindi. My minion said, say ‘Narendra Modi maut ka saudagar hai.’ So, I said that, and see what happened.”

“What happened to the minion?”

“Don’t ask.”

Next I rang up Manmohan Singh. “What’s your New Year’s resolution, sir?”

There was a moment of silence. Then he said, in a sad voice: “I’ll have to check.”

After this, I dropped in to meet Prakash Karat. His answer:

“My New Year’s resolution is to oppose whatever the UPA does.”

“But why’re you supporting their government then?” I asked. “Why don’t you just withdraw support?”

Karat sighed. “This is the problem with you neoliberal, consumerist, imperialist bourgeois, call-centre pigs,” he said. “If I withdraw support, there will be mid-term elections, after which we may not be in a position to damage the country. I don’t want that, and neither does Beiji… I mean, neither does Brinda.”

“You don’t have to call me names, you know.”

“I head the politburo, not the polite-bureau. Now run along before Buddha’s party workers saunter along and I set them on you.”

I ran along, and called up Narendra Modi. “Sir, I wanted to ask, what is your New Year’s resolution?”

“If you find a cockroach in your kitchen,” he asked, “you tell me, what should be done to the cockroach?”

“Kill it, kill it.”

“Well, that is it. Do I have to take Sonia Gandhi’s permission to do that?”

I needed a break from politicians. One fellow called me names, another was eyeing my cockroaches, what’s a columnist to do? I called Rakhi Sawant.

“Amitji, in this New Year, I will be more saxy.”

“Rakhiji, you are already very saxy,” I replied.

“Are you making fun of me? I did not say saxy. I said saxy.”

“I know, saxy.”

“Not saxy. Saxy!”

Arre, saxy, na?”

“Not saxy! Saxy! Abhishek, cum here, yeh mera mazaak uda raha hai!”

Then she burst out crying and I hung up. Next target, Javed Akhtar.

“Sir, what is your New Year’s resolution,” I asked.

“I will be the judge on a reality show,” he told me.

“But sir,” I remarked, “you have already done that many times this year.”

“No Amit, you do not understand me. You need to do more riyaaz of asking questions. You see, I want to be the judge of a reality show for judges of reality shows. In the show, the judges of reality shows will be contestants, and I will be their judge.”

“And what will you judge them on?”

“I will judge them on how well they can lecture contestants,” he said. “They should be able to burst into monologues about women’s liberation or secularism without any reason for it. Someone sings a random song, they should deliver a lecture on male chauvinism. Someone dances, they should preach about the values of the new generation. I want to create many Javed Akhtars to make this world a better place. Run along now.”

I ran along, and bumped into Pratibha Patil. “Pratibha tai,” I asked, “What are your New Year’s resolutions this year?”

“I have decided that 2008 will be a different year for me than 2007,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“Well, in 2007, everyone made fun of me for speaking to spirits, and my comments about burkas and compulsory sterilization and so on. Even you did, naughty boy. So, this year, I have decided to become more like my popular predecessor, APJ Abdul Kalam. I will emulate certain carefully selected aspects of his persona.”

“Such as what?”

“Well, I’ll start with the hairstyle.”

I ran along. Then I thought I’ll make just one final query for the day, and hope something interesting came out of it. I dropped in at Abhishek Bachchan’s house. As Ash bhabhi made tea, I asked the small b:

“Abhishek, dude, I’m writing a column about New Year’s resolutions, and I wanted to know what yours was.”

He looked at me with red eyes. “I will find that tree,” he said, “and I will kill him.”

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 January, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


A Wishlist For 2008

Pragati, January 2008

The cover story of the latest issue of Pragati is by me, and though I carry it in full below, I encourage you to download the full issue (pdf link), as it has some excellent articles. You can also find archival issues here.

To survive in India, I sometimes think, one needs to be a wishful thinker. There is much about India that is beautiful and inspiring, but there’s quite as much that is terribly frustrating. For decades since our independence, we have languished as a poor country - and even though we opened up parts of our economy in 1991, much of the country is still desperately poor. Our imperial overlords handed over power in 1947 to a government that was almost as oppressive - one that we now take for granted. There are so many ways in this could be a better country, even a leader among nations.

So as 2008 begins, I present to you my wishlist for the new year. This is all fantasy - none of these wishes may actually come true this year. But they give us something to aim for, and hopefully we’ll get there one day - and truly be a free country.

1. Get over the religion of government. For all our problems we turn to government. This is folly. Government consists of human beings as fallible as us, in whose hands we place enormous amounts of power and money. What’s more, the incentives of these people are aligned towards increasing their power and their budgets, and not necessarily towards serving us. We should stop empowering it with our blind faith, and demand that it lifts all restrictions on private enterprise - there is no surer route to prosperity.

2. Start questioning taxes. If you were forced to work for the government for four months of the year, you would call it slavery. Paying one-third of our income in taxes is no different - and yet we do not protest. Most of this is wasted by the government in tasks it has no business doing. Sure, taxes are necessary to sustain a government that defends our rights and provides some public services - but our government does far, far more. Let us at least start questioning this, and not demand government spending for everything as if that money comes from the skies, and carries no cost.

3. Abolish most of our ministries. Most ministries are redundant. (For example, the ministry of information and broadcasting.) We should do away with them. Those worried about how those ministers or civil servants would be employed can donate their own money to support them, and not force it on others.

4. Support free speech. As long as giving offence is a crime, free speech becomes redundant. We should do away with Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and amend away the caveats placed on free speech in Article 19 (2) of the constitution. And those who claim to support free speech should not be hypocrites about it: both MF Husain and the Danish cartoonists deserve our support.

5. Stop punishing victimless crimes. Let us respect individual choice, and not punish any act that does not infringe on someone else’s rights. Section 377 of the IPC, which effectively criminalizes homosexuality, should be scrapped. And we should rethink our attitudes towards prostitution and drugs - we would be able to protect the rights of prostitutes and drug users better if they were legal.

6. Make the right to property a fundamental right. Well, it started out that way. Then, in 1978, with the 44th Amendment, it ceased to be one. It needs to be reinstated, so that battles for justice as at Singur, Nandigram and even Narmada can be fought on the basis of principle, not emotion.

7. Oppose all tariffs and subsidies. They all amount to forced charity - certain producers benefit at the expense of us consumers. We don’t owe those producers a living.

8. Stop trying to protect the corner store. Same principle as above. Businesses exist for the benefit of consumers, not the other way around. If - and it is a big if - consumers abandon kirana stores and shift to big retailers, we will do so because we save money and time doing so. We will do something else with that money or time, and the economy will accordingly benefit. That is how economies grow - through the voluntary and unrestrained actions of consumers and producers. We shouldn’t mess with that process.

9. Fund schooling, not schools. Our education system has failed because parents have no choice. Two things can change this. One: We should allow private schools to open and run without any conditions at all. Two: Instead of funding schools, we should give school vouchers to parents, empowering them with the power to choose whichever school they want for their kids. 

10. Stop assuming that Big Business = Free Markets. Big businesses don’t often speak in the interest of free markets. Typically, they lobby politicians for protectionist policies that protect them from competitors. We should be wise to this, and should not confuse cronyism for free markets. The biggest beneficiaries of economic freedom - We, the People - should take it upon ourselves to fight for them.

11. Stop playing cards. Earlier this year, the Congress pulled off a supposed coup by playing the gender card in the presidential elections. Elsewhere, we have played the Dalit card, the Muslim card and so on. Enough already. The business of running the country is not a game.

12. Stop tolerating mobs. An individual can’t get away with burning a bus, but collect a mob, and anything goes. Especially in the name of religion. We should be more tolerant of the diversity around us, and of free speech, and completely intolerant of mobs. 

13. Realise that Hindutva is not equal to Hinduism. As Ranjit Hoskote once wrote: “[T]he roots of Hindutva do not lie in Hinduism. Rather, they lie in a crude mixture of German romanticism, Victorian puritanism and Nazi methodology.”

14. Bring delayed justice to the victims of past massacres. Let us bring to justice the perpetrators of New Delhi 1984, Mumbai 1992-93, Gujarat 2002 and Nandigram 2007. Let us not let politics get in the way, and shout against one or the other.

15. Reform agriculture. Around 60% of our country depends on agriculture and allied sectors for a livelihood. This is unsustainable - the figure in developed countries is closer to 5%. There are a variety of ways to reform agriculture, such as allowing farmers to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes and removing the restrictions placed on farmers that prevent them from selling their produce outside a limited area. But what farmers really need is alternative career options, for which:

16. Remove all restrictions on business. Let’s dump all that’s left - and there’s a lot of it - of the License and Inspection Raj, reform our labour laws, carry out product market liberalization and, essentially, remove all restrictions on free enterprise. Then we can finally become the manufacturing superpower we should have been 30 years ago, and provide feasable options for our beleaguered farmers.

17. Demand more of our politicians. Our prime minister is 75 years old. The main leader of the opposition is 80. Most young politicians in the country are scions of politican families. None of them have expressed any new ideas. For India’s sake, let’s set higher standards for the people who run our country.

Phew. That’s a long list, and I’m sure any reader of Pragati could easily double it. There is so much to do, and so little will. And yet, it is important to keep shouting from the rooftops about what India needs to fix, and Pragati will continue to do just that. Are you with us?

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On a lighter note, check out my earlier piece, A Blogger Looks At A WTF 2007.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 January, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


A Blogger Looks At A WTF 2007

This round-up of WTF posts by me was published in today’s issue of Mail Today. You can download a pdf of the page here.

It’s that time of the year when newspapers and TV Channels round up the year with great ponderousness. Well, I’d like to present some snapshots from the year as well, but not one that looks at big events of great importance. Instead, handpicked from my blog India Uncut, here are some WTF moments from 2007. (WTF, if you must pretend not to know what it means, stands for What The Fug.)

The year begins with reality-show WTFness. In January, Rakhi Sawant steams it up on Bigg Boss, with one choice conversation being the bit where Roopali Ganguly tells her that she hasn’t been kissed in three years. “Tere hont kunwaare hai,” Rakhi tells her. “Tujhe jung lag chuka hai.” 

Meanwhile, Shilpa Shetty enters Celebrity Big Brother saying “I’m very synonymous with glamour”. While teaching Yoga to a fellow contestant, she says, “You’re not breathing right. We’re so occupied with life and the stuff we have to do that we don’t breathe.” Later, a racism row erupts, and the Indian government wastes taxpayers money protesting, panting and puffing while Shilpa stays calm, presumably breathing. 

Headlines of the month: “Lalu sets Ghost after Nitish.” “Sadhus go on Rampage.” “Cong, Sena fight over damaged auto.” “Kalam wants to see Indian on Mars.” 

In February, a report informs us: “More and more couples are exploiting Caesarean sections to manipulate the horoscope of the baby.” A Bajrang Dal actvist protests Valentine’s Day because “exchanging cards at a young age is against Indian culture.” 

Prediictionss

In March, astrologers such as Bejan Daruwalla and Sanjay B Jumaaaaani give us their predictions for the World Cup, and get it wronggg. An astrologer in Tamil Nadu gets into trouble by “allegedly predicting a long life for a dead man.” A gentleman from Mumbai approaches the Bombay High Court demanding that they declare him to be God. In Orissa’s Jagannath Temple, food worth Rs 10 lakhs, meant as a holy offering, is destroyed because a foreigner had entered it - “an act seen as defiling the premises.”

Cops bust a rave party, and we are told that the cops are “thinking of invoking provisions of the IT Act against them because the invitations for the party were sent via the Internet.” The All Kerala Drinkers’ Welfare Association, which “pledges to protect the rights of alcoholics … [presents] the government with a 15-point demand that includes a room for the lower-middle class drinker.” In Mumbai, the publisher of The Santa and Banta Joke Book is arrested for outraging religious feelings. Headline of the month: “Kalam trips and falls, is unhurt.” 

In April, a controversy erupts against Sachin Tendulkar for “cut[ting] a cake in the colours of the national flag.” Narayana Murthy allegedly insults the national anthem, which promptly goes and sulks. The hit story of the month on television: a baby monkey with its head stuck in a bucket. Karan Thapar asks Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi what constitutes good taste and bad taste. The reply: “When the committee feels it’s good, it’s good, when it feels its bad it’s bad.”

The headline of May: “Train passengers asked to get out and push.” This is in Bihar. In Kolkata, a man throws his wife out because she wears salwar kameez. When the case goes to court, he tells the judge: “We are an orthodox family. We cannot accept such dresses, she should wear a sari.”

In June, Amitabh Bachchan is in the news. “Amitabh no Farmer” screams one TV headline. Filmmaker Robby Grewal then offers him the role of Krishna, and says: “Only Mr Bachchan can play God convincingly.” Amitabh, on another issues, clarifies: “Ash is not married to a tree! [...] It’s a challenge—please show me the tree she married!”

The headline of the month is a non-event: “Rani Mukherjee is not engaged to Aditya Chopra.” Also: “Abhi-Akshaye to star in lesbian drama?” Quote of the month: Bobby Deol saying “I am the son of Punjab-da-puttar.” Picture of the month: Himesh Reshammiya in a burqa.

In July, Renuka Chowdhury, the Women and Child Development Minister, announces that she wants every pregnancy in the country to be registered. (Big Sister is watching your foetus.) Pratibha Patil, who speaks to spirits and supports compulsary sterilization for people with hereditary diseases, becomes India’s latest WTF president.

Quote of the month: Murali Manohar Joshi saying, “I think the government wants to import the western culture of sexual relation between student relation to India.” Picture of the month: Lalu Prasad Yadav tying his pajama’s naada

August is notable for Rakhi Sawant’s fabulous quote, “Item dance is not a crime. It’s an art and I pursue it with a vanity. it’s takes a lot of hard work to perform. Gandhiji also believed in working hard.” And there’s also Ram Gopal Varma: “I don’t think Gabbar from Sholay was a negative character. He was a villain who did a heinous act of killing people.”

Headlines of the month: “Chutiya tribe to organise massive agitation for ST status.” “China bans Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.” “Bachchan crazy for wife Aishwarya.”

In September, the Allahabad High Court rules, “[I]t is the duty of every citizen of India under Article 51-A of the Constitution - irrespective of caste, creed or religion - to follow the dharma propounded by the Bhagvad Gita.” BBC reports: “Nepal’s state-run airline has confirmed that it sacrificed two goats to appease a Hindu god, following technical problems with one of its aircraft.”

The quote of the month comes from BP Singhal: “Anybody who wants to denigrate another religion, I call him a Christian. You must find out Ambika Soni’s religion.”

Chicken

In October, we find that “some civic bodies in Madhya Pradesh are contemplating issuing licences to … genuine [eunuchs] to prevent the fakes from decamping with alms.” Mumbai Mirror speaks to a source who saw Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan dine at a restaurant, who says: “From the dishes that they had ordered, it was pretty apparent that Saif and Kareena love chicken.” Raima Sen says of her sister Riya, “She has breasts and hips truly measuring up to Bollywood standards.” S Sreesanth remarks: “I know I am handsome but all the actresses can wait.”

In November, the temple manager of Kerala’s Sree Krishna Guruvayoor temple reveals, according to IANS, that “the deity [is] unhappy over the entry of women in salwar-kameez.” Aburadha Sawhney of PETA, complaining about an SBI commercial featuring a chicken, says: “It is obvious that the chicken would never have done any of these stunts willingly.” Narendra Modi says, “Scavenging must have been a spiritual experience for the Valmiki caste.”

Headlines of the month: “Sonali Kulkarni bares her back.” “Why was Rakhi sad on her b’day?”

In December, a case is filed against Anil Ambani for sardarji jokes sent on the Reliance Network. BBC reports: “A judge in India has summoned two Hindu gods, Ram and Hanuman, to help resolve a property dispute.” Bushes and trees in Bangalore’s Lalbagh are trimmed “to ensure that young couples can’t steal a kiss behind them, all thanks to complaints from regular joggers.” Rediff asks its readers: “What do you think about Kangana going bald? Tell us!” It also asks Klaus Meine of the Scorpions: “Have you thought of introducing hip hop in your music to keep pace with the newer generation?” 

Headlines of the month: “US says it has right to kidnap British citizens.” “Sushmita in a legal hassle over ‘virginity’.”

See? Our country is so much more fun than all this talk of nuclear deals and Gujarat elections and Nandigram and suchlike. Have a great WTF 2008!

*  *  *

For more WTF posts by me, check out my WTF category page.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 December, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics | WTF


The Expanding Circle

This is the 46th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Would you put a man in a cage? Last week, the blogger Hari Balasubramanian wrote a post about how, in 1906, “Ota Benga, a pygmy from the Belgian Congo, found himself sharing a cage with an orang-utan at the Bronx Zoo as part of a tableau intended to illustrate the stages of evolution.” Benga had filed teeth that came from “a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people,” but his captors mistook that for “a sign of cannibalism.” They duly “scattered bones in the cage.”

Having related Benga’s tale, Balasubramanian asked:

“The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 27 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Thinking it Through


Let’s Rethink Doping

This is the 45th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell once wrote. There seems to be plenty of recent evidence to back that up. Former US senator George Mitchell recently released a report on performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB) that revealed that 78 past and current players had used banned substances. Last week, Marion Jones was stripped of the five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics, following a confession that she had taken steroids at the time. Earlier this year, the Tour de France was beset by controversy, with Michael Rasmussen withdrawn by his team while he was leading the race on allegations of doping, and pre-race favourite Alexander Vinokourov busted for an illegal blood transfusion.

You could look at the glass half empty and bemoan the fact that doping seems to be so widespread in sport. You could look at it half full and feel glad that the cheats are finally being caught. I believe that we’re looking at the wrong glass.

In my view, doping in sport will be an issue no one bothers about in a couple of decades time.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 20 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | Thinking it Through


Our State Religion is the State

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today, a new paper started in Delhi by India Today and The Daily Mail. You can download a pdf here.

“Thank God India doesn’t have a state religion,” a friend of mine said to me a couple of days ago.

“Indeed,” I replied. We’re both secular, in the original sense of the word, and believe in the separation of church and state. Religion, we believe, should be restricted to the private domain. It should not be forced upon anyone. And so on.

And then it struck me that for all this talk of separating church and state, we might just be missing one important thing: in India, the state is the church.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 16 December, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


Nadiraji Wants Your Money

This is the 44th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A few days ago, the respected theatre artist Nadira Babbar spoke to the newspaper DNA about the state of theatre in Mumbai. She felt that there weren’t enough good auditoriums in the city. “My appeal to the government is to build small, simple auditoriums with basic infrastructure,” she said. “I am seriously thinking of meeting the chief minister and put before him certain stark realities of the state of theatre. Some of my proposals are to subsidize the rates of the halls. Secondly, it would be of great help if they subsidize the rates of placing advertisements in newspapers; not only for the theatre events, but also for other cultural events.”

Most of us would sympathize with her. The arts are essential to a civilized society, and deserve our support. And there are many neglected areas of it, besides theatre, where an infusion of funds would help. Traditional folk arts are dying out, literature in regional languages gets a raw deal, and so on. So, naturally, many of us turn to the state.

But should we?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 13 December, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Thinking it Through


Punish Rioters, Not Writers

This is the 43rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A friend of mine, Mint contributor Salil Tripathi, recently drew my attention to a wonderful poem by Amit Chaudhuri. The poem, called The Writers, was based around “constantly mishearing ‘rioting’ as ‘writing’ on the BBC”. It began: “There has been writing for 10 days now/unabated. People are anxious, fed up.” And so on. You get the drift.

Chaudhuri’s poem felt especially apt given the events of the last couple of weeks. In this time, our cops and politicians have forgotten the difference between rioters and writers. Rioters came out in Kolkata to protest a writer’s words. It was the writer who then had to run around, evading accusing eyes and fingers. Eventually, it was the writer who apologized for her words—the rioters haven’t yet apologized for their actions. Indeed, it could be argued that the rioters have won—as they do every time.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 06 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Hypocrisy of Indian Politics

This piece of mine was published today under the headline “Politicians can be so boringly predictable” in Mail Today, a new paper started in Delhi by India Today and The Daily Mail.

Many years ago, before the satellite TV revolution, there used to be a video newsmagazine called Newstrack that I rather enjoyed. There is one scene from it that I still remember. If memory serves me right, it began with a shot of the bottom of Devi Lal’s sports shoes as he reclined on a garden chair, his foot rested on some kind of support. (I could be wrong, but I vaguely remember he wore a banyan and a dhoti on top.) An interview began, and the interviewer asked him why he had made his son, Om Prakash Chautala, the chief minister of Haryana. Devi Lal replied:

Tho kya Bhajan Lal ke chhore ko banaaoo?

An English translation —“Then shall I make Bhajan Lal’s son the chief minister?” –cannot match the rustic delight of it. I loved that riposte, and remember it still, because it was a rare moment of honesty from an Indian politician. Devi Lal could have said that his son was a fine leader, and had served the people of Haryana. He could have said that it was a democratic decision by the party. But his statement made no pretence of denying what we all already know: Politicians are motivated by nothing other than a lust to power, and once they acquire it, they want to pass it on, like a material possession, to their progeny.

Now imagine Sonia Gandhi, asked why Rahul Gandhi has been elevated in the Congress Party, saying: “Tho kya LK Advani ke chhori ko banaaoo?

Young Rahul has received many fulsome tributes recently, but has no political achievements to his credit, and hasn’t come up in the party the hard way. (Unless waiting is considered hard, as it might well be for a crown prince.) But no one in the Congress Party will have the cojones to admit that Gandhi’s position comes from Gandhi’s name, and nothing else. The language of politics is couched in doublespeak, and Indian politics is all about double standards. Dynastic politics is not the only example of this, and it is certainly not restricted to the Congress Party.

Convenience, not principle

Consider the nuclear deal, to take a recent example. The BJP has opposed it, with Rajnath Singh saying that “it is not good for the future of the country,” and Murli Manohar Joshi claiming that it will make India “a junior partner of the US.” But can anyone have any doubt that if the NDA had come into power in the last elections, and a BJP prime minister had brought an identical deal to the table, the party would have supported it vociferously? There would have been much nationalistic rhetoric about how the deal would take India into the league of superpowers, and how we would have a decisive advantage over Pakistan, and so on.

And the Congress would have opposed it tooth and nail.

Now consider Nandigram. I have no doubt that if an identical crisis had erupted in Gujarat, the positions of the parties involved would have been reversed. The BJP would have spoken about how the state needs to be industrialised, and the Left parties would have agitated for the rights of the poor peasants who were forcibly being deprived of their land. Er, actually, wait a minute – remember Narmada?

When the BJP wanted to discuss Nandigram in parliament recently, the Left protested, saying that it was a state subject. The BJP ridiculed that assertion. How easily I can imagine those positions being reversed on the issue of Gujarat 2002.

Indeed, it is mildly amusing to see the self-righteousness of the Congress and the Left on Gujarat. The 1984 riots in Delhi and the brutality at Nandigram differ from Gujarat 2002 only in matters of detail. Indeed, one can actually take the quotes and the principles espoused by all these parties on any one of these issues, shift the context, and boom, the same quotes apply, if uttered by a different party. Everywhere, same difference.

I was immensely amused recently to hear BJP leader VK Malhotra speak out in favour of free speech. He demanded that Taslima Nasreen “be given full protection and citizenship” and said that “India believes in freedom of speech.” MF Hussain must be chortling in Dubai as he reads that, if not positively choking on a frappe.

If the BJP supports free speech, Mother Teresa danced at the Moulin Rouge.

The truth is that the only politicians in our country who actually act on the basis of principles are a few deranged souls on the extreme right and the extreme left. Not a single mainstream politician in this country cares about principles. They are motivated by one thing only: what Devi Lal would refer to as gaddi. When they claim to espouse principles, they do so as a tactical ploy of the moment. As the moment changes, their principles change.

Our opposition parties, in fact, understand only one dharma: to be in opposition. No matter what they otherwise claim to believe in, they will oppose everything the government does – as the BJP’s stand on the nuclear deal indicates. Indeed, if the UPA government was to announce tomorrow that it is building the Ram temple in Ayodha, the BJP would certainly find a way to oppose it. Perhaps they’d bring Vastushastra into it, or they’d claim that the temple toilet faces Varanasi and is an insult to all Hindus, or some such humbug.

It’s all sauda

Isn’t politics everywhere like this? Well, yes and no. Politicians everywhere are human beings who respond to incentives, and they’re obviously in it for the power. If they only wanted to do good to humankind, they’d be social workers or businessmen – successful businessmen are successful because they serve the needs of people – or columnists. (The last is a pathetic justification for my own vocation.) Not politicians.

Still, if you compare Indian politics with American politics, it is easier to find politicians there who stand up for certain principles even when those are unpopular. Consider the ongoing US primaries, for example: John McCain consistently speaks out against torture, even though the Republican base prefers a more macho position. (Mitt Romney panders to them by suggesting that the size of Guantanamo be doubled.) Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice, a position that would normally doom him among the Christian conservatives who dominate the Republican primaries. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly refused to apologize for her 2002 vote for the Iraq War Resolution, or admit that it was a mistake, despite the Democratic base being so strongly against that war.

In America, the character of the leaders you are voting for matters, as do the policies they support. People vote for whichever politician comes closest to their worldview, and that worldview is a mix of complicated factors, from economics to politics to identity. In India, identity dominates.

Most Indian politics is identity politics. Mayawati’s rise or Lalu’s long reign in Bihar stand testament to the power of saying: “You guys have been screwed over for too many years now. Put me in power, and I will distribute the spoils to you.” It’s also entitlement politics, a politics of give-and-take, of promises made, sometimes material – remember Karunanidhi and his nine million colour TVs? – sometimes pertaining to jobs and power. But higher principles are entirely absent from such politics. And yet, our politicians couch their rhetoric in the language of principles, fooling only the wilfully self-delusional.

I have one question at the end of this: I think it is obvious, and we all accept, that our politicians are deeply dishonest when it comes to politics. Why, then, do we expect any different from them when they are in government?

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


The Origin of Human Rights

This is the 42nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the 42nd installment of Thinking it Through, and over the last 41 weeks, I have often bored my readers with talk of “rights” and “freedoms” and so on. Such talk is everywhere—politicians love to speak of rights to display their compassion, and of freedom to display their liberalism. Often, though, these terms are dreadfully misused, and hide double standards that none of our politicians are exempt from. With a humble ponderousness alert, allow me to explain my notion of the basis of human rights.

In my view of the world, the most basic right of all is one that we are born with: the right to self-ownership. All legitimate human rights emerge from this. If we own ourselves, we obviously have the right to life, and to live as we please. Our thoughts and speech belong to us—thus, the right to free speech. Our labour, and the fruits of our labour, belong to us—thus, all property rights. And so on.

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


Beating Terrorism

This is the 41st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

US President George W Bush never ceases to amuse. In a recent interview with ABC Television, he explained that while he wanted democracy in Pakistan, he thought highly of General Pervez Musharraf. According to a report by Voice of America, Bush said: “[Musharraf] has…advanced democracy in Pakistan. He has said he will take off his uniform. He has said there will be elections. Today he released prisoners. And so far I have found him to be a man of his word.”

Right. Bush, of course, had praised Vladimir Putin three years ago as “a strong leader who cares deeply about the people of his country”, and in different circumstances, had Eye-Raq been an ally of the US when he took power, might even have praised Saddam Hussain’s commitment to civil rights. It is clear that the fuel that drives the Bush administration is self-delusion—and nowhere is this stronger than on the issue of terrorism.

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


The Horror of Nandigram

This is the 40th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Reading the newspaper has been a depressing experience over the last few days. The headlines are dominated by events at Nandigram, where bombs are going off, land mines are exploding, the police is powerless and lawlessness reigns. West Bengal’s governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, has described it as a war zone. To many of us far from there, it must seem like a remote insurgency that does not affect us all. But it does—and we cannot truly be a free society if we turn our back upon it.

The problem at Nandigram began with eminent domain. Eminent domain is an instrument used by governments to take land from private citizens for public use. For example, if a road needs to be built, and the proposed route goes through private property, the government acquires the land at whatever price it determines. It does not need the buyer’s consent for this, which many would say is surely wrong—but when it involves public infrastructure, most people shrug it away as a necessary evil.

In the American constitution, eminent domain is allowed only for projects of “public use”. When the Indian Constitution was written, this was changed to “public purpose”, which is more open to interpretation. But the right to property was a fundamental right, which meant that owners of private property had legal recourse if they were being gypped. Our early governments and legislatures, socialist and fond of redistribution, chipped away at it, but the courts defended it. Then, with the 44th Amendment in 1978, it was changed from a fundamental right to a mere legal right. That’s a euphemism—effectively, it had been abolished.

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


Why Children Labour

This is the 39th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

If blouses were people, there is one variety of blouse that would feel rather ashamed of its origins right now. Last week, the clothing company Gap pulled a smock blouse for children from its stores because it was found to have been made by young children in India. The press called it names such as the ‘child labour top’, and the hapless thing is now being exterminated. A Gap spokesman announced that child labour was “completely unacceptable”, and that they would prevent a recurrence.

The resulting international outrage gave children’s rights groups the boost they needed to push forward a series of raids over the last few days. Child workers were rescued from seedy bylanes in Delhi, where they were hard at work in small, cramped rooms. The Observer  wrote that according to the UN, “Child labour contributes an estimated 20% of India’s gross national product with 55 million children aged from five to 14 employed across the business and domestic sectors.”

Working children are all around us: at the office canteen, the Udupi restaurant, the neighbourhood grocer’s, the traffic signal. It is so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even notice it when we shout, “Chhotu, ek chai la.” Nobody in his right mind can condone it—there are few thefts as appalling as that of someone’s childhood.

For the sake of these children, I have a request to make to the activists and journalists behind all these recent exposés: six months from now, in May 2008, do a follow-up on all these kids who have been ‘rescued’ and tell us how they’re doing. Are they going to school? Are they having a normal, happy childhood? Indeed, tell us in just one word: are they better off?

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


Understanding Terrorism

My review below of What Makes a Terrorist, by Alan B Krueger, appears in today’s Mint.

What causes terrorism? In the post-9/11 world, this question has assumed an urgency that goes beyond academics. All our lives are touched, in some way or the other, by terrorism. Powerful governments base their strategic decisions on what they perceive to the answer, and if they are wrong, they can contribute to the problem instead of finding solutions. What Makes a Terrorist, by Princeton economist Alan B Krueger, is an important book for this reason.

Krueger states early in his book: “The popular explanations for terrorism—poverty, lack of education or the catchall ‘they hate our way of life and freedom’—simply have no systematic empirical basis. These explanations have been embraced almost entirely on faith, not scientific evidence.” He then goes on to present a pile of available data on terrorism that backs up his assertion.

Krueger’s book is drawn from three lectures that he gave as part of the Lionel Robbins Memorial Lecture Series in February 2006. In the first of these lectures, he tackles poverty and education. Looking into the economic background of terrorists, Krueger cites a study that compares “suicide bombers and other militants” from the West Bank and Gaza strip with the entire male population aged 16 to 50, and find that “suicide bombers were less than half as likely to come from families that were below the poverty line.” Krueger gets similar results from studies on Hezbollah and Gush Emunim, an Israeli group. 

Krueger cites public opinion surveys across Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey that show that terrorism finds more support among the better educated than among the uneducated. The biographical details of known terrorists bring him to an identical conclusion.

Krueger examines a few possible reasons for this. One, groups like Hamas recruit “mainly on college campuses,” and the impoverished don’t attend college to begin with. Two, the supply of wannabe terrorists is greater than what terrorists groups can absorb—a Hamas leader once told the New Yorker: “Our biggest problem is the hordes of young men who beat on our doors, clamoring to be sent on suicide missions. It is difficult to select only a few.” These few would be those more likely to succeed—and perhaps consequently, more educated and less poor.

Krueger argues that while poverty may be a factor in street crime, terrorism, which he defines as “politically motivated violence”, draws a different kind of person. He draws an analogy with voting, saying that voters tend to be better educated and wealthier than non voters because “they care about influencing the outcome and consider themselves sufficiently well-informed to want to express their opinions.” He sums it up neatly: “Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so deeply and fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”

Does poverty play a part at the political level then? Perhaps terrorists take to violence to protest at the poverty around them? Krueger’s second lecture counters this view. “[I]nternational terrorists are more likely to come from moderate-income countries than poor ones,” he says. His data throws up an interesting set of factors that countries spawning terrorism have in common: “the suppression of civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and democratic rights.” Krueger elaborates: “When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.” In other words, terrorism as a form of political expression may often be a last resort, when all others are closed.

Krueger’s third lecture evaluates “the economic consequences of terrorist attacks”, concluding that “terrorists only affect the economy if the public lets them, that is, if people and their leaders over-react.” A valuable part of the book comes at the end, where Krueger reproduces the question-and-answer sessions after his lectures, in which he and his audience delve into the nuances of his findings. 

Krueger’s book contains more insight on Middle-Eastern terrorism than on South Asia, but that is a minor quibble, and a constraint imposed by the data available to him. Humans everywhere are essentially the same, responding to incentives and scarcity, as represented by their social conditions. Krueger’s book is a necessary read for anyone who wishes to understand terrorism, especially because many of the popular notions of what causes it are not rooted in reality. One wishes that politicians, especially, would pay attention.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 November, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Politics


Remembering Frédéric Bastiat

This is the 38th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to win the 2007 Frédéric Bastiat Prize for Journalism. I picked up a handsome cheque and an engraved candlestick at a ceremony in Manhattan, and reflected that much as I valued the money and would cherish the candlestick, I would have been happier if the writings that made me eligible for this award had been unnecessary. The Bastiat Prize, according to its organizers, is meant for “journalists whose writings wittily and eloquently explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” In the India of my dreams, I would not need to do those things.

Frédéric Bastiat was a French essayist who lived in the first half of the 19th century. His ideas, however, are terribly relevant to modern India. Indeed, if his work had been widely read and understood by the men who brought us freedom and shaped our nation after independence, we would not be such a poor country. Virtually every mistake that independent India’s policymakers made in the economic sphere could have been avoided if they had just read his great essay, That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 01 November, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Personal | Thinking it Through


The Population Myth

This is the 37th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Government of India websites can be a hoot sometimes. If you visit the website for the department of family welfare, you will find the flashing slogan, “Have fun with one!!! Control population!!!” Had there been a place to leave comments on that site, I would have written, “Have fun with one! Control exclamation marks!”

When I was a schoolkid, I was taught that a key reason for the poverty of countries like India is their population. This is almost considered axiomatic in India today—and in much of the world, in fact. The thinking behind this is simple: there are a limited amount of resources on our planet, and if there are too many people, there won’t be enough resources to go around. We’ll run out of food. We’ll run out of natural resources. We’ll soon run out of land, and there will be “standing room only”. Harrison Brown once worried about the population increasing “until the earth is covered completely and to a considerable depth with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots”.

It’s been a while since Brown’s prediction, and the earth isn’t a dead cow yet. If his kind of alarmist thinking was true, we’d have seen two trends over the last few decades: one, population density would be an indicator of poverty, and people would want to migrate away from cities, and not to them. Two, resources would have become scarcer and the quality of life would have gone down wherever populations have risen. In reality, quite the opposite has happened.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 25 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


Dear Rahul Gandhi

This is the 36th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Dear Rahul

Congratulations on your recent elevation as general secretary of the Congress party. Yes, I know, it was just a formality, and there’s more to come. Still, it’s a start, and one that you used to make a statement.

Shortly after getting this post, you took a delegation to Manmohan Singh and asked for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) to be extended to all 593 districts of this country. A couple of days later, the Prime Minister announced that extension. With this, you demonstrated your clout in the party, and you also made a gesture of commitment towards the poor people of this country.

I have a question, though. Have you had a chance to look at the reports evaluating the NREGS that have been released recently? One of them, by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, found that just 6% of the households registered under the scheme actually got 100 days of employment in 2006-07. Another, carried out by the Centre of Environment and Food Security (CEFS) a few months ago, is even more worrying.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 18 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Letters | Politics | Thinking it Through


How Not to Help India’s Rural Poor

This Op-Ed of mine was published in the Wall Street Journal Asia today.

Politics is often about grand gestures, and the Congress Party’s 37-year-old new general secretary, Rahul Gandhi, understands this perfectly. Shortly after landing his position last month, Mr. Gandhi demanded that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh extend a massive cash redistribution scheme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), to all 593 districts of the country. Mr. Singh duly assented.

If this is an indication of Mr. Gandhi’s power—and how he might use it in future—it’s not encouraging. The NREGA was enacted early last year by the Congress-led coalition. The act guarantees the government will provide 100 days of work every year to every rural household in India—there are no reliable figures on exactly how many of these there are—at an estimated total cost of $3 billion before the newly announced expansion. First launched in 200 districts, it was expanded to another 130 in the last fiscal year.

As expected, NREGA has proved little more than a siphon for corrupt bureaucrats, not a boon to the poor. And now, there are numbers to back up that assertion.

Last month, the Delhi-based Society for Participatory Research in Asia, a non-profit organization, released a preliminary study on NREGA’s governance. The results are shocking. In the financial year beginning in April 2006, only 6% of the households registered under the scheme actually received their 100 days of employment. PRIA’s study also cited shoddy implementation practices across 14 of India’s 28 states. In the surveyed villages, only 45% of registered households had even applied for work under the scheme. And of those households that had applied for a job, only 44% had received one within the required 15 days.

PRIA’s results mirror the findings of another study carried out by the Centre of Environment and Food Security earlier this year. The CEFS study focused on the state of Orissa, and found that about 75% of the funds spent in Orissa had been “siphoned and pocketed by the government officials.” “We could not find a single case where entries in the job cards are correct and match with the actual number of workdays physically verified with the villagers,” the study noted. Out of a total $187 million in public monies spent in the state during the 2006-2007 fiscal year, around $127 million was effectively stolen.

This kind of wastage shouldn’t come as a great surprise. India’s bureaucrats hold effectively tenured positions, and are often unaccountable to the public they serve. Their incentives are tailored only toward increasing their power and their budgets. Government is not transparent, and most common citizens do not contemplate legal recourse against it, as the legal system is dysfunctional and the rule of law is weak.

Instead of promising government jobs to agricultural workers, India’s government could do far greater good by stimulating competition—and investment—in rural India. As it is, government too often gets in the way. For example, one law limits the geographic area in which farmers can sell their produce, and some states require farmers to sell to monopolist distributors. Another law restricts produce shipments across state lines. Topping it all off, India is one of the biggest defenders of market-distorting agricultural tariffs in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round negotiations.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with India’s approach to economic reform. What’s needed is not grand gestures and more handouts, but a comprehensive review of how to stimulate private investment and entrepreneurship. Mr. Gandhi should understand that there is no better guarantee of employment than economic growth.

*  *  *

Also read: My Op-Ed in WSJ two years ago about the NREGA, Good Intentions, Bad Ideas.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


A Political Game Show

This is the 35th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

In the last few days, I have been thinking deeply about how to solve India’s problems. I have interspersed this demanding activity with furious bouts of watching television. One moment I ponder over who I should vote for in the next general elections. The next moment I send an SMS voting for Aneek Dhar in Sa Ra Ga Ma Pa. A moment later I worry about poverty. Then I watch a repeat of Jhalak Dikhla Ja. Thus the moments pass.

After all this, I have come to the conclusion that only television can solve problems. This has been reinforced by some big bloggers, which means I am right. Scott Adams, on the Dilbert Blog, has proposed a new reality show that pits think tanks against one another, with the public getting to vote for the policies they like. Alex Tabarrok, on Marginal Revolution, has suggested a game show called So You Think You Can Be President?, which puts presidential candidates through rigorous and entertaining tests.

I suggest a similar game show for India, tailored to discovering the qualities that matter to Indian voters. Instead of going out to vote at polling booths, which involves arduous physical labour (at least to a desk-bound half-Bengali like me), we should be allowed to vote via SMS and phone calls. The revenues thus generated can go straight into the government’s coffers, and taxes can be abolished. (See, don’t you like this idea already?)

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Posted by Amit Varma on 11 October, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


These Dreams of Flying

This is the 34th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Earlier this week I escorted my aunt from Chandigarh to Delhi, where she was due to catch a flight back to the US. She was in India after many years, and at Chandigarh airport she looked around us and remarked that many of our fellow travellers would probably have travelled in trains a decade ago. I gushed about how competition in the airlines industry had made prices so much more affordable for all of us. Lower prices, more choices, yada yada yada.

Having dropped her off, I made my way back to Mumbai where I came across this poignant news report in London’s Sunday Times:

An Indian entrepreneur has given a new twist to the concept of low-cost airlines. The passengers boarding his Airbus 300 in Delhi do not expect to go anywhere because it never takes off.

All they want is the chance to know what it is like to sit on a plane, listen to announcements and be waited on by stewardesses bustling up and down the aisle.

In a country where 99% of the population have never experienced air travel, the “virtual journeys” of Bahadur Chand Gupta, a retired Indian Airlines engineer, have proved a roaring success.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 04 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


The Twenty20 Age Begins

This is the 33rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Monday has long passed, and the immediate elation around India’s victory in the Twenty20 World Cup has abated. Yet, I still feel excited, and certain of the historical significance of this win. In 1975, when the first One Day International (ODI) World Cup took place, it seemed like a tamasha to everyone, a passing fancy. Today, it is a huge deal, and West Indies are inscribed as its first winners. I’m certain that the Twenty20 World Cup will be as important one day, and India will be remembered as its first champions. That’s quite something.

My excitement is not just about India winning. I am as charged up about Twenty20 cricket, though it is a format I was initially suspicious of, being a purist in love with the intricate and elongated dramas of Test cricket. My preconceptions about Twenty20 cricket have been—forgive the cliché, but I can’t resist this one—knocked for a six.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 27 September, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through


Fund Schooling, Not Schools

This is the 32nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I read a news report a couple of days back that amazed me. It was about a small village named Maji in the Yunnan province of China. The nearest school lies across the Nujiang river. There is no bridge, though a steel cable runs across.

How do the 500 children of this village get to school? The report states, “They fasten themselves to the cable with a metal carabiner and a rope and slide across the 200-metre wide canyon.” The youngest child, A Qia, is four years old, and makes the crossing by herself. A five-year-old named A Pu has been quoted as saying, “I used to dream of having a bridge, but then I learned that my dream was too expensive.”

My column today is not about bridges—not the kind that go across rivers anyway. It is about education. I never had to cross a canyon using a rope and a metal carabiner to get to school, and if the prospect had come up in my privileged home when I was a kid, I would probably have asked my dad if the metal carabiner was chauffeur-driven. I always took education for granted, the same way I took food for granted, and did not have to worry about where my next meal would come from. Much of India is not so lucky.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 20 September, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


In Defence of Blogging

This is the 31st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Not a week goes by these days without someone bashing blogs. Last Thursday, the essayist Mukul Kesavan referred disparagingly to how the “masters of blah have migrated to the Republic of Blog”. Just days before that, Robert McCrum wrote in the Observer of how “the democracy of the Web is in danger of becoming a cacophonous nightmare”. The Times of India famously (and ironically?) wrote last year that “no one can beat Indian bloggers when it comes to self-obsessed preaching, gossiping and bitching”.

I write a fairly widely read blog, India Uncut, so let me jump to the defence of blogging. Firstly, all these gentlemen are right—but they nevertheless miss the point, as Theodore Sturgeon could have told them. When Sturgeon, a writer of science fiction, was attacked for the rubbish that came out of that genre, he famously came up with what is known today as Sturgeon’s Revelation: “90% of everything is crud.”

Sturgeon’s point was that most attacks against science fiction used “the worst examples of the field for ammunition”. And while he accepted that 90% of science fiction was rubbish, so was 90% of everything else. If one just looked at the crud component of any field, it would be easy to dismiss anything.

This problem is amplified in blogging’s case. In journalism, for example, there are filters to publishing. Newspapers and magazines have editors who constrain what goes into print, and the limitations of space ensure that a lot of crud gets filtered out.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 13 September, 2007 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Thinking it Through


India’s Cops Get Orwellian

This is the 30th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I’m a huge fan of irony, and our world is full of it. Earlier this week, papers released by the National Archives in England revealed that “Special Branch police” had monitored George Orwell’s activities for a decade. In other words, Big Brother had been watching the man who would go on to write 1984. Orwell himself was presumably unaware of it – and yet, all too aware of the nature of Big Brother.

If Orwell were brought back from the dead, I presume he’d chuckle and think how little things have changed. He would certainly have been bemused by happenings in India. A few days ago, Mumbai’s police revealed their plans to install keystroke loggers in Mumbai’s cyber cafes, besides imposing licensing requirements on them.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 06 September, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Turbocharging RTI

This is the 29th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I love the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In theory, it gives me back a little bit of the power that the government has taken from me. Governments are supposed to work for us, and it is apt that people who work in government are called public servants. Yet, over the last 60 years, our government has become our lord and master. How does one bring it back to heel?

On paper, the RTI is one way of doing so. Much of the power of government comes from its opaqueness. If you can’t put your finger on what’s going wrong, you can’t hold it accountable. Garbage not being collected from your neighbourhood? You have no idea whom to contact or what action to take. Your ration card is not being given to you? You don’t know who’s withheld it, or if someone else is using it. For virtually any service that the government is supposed to provide, bribes are often necessary, and there’s little you can do.

The RTI changes that. Information is power, and the RTI allows the common citizen access to most information pertaining to government services. A road has been poorly repaired? You can find out which contractor did the job, which officer approved it, and what action is being taken. Sewers haven’t been made in your neighbourhood? You can find out if your local municipality officials are lying about working on it. By exposing the actions of our government officials, we render them accountable for their inaction. That’s the theory of it.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 30 August, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Thinking it Through


Dear Navjot Sidhu and Hu Jintao

This is the 28th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Dear Navjot Sidhu

Recently on a television show, I am told, you criticised the Indian Cricket League (ICL), and the players signing up with it, on the grounds that “they are in it for the money.” You found this reprehensible, clearly feeling that the profit motive was a bad thing. I wish to congratulate you on your beliefs. They were once shared by no less than Jawaharlal Nehru, who described “profit” as “a dirty word.” Indeed, I have heard that when he got angry at someone, he would abuse him or her by shouting, “You, you… you Profit!” But that could be apocryphal.

Mr Sidhu, allow me to express how much I admire your values. Shunning profit, as you surely do if your actions mirror your words, takes immense fortitude. You are always smartly dressed, with your turban matching your tie, despite buying clothes only from people who manufacture and sell them as a social service. When you eat out with your better half, who is also named Navjot and is therefore the better Navjot, you only eat at restaurants that were not begun to make a profit, but to help needy diners like yourself. Indeed, you buy no goods or services manufactured with the profit motive, and I really must ask you sometime where you shop. You also clearly accept absolutely no money for the entertainment you provide us on television, which is very kind of you. Your magnanimity has moved me.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 23 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Letters | Sport | Thinking it Through


A Business Proposal

This is the 27th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Hello dear! Myself Ram Chander Misra, politician from India, bringing business proposal for your kind perusal. I have been politician for more than 30 years now, and have worked in all major parties. I am currently holding important ministry portfolio, and handling many crores of funds for social welfare scheme. Indeed, many thousands of crores of rupees. Which comes to many BILLIONS OF DOLLARS, dear. And this is where I need your help.

First, dear, let me tell you something about Indian government. Government of India is existing on the basis that it will help poor people of India. This it can only do if there are poor people in India. Thus, it is important to keep people in India poor. This is for their own good, dear, for how can we help them otherwise?

Government of India does this with very ingenuous method that is tried and tested through centuries. First, it taxes them vigorously, both their earnings and spendings, promising to spend their money back on them. But for every 100 rupees that we take, only 15 are spent as they should. I will come back to what happens to the rest, dear, because it CONCERNS YOU.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 16 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Republic of Apathy

This essay of mine was published today in the Independence Day special issue of Lounge, the weekend edition of Mint, as “Those Songs of Freedom.”

Just thinking of it sends a chill up my spine. On 12 March 1930, at the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, 79 men went for a walk. For 23 days they marched, covering four districts, 48 villages, 400 kilometres. On the way they picked up thousands of other ordinary people, animated by a cause so much bigger than themselves. Then, on 6 April, by the sea at the coastal village of Dandi, Mahatma Gandhi picked up a handful of salty earth and said, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” 

The empire shook. The purpose of Gandhi’s march was to protest the oppressive and unfair salt tax, and across the country people joined the battle. They made their own salt. They bought illegal salt. That year, 60,000 Indians were arrested during these protests. The Salt Law was not repealed. And yet, “the first stage in ... the final struggle of freedom,” as Gandhi described it, had made an impact.

More than 77 years have passed. We have been free of the British empire for 60 of them. If we were to get inside a time machine, go back to 1930, pull in some of the men and women who marched to Dandi, and bring them to this present time, how would they react? Would they think that they were finally in the India that they had fought to achieve? 

Or would they set off on another walk?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 11 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics


What Indian Cricket Needs

This is the 26th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

The mandarins at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) must be delighted. As the third Test between India and England gets under way today, India stand poised to win the series, already 1-0 up. This, the BCCI babus are surely telling themselves, will take the pressure off them.

After India’s early exit in the World Cup, immense scrutiny was directed at the cricket board. Such scrutiny is common—the Indian team often goes through crises—and the same solutions are advanced each time. “‘Corporatize’ BCCI,” say some, “hire a CEO.” “Do away with the regional system of selectors,” say others. Editorialists demand increased investment in domestic cricket, while some get micro and simply want to “punish the senior players and give youngsters a chance”.

All these sound splendid, but they treat the symptom, not the disease. The problem with BCCI lies not in its actions or omissions, but in its incentives. The tragedy of Indian cricket is that, at the moment, the incentives of BCCI office bearers are not aligned towards ensuring the good health of Indian cricket. Instead, they are aligned towards ensuring their own continuance in power. These two don’t often lead in the same direction.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through


Mommy-Daddy, go away!

This is the 25th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

One of my favourite quotes about politics is this one from David Boaz: “Conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. Liberals want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in, and wiping your nose. Libertarians want to treat you as an adult.”

This was said in an American context, and the liberals referred to are the Leftist ‘liberals’ of America, not the classical liberals who believe in individual freedom. It would be tempting to apply this quote to India, and to point to the religious right, with their moral policing and disregard for free speech, as the Daddy among us, and the socialist left, with their belief in big government and fantasies of a welfare state, as the Mommy.

But the truth is more complex and much sadder. Our government, regardless of the political party in charge, has always tried to play the role of both Mommy and Daddy. Like infants, we acquiesce.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 02 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


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


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