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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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Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: India

Why Modi Must Learn to Play the Game of Chicken With Pakistan

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

There are few things as satisfying as being macho on social media, and this is quite the season for it. After the terrorist attack in Uri, every Righteous Internet Patriot (RIP) wants our government to teach Pakistan a lesson by going to war. I have two things to say about this: One, it is the worst of all available solutions; Two, it is the best possible stance to take. Let us unravel that.

War is a solution that would be worse than the problem. Let’s look at this conflict using the metric of human lives. A rational aim of any solution would be to minimise the loss of Indian lives. What is the cost we currently bear through Pakistan-sponsored terrorism?

In a reply to an RTI petition this July, the government of India stated that 707 Indian lives have been lost to terrorism since 2005. Over 11 years, that comes to 64 deaths a year. If the status quo is maintained, with the usual empty diplomatic posturings, this figure should not rise too drastically. But what if, in an exasperated search for closure, we go to war?

A modern war with modern weaponry could cost us tens of thousands of lives, and maybe millions if it turns nuclear. (This does not take into account downstream effects on survivors, the economy, the environment and so on, all of which would blight the future.) Whatever the precise number, the cost of war would be orders of magnitude worse than even the long-term cost of the status quo. For any rational person, therefore, war is off the table.

This creates an obvious problem. If the rational course for India is to avoid war no matter what happens, then Pakistan can keep escalating with impunity. They could kill hundreds of Indians a year, or even thousands, confident in the belief that because we are rational, because we can do the math, we will be restrained. So what are we to do?

The field of game theory contains an insight to this dynamic. The game most relevant to two nuclear powers is called Chicken. Here’s an illustration: two cars are racing towards each other, and a crash is imminent. (Mutually Assured Destruction.) The driver who loses his nerve and swerves first loses the game. Now, every rational driver will swerve before he crashes into the other guy. So a surefire way to win the game is to convince the other guy that you are irrational, prepared to die, and will not concede. (One way of doing this is by breaking the steering wheel and throwing it away.) Your opponent, if he is rational, must swerve.

Pakistan has played this game brilliantly with a so-far rational India. Their venal generals and mad mullahs, the world believes, are capable of going nuclear at any provocation. India’s rationality and restraint is applauded in diplomatic circles—but we’re being pwned in the geopolitical sphere by Pakistan.

One way out is for India to portray itself as equally irrational, and show a willingness to go nuclear—even if we actually remain rational and intend to avoid war. Richard Nixon did this during the Cold War in 1969, when he ordered the US army to full war-readiness, and sent 18 B-52s loaded with thermonuclear weapons towards the Soviet border, where they flew around in pretty oval patterns for three days. The Soviets, who weren’t exactly ballerinas themselves, were spooked. Nixon called this ‘the Madman Theory’.

Recent Indian prime ministers would have had a tough time portraying themselves as mad men. (Imagine Manmohan Singh letting off an evil laugh.) But Narendra Modi seemed to be suited for the role – until he became PM. Ironically, the rhetorical belligerance that Modi articulated towards Pakistan while on the campaign trail has been replaced by a subdued, reasonable demeanour on the world stage.

Modi cares deeply about how the world views him, and wants to be seen as a mature statesman. Sadly, he has succeeded. This is reassuring to those of us who fear excessive military adventurism—I live in Mumbai and would be bummed if Pakistan nuked my beloved city—but is counter-productive when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. If Pakistan’s generals saw Modi and his minions as unhinged reactionaries driven by bigotry, Islamophobia and a virulent nationalism, they might back off. But regardless of how he is regarded in JNU, his image on the global stage is exemplary. On all his foreign visits, he comes across as an avuncular dove, a personable connoisseur of the photo-op.

Our conflict with Pakistan will not be ended by diplomacy. China supports Pakistan, America needs Pakistan for Afghanistan reasons, and all diplomatic manouvering on this subject is just theatre. To get Pakistan to stop poking us, we have to play the game. Modi has so far been a master of optics – and playing Chicken with Pakistan is his greatest challenge yet.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 September, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | Politics


Tragedy Nights on the Cauvery

This is the 16th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

CAUVERY

Wanting to solve the Cauvery mire,
A neta said to his goons for hire,
‘It is getting hotter.
Everyone wants water,
So let’s go set some buses on fire.’

TRAGEDY NIGHTS

Kapil Sharma told a sorry tale
Of corruption on a massive scale.
The netas we elect,
For a chilling effect,
Made his life a cautionary tale.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Haryana and Qatar

This is the 15th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page

HARYANA

I am a biryani inspector,
A friend of the district collector.
Please pass me your rice.
Mmm! This is so nice!
How I love being a beef detector!

QUEUE

A friend of mine by the name of Jai
Texted me from Doha. He wrote, “Hey,
I’ve been trying to call
But can’t get through at all.
I keep hearing, ‘Aap Qatar mein hai.’”

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 September, 2016 in India | News | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Poor Paris Hilton Started To Cry

This is the 14th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page

AAM AADMI

Poor Paris Hilton started to cry.
Kim Kardashian explained with a sigh,
“We are the sex tape queens.
We are the mean machines.
Who the hell is this Sandeep Kumar guy?”

NECESSARY MEASURES

A minister who was farsighted
Said, “Men must not get too excited.
I would like to ban skirts,
Jail any girl that flirts,
Ban all women,” he said, delighted.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 September, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


The God Delusion of Arvind Kejriwal

A slightly shorter version of this was published as the 30th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In theory, a devout politician is a good thing. A politician who believes in God seems to accept the existence of an entity more powerful than himself, and that should be a reassuring thought to Indian voters. We have plenty of devout politicians here, and while the ones in the ruling party are most vocal about it, opposition politicians aren’t far behind. Take Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, for example.

When he was sworn in as chief minister at the Ramlila Maidan, Kejriwal repeatedly thanked God for his newfound status. “I thank the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru,” he breathlessly proclaimed, trying to cover all bases. And in case the concerned gods missed it, he later said, “This victory is not because of us. It is a miracle, and I thank Bhagwan, Ishwar and Allah.” (At this point, I can imagine Bhagwan turning to Allah and saying, “Dude, any idea what he’s talking about? I thought I was Ishwar!” And Allah replies, “Dunno, man. I’m just a party worker.”)

Kejriwal’s stated piety isn’t restricted to the major religions. He recently came out in support of the Jain monk Tarun Sagar after the musician Vishal Dadlani made fun of him. Kejriwal tweeted: “Tarun Sagar ji Maharaj is a very revered saint, not just for Jains but everyone. Those showing disrespect is unfortunate and should stop.” (The last sentence is stunningly convoluted, and we all know what Orwell said about clarity in speech correlating with clarity in thinking.)

Now, Kejriwal was reportedly an atheist before he came to politics, and it is natural to suspect that this new-found piety is part of the populism he’s embraced. But let that pass. In this column I will argue that there is one religion that he truly, deeply, madly does believe in, and it is the most dangerous religion of all. It is the religion of government.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority religion in India is not Hinduism but the religion of government. We have been brought up believing that if there is any problem in this world, government can solve it. If there is a social ill, ban it. If prices are too high, pass a law demanding that they be kept low. If there aren’t enough jobs out there, create jobs by legislation so that people can earn an honest living. And so on.

I call this, with apologies to Richard Dawkins, the God Delusion of Government. Devotees of this particular religion believe, like devotees of any other, that reality is subject to the whims and fancies of their God. To change the state of the world, God needs to merely decree it, or government needs to pass a law, and boom, reality changes. Water turns to amrut, copper to gold.

This kind of God delusion isn’t restricted to India. A recent example of a country ruined by it is Venezuela, which has been ravaged by the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez. Venezuela was lucky to be oil-rich, but unlucky to have Chavez as a leader, who tried social engineering on a vast scale. One of his pet schemes: price controls on all essential commodities. (If something should be cheaper, let’s make a law mandating it.) This led, as econ 101 would predict, to shortages, so much so that Venezuela’s queues became legendary. The current government, perturbed that these queues were embarrassing the country, hit upon an innovative solution. It banned queues.

I’m not kidding. They really banned queues, and when I read that news, I thought of Kejriwal, because that’s exactly what he would do.
Kejriwal thrives on finding the simplest possible solution to every problem through the Godlike intervention of government. He has no grasp on reality, though, and no understanding of how such interventions typically play out. Most tellingly, like Chavez and other socialists, he simply doesn’t understand how the price system works.

Left to themselves, prices are determined by supply and demand. If the demand for a product or service outstrips supply, the price goes up. This rising price acts as a signal to potential suppliers, and they are incentivised to fill the gap. Similarly, if demand goes down, the price goes down, and suppliers start moving their efforts to where they would be more valued. We can only make a living by fulfilling the needs of others, and the price system gives us the information and the incentives to do this most efficiently. But for this, it has to be left to itself. If these signals are distorted, the system falls apart.

Now, Uber’s surge pricing is a fantastic mechanism to speed up the process of price discovery. But Kejriwal decided that people were being fleeced by high prices, and decided to ban surge pricing. The ban didn’t last long, because there was an immediate shortage of cabs, just as econ 101 would predict.

What happens when you put a price cap on something is that it becomes first-come-first-serve, and after the first lucky bunch get it, it doesn’t matter how urgent your need is, it’s not available at all. More crucially, the rising price that would act as both information and incentive now no longer does so, and other suppliers don’t rush to fit the shortfall.

While that experiment didn’t last long, Kejriwal moved from price ceiling to price floor. He announced an increase in the minimum wage in Delhi, to Rs 14k a month. Now, this sounds most compassionate, but is a government diktat enough? If it was, why not, say, make the minimum wage in Delhi Rs 10 lakhs a month? Wouldn’t Delhi instantly become the richest city in the world?

The answer is obvious. Such a law would merely put everyone whose work was worth less than 10 lakhs out of a job, and most businesses would shut down. Similarly, if the minimum wage set is Rs 14k, it effectively renders everyone whose labour is worth less than that unemployable by decree. Businesses are forced to discriminate against anyone they’d pay 13k a month or less, and it is the poorest of the poor who would bear the brunt of this. The law would hurt those it purported to help. (Being the country of jugaad, all workers below the minimum wage level will simply be shifted to the informal sector, and government inspectors will get a higher hafta than before. But it is no defence of a bad law to say that peeps will find a way to work around it.)

For anyone who isn’t economically illiterate, these effects are predictable. A price cap (or ceiling) inflates demand relative to supply, and a shortage in supply is inevitable. A price floor inevitably decreases demand and leads to excess supply—or, in this case, more unemployment.

The laws of economics, such as that of prices, and supply and demand, are as immutable as those of physics. So why are such interventions so popular then? A key reason is that the laws of physics can be tested and proved in controlled environments, but you can’t do that with the laws of economics. Data is noisy, other variables abound, and all sides can point to ‘evidence’ with spurious correlations. So those who believe in such simplistic interventions continue with them, because it makes them feel (and seem) compassionate.

Kejriwal has a record of taking the high moral ground with self-righteous positions, and strikes a chord with common people by identifying many problems correctly. But his suggested solutions usually make the problems worse, as in the case of his anti-corruption crusade, or the different price controls he has championed. A good question to ask here is, Does he actually believe that such interventions work, or does he not give a damn about that, only wanting to take a position that gets him most votes from the economically illiterate masses? In other words, is he a devout fool or a devout scoundrel? Hanlon’s Razor states, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” In Kejriwal’s case, I’m not so sure. But he’s devout all right, so God help us.

*  *  *

For more on minimum wages in general, I find this explanation by Milton Friedman to be particularly lucid. Linda Gorman’s piece on it at Econlib is also a decent short primer on the subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 September, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Sindhu and Sakshi

This is the 12th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page

SINDHU

There was a young girl who was told
Girls should be demure, never bold.
She gave a sharp retort
On the badminton court,
And almost won Olympic gold.

SAKSHI

Once there was a Haryanvi lass
Who would never let a problem pass.
She’d fling it to the ground,
Expertly pin it down
Because desi girls can kick ass.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 August, 2016 in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport


Good Night, Pappu

This is the second of two limericks in the 10th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page

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BEDTIME

Pappu woke to slaps from his mama.
He explained why he caused such drama.
‘Parliament is a bore
I was tired. What’s more,
I was already in my pajama.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 July, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Two States

This is the 9th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page

UTTAR PRADESH

Once the Congress seemed rather smug.
‘Gandhi’ was their designer drug.
Do they now realise
That the Gandhi franchise
Is not a feature but a bug?


KASHMIR

A wise man said, ‘An eye for an eye
Makes the whole world blind.’ Those who decry
This circle of violence
Must speak through the silence.
We’ll fall too far if we don’t aim high.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2016 in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


That Gender Card Again

Swarajya plays the gender card on behalf of Smriti Irani:

The jokes on Smriti being handed textiles ministry, misunderstanding it for a ministry of ‘texting’, or the beti being given a sewing machine instead of education, have come from even the most feminist of women, all with unbridled glee at seeing a woman fail.

The cherry-picking of a women to be slammed in a manner that is degrading and humiliating of the person, and not their work, must rankle anyone.

Indeed, I had reacted to Irani’s transfer with this limerick, which I presume is the joke being referred to above. I’ve been a critic of Irani for a long time, and the reason for that is not her gender, but her “ignorance and arrogance”, as Ram Guha put it so aptly. The cabinet reshuffle indicates that even Narendra Modi agrees with Ram Guha and me on this matter, and it might well be a first that the three of us are lined up on the same side of an issue.

The Swarajya piece also indulges in a bit of Whataboutery, implying that men don’t get criticized in this manner. Speaking for myself, I’ve lampooned Rahul ‘Pappu’ Gandhi (Recent examples: 1,2) and Modi (1, 2, 3) far more than I’ve criticized Irani. To the best of my knowledge, they are not women at this point in time. But even if I wasn’t an equal opportunity satirist, the Whataboutery would have been uncalled for.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been some disgusting sexism directed at Irani, or that we aren’t a country of sexists. Those are true, but to imply that the very act of criticizing Irani is sexist simply because she is a woman is absurd. All political discourse will end if we take that line: You won’t be able to criticize any woman because someone will call it sexist, or any Muslim because you’ll be labelled Islamophobic, or any government minister because you’ll be called anti-national. There is no end of cards to play.

In an essay I wrote a few weeks ago, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics’, I described how so much political discourse ends up as attacks on the person making the argument instead of the argument itself. I outlined three ways in which that happens. Swarajya’s article is a perfect illustration of that, as it covers all three of those. So you lampooned Irani? Well, that reveals three things about you. One, you’re a hypocrite, because you didn’t lampoon Kapil Sibal earlier. Two, you’re sexist, and your intention is to demean women. Three, you’re part of the ‘liberal brigade’.

It is almost as if this piece was written to illustrate my point, so thank you for that, Swarajya!

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 July, 2016 in India | News | Politics | WTF


Reshuffle

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RESHUFFLE

Smriti Irani spent quite a while
Sending messages on her mobile
Putting callers on hold
Until she was told
Her job wasn’t texting, but textile.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 July, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhymes


Politics and Money

This is the second of two limericks from the 7th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

POLITICS

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2016 in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


A Nation With A Glorious Past

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

CIVILIZATION

A man said to me on the Virar Fast,
‘We’re a nation with a glorious past.
In both science and art,
Our ancients were smart.
Oh, by the way, what is your caste?’

PRIDE

Once I had a patriotic guest
Who told me, ‘Indians are the best.
Yes, inflation is dicey,
Tomatoes are pricey,
But our PM has a 56-inch chest!’

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 June, 2016 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Sloth

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SLOTH

I woke up in the morning with a sense of dread.
There was a righteous voice inside my head
Saying, ‘Get up and play!
It’s World Yoga Day!’
So I yawned and did some asanas in bed.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2016 in India | Politics | Rhymes


The King of Hearts

This is the second of two limericks in the fourth installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

MACROCRUSH

An army of ladies stormed the RBI Gate
To meet Raghu, and set the record straight.
They said, ‘If you gotta go,
Then you oughta know
That you will never, ever lower our interest rate.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 June, 2016 in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Pappu the Prince

This is the first of two limericks in the fourth installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

CORONATION

‘Mommy, Mommy, throw me a party,’
Said Pappu the Prince, all hale and hearty.
Mommy said, ‘Fine.
The Congress was mine.
Now it’s yours, my cute little smarty!’

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 June, 2016 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Prime Hugger

JHAPPI DIN

Some people called the PM a thug.
Mr Modi replied with a shrug,
‘I’m not sophisticated,
It is true that I am hated,
But hey, I really like to hug!

image

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 June, 2016 in India | Politics | Rhymes


Parsis and Cows

Here’s a classic illustration of unintended consequences: Parsis are being cremated now, instead of being fed to vultures, because of an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle in the 1990s.

And somewhere a butterfly flaps its wings.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 June, 2016 in India | News


Swamy vs God

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

FIGHTER

There was a man named Subramanian Swamy
Who was known to be kind of barmy.
PM Modi put him right.
He said, ‘I know you like to fight,
So why don’t you join the bloody army?’

HEY BHAGWAN

Subbu Swamy filed a case against God.
Subbu Swamy accused God of fraud.
Much thunder was heard.
God said, ‘How absurd!
Such chutzpah I really must applaud.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 June, 2016 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


In Defence of Tanmay Bhat

I have four quick comments to make on the Tanmay Bhat controversy. (The first two are trivial but need to be repeated, I think.)

One: Our laws are still screwed up. The repeal of 66(a) of the IT Act was rightly celebrated as a win for freedom, but there are already laws in the IPC, like 295(a) and 153(a), which can also be used to strike out against Free Speech. (Here’s an ancient piece of mine on the subject: Don’t Insult Pasta.) The last I heard, people were planning to file a case against Bhat using those laws. I hope they don’t. And those laws should really not exist. As long as he is not directly inciting violence, Bhat should have the right to say whatever he wants, however offensive, however obnoxious.

Two: By the same token, others have a right to react to his comedy in whatever way they please, as long as they’re not trying to force him to shut up. So someone who says his comedy is disgusting is not attacking Bhat’s right to free speech unless he follows up by filing a case or trying to get him banned or whatever. And we can react to their reactions in the same way, and so on recursively. That’s what social media is for, isn’t it?

Three: The quality of Tanmay’s humour is less important to me than the context of it. Standup comedy in India is relatively young. (We have a great, centuries old tradition of humour, actually, but not this specific form, so don’t hit me with history and tradition, please.) And we are too quick to get offended. So it’s important to keep pushing the envelope, to keep stretching those boundaries. Nothing should be sacred. No holy cows.

Now, because our standup ecosystem is nascent, all the stuff that floats to the top won’t be of the highest quality. But that doesn’t matter. I didn’t enjoy all the humour in the AIB Roast, but boy, am I glad they did it. These guys are putting themselves out there, unlike many of us armchair observers. That is admirable in itself. And while doing it, they’re also taking giant steps forward for Indian standup comedy. (In these early days, all steps are giant steps.) That, in itself, deserves applause.

Four: Sit back and think for a moment about the nature of comedy itself. When Bhat says that Mangeshkar’s face looks like it has been kept in water for eight days, or he invokes the bitterness of a notional Sachin Tendulkar, is he really talking about just them? I don’t know Bhat personally, but I’m pretty sure he is under no illusion about his own good looks, or his mortality, or his importance to this world. Very few comedians are. If anything, comedians are people who’ve realised the essential tragic nature of the world, and certain fundamental truths about the human condition, such as a) our mortality, b) the huge role of dumb luck in our lives and c) the self-delusions which we need to survive, and with which we convince ourselves of our own importance. (I’m sure Bhat doesn’t think about it in these precise terms, but you get the drift.) Once you figure this out, the only appropriate reaction is laughter.

So when Bhat subverts the notion of Sachin and Lata as hallowed figures who cannot be made fun of, he is really just telling us to laugh at ourselves. ‘Look at us, we’re so funny and pathetic. Hahaha.’ I think he does it really well—that Mangeshkar ‘face in water’ joke is observational genius—but even if you don’t, it should not matter. More power to him regardless.

I just hope, after all this, he doesn’t end up apologizing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2016 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News


Gandhi and the Troll

Every Sunday, two of my limericks appear on the edit page of the Sunday Times of India. Here’s today’s installment.

QUIT INDIA

Once there was an airport named Gandhi
Where all flights were grounded in an aandhi.
So with a laugh and a cough,
The airport flew off,
Now all the pilots are sitting drinking brandy.

FLUSH

Once there was an internet troll
Who was pushed into a toilet bowl
By his dad, who decreed,
‘Having seen your twitter feed,
I hereby perform delayed birth control.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 May, 2016 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Sandy the Dandy

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Once there was a guy called Sandy
Who behaved all macho and randy,
But guys who flex their pecs
Usually have a complex:
He might well be an impotent dandy.

(Pic courtesy Veena Venugopal on Twitter.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2016 in India | News | Rhymes


Jawaharlal Nehru: Not a Saint, Not a Sinner

It is ironic that one of the great unifying forces in Indian history has become such a polarising figure decades after his death. The ‘Sanghis’ lambast Jawaharlal Nehru as a pseudo-secularist, anti-religion, anti-sangh socialist demon, and the ‘Congressis’ have already lifted him into sainthood. But these binaries are misleading.

Nehru was neither a saint nor a sinner. In my view, he was a great man who has great achievements to his name, as well as a few giant missteps. I admire him for keeping India together in those early years, when that wasn’t as much of a given as it now seems, for keeping us secular, for building great institutions, and for setting standards of behaviour in public life. Equally, I think his Fabian Socialism kept India poor for decades longer than it should have, with an incalculable cost in terms of lives and living standards. His economic policies were misguided, though, not malicious. He really did believe that was the way forward, and it was in keeping with the intellectual fashion of the times. Maybe he could have had less certitude in his beliefs and been more open to criticism—from the likes of the sidelined Rajaji, for example—but hey, hindsight is 20-20, and I know that I for one could never have walked in those shoes.

It’s ironic and sad, as I mentioned in my last post, that his great opponents in the Hindutva right are not just following him in many respects, but they are following all the wrong aspects of his legacy. They’re perpetuating big-state, mai-baap economics while they try to polarise the country with their divisive, communal rhetoric. They’re embracing the worst of Nehru while discarding the best of him.

This post was sparked, btw, by an editorial in Mint today titled ‘In defence of Jawaharlal Nehru.’ I disagree with the manner and focus of their defence, though. They write:

The Nehruvian project was part of the wider liberal nationalist project—to begin the overdue economic regeneration of India through industrialization led by the state, to seek strategic autonomy in a Cold War world through the principle of non-alignment, to build a new nation-state within a constitutional framework, and to create new institutions for a modern India emerging from several centuries of foreign rule.

It is far easier to attack Nehru for specific policy errors than it is to question his overarching concerns.

This is true: but it is also true that just as we judge policies by their outcomes and not their intentions, we should do the same when we talk of leaders. Nehru’s intentions were certainly noble: but so were those of Mao, Pol Pot and the Soviets. Intentions stand for nothing. It is actions and their outcomes that matter. In that, Nehru has a mixed record, and there is much to praise. Those should be the focus of any defence of Nehru.

Ps. For what it’s worth, my feelings on Indira Gandhi are very different. There is nothing redeeming about her record, and she was truly a vile, evil woman. If Kamala Nehru had had a headache for all of 1917, the world would have been a better place. But one can’t blame Jawaharlal for that!

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2016 in India | News | Politics


The Pandit and the Bovine God

Mr Modi said, ‘I won’t allow
A sale of the public sector now.’
Well, I have to agree
With Mr Shourie:
Modi = Nehru + cow.

*

Vivek Kaul has a response to this that I agree with entirely.

And oh, I’ve written multiple times in the past that Modi is, in different ways, a legatee of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. (I mean that as harsh criticism.) Those pieces:

The Fatal Conceit of the Indian Politician
Looking Beyond Left and Right
Lessons From 1975

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhymes


A Wrestler Sweats in the Summer

Starting today, two of my limericks will appear every Sunday on the edit page of the Sunday Times of India. This is the first installment.

CULPABLE

Once there was a problem of water
Summer was hot and getting hotter
A politician explained,
‘Our hands are blood-stained.
Bad governance is equal to manslaughter.’

LITIGATION

Once a wrestler tried to move a building
Muscular Sushil grunting and pushing
When chastised,
He said, ‘I was advised
To move court, so that’s what I’m doing.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 May, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport


Troller Man

The song below is to be sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’. (Original lyrics here.) I started writing this at exactly 9am today, I swear!

TROLLER MAN

It’s 9am on a Saturday.
Regular tweeps shuffle in.
There’s an old troll sitting on my timeline
Spitting in his tonic and gin.

He says, ‘Slut, why you criticize policy?
I’m not really sure where that goes.
I’d pull you to the street, and I’d kick out your teeth,
but right now I’m not wearing clothes.’

La la la, di di da
La la, di da da da dum.

Sing us a song, you’re the Troller Man.
Sing us a song tonight.
We’[ve done photoshop, we’ve wanked 30 times,
Now we’re in the mood for a fight.

Now Mr Shah at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me retweets for free
He’s quick with a joke, or a Facebook poke
But there’s someplace that he’d rather be.

He says, ‘I believe achhe din are here,’
As the Muslims rush out of the place.
‘I’m soon gonna be a movie star
in a film called “Buddha in Space”.’

Oh, la la la, di di da
La la, di da da da dum.

Now Naren is a full-on brahmachari
Who never had time for a wife.
He’s talking with Jaitley, who has lately
Put the nation under much strife.

And the politicians are practising warcraft
And the journos are all getting stoned
Poor Sushma sitting in a corner with dignity
Nursing her drink all alone.

Sing us a song, you’re the Troller Man.
Sing us a song tonight.
We’re useless as hell, and we only feel well
When the toddy has made us all tight.

Pappu’s passed out in a corner.
Some scoundrels put gin in his milk.
Politics is tough. This life is so rough,
But his sleep is smoother than silk.

Arvind is out picking pockets
Soon he’ll shout, ‘Hey, the drinks are on me!’
Vadra’s a bouncer, who thinks he’s an announcer
What would he be without family?

Oh, la la la, di di da
La la, di da da da dum.

Sing us a song, you’re the Troller Man.
Sing us a song tonight.
We’[ve done photoshop, we’ve wanked 30 times,
Now we’re in the mood for a fight.

Oh la la la, di di da
We’re in the mood for a fight!

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2016 in India | Politics | Rhymes


What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics

This is the 27th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the great things about social media is that we talk to each other much more. I am not being ironic: because of Facebook alone, I know much more about my friends than I would otherwise. I am also in touch with many more people than I would otherwise be, especially old friends. This is useful as one gets middle-aged. At some point around 40, the world starts to narrow and goes on narrowing. Social media keeps it broad, and even recluses stay up-to-date and tip-top, as they’d say back in my day. One could argue that this sense of connection is synthetic, even pathetic, and has no connection with the real world out there. One could also argue that there is only one world, and it is in our heads; and anything in our heads, it follows, is in the real world.

This column is not about the personal, though, but the political. There is far more political awareness among young people today than there was when I was growing up in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I did not know the difference between left-wing and right-wing, and my informed opinion of Rajiv Gandhi was that he was handsome. Today, 12-year-olds have vociferous opinions and are signing online petitions when they are not on hunger strikes in between meals. Political discourse has increased exponentially in volume; but how much is noise and how much is signal?

There were hopes that social media would lead to a virtual global town square where informed citizens could debate with one another. Instead, it has led to a conglomeration of echo chambers, some of them truly bizarre. No matter what you believe in, you can now find hordes of like-minded people online, and be reassured by the validation they provide. This has lead to a phenomenon that social scientists call ‘group polarisation’. The economist Cass Sunstein defines it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”

Thus, we find that most political discussion online consists of people talking past each other. And when they do talk to each other, it isn’t pretty. Anonymity (or even physical distance) turns mice into tigers, and most political discussions online turn personal really fast. If you want to dominate a discussion, you ignore the issues involved and attack the person instead. There are three key ways in which this happens.

One, you accuse your opponent of hypocrisy. (This is also known as Whatboutery.) So if someone talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, you go, ‘But what about the 1984 Delhi riots? I didn’t see you condemn that?’ If someone points to a Muslim lynched by a Hindu mob, you say, ‘What about that Hindu social worker killed by Bangladeshi migrants in Assam?’ If they defend the free speech of a member of phallana community, you say, what about dhimkana community, where were you when they were censored? Not just trolls, all politicians do exactly this.

When Arvind Kejriwal was questioned about the hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money he spent on running ads for the Delhi government, he replied, ‘But the BJP also does this. Why don’t you question them?’ There is no end to such Whataboutery—and you will note that on every such instance, the original issue is soon forgotten, and the fight centers on the hypocrisy of the complainant.

Two, you question the intent of your opponent. She could be a CIA agent, a pinko stooge of the Chinese, a lackey for the corporates, a ‘paid audience’ or a ‘presstitute’, in that colourful coinage of a retired army general with that typical Indian penchant for tasteless puns. Ah yes, she could also be anti-national, trying to break up the country. Any issue they raise, they can be told, ‘Ah, but you have an agenda for kicking up a storm. We’re on to you!’

This can be combined most effectively with Whataboutery. For example, if the Congress raises the issue of a corruption scandal in the BJP government, the BJP can say that their intent in raising this matter is to divert attention from their own scam from a week ago. What about that? This can even get recursive. (To visualise this process, imagine fractals.)

Three, you categorise your opponents by applying a pejorative label on them, and then dismiss that entire category as being beneath contempt, thus removing the need to engage with it. This happens across the spectrum. Just go on Twitter, and you’ll find it packed with ‘bhakts’ and ‘aaptards’ and ‘adarsh liberals’ and ‘sickulars’ and so on. Once you apply such a label to someone, you do not need to engage with them in reasoned debate.

Attacking the person instead of the argument is an ancient tradition—some intrepid historian might even find that it is of Indian origin. I have just enumerated the three most common ways of doing this. There are many other ways of appearing to win an argument within even engaging with it to begin with. Check out ‘38 Ways to Win an Argument’, by Arthur Schopenhauer and you will see some examples. They include noble techniques such as shifting goalposts, attacking straw men and appeals to authority. The 38th of them is masterful, and one that many Twitteratti are adept at: ‘Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.’

Most delighfully, you can not only resort to this, but you can immediately turn the tables with some canny projection when your opponent reacts in anger. He’ll be like, ‘What the fuck did you just call me?’ And you go, ‘Don’t use bad language, did you just say “fuck”? You are clearly not capable of reasoned discourse.’

In a sense, this gets to the heart of the matter. The whole point of political discourse seems not to be political but personal. When we take a point of view, we make an assertion not about the state of the world but about ourselves. Our ideologies become a proxy for personal statements: ‘I am compassionate.’ ‘I am righteous.’ ‘I am clever enough to engineer society.’ Many of our actions in the political sphere are not meant to actually affect change, but to show our nobility. And because our positions are so tied to our identity, any attack on them is an attack on us. We react viscerally. It feels personal; so we get personal.


*  *  *

Also read: My old column written just when the Twitter started getting crazy in India, Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 May, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Media | Politics


Goodwill Machine

Once there was a star of the screen,
Sent to Rio as a goodwill machine.
‘With my foot on the pedal,’
He said, ‘I’ll race towards a medal
And crush any blackbuck that intervenes.’

image

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 April, 2016 in India | News | Rhymes | Sport | WTF


The Truth Behind The Hrithik-Kangana Spat

I don’t follow celebrity gossip, but the ongoing spat between Hrithik Roshan and Kangana Ranaut intrigued me, partly because it is so complex, and partly because Kangana is so pretty. What exactly has happened between them? None of the mainstream media outlets have shed any clarity on this, so it clearly requires someone of my superior intellectual calibre to get to the bottom of this. And I have!

There are two critical pieces of information you need to pay attention to. One is this nugget from an interview of Kangana’s lawyer in Rediff:

Rediff: Did your client send these 1,450 mails to Hrithik Roshan?

Lawyer: No. My client’s email IDs were hacked eight months ago.

The second piece of information is this quote from Hrithik’s lawyer:

My client had filed the complaint first on December 12, 2014 regarding an imposter using the email address .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and talking to people. This was followed up with the authorities quite a few times.

And viola, I mean, voila, all is revealed! We get to the heart of the matter. Here’s what really happened:

An imposter of Hrithik Roshan had an affair with someone who hacked into Kangana Ranaut’s email.

This could be a love story worthy of being made into a film. (Hrithik and Kangana could play the leads, perhaps?) And there are nuances here that must be explored. One must not assume that Hrithik’s imposter was male and Kangana’s hacker was female. It could be the other way around, or they could be of the same gender. They could even be the same person. In fact, Hrithik’s imposter could be Kangana and Kangana’s hacker could be Hrithik. The possibilities are endless, and we must be grateful to these two stars for presenting them to us.

Only one thing can be said for certain here: Hrithik and Kangana have absolutely no involvement in this spat between Hrithik and Kangana. I’m so glad I cleared that up. You’re welcome.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 April, 2016 in India | News


Hello, My Name Is Sri Sri

Hello, my name is Sri Sri
I’ve heard you guys are beastly
Don’t cut the call
In fact, cut nothing at all
Let’s make some peace. Hee hee!

*

Yeah, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar made a call to ISIS, it seems, to talk peace. They sent him a picture of a beheaded man in return. He says. Hmm.

*

More:

Hello, my name is Sri Sri
I’ve just climbed up a tree tree
Where the signal is clear
And I appear
Not mad like you, but free free.

*

Hello my friends from Islamic State
I write these words as I levitate
I can teach you to rise
Not brutalise
All you have to do is meditate.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 April, 2016 in India | News | Rhymes | WTF


Uber and the Auto-Driver

As readers of this blog would know, I’ve long argued in favour of Uber’s surge pricing as an excellent mechanism for matching supply and demand. In a column from last year, I warned against the perils of banning surge pricing:

The most efficient way of allocating resources is to let things find their own equilibrium, their own prices. Price controls are foolish and never work. And the demand for them is based on a sort of a fantasy. Fixing the price of a product at a base price below what the market would pay does not mean that everyone gets it at this price—it just means that a lucky few get it and the others don’t. The fundamental truth about the universe is this: everything is scarce. You can’t wish this scarcity away by agitating or legislating against it.

Now, these fundamental laws of economics apply to everything, not just to Uber. And so Mukul Kesavan, in a column for NDTV, makes the pertinent point:

[S]etting aside Kejriwal’s motives and rationality, the larger question is this: should Uber or Ola be allowed to vary their per kilometre rate at will when yellow cabs and auto-rickshaws are stuck with fixed rates? If, as Uber’s defenders never tire of saying, the app’s algorithms represent the invisible hand of the market, frictionlessly matching supply and demand, why should the individual auto-driver be punished and maligned for asking for more than the metered price?

Shoaib Daniyal makes the same point on Twitter:

Both Mukul and Shoaib are right, though it seems to me that they might both be indulging in whataboutery and creating a straw man at the same time. No one who defends Uber’s surge pricing could possibly support the way the government regulates taxis and autorickshaws. And some of us have written about it in the past—I found this 11-year-old post by me ranting about the licensing of cycle rickshaws in Delhi, citing Parth Shah and Naveen Mandava’s excellent book, ‘Law, Liberty and Livelihood.’ Rather than search for more old posts, though, let me sum up my position here.

In a nutshell, here is how the market for taxis and autos works in Indian cities. The government gives out a limited number of licenses for taxis and autos. This quota does not increase in response to demand. Thus, as demand goes up in relation to supply, you would expect either prices to rise or the supply to rise. The supply is artificially constrained. And the government imposes price controls, so the prices can’t rise either. In other words, if the auto and taxi drivers stick to government-mandated prices, you should expect scarcities. Or you should expect an informal system to develop, where drivers don’t charge the meter rate and instead negotiate with their clients. Both of these are true, to varying degrees, and each of our own cities has developed our informal cultures in terms of dealing with this.

So when an auto guy demands Rs. 400 for a journey that the government mandates should cost Rs. 80, what is the appropriate response? I know some people who will argue that the auto driver, in exchange for his license to drive an auto, has signed a contract with the government that includes those price controls, so he should abide by them. This is a short-sighted argument. I would argue that both the licensing and those price controls are wrong. And I sympathise with the auto driver’s lament that ‘Hey, I’m not allowed to charge a surge price, why should Uber have that privilege?’ How can that not be a valid complaint?

The best way to create a level playing field, though, is to remove those restrictions from all parties, not to impose them on everyone.

Part of the reason Uber and Ola have thrived in India is that they benefited from a need that was created partly by the controls imposed by the government on taxi and auto drivers. The solution is to remove those controls. But removing government controls on the taxi-and-auto industry is higher hanging fruit because of the interest groups involved, and it’s easier to target Uber and Ola, which is what the governments of Delhi and Karnataka are doing. Who suffers in all this? The consumers do. We’re the fish at the table.

The bottomline: Kesavan is right that if we support surge pricing by Uber, we cannot in the same breath curse the local auto-driver for charging ‘extra’. That doesn’t compute.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | News | Politics


Once There Was A Mini-Skirt

Once there was a mini-skirt.
A playful child that liked to flirt.
One day it got banned,
A measure that was planned
By a group of petticoats that felt hurt.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2016 in Freedom | India | News | Rhymes | WTF


The Model Code

Tarun Gogoi is quoted in DNA as saying:

I have not violated the Model Code. I shake my tush on the catwalk exactly as prescribed. You should see me walk the runway. Eyes ahead, chin down, shoulders even—my body is perfectly balanced. I love wearing silk.

Well, okay, he only said the first sentence—I made the rest up. But you could say it follows, eh? ‘Model Code’ has such a nice sound about it…

image

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2016 in India | Politics


Pappu Wants Hugs

Once Pappu said something thought-provoking,
He said, ‘Listen up, I’m not joking,
If you give me hugs
I’ll rid Punjab of drugs.’
A reply came, ‘Woh theek hai. But what are you smoking?’

image

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhymes


An Odd Man

Once there was a man of God.
One day, he declared himself odd
And the next even.
He said, ‘I believe in
My buddy Arvind and his Aam Aadmi squad.’

*

One more:

Once there was a man who was odd.
One day he declared himself God
And said, with a wink,
‘You know, I think
We should aim high when we aim to defraud.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhymes


Intelligent. Modest. Soft-Spoken. Philosophical

Check out this lovely little speech by Ravi Abhyankar on his old friend, Viswanathan Anand. A memorable excerpt:

[W]e often judge an entire community or a nation based on one or two people whom we know. It is called stereotyping. Chess fans in 180 countries judge all Indians, all of us, by watching Viswanathan Anand. Thanks to him they think all Indians are intelligent, modest, soft-spoken, philosophical with a great sense of humour.

Indeed, people who excel in sports often become, by default, brand ambassadors for both the sport and their countries. Because character and sporting talent are both randomly distributed, sporting heroes often tend to be mediocre ambassadors. But Anand was is exceptional. (For contrast, look at the boorish, arrogant way in which the cricketers of today often behave.) We are lucky to have him.

Link via a Chessbase article by Sagar Shah.

*  *  *

Also read: An old tribute by me when Anand won one of his five World Championships, The Man With The Maruti 800.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2016 in India | Sport


Once There Was A Man With A Shoe

Once there was a man with a shoe.
He caught a bad case of the flu.
He sneezed so badly,
His shoe flew off madly
Towards Kejriwal when he did ‘Achoo!’

image

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 April, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhymes


Throwing A Shoe At Mr Kejriwal

Yogendra Yadav has condemned the shoe attack on Arvind Kejriwal. He has said:

The incident of hurling shoe at Arvind Kejriwal is highly condemnable. This is not the way to oppose anyone.

This kind of anodyne statement is highly condemnable. This is not the way to oppose anything. To make it more interesting, Yadav could have said:

It was a waste of a shoe. There are people in this country who don’t have shoes to wear. Some would even eat a shoe.

Or this:

The shoe was very poorly thrown. I condemn the poor aim. I’ve been watching it on loop, in slow-motion, on my smartphone for the past two hours, and I would have enjoyed it so much more if it had been aimed properly.

Or even:

I applaud the shoe-thrower. Let’s get past political correctness, people. Before you condemn the shoe-thrower, ask yourself this: Is there anyone among you who wouldn’t love to throw a shoe at Arvind Kejriwal?

Ok, I’m just messing around, but really, tell me this: wouldn’t some of these hypothetical statements make you feel warmer towards Yadav than his banal ‘I condemn this, I’m so noble’ nonsense?

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 April, 2016 in India | News | Politics


Do You Know Who I Am?

This is such a great sentence:

The boy told us that he (his father) was a security officer with the Nizam of Hyderabad’s grandson. His claims are being verified.

That first sentence is funny. The second is just sad. Verify?

*  *  *

I must try telling a traffic policeman sometime, ‘Tum jaante ho mere sasur ke nanad ke foofa ki bhabhi kaun hai?’

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2016 in India | News | WTF


Once There Was A Great Actor

Once there was a great actor.
A fiscal malefactor.
To save his wealth from harm,
He claimed he ran a farm,
But where the fuck is his tractor?

*  *  *

Oh, and to change the subject entirely, ToI reports that Amitabh Bachchan has “finally broken his silence” on the subject of his name being in the Panama Papers. He has denied having anything to do with the companies he allegedly set up, and has said:

It is possible that my name has been misused.

As an explanation, that’s on the level of ‘The dog ate my homework.’ Points for chutzpah.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2016 in India | News | Rhymes | WTF


Once There Was A Ceiling Fan

Once there was a ceiling fan
Which gave air according to plan.
Now it’s in hiding
While the junta’s deciding
On Rakhi Sawant’s call for a ban.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2016 in India | News | Rhymes | WTF


Once There Was A Beautiful Cow

So I wrote some limericks for Twitter, and I suppose they’re fun enough to share here:

1
Once there was a beautiful cow
Whose tastes were kinda highbrow
And then one day
Bharat Mata ki jai
She became a dog and said ‘bow-wow.’

2
Once there was a man of God
Who was ever so suitably awed
by a) the divine
And b) the bovine
When he saw a holy cow, he’d applaud.

3
Once there was a wife-beater
Who was a cad, a scoundrel, a cheater
He mastered the arc
of the venomous snark
Now he’s a famous Tweeter.

4
Once there was a central banker
Who seemed solid as an anchor
He lowered interest rates
opened the floodgates
To inflation. What a wanker!

5
Once there was a central minister
Who developed a desh bhakti blister
On his big fat palm
& the only balm
was some grease. How sinister!

*

(Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116, 117.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | Old memes | Cows | Politics | Rhymes


Take From The Poor, Give To The Rich

What is the one thing that all governments in the world, without exception, are great at doing? I have you scratching your head there, don’t I? ‘Amit thinks there’s something governments are actually good at doing? Is this April Fools Day?’

Here’s my answer: they’re all good at redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich.

I have written before about how all interventions in the free market amount to a transfer of wealth from “the relatively poor masses to a specific relatively rich interest group.” The BJP government just provided us a great illustration of that with some new regulations on e-commerce businesses in India. On the face of it, there’s good news, because they’ve finally ‘allowed’ 100% FDI in online retail. But then there’s this:

It also notified new rules which could potentially end the discount wars, much to the disappointment of consumers. This is because the rules now prohibit marketplaces from offering discounts and capping total sales originating from a group company or one vendor at 25%.

This affects many of the existing players adversely. Big Basket, for example, might have to shut down entirely, says FutureGroup CEO Kishore Biyani. Flipkart and Amazon will also face restructuring problems. But forget these companies, and dig a little deeper to see who really suffers here.

We do. Whatever costs these companies face are passed on to consumers. A decrease in competition also affects the value for money that we get. This is axiomatic. Because of these regulations, we will get less bang for our buck. We are, effectively, losing wealth. Where is this wealth going? For this, think about who benefits.

The BJP has long considered small-and-medium-sized traders to be an integral part of its votebank. They were getting adversely affected by online retail, as consumers obviously gravitated towards whoever gave them more value. Traders are an important interest group for the BJP not only because they represent a votebank, but also because they contribute to the campaign coffers of the BJP. And money buys power for what? To make more money.

These regulations benefit these brick-and-mortar retailers and traders, as they will lose less business than they otherwise would because online retailers will be able to offer less value than they otherwise would.

In other words, this is a redistribution of wealth from poor consumers at large to a specific relatively-rich interest group. (Indeed, given the quid-pro-quos involved, you could argue that the party in power is itself the final beneficiary of this transfer of wealth.)

Another data point on how this government is helping this particular interest group: Gujarat has just passed a bill imposing new taxes on all “goods purchased through e-commerce portals.” You know who this hurts, right? You know who this helps?

Governments always carry out such interventions using noble rhetoric of ‘leveling the playing field’ and helping those poor [insert rich interest group here]s. But the beneficiaries here are not owed a living by anyone, and are not entitled to any money apart from what consumers willingly give them in a free market. The money that the consumers would save because of unhindered online retail, after all, would have gone back into the economy in some form. (For more on this, I refer you to the great Frédéric Bastiat’s famous essay, ‘What is Seen and What is Not Seen.’)

*  *  *

Here’s my three-fold path to evaluating government policy:

1. Ignore the rhetoric.

2. See who it helps.

3. See who it hurts.

It’s the same story, always, every time. It’s the poor who suffer.

*  *  *

Also read: ‘The Great Redistribution’, my earlier column on this subject, where I use an example where the protagonist and antagonist interest-groups in question are the reverse of the ones in this post, but it’s still the poor who suffer.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 March, 2016 in Economics | India | News | Politics


The Chronology of Hate

In an excellent piece in the Hindustan Times, which mentions the ‘soft Hindutva’ of the Congress, Samar Halarnkar writes:

The facade [of secularism] is now gone. History tells us that when popular governments legitimise hate (fascism and racism are some examples; closer home, the anti-Sikh and post-Babri riots), it is a matter of time before a country’s majority population follows suit. If — or as — that happens, don’t expect much from the party that was India’s secular, political hope.

I have a small quibble here. The chronology is the other way around. It is not that governments (and parties) legitimise hate, and then the people ‘follow suit’. Rather, it is the people who feel that way to begin with, and drive the political parties to act in the way they do. In the political marketplace, demand drives supply. Parties indulge in the politics of hate or bigotry (or just generally identity) because there is a market for it.

Andrew Breitbart once said, ‘Politics is downstream from culture.’ That is true of India as well. The filth that is there in our politics is a reflection of our society.

As for the ‘soft Hindutva’ of the Congress, they indulged in it even before India got Independence, and they clearly feel that there is a large constituency for it today as well. Consider, for example, this. And this.

Whatever pejoratives we apply to our politicians, they are not fools. If they behave in particular ways, they do so because there is demand for it.

Also read: ‘It’s Cascading Trump, It’s Cascading Modi!’, my column from last week on this subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 March, 2016 in India | News | Politics


The Manner of Their Hanging

The Times of India reports:

In an incident reminiscent of the Dadri lynching, two Muslim men herding eight buffaloes on their way to a Friday market were beaten up and hanged to death from a tree by suspected cattle-protection vigilantes in Balumath forests in Latehar district, 100km from the state capital, early on Friday.

The deceased, Muhammad Majloom, 35, and Azad Khan alias Ibrahim, 15, were cattle traders and related to each other. Their bodies were strung up with their hands tried behind their backs and their mouths stuffed with cloth.

“The manner of their hanging showed that the assailants were led by extreme hatred,” said Latehar SP Anoop Birthary.

This feels like a nightmare, the use of the term ‘cattle-protection vigilantes’ in a news story about a lynching. What has been unleashed here? Who is responsible for this?

The people in power make responsible noises about reforming the economy and increased federalism and blah blah blah. That is all nonsense. Government is just getting bigger and more oppressive, and stealing more from us by way of taxes and cesses. This government is, in every substantive way, left-wing on economics. Many of my friends, who supported them in opposition to the family firm that ravaged our country for decades, are still in denial about this. On economics, on progress, on growth, these guys are as bad as the previous lot.

And in the social domain, they are worse.

It is natural for mass political leaders to draw on baser instincts of identity and tribalism for their popularity. Reason gets you only so far, so you appeal to the reptile brain. Behind the optics of ‘achhe din’, that is the double game the BJP is playing. But it has a cost. That cost includes ‘cattle-protection vigilantes.’

As Prem Panicker writes with regard to this incident:

This is what happens when you let the genie out of the bottle. People die.

For a proximate lesson from the neighbourhood, look at what Zia-ul-Haq unleashed in Pakistan.

Arun Shourie once memorably called this government ‘Congress plus a cow.’ He was almost right.I would call it ‘Congress plus cattle-protection vigilante.’

There is a difference; and it is a horrifying difference.

*  *  *

Also read: My column from yesterday speculating on the commonalities between the Trump wave and the Modi wave: ‘It’s Cascading Trump, It’s Cascading Modi!’

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 March, 2016 in Freedom | India | News | Politics


It’s Cascading Trump, It’s Cascading Modi!

This is the 25th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

We live in strange times. A few days ago, my friend and fellow libertarian, the writer Shikha Sood Dalmia, posted on Facebook: ‘Am I going mad or is the world? In America, I’m rooting for a Democrat and in India I’m defending a bloody communist!’

I was doing the same. In America, the bigoted, nativist, protectionist Donald Trump was dominating the Republican primaries, unleashing invective of the sort that usually only anonymous online trolls dare to express. In India, Narendra Modi’s government carried out a venal persecution of a few university students, based on doctored videos and a fake tweet. They arrested one of them for sedition, who was then beaten up by lawyers in the courthouse as the police looked on passively. My support, instinctively, went to the Democrats in the US; and to the beleaguered communist students in India.

What is going on here? How can a man like Trump be on the verge of leading the party of Abraham Lincoln? Why is Indian politics slipping back into crude tribalism just when India should finally be marching towards modernity? Could there be one answer to both these questions?

A few days ago, the American columnist Glenn Reynolds wrote a piece titled ‘A Trump wave is on the way.’ To explain the Trump phenomenon, Reynolds cited a book by sociologist Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.

Say you are at a dinner party at your boss’s place. The food is terrible: the dal makhni has no salt, the butter chicken has too much tomato puree. Your boss asks how you like the food. You murmur your appreciation, as you’ve seen others on the table do. You are hiding your actual preference in order to fit in or avoid social awkwardness. This is ‘preference falsification’. Everyone at the table may have hated the food—but everyone may think that everyone else loved it.

Preference falsification can have grave consequences. Kuran cites the Soviet Union as an example. The Soviets used the strong arm of the state to clamp down on free speech, which made it hard for people to express their preferences. Even if 99% of the people hated Communism and wanted the government to fall, it would not do so because of preference falsification: these people would not know that so many others thought just as they did. Until suddenly, one day, the public expression of that preference reached a critical mass, and a phenomenon that Kuran called a ‘preference cascade’ took place. From the outside, it might seem that a regime toppled suddenly, overnight, without warning—as we saw throughout the former Soviet Bloc. But while the preference cascade may have been sudden, the preferences themselves were not new.

Reynolds invokes Kuran in the American context, and speculates that Trump’s surge could be the result of a preference cascade. Maybe Trump is articulating views that other would never do themselves in public. (‘I hate foreigners.’ ‘Mexicans are rapists.’ ‘All Muslims should be deported.’ Whatever.) Once they see a prominent man like him say these things, and others rush out in support, they are emboldened to vote for him. Now that they know there are others like them, they join the Trump wave.

Now, shift your attention to India. My view of the last elections until recently was basically this: the BJP got its highest voteshare ever because not only did it mobilize its traditional base – the Hindutva voters – they also attracted other voters who were sick of the UPA’s corruption, who wanted economic reforms, and so on. And now that the BJP was bound to disappoint some of them, it would lose voteshare, compunded by the opposition consolidating against it (as in Bihar). So a desperate party would double down on Hindutva to mobilise its core Hindutva vote.

But what if this is all wrong?

What if the rise of Modi is a result of sudden preference cascades following decades of preference falsification. In Gujarat, for example, what if the majority Hindus bear an unspoken antipathy towards the minority community? They may not express it openly because it’s awkward to do so. Then the 2002 riots happen, and Muslims are ‘put in their place.’ Modi, then chief minister, never openly takes credit for it, but he doesn’t deny his culpability either, and you can read between the lines. Boom, Modi wins the next elections in a landslide—and every state election after that.

Similarly, what if many Indians silently share notions of cultural or religious superiority that are not polite or politically correct to express publicly? (I am attempting dispassionate political analysis here, and this is not meant to be judgmental.) The rise of Modi at a national level could have led to a preference cascade, and though these voters might have come up with many policy reasons for voting for him—‘He will make GST happen’ etc—those may have been rationalisations more than reasons. (Note: I am not implying that all BJP supporters are like this.)

But why now? What suddenly enabled this preference cascade? I have an answer : social media.

Social media exploded in India over the last six years, just as Modi’s national ascent began. Social media lets you express your preferences far more freely than in real life, because you’re either anonymous, or you’re at a physical remove from whoever you’re talking to. So more true preferences get expressed—and more and more people see more and more opinions validating their own preferences. Cascade!

If this is true, then in both America and India, beneath the veneer of sophisticated political discourse, there lies a primal core that cares about more basic things, like race and identity and so on. In fact, maybe the exact same impulse explains both Trump and Modi: the instinctive attraction for a strong leader who will lead our tribe well and shit on all others.

But these are just theories, and they could be wrong, or merely partly right. And there could be other silent preferences out there waiting for their cascade. What could those be? Who will make it happen?

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 March, 2016 in Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Recursive

Scroll reports:

Neelam Katara on Wednesday moved Delhi High Court against the parole plea of Vikas Yadav, convicted of murdering her son Nitish. Stating replies by Tihar officials to her RTI query, Katara told the court that Yadav had “visited” Badaun in Uttar Pradesh several times in the past few months to “appear before court” and each visit had kept him out of Tihar jail for two days. Opposing his parole plea, she reminded the court that her son was killed by Yadav while he was out on parole in a different case.

And Mid Day tells us about an old couple:

Their houses in Thane were demolished for road widening and they were moved to an old building, which is also being demolished for road widening.

A criminal commits a crime while on parole, gets convicted for it, and then gets parole again. The state dispossesses the dispossessed. There is a tragedy in this to which the only appropriate response is to laugh.

And laugh again.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 March, 2016 in India | News


The Right to Cheap Multiplex Tickets

IBN reports that the Karnataka government “is mulling a limit or maximum cap of Rs 120 to be charged on movie tickets in multiplexes.” This is intended to make movies more affordable for regular moviegoers, thus increasing viewership and helping the film industry as well. These are laudable objectives. Who could argue with making movies more affordable for the poor?

In fact, I would argue that the Karnataka government has not gone far enough. Why restrict this benevolence to movies?

I hereby propose that the prices of cars be capped at Rs 80,000. This will help the poor.

Also, the prices of meals at restaurants should be capped at Rs 30. This will help the poor.

While we’re at it, airline tickets should be capped at Rs 300. Why should only the privileged rich be allowed to fly?

Please don’t tell me you object to any of these wonderful ideas. There is no argument against these that don’t also apply to multiplex tickets. Don’t you agree?

(Link via Madhu Menon.)

*  *  *

On a serious note, here’s a piece by me on price controls: The Price is Right.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 March, 2016 in Economics | India | News | Politics | WTF


The False Binaries of Indian Politics

This is turning out to be a crazy year. All my life I have raged against the damage that socialism has done to India, with the leftist economic policies of Jawaharlal Nehru and (especially) Indira Gandhi ravaging our country for decades, condemning hundreds of millions to poverty and all its attendant ills. And yet, a few days ago, I was applauding an hour-long speech by a young Communist, sharing the link widely, quoting from it. Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech after being released from prison was a remarkable act of oratory and defiance, combining great passion with fine comic timing. Its content was irrelevant: for the moment, we were up against a greater evil, and we could revisit the speech at leisure.

Well, that time seems to have come. Makarand Paranjape gave a very fine lecture on nationalism at the JNU, with Kanhaiya present, and asked some difficult questions. His speech was nuanced; and it was also about nuance. It warned against a simplistic reading of either history or politics, and pointed out some areas in which, he said, Indian communists could do with some reflection. This included the Communist Party of India’s role (or non-role) in India’s struggle for independence, as well as the many lives that Stalin took.

Right after he spoke, Kanhaiya rose and began the Q&A session by asking Paranjape five questions. One, did he condemn Gandhi’s killing by Godse? Two, did he condemn the violence at Patiala House? Three, did he condemn a particular violent slogan? Four, did he condemn another slogan that was a veiled threat towards Umar Khalid? And five, what political party did he belong to? After Kanhaiya, another gentleman stood up and asked why, while mentioning Stalin, did Paranjape not mention Hitler.

These questions reveal such poverty of thought. (And the very absence of nuance that Paranjape had bemoaned.) Here’s the mistake these gentlemen made: politics does not revolve around binaries of fascism and communism (or left and right). Kanhaiya seemed to assume, if one goes by his questions, that if Paranjape questioned the role of the Left in India’s Independence struggle, then he must surely be a supporter of the Sanghis, and by extension of Godse. If he was questioning the facts in Kanhaiya’s speech, he must surely be a supporter of Modi and the Patiala House goons. The other gentleman implied that by invoking Stalin and not Hitler, by questioning communism but not mentioning fascism, Paranjape had revealed his preference. (Paranjape’s selective mentions were obviously in the context of getting the left to introspect on its history, and that alone.)

These are false binaries. Most sensible people will be against both the extreme right and left, against both the Sanghis and the commies. Hitler and Stalin were both monsters, and their evil sprang not in separate ways from their different ideologies, but from the common core of both those ideologies: the willingness to use coercion and ignore individual rights to reshape society according to their vision. In this, the communists and fascists are identical. They are not at opposite poles. They are the same.

I had drooled over Kanhaiya’s speech when it happened, and I didn’t mind the fact that he was communist. That was, after all, the environment around him, and he probably wasn’t even exposed to other ways of looking at the world. He seemed passionate and eloquent and intelligent, and that was a good starting point. But his questions to Paranjpe seemed to indicate that he wasn’t just unwilling to be self-critical about his beliefs, but is perhaps incapable of doing so. (That is a harsh reading, I know, and I hope I am wrong.)

You might ask here, if I oppose both sides equally, then why have I shown far greater concern (and anger) at the activities of the Sanghis than the commies? Simple answer: they’re the ones in power right now, with a legal monopoly on violence and coercion. Therefore they’re the greater danger. Also, the commies are not a force in India any more, despite this brief moment in the sun (courtesy Modi’s blundering minions). But the Sanghis are growing in power and influence. (I shall elaborate on this in the next edition of Lighthouse, which appears next week in a suitably named newspaper.)

I should add here, as I keep pointing out, that quite apart from the false binary of the two extremes that I have mentioned in this post, thinking in terms of left or right itself is fallacious in the context of Indian politics. All Indian governments have been left-wing on economics and right-wing on social issues, the exact opposite of what a poor beleaguered libertarian like me would like. Mere baal dhoop mein safed nahin hue hai. (In fact, mere baal safed hue hi nahin hai, but leave that aside.)

My earlier pieces on this:

‘Looking Beyond Left and Right’
The Fatal Conceit of the Indian Politician
Lessons From 1975

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2016 in India | News | Politics


Women as Objects

It isn’t only porn that objectifies women. So does tradition. Check this out.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 February, 2016 in India


How Much is Pawan Negi Worth?

Pradeep Magazine is unhappy that Pawan Negi got more than a million dollars at the recent IPL auction. He writes:

Ever since a new cricket format and a new business model – the IPL – in the name of sport has been created in India, this accepted rationale of how sport functions is being challenged each passing year. Among the many questions being debated is the relationship of talent with the wages earned and the impact it will have on the very foundations of cricket in the country.

That is where Pawan Negi and most of his tribe become relevant to this debate. Here is a young talent, not sure of his place in the India team, a surprise selection for the T20 World Cup, who has all of a sudden been catapulted ahead of his much superior seniors and showered with riches — and even he can’t understand why.

Magazine implies that Negi has gotten more money than he is worth—and I don’t have an opinion on that. However, consider the larger philosophical question of who should determine Negi’s value as a player? Should it be the mandarins at the BCCI, or the selectors? Should it be knowledgable journalists who have covered the game for years like Magazine himself? Should it be the owners of IPL franchises, an assorted mix of businessmen and filmstars who may not know much about cricket?

The clue to the answer is to ask yourself who has the best incentives to put in the work to determine Negi’s value. Who is actually putting his money where his mouth is? If Magazine makes a judgment about a player that is wrong, it doesn’t matter, journalists get things wrong all the time. There is not much of a reputational downside. If the Indian selectors get it wrong, ditto, they move on and pick someone else the next time, and only a whole bunch of ludicrous selections can affect their position. If the IPL bosses get it wrong, on the other hand, they lose money. Hard, cold cash. For this reason, the incentives are highest for IPL bosses to put in much work in scouting and analytics, and by all accounts they do exactly that. So insofar as there can be said to be a ‘correct’ price for Negi, the IPL auctions are the closest mechanism available right now of arriving at that. (And of course, econ 101, prices are determined by supply and demand, and you need a market for that.)

Of course, the IPL auctions are not a free market. All players would probably get paid much more if spending caps did not exist. Also, Negi would probably have gotten much less if he was first up in an auction where no team had retained or picked a player yet, and he did get lucky that he came up for auction when there was a scarcity of available players like him, teams had holes to fill, and the demand for what he could supply went up. That’s just luck, and it’s fine. If he doesn’t perform, he won’t get paid this much next time.

An aside: Magazine also says in his piece:

In this bizarre game, where players are bought and sold in an auction, is there any cricketing logic that governs these decisions?

This is a common, and badly phrased, complaint: of cricketers being bought and sold like cattle. But that is not what is happening. Their services, as represented by contracts they have willingly signed, are being bought and sold. It is principally the same thing that happens when you check out different employers to see where you want to work, except that the mechanism is different. Cricketers are not being degraded here, but honoured and valued in a much better way than men in board rooms with nothing at stake could manage.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 February, 2016 in Economics | India | News | Sport


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