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.
At one point in the presidential debate earlier this week, Hillary Clinton said, “Mental health is one of the biggest concerns.” She was not referring to her opponent, but those words would have been apt in that context. Mental health is indeed a huge concern when it comes to Donald Trump. No candidate in US history has been so unhinged. Not only is Trump incapable of deep thought, he appears incapable of rational thought. His rare coherent sentences seem accidental, like the broken clock that is right twice a day. Even his hairstyle seems to reflect that the neurons below are firing in unusual ways. Indeed, his speech patterns are what you would expect from a malfunctioning AI bot. I’m not sure Trump would pass the Turing test.
Why, then, are so many Americans supporting him?
One possible reason proposed by the columnist Glenn Reynolds, which I have touched upon in an earlier edition of Lighthouse, is that a large number of Americans are closet racists, bigots, misogynists and nativists, but kept their preferences hidden because they seemed unacceptable in polite society. (Preference Falsification.) Social media allowed them to discover others like themselves, find enormous amounts of data that would feed their confirmation biases, and build progressively larger echo chambers. At the appropriate tipping point, along came Trump, articulating these basic instincts and bringing them into the mainstream. And boom, you have the Trump wave, in what social scientists would call a Preference Cascade.
I think there is much truth to this. I would also like to propose another reason: we are a species that relies on stories for explanations of the world around us, and Trump tells simple stories.
The world is complex and mysterious, and we make sense of it through stories. All our myths and religions evolved out of the need to find stories that would a) explain the world; and b) comfort ourselves. We have modified these stories as new evidence has popped up (eg, science), but have also stuck to older stories (eg, religion) for all kinds of reasons, from custom to the force of inertia to their beguiling simplicity. This last point is important. The world is so complex that simple stories appeal to us precisely because they stop us from feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Where did that tree come from? God put it there. Why was there an earthquake? God was punishing us for our sins. And so on.
Trump sells simple stories. Imagine a middle-aged white man in small-town America who has seen jobs disappear and incomes stagnate for years. If Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Paul Ryan explain to him why he is in this state, their complex explanation of a complex phenomenon will typically contain a mix of jargon, empty phrases and tired bromides, and might even be incomprehensible. Trump, on the other hand, will keep it simple. “You are losing your jobs because our government ships them overseas” is his anti-trade spiel. “You are losing your jobs because immigrants are coming in here and taking them away” is his anti-immigration spiel. Both of these explanations are wrong, but whether they are true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are simple.
Once people buy into these stories, they are so invested in them that they are not going to accept deeper explanations. And they don’t trust politicians anyway, regarding them, with some justification, as smooth-talking, power-hungry, sociopathic slaves to special interests. Trump made a fool of himself in this recent debate, but he did worse in many of his earlier debates during the Republican primaries, and that didn’t hurt him. His followers judge him on different parameters than pundits and conventional politicians do. Substance is irrelevent, and facts don’t matter. Stories matter.
I don’t believe Trump tells these simple stories because he is a master politician. I think he tells them because he is a simpleton. His ideas are mostly dangerous and wrong, and if there is any first principle he believes in, it is an infallible belief in his own excellence. He has already destroyed his party, and he will damage his country if he comes to power. Will he be president?
I have a pessimistic view and an optimistic view. My pessimistic view is that polls are underestimating his support, just as polls underestimated the Brexit vote, because of preference falsification. So he will do better than his polls indicate. My optimistic view is that demographics are against him, and he has antagonised many black, hispanic and female voters, whose numbers are too large for him to win. He won in the multiway Republican primaries because the floor of his support was high; he will lose in the November election because its ceiling is too low. That’s the story I’m telling myself, because much as I find Hillary Clinton deplorable, I’d prefer a bad president to a mad president.
There are few things as satisfying as being macho on social media, and this is quite the season for it. After the terrorist attack in Uri, every Righteous Internet Patriot (RIP) wants our government to teach Pakistan a lesson by going to war. I have two things to say about this: One, it is the worst of all available solutions; Two, it is the best possible stance to take. Let us unravel that.
War is a solution that would be worse than the problem. Let’s look at this conflict using the metric of human lives. A rational aim of any solution would be to minimise the loss of Indian lives. What is the cost we currently bear through Pakistan-sponsored terrorism?
In a reply to an RTI petition this July, the government of India stated that 707 Indian lives have been lost to terrorism since 2005. Over 11 years, that comes to 64 deaths a year. If the status quo is maintained, with the usual empty diplomatic posturings, this figure should not rise too drastically. But what if, in an exasperated search for closure, we go to war?
A modern war with modern weaponry could cost us tens of thousands of lives, and maybe millions if it turns nuclear. (This does not take into account downstream effects on survivors, the economy, the environment and so on, all of which would blight the future.) Whatever the precise number, the cost of war would be orders of magnitude worse than even the long-term cost of the status quo. For any rational person, therefore, war is off the table.
This creates an obvious problem. If the rational course for India is to avoid war no matter what happens, then Pakistan can keep escalating with impunity. They could kill hundreds of Indians a year, or even thousands, confident in the belief that because we are rational, because we can do the math, we will be restrained. So what are we to do?
The field of game theory contains an insight to this dynamic. The game most relevant to two nuclear powers is called Chicken. Here’s an illustration: two cars are racing towards each other, and a crash is imminent. (Mutually Assured Destruction.) The driver who loses his nerve and swerves first loses the game. Now, every rational driver will swerve before he crashes into the other guy. So a surefire way to win the game is to convince the other guy that you are irrational, prepared to die, and will not concede. (One way of doing this is by breaking the steering wheel and throwing it away.) Your opponent, if he is rational, must swerve.
Pakistan has played this game brilliantly with a so-far rational India. Their venal generals and mad mullahs, the world believes, are capable of going nuclear at any provocation. India’s rationality and restraint is applauded in diplomatic circles—but we’re being pwned in the geopolitical sphere by Pakistan.
One way out is for India to portray itself as equally irrational, and show a willingness to go nuclear—even if we actually remain rational and intend to avoid war. Richard Nixon did this during the Cold War in 1969, when he ordered the US army to full war-readiness, and sent 18 B-52s loaded with thermonuclear weapons towards the Soviet border, where they flew around in pretty oval patterns for three days. The Soviets, who weren’t exactly ballerinas themselves, were spooked. Nixon called this ‘the Madman Theory’.
Recent Indian prime ministers would have had a tough time portraying themselves as mad men. (Imagine Manmohan Singh letting off an evil laugh.) But Narendra Modi seemed to be suited for the role – until he became PM. Ironically, the rhetorical belligerance that Modi articulated towards Pakistan while on the campaign trail has been replaced by a subdued, reasonable demeanour on the world stage.
Modi cares deeply about how the world views him, and wants to be seen as a mature statesman. Sadly, he has succeeded. This is reassuring to those of us who fear excessive military adventurism—I live in Mumbai and would be bummed if Pakistan nuked my beloved city—but is counter-productive when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. If Pakistan’s generals saw Modi and his minions as unhinged reactionaries driven by bigotry, Islamophobia and a virulent nationalism, they might back off. But regardless of how he is regarded in JNU, his image on the global stage is exemplary. On all his foreign visits, he comes across as an avuncular dove, a personable connoisseur of the photo-op.
Our conflict with Pakistan will not be ended by diplomacy. China supports Pakistan, America needs Pakistan for Afghanistan reasons, and all diplomatic manouvering on this subject is just theatre. To get Pakistan to stop poking us, we have to play the game. Modi has so far been a master of optics – and playing Chicken with Pakistan is his greatest challenge yet.
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.
It was 11pm at the end of a long day. A weary Donald Trump undressed in his hotel room. He had a habit of looking at the ceiling whenever he undressed, so that he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of his hands. He had such tiny hands! To see his hands take off his designer shirt (he had the best shirt!) and his manly trousers (he had seen a lot of trousers, and let me tell you, these trousers were really good!) made him sad. It made him want to cry, and because real men don’t cry, that then made him really angry. It started with the hands, though.
He flopped down on the bed. He was naked now, and had one more reason to not look down. He was worried. This was his fifth consecutive day without satisfactory bowel movement. He was full of shit. This made him irritable. In the last three days, he had a) lashed out at the mother of a soldier killed in combat, b) thrown a baby out of an election rally, and c) picked up a kitten at a townhall meeting and thrown it at a grandmother who was having a heart attack. The grandmother had immediately recovered, but the kitten had a heart attack, and the media was now saying vicious things about him, being really mean to him, very unfair. What was he supposed to do, throw the grandmother at the kitten?
He really needed to shit.
Just then, he saw something move at the end of the bed. He looked across, making sure not to get his tiny hands in the way. There was a little boy there. A little green boy. Trump couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He rubbed his eyes, which took a long time because of his really tiny hands. But the boy was still there. Was he imagining the boy? Should he speak to him? What if someone sees him speaking to an imaginary green boy? The New York Times would go crazy. Why were they so nasty with him?
‘Who are you?’ he finally asked.
‘My name is Isabgol,’ the boy said. ‘Gosh, you have such small hands.’
‘No I don’t, I have really big hands,’ said Trump. ‘I’ve seen a lot of hands, and let me tell you, my hands are the biggest. They’re huge!’ He covered his hands and something else with the bedsheet. ‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’
‘I have been sent to this planet with one mission,’ said Isabgol. ‘And that is to get rid of excess shit. There is too much shit in the world. And so, here I am.’
Trump stared at Isabgol in astonishment. It was true that the last five days had been hard because of the absence of motions. Could he really be the leader of the free world when he was thus constrained?
‘How do you do that? And wait, before you do any of that, are you an immigrant? Are you a Muslim? Are you a Muslim from Mexico? Because, you know, I’m building this wall…’
Isabgol sighed. ‘I was warned about this. So much shit. Listen, first, not only am I not from America, I’m not even from Earth. I come from a faraway planet called Bengal. And second, when I speak of clearing up shit, I’m speaking metaphorically. I couldn’t care less about your bowel movements. No, I’m going to spin my magic on you, and when I’m done, there’ll be no more shit in your head. Oh no, babumoshai, you’ll actually be a good, decent human being then. You’ll be respectful to your opponents. You’ll start treating women as real people. Why, you’ll even learn to like your hands.’
Trump jumped up and backed away. ‘Don’t come near me,’ he squealed. He had been terrified many times in his life—fear is all you see behind every bully’s mask—but this was something else. A little green kid was going to make him a good person?
Isabgol advanced, repulsed by the task but excited by the challenge. Trump shrank away. Isabgol moved forward. Trump withdrew. Isabgol was almost there. Trump was in a foetal position. And then, Trump felt something right next to his tiny, miniscule, almost invisible hands. It was a glass of water. His last line of defence!
With all the strength he could muster from his alleged hands, for one couldn’t quite see them, Trump threw the water at Isabgol. Water, water everywhere. Isabgol was covered in the water. He looked at Trump with a glimmer in his eyes. Trump shivered. He knew that he had made a grave mistake.
Isabgol began to expand.
At the press conference the next day, everyone was rubbing their eyes except Trump.
‘Hillary is such a fine lady,’ he said. ‘I remember, she came to one of my weddings. Many people come to my weddings. But she was the best. Just perfect.’
‘What about Obama?’ a brave cub reporter asked.
‘He is a great American,’ said Trump. ‘I may disagree with him on some issues, though I wouldn’t know which because I’m not well-informed enough to have meaningful opinions, but he is a decent man. And Michelle is such a charming lady. I tell Ivanka, when you grow up, I want you to be like that. You hear me? Just like Michelle!’
Meanwhile, backstage, two of Trump’s campaign managers looked at each in bewilderment.
‘What happened to the boss?’ one of them said. ‘He’s so full of shit today.’
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!
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!
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.
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:
Good to gripe about Uber restriction—but why did no one notice the massive cab and auto fare regulation in place for a century?
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.
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…
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.
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.
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?
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%.
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.
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.
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.’
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?
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?
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?
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.)
Why are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders doing so well, while conventional heavyweights in their parties seem to be taking a beating? I got a sense of that in this Politico analysis of Hillary Clinton’s campaign after New Hampshire which had the strap:
After a devastating defeat, her campaign hopes to rebound with a sharp focus on African Americans.
Cruz assembled a broad but piecemeal coalition of conservative voters by giving each faction something it really, really cared about.
Elsewhere, there is analysis of the four men (Rubio, Kasich, Bush, Christie) fighting for the ‘establishment lane’ of the Republican party.
Do you see what is happening here? Politicians typically think of voters as a market (as indeed they are in the political marketplace) and divvy it up into segments and strategize accordingly. But Trump and Sanders are unconventional politicians whose fundamental message seems to be: ‘This is who I am. This is what I stand for. I won’t tailor my message for anyone. I won’t pander to any group of voters or to special interests. I am different from your typical slave-to-special-interests politician. Are you sick of them too? Vote for me!’
Now, forget the sincerity of this message: what matters is how they come across. And voters are sick of business as usual. This election was supposed to be Bush vs Clinton, but Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton would be very similar presidents, firmly in the pockets of special interests, albeit different ones. Trump and Sanders clearly would not. (At least, that’s the message.) So that’s the appeal.
You could say it’s the same appeal Arvind Kejriwal had in India.
Now, I strongly oppose Trump and Sanders (and for that matter Kejriwal), because as much as what you stand against, one must also see what you stand for. Trump is whacko in every way. Sanders is whacko on economics. (Kejriwal is Indira Gandhi all over again.) But that is not the point. The point is that conventional politicians cannot hope to capture those constituencies (in their language!) unless they accept that the system is broken to begin with, and communicate that in a credible way. The establishment guys seem to be in denial that the public is turning against the establishment. So this is going to be fun.
The elections in the US are already the greatest reality show ever. It is fitting, therefore, that Trump should be the star.
Posted by Amit Varma on 10 February, 2016 in
One of the things that most exasperates me about Indian political discourse these days is that we often speak in terms of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. This is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, this is not how politicians themselves actually speak (unless they’re humouring the English-speaking media). Voters in India vote for a myriad of reasons, mostly local, and they don’t frame issues in terms of left or right. Therefore, neither do politicians when they speak to their constituencies, or when they strategise among each other. There is, thus, a disconnect between politics and political discourse. Many political commentators, unable or unwilling to engage with the complexities of the political economy, insist on imposing simplistic narratives.
But this would not matter if a left-right prism was useful in evaluating the desirability of policies, or provided a compass to gauge the moral or instrumental value of the actions of politicians. But it does not, which brings me to my second reason, which is not a local one. Across the world, framing issues in terms of left or right misses the central principle at stake in any modern society: that of individual rights, and of freedom. I view the world through a classical liberal (or libertarian, if you will) prism, and my liberalism boils down to a respect for individual freedom. On moral grounds alone, if we come from first principles, we should respect individual freedom above all else. From a consequentialist perspective, also, we should defend freedom, for economic freedom leads to material prosperity, and personal freedoms, such as freedom of speech, enrich our culture.
As a true liberal, I see no difference between economic and social freedoms. As I am fond of saying, once we accept that two consenting adults may do whatever they want with each other provided they infringe the rights of no one else, it should not matter whether they are fucking in a bedroom or trading in a marketplace. Interfering with either is wrong. And here’s the thing: parties on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum support infringements on individual freedom all the time.
Parties on the right tend to want to impose their cultural values on others, and are suspicious of those they view as ‘outsiders’. They don’t care much for free speech or other personal freedoms. Parties on the left tend to oppose economic freedom. They do so stating noble reasons, but all infringements of economic freedom amount to a redistribution of wealth from poor consumers to a rich interest group, so they’re either hypocrites or delusional. They also tend to favour big government, which means more taxation, and therefore more coercion.
If you believe, as I do, that coercion is wrong, then it won’t make a difference whether you look left or right, you’ll see coercion everywhere. A classical liberal opposes both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both Prakash Karat and Mohan Bhagwat. (I would give credit to those guys for at least stating their positions clearly, though. Politicians down the ostensible middle, slaves to special interests as they mostly are, tend to be equally coercive and far more hypocritical.) Looking at the political marketplace, you will find that the options available to you aren’t all that different from each other. And why should they be? Even when they cater to different segments of the population, they’re still reacting to the same inevitably corrupting incentives at work in the political economy.
Here’s the funny thing about India in particular. We have conveniently classified the BJP as a right-wing party and the Congress as a left-wing party—but they’re both practically the same party. In terms of economics, both are left-wing, and oppose economic freedom. It might surprise you to hear me say this about the BJP, but forget their campaign rhetoric and consider their actual policies: Modi I is basically UPA III. Modi has the same top-down way of looking at the economy as any Congress leader before him, and he’s trigger-happy when it comes to imposing new taxes and cesses.
Equally, on social issues, the Congress was as right-wing as the BJP allegedly is. They have a stellar record when it comes to banning books, and it was a Congress government that effectively banned The Satanic Verses. Censorship flourished under their watch, as did attempts at social engineering, which weren’t restricted to the Emergency: odious policies on sterilisation still exist, decades after the emergency was called off. Even in terms of attacking other communities, the Congress set the standards: more people died in the 1984 riots than in the 2002 riots. My friend, the political commentator Nitin Pai, once coined a term that describes this jostling between the parties perfectly: ‘Competitive Intolerance’. This is quite the kind of competition that makes the poor ol’ free-marketer in me cringe!
To sum it up, India’s political parties tend to be left-wing on economics and right-wing on social issues. In other words, they oppose freedom in every sphere. I would be no more disheartened by this than India’s freedom fighters were in the first half on the last century, when they gazed up at the monolithic British empire. They gritted their teeth, and hurled themselves into the battle for our political freedom. Likewise, we must keep fighting till we win these other freedoms, and emerge as a free country at last. Not a left country, or a right country, but a free country.
A road near Delhi notorious for hours’ long traffic jams has finally found the right victim. After stewing in a two-hour jam last night, Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has ordered a solution within 24 hours.
“We are studying the traffic of Delhi and the report will come to me in 15 days. We will identify the black spots of Delhi and also inform the Delhi government. We will jointly solve this traffic jam problem,” Mr Gadkari told reporters today.
I have two observations to make here. One, you will note that Gadkari has ‘ordered a solution within 24 hours,’ and to make it happen, has commissioned a report that will be ready ‘in 15 days.’ This is delicious. If Kafka made this up, you’d wag your finger at him and say, ‘Now now Franz, you’ve gone too far this time.’
The other observation must have struck you as well. So Gadkari, who is the road transport minister, realises there is a traffic problem only when he is personally stuck in traffic? Is that what it takes for a minister to truly realise the problems a country faces. Will Arun Jaitley start worrying about rising prices only when he himself is unable to afford onions? Will Birender Singh, the minister for drinking water and sanitation, wake up to the urgency of the problem in India when he himself gets jaundice? Otherwise it’s academic, stuff that written in files, push ‘em around, keep pushing, push harder?
You could argue that this question is moot in the case of our education minister, who is herself uneducated. I suppose that’s a good start.
Does it make any sense for a government to apologize for wrongs committed decades, even centuries, earlier? Don Boudreaux thinks not:
Imagine if we conducted our personal affairs as governments conduct their affairs: even the most atrocious and grievous wrongs that we commit would be apologized for, not by those of us who commit the offenses, but only by our grandchildren or great-grandchildren – people who had no hand at all in the commission of the now-formally-apologized-for wrong. Who would take such apologies seriously? “Great-great-grandchildren of armed robber apologizes for their ancestors’ wrongful acts.” How meaningless can an apology be?
I like that way of thinking, actually. Let’s continue down that road of what would happen if you conducted your personal affairs as governments conduct theirs. Say you forcibly took 30% of the earnings of every person in your housing society, offering in return your notional protection. You set down norms of behaviour, including who can visit them and if they themselves are allowed to leave the premises. Maybe you don’t allow them to drink alcohol; or eat beef; or speak their mind freely. You regulate what they may or may not buy from the market, and you get a piece of whatever they purchase. If they buy 12 eggs, two come to you. Have an omelette.
I could go on forever, but here’s the thing: If you actually behaved the way a government does, you’d be treated as a thug by society, and locked up by the government, which would consider you competition, and would naturally like to have a monopoly on that kind of behaviour. Ah, but you now protest, I am stretching it too far. All of us signed a social contract. And it is legitimate for the government to behave in this way.
Well, I didn’t sign any contract. And why is it legitimate?
Kejriwal is doing this, no doubt, because AAP intends to stand for elections in Punjab, and he’s taking what he hopes will be a popular line there. This illustrates what I’ve said all along about the man: he only cares about power, not principle, and will take whatever populist line gets him votes. His opposition to FDI in retail was one example of how he’s against economic freedom. (Such opposition amounts to redistributing wealth from poor consumers to a specific rich interest group, as I pointed out here.) And now we find that he doesn’t believe in free speech either. He’ll do whatever it takes to get votes.
In this, he is no different from any other politician. But he projects himself as being different, which is why pointing out this aspect of his character is important. The politician Kejriwal reminds me of most is the vile Indira Gandhi. And as I wrote recently, Narendra Modi also reminds me of Indira in some ways. Talk about picking a bipartisan role model!
There’s an interesting video that seems to have gone viral on social media showing a bunch of hooligans in a film theatre haranguing (and eventually ejecting) a couple who did not stand when the national anthem was played. Some people on Twitter appear to think that this is an issue of patriotism. Well, no it isn’t. It’s an issue of individual freedom and coercion.
In some jurisdictions in the country, it is compulsory to stand when the national anthem is played. This compulsion by the government is something I object to. People should be free to stand if they feel like; and to not stand if they don’t want to. Your patriotism should not be measured by your empty allegiance to a mere symbol; and in fact, it should be nobody’s business whether you are patriotic or not.
Also, when you watch the video linked to above, consider that the people being unpatriotic are not the ones who didn’t stand for the anthem, but the ones insisting that they should have. The idea of India that I subscribe to is one in which India being a free country means that all its citizens are free from the kind of coercion and goondagardi that we see in that video. The mob in that video pretending to be patriotic—they are traitors in my eyes. Whether they stood for the anthem or not.
In fact, it is a travesty that the theatre management did not intervene on behalf of the two ticket-paying patrons who were forced out of that hall. As for those hooligans, they should have been arrested for creating such a disturbance on someone else’s property.
By and by, I was a panelist on We The People, Barkha Dutt’s show, at the start of 2008 in which the topic for discussion was exactly this: national symbols, and whether there should be any holy cows. Towards the end of the show, Barkha asked each of her panelists for a response on whether India should have holy cows. My response, about 47:50 into the show:
The only kind of holy cow I believe in is one from which you get a divine steak.
My co-panelist Smriti Irani met me backstage after the show and told me that I’d better be careful about making such jokes about an animal that is the object of reverence for Hindus. I think she was educating me about the dangers of blaspheming publicly, and as such, her post as education minister in a BJP government seems quite apt.
As today is apparently Constitution Day, here’s a thought from the great BR Ambedkar, who is considered the chief architect of our constitution:
We built a temple for a God to come in and reside, but before the God could be installed, if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple? We do not intend that it should be occupied by the Asuras. We intended it to be occupied by the Devas. That is the reason why I said I would rather like to burn it.
These words were spoken in parliament in 1953, if I remember correctly.
I’m surprised that so many smart people I know express reverence for our constitution. Our constitution is deeply flawed: it does not protect freedom of speech or the right to property, and is a sprawling, unwieldy cut-paste job that has constantly been amended over the decades to suit the nefarious purposes of politicians. Ambedkar himself felt this way in 1953—things have only gotten worse since then.
So how has the government reacted to Aamir Khan’s recent comments about the growing intolerance in India? Rediff reports:
The government on Tuesday termed as “misplaced” superstar Aamir Khan’s comments on growing intolerance, saying such statements only bring disrepute to the country as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“His comments on intolerance is completely misplaced. Comments like this only bring the image of country and the Prime Minister Modi down,” Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju told reporters on the sidelines of a function in New Delhi when asked to comment on Aamir Khan’s statement on Monday at an award function in the national capital.
The Modi government’s obsession with optics is now getting beyond parody. These guys are more concerned with image than substance. This is understandable during a campaign, but they won the damn election and are actually governing now. Why so insecure?
Meanwhile, bhakts on Twitter have made it quite clear that Aamir’s claims of intolerance won’t be tolerated. What fun.
I’m travelling at the moment and haven’t been following the news too closely, so I’m hesitant to comment on the Bihar elections. One thing I can say for sure, though: all simple narratives are wrong. Elections are complex phenomena, and a mix of personal, local and national reasons—in that order—make people vote the way they do in state elections. Any one-line explanation of the elections will always be wrong.
One thing that seems clear to me actually renders the future unclear: the BJP will now consciously veer in one of two opposite directions. They will either sideline the communal elements in the party and continue pushing for ‘development’; or they will go all out appealing to religious nationalism (and caste-based politicking when relevant). I think the time when they could do both credibly is behind us now.
If they go the religious nationalism route, they can be assured of their core vote-share of maybe around 15% that will be loyal to them. Where do they get the rest from? In 2014, people were just fed up and wanted to be rid of the UPA, and the BJP’s development rhetoric was attractive. But this government hasn’t delivered and isn’t doing anything to deliver on the kind of economic growth that lifts all boats, as it were. It is safe to say that many who voted for them on the ‘development’ or ‘change’ planks are disappointed. Many of the votes they lost in Bihar are probably on that account. Plus, of course, the opposition consolidated, as they will continue to do so. Even if the BJP hold that national 31% of the voteshare they got in 2014, they will lose seats next time around because wherever a mahagatbandhan is possible, one will emerge. The paradigm is BJP vs the rest now, not Congress vs the rest.
So here’s the upshot: the only way BJP will be a dominant party in future Indian politics is if it delivers on development and sidelines the nutjobs. But its gains in that case are nebulous and hard to pin down in numbers. Ditching development, increasing communal polarisation and mobilising those core voters, on the other hand, guarantees it a stable base, but has an upper limit. By itself, it is not enough to keep the BJP in power—unless the nutjob constituency grows, a prospect that terrifies me.
I suspect that the BJP will stay in its historical comfort zone. They might talk development but will walk identity politics, as they did in Bihar. Every failure will push them further into that comfort zone. They will growl and periodically lash out from a foetal position.
This is definitely a simplistic analysis. (All topical political analysis is.) I hope I am wrong.