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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: Politics

India’s Second Freedom Struggle

This is the 37th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on June 23.

It was both ironic and poignant when, a few days ago, Anna Hazare remarked that his crusade for the Lokpal Bill was akin to a second freedom struggle for India. Hazare is fighting against the right things in the wrong way: as I wrote a few weeks ago, corruption arises from an excess of government power; creating an alternate center of power, as the Lokpal Bill attempts to do, which is neither accountable nor democratically elected, solves nothing. That said, Hazare’s rhetoric, borrowed from the likes of C Rajagopalachari from decades past, was correct: India does need a second freedom struggle.

Every nation is a work in progress, but India is more so because our independence was a job half finished. In 1947, we gained freedom from the British—but not from oppression. As the country heaved a long sigh of relief at gaining political independence, a new set of brown sahibs took over from the white ones. The great hope of this new democracy was that it would lead to a government that would serve us—but we found ourselves with one that continued to rule us, with laws either directly retained from the British, or even more oppressive than those that existed before. We were colonized by our own people, and eventually enslaved by ways of thinking that saw a mai-baap government as the solution to all our problems—even when it was often the source of them.

There is no Mahatma Gandhi to lead this second freedom struggle, and most Indians, complacent with how things are, would not even think it is required. But if it was to take place, what would its aims be? What would it fight to change? The goal of that first freedom struggle was to free ourselves of a colonial power; the aim of this notional second freedom struggle should be to drastically reform the system that denies us freedom in so many areas of our lives. From the classical liberal/libertarian perspective, here are a few things I’d love a second freedom struggle to strive to achieve.

One: Limit the power of government

As things stand, we are ruled by a government as oppressive as the British were. Ideally, the function of governments should be to protect our rights and provide basic services. But our government is a bloated behemoth whose tentacles, like a modern-day Cthulhu, extend into every area of our lives. This is hardly surprising: those in power are always looking for ways to extend their power, and government, if adequate safeguards are not in place, just grows and grows and grows. This is exactly what has happened in India—our government functions like an officially sanctioned mafia, controlling our lives and curtailing our freedom. It’s all a bit of a scam.

Two: Unleash Private Enterprise. Remove the License and Permit Raj

The liberalisation India carried out in 1991 was a half-hearted one, forced upon us by a balance of payments crisis and not out a genuine desire for change. The reforms halted once the crisis eased, and the License and Permit Raj largely remains in place. It has stopped us, in the past, from being the manufacturing superpower we should naturally have been, given the abundance of cheap labour in this country. It continues to act as a huge shackle on private industry: I’ve pointed out earlier the abominable fact that you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including ““a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms.” Every businessman in India has to go through surreal hurdles to go about his work, and given that businesses exists to fulfil the needs of the people, for how else can they make profits, it is doubly criminal of an inept government to stand in the way of private enterprise. In the areas where it has been allowed to operate, look at the impact private enterprise has had: consider how many years it took to get a telephone from the state-owned MTNL in the 1980s, and how quickly you can get one today. We are a resourceful people, and every problem of India can be solved by private citizens—if they’re allowed that freedom.

Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code

The IPC is an abomination created by the British in the 19th century to make it easier for them to rule us, and to impose their Victorian morality on us. That it still exists is a disgrace. It contains ridiculous laws like Section 295 (a), which makes it a crime to “outrage religious feelings or any class” and Section 153 (a), which criminalizes any act “which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility”: both of these have been used to clamp down on free speech in the country. So has Section 124 (a), which aims to punish anyone who “brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government established by law,” and could be applied to this column, as these laws are open to interpretation and discretion. Section 377, which effectively criminalised homosexuality, has thankfully been overthrown in a court of law, but other archaic laws remain on the books, including some that punish victimless crimes. Many of these threaten our freedom directly.

Four: Ensure Free Speech in India

The IPC alone cannot be blamed for the absence of free speech in India. Our constitution itself does not protect it, and while Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) introduces caveats to it under the guise of “public order” and “decency and morality”. Practically anything one says could be a threat to public order, depending on how it is interpreted, which makes it easy for those in power to clamp down on those without. If we don’t even have freedom of expression, how can we call ourselves a truly free country?

Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money

I run a series on my blog called “Where Your Taxes Go”, chronicling the various absurd ways in which our tax money is spent by government. These including paying the salaries of 22,800 fake employees of the Delhi Municipality, a Rs 42 crore mansion for Mayawati on “a sprawling 1,00,000 sq foot area”, a school for monkeys, the sponsorship of second honeymoons for people who delay having children, and, most recently, on a newspaper advertisement where the chief minister of Karnataka challenges his predecessor to do ‘God promise’ on certain allegations he made. (Yes, you can’t make this stuff up.) Governments need taxes to exist, but if you strip our government down to its necessary functions, you might find that we will pay a miniscule percentage of what we actually pay now.

It’s ironic that Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Dandi March was held in protest against an unfair tax; most taxes today are far more draconian. Sit down sometime and calculate what percentage of your income goes into taxes: if you pay 33%—chances are you end up paying more, if you include indirect taxation—it means that until the end of April every year, you are effectively earning for the government. This is freedom?

Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred

In 1978, the 44th amendment removed the right to property from our list of fundamental rights. Even had this not happened, the poor of India are habituated to having their property snatched from them: eminent domain has long been used by corrupt governments in a crony capitalism system to line their own pockets. One of our biggest problems is that even after so many decades of independence, clear land titles do not exist in many parts of the country. (My fellow columnist, Mohit Satyanand, wrote about this a few weeks ago, as did Devangshu Datta in an old piece.) This makes it ridiculously easy for a ruling government to infringe on the rights of its poor people—and it stands as a huge impediment to economic growth.

Seven: Reform Schooling

The state of education in this country makes for black comedy: the government pours more and more money into education, and after decades of this, the results remain dismal. There are various complex reasons for this government dysfunction, but a huge one is that the private sector is hugely constrained from entering this area. As I wrote in this old piece, even desperately poor people have shown a preference for those low-cost private schools that do manage to exist, despite governmental hurdles, than inefficient government ones. It is ironic and tragic that while private enterprise is allowed to flourish in trivial areas of our lives, like the production of shampoos and potato chips, it is constrained from competing with the government in this most crucial field. I am not recommending that the government stop spending money on education: just allow private enterprise to flourish as well. Consider the cost and quality of air travel in India when we only had Indian Airlines at our service—and look at what it has become today. Isn’t education far more crucial to our progress as a nation?

Eight: Reform Agriculture

We romanticize the farmer, and we want to keep him poor. It is shocking that 60% of our countrymen work in the agricultural sector: the equivalent figure for most developed countries is in single digits. There are various reasons for this, one of many being that farmers are not allowed to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. This prevents an escape route for many farmers, and also hampers industrial growth in many parts of the country, which would automatically provide alternative avenues of employment. More industrialisation would lead to more urbanisation and greater economic growth, but we hamper this process right at the start. It is a vicious circle that traps poor farmers in poverty. As Manmohan Singh once said, “our salvation lies in getting people to move out of agriculture.” He is right, which is ironic, given that he is our prime minister and is doing exactly nothing in terms of reforming that sector. Words come so easy.

I can think of many other worthy aims, such as making government more local and less centrally directed, so that it is more responsive and accountable, and reforming our legal system. I’m sure you can add to this list. But at one level, India’s second freedom struggle remains a pipe dream. We are a nation colonized by the religion of government, and we display a lazy reverence for it. We look for specific quick fixes to problems, instead of recognising that many of them emanate from structural issues with our system of government—and from how we think about it. What is worse is that we largely do not even think of ourselves as unfree—so who needs a freedom movement then? Do we? What do you think?

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Also read: this similar wishlist from another time.

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My thanks to Shruti Rajagopalan, Parth Shah, Arun Simha, Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Salil Tripathi, Deepak Shenoy and Gautam John for providing inputs to this piece.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 June, 2011 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Viewfinder

The Rorschach Effect in Indian Politics

This is the 32nd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on April 21.

Consider this man: He runs a village in rural Maharashtra as if it is his personal fiefdom, like an authoritarian feudal lord. He is a fan of Shivaji, and admires him for once chopping off the hands of a man who committed a crime. In that vein, he passes an order that anyone found drinking alcohol will be tied to a pole in front of the village temple and publicly flogged. Several men undergo this, one of whom, a vice sarpanch of the village, says: “I was drinking. I was ... tied to the pole and flogged two-three times. It is normal. [He] will try to make you understand once or twice and thereafter, he will beat you badly.” He believes in “rigid implementation” of family planning, including forced vasectomies. Male labourers in his village are paid Rs 50 a day, while female labourers get just Rs 30. He supports Narendra Modi, and is politically active, routinely resorting to a form of blackmail known as threatening to fast unto death until his demands are met. He believes that corrupt people should be hanged—literally hanged to death. He is Anna Hazare.

In the last month or so, the 71-year-old Hazare has become a middle-class hero and a “youth icon” in India. This is baffling, given the biographical details in the above paragraph. (I got them from Hartosh Singh Bal’s article for Open magazine and Mukul Sharma’s piece in Kafila.) Hazare is popularly described as Gandhian, but, as Bal points out, if the forced vasectomies are anything to go by, he brings Sanjay Gandhi to mind more than Mahatma Gandhi. Sure, he is fighting against corruption, but both his method (of blackmail via the hunger fast) and his remedy (creating an alternative center of power and discretion instead of tackling the root causes of corruption) are dubious. Then why has middle-class India turned him into such a hero?

I believe it is because we are lazy. It is true that we are disgusted by corruption. We are sick of reading about the telecom scandal, the Radia tapes, the Commonwealth games. More than that, corruption has become a virus that plagues our everyday lives, and we’re appalled by it. But we’re too damn lazy to go out and vote and actually participate in our democracy. We’re apathetic, and believe, perhaps correctly, that our feeble middle-class vote won’t make a difference. And yet, we want to express our disgust at the way things are, take the moral high ground, and feel like we really are doing something, because hey, that helps our self esteem. Then along comes this venerable activist who wears khadi, lives a spartan life, speaks out against corruption in high places, and goes on a hunger strike to influence the implentation of a bill that aims to tackle corruption. Naturally, we make him the repository of our hopes and our values, speak out in his defence at parties and cafes while hanging out with friends, and even light candles in his support. And there, our job as citizens is done.

The intellectual laziness here is obvious. We make him our hero though we know little else about him, and when his weird history comes to light, we rationalise it away. We ignore the fact that the Lokpal Bill, which he is fighting for, does nothing to tackle the root causes of corruption, and might actually be a step in the wrong direction. We treat attacks on our new hero—if the behaviour of some of his defenders on TV is anything to go by—as personal attacks on us. We start dealing in absolutes, as if anyone against Hazare must, by default, be a supporter of corruption and the status quo.

The Anna Hazare phenomenon is what one could term the Rorschach Effect in Politics. A couple of years ago, Barack Obama wisely pointed out, “I am like a Rorschach test.” During his presidential campaign, his supporters saw in him whatever they wanted to: an anti-Bush, a liberal messiah, a pragmatic and non-partisan moderate, and suchlike, some of it without any evidence, some of it contradictory. (Similarly, his opponents projected their fears or fantasies onto him.) Needless to say, when he did come to power, he disappointed many who had voted for him, because hey, he couldn’t possibly live up to being everything to everybody. (For example, lefty pacifists were disappointed that he stepped up the war in Afghanistan, even though that’s exactly what he said he’d do while campaigning.) He was a blank slate no more.

Hazare is a similar beneficiary of the Rorschach Effect. Although he has been an activist for decades, he’s exploded into the national consciousness in just the last few weeks. And a politically powerless middle class has projected its hopes, its self-righteousness and its sense of moral superiority onto him. But Hazare is no Mahatma Gandhi, and I think disillusionment, both with the man and the Lokpal Bill, is bound to set in sooner or later. Unless indifference and apathy precede it.

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Another of Rorschach’s children is Rahul Gandhi. He’s been hailed as a youth icon and the face of new India, and Page 3 celebs routinely describe him as one of their favourite politicians. But apart from the fact that he’s good looking and belongs to the Nehru-Gandhi family, we know very little about him. What are the values that he stands for? What are his views on economic freedom and the license raj? What are his views on freedom of speech? (If he supports it, is he then in favour of repealing the ban on Satanic Verses?) What does he feel about reservations? (He has spoken out against the caste system, and reservations do, after all, perpetuate discrimination on the basis of caste.) He has spoken out for inner-party democracy, which India needs so badly, but is he doing anything to drive the Congress towards a system where party leaders are elected from below, not anointed from above? Does he hope to be prime minister one day? If so, why? What kind of a person is he, really?

Gandhi is as blank a slate as you can get, in the sense that he won’t address any of these issues, and most of the public pronouncements we hear from him are platitudes that express good intention, which is meaningless. If that is a deliberate political strategy, it is masterful. Whether it will work, in this age of identity politics when votebanks are fragmented and all politics is local, is uncertain. But I guarantee you one thing: he’ll have middle-class support.

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My column today is meant to address the nature of middle-class support for Anna Hazare, not the folly of it,  but if you’re interested in checking out some of the arguments against it, do read these pieces by me, Mohit Satyanand, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Salil Tripathi. A common response to these has been: At least Hazare is doing something; what solution do you offer?

My response to that is that firstly, as the pieces above argue, the solution he is offering could actually make the problem worse, and are a step in the wrong direction. That is reason enough to oppose it without needing to propose an alternative. Secondly, the alternative is obvious: if we are to tackle the root cause of corruption, then we should campaign against excess government power and discretion, starting with any particular domain that grabs our fancy. That said, I don’t think I’ll see Anna Hazare go on hunger strike anytime soon protesting against the license-and-permit raj or all the redundant rent-seeking ministries in government. And while I will continue writing about these issues, as I have for years in the only form of protest most writers are capable of, I will not be going on a hunger strike anytime soon. Why risk acidity?

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder

Where Anna Hazare Gets It Wrong

This is the 31st installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, which resumes this week. It was published on April 14.

Today’s column begins with a fashion update: A ribbed, silk green gown from Vivienne Westwood’s spring/summer 2010 collection has been selected as Fashion Museum’s Dress of the Year. Androgyny has become the latest trend on the catwalks. In India, The Times of India, who should know, informs us that “yellows are in.” And oh, have you heard about Anna Hazare? He’s quite the flavour of the month.

Yes, that’s right, I’m an Anna Hazare cynic. I understand that like Yuvraj Singh, he’s in the zone right now. I get it that he stands for the battle against corruption, one of India’s gravest problems. But I’m amused that most people supporting him haven’t read and understood the draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which Hazare has been fighting for. I’m appalled that they don’t understand that this bill does nothing to fight the root causes of corruption, and may instead add to the problem. And yes, I’d be astounded if they care about this bill or the man two weeks from now, when the fashion would have changed, yellows would be out, and purples would be, like, so in.

That corruption is one of the biggest problems India faces is a banal truism. But where we go wrong in thinking about it is that we treat it like a disease, when it is really a symptom. Corruption arises from power. When people have power over our lives, they will misuse it: that is inherent in human nature. When you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including “a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms”, there is a recipe for corruption right there. When every government servant you encounter while doing some routine work, from a driver to a peon, can delay you or derail you, corruption is inevitable.

Corruption is inevitable in India because the government has too much power. If a hotelier did not need 165 licenses—and there is no reason why he should need any—that would be 165 bribes less to pay. (I’m assuming one bribe per license, which is honestly quite optimistic.) If our mai-baap sarkars did not have control over so many elements of our lives, there would be less scope for chai-paani. In practically every area of our lives, there is government interference or oversight, either overt or covert. And, to repeat that old cliche one more time because it is both pithy and true, power corrupts. That’s just human nature.

So what is the solution to corruption then? Since the problem lies with power, you need to tackle that first. You need to, first of all, question the many ways in which the government controls our lives. Completely dismantling the license-and-inspector raj is one way to do. Scrapping every ministry that has no reason to exist, at both the central and state level, would be another. (We’d be left with just three or four of them.) Governments should exist to implement law and order, to protect our rights, and to provide basic services—nothing else. The more we move towards this ideal, the closer we come to rooting out corruption.

Obviously these specific goals are high-hanging fruit. Those in power will never willingly give up any piece of it. But an equal part of the problem is our default attitude that our government exists to rule us and not serve us. This must change. Equally, we seem to believe that the solution to bad government is more government. This is exactly the opposite of the truth, and broadly the mistake that Anna Hazare is making.

The Lokpal Bill does not tackle any of the root causes of corruption. Instead, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it in his wonderful critique, the bill amounts to “an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power.” In other words, in a situation where the problem is power, we create an entity that has even more power and, what is more, has appointed officials instead of elected ones. As Shuddhabrata Sengupta writes, this is not “the deepening, but ... the profound erosion of democracy.”

I’m not as skeptical of Hazare as my friend Manu Joseph is—I think Gaurav Sabnis’s view is more balanced. I’m sure the man is well-intentioned, and has achieved much in the past. But he is fighting for the wrong thing here. You do not cure a diabetic man by feeding him sweets; equally, you cannot root our corruption by creating more centres of power.

I must admit, though, that Vivienne Westwood makes some funky dresses.

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I’m always amused to see how a worthy cause acts like Red Bull to our chatteratti. From the meaningless, feel-good candlelight vigils after 26/11, to countless self-righteous online petitions about this and that, to support for Anna Hazare, the new middle-class icon. (Who woulda thunk?) Why, I even heard about a movement on Twitter that was trying to get everyone to fast for one day in solidarity with Hazare. One day! How far we have come: from “fast unto death” to “fast until midnight.” This is progress, India.

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Speaking of androgyny being in fashion, it strikes me that most foreigners, when they hear his name, must think Anna Hazare is a woman. I would so love to see a desi Lady Gaga clone on MTV soon, calling herself Anna Hazare. She’d have to be really thin, of course, because not only is that fashionable, she’s been fasting. I have the title of her first single already “Would you like to be my lokpal, baybeh?” I can see her in my mind’s eye, and lemme tell you, it’s corrupting me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder

Chaddi Flexibility

This has to be the quote of the day:

We are not rigid on the half pants.

Quick, without clicking through, guess the context!

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2011 in India | News | Politics | WTF

It’s Only Words

This is the 29th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 18.

The world is so insane that it is a wonder satirists have a job. I read recently in Hindustan Times—yes, HT, not an Indian version of The Onion—that the makers of Golmaal 3 have been sued by The Indian Stammering Association “for mocking people who stammer.” Shreyas Talpade stammers in the film, and the other characters reportedly keep making fun of him. (I haven’t seen the film.) So this organisation of stammerers is upset about it, and they’re going to court. So far, an association of mute people hasn’t surfaced to join in the revelry—Tusshar Kapoor plays a mute character in the film, and ends up landing the heroine, which does not surprise me: which woman can resist a man who just shuts up and listens?

Seriously, are we a society of eight-year-olds? Even if the explicit intent of the film was to make fun of people who stammer—and it obviously wasn’t—so what? Such mockery always reflects badly on those doing the mocking, not on those being mocked. Why be so sensitive to criticism and mockery (or even abuse)? How insecure do we have to be to let mere words affect us so much?

A few months ago, a salesman from an finance company called me a couple of times to try and sell me an insurance package. I was irritable that day, and the second time I said something to the effect of “... and don’t f***in’ call me again!” before hanging up. 30 seconds later, the phone rings. It’s the same guy, demanding to know “Why you call me f***er? WHY YOU USE BAD LANGUAGE?” I lost it this time, and unleashed a string of pejoratives at the fellow. I hung up again, he called me again. Though I did not answer any more of his calls, he called me about 35 times in the next two days, and his number is still saved in my mobile phonebook as ‘Birla Sunlife Troll.’

Why did it matter so much to him that a random stranger called him X and Y? He screwed up his peace of mind, agitated over it for a couple of days, and it is likely that it affected his interactions with other people around him as well, besides endangering his job. It was irrational—but we are an emotional species more than a rational one, so it is understandable that one gets upset about it, even though being called a ‘bastard’ or a ‘bhainchod’ does not literally make one a bastard or a bhainchod—and hell, we don’t even know what ‘chootiya’ means. But while being upset at abuse or mockery is understandable, what is bizarre is that we expect the legal system, like a school teacher in a yard full of unruly schoolkids, to take over and punish the bad boys. What is even more bizarre is that our legal system actually has provisions for this.

I’ve written before about how certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code make it a crime to give offence in certain contexts, and how the Indian constitution does not provide adequate protection to free speech. All that is a shame, and an example of what’s wrong with our legal system. But there is also something wrong with us, that so many of us take offence so easily at something we could so easily ignore. It speaks of low self-esteem and diffidence, the very qualities that a stammering association should be trying to eradicate in its members. That makes this court case especially ironical, doesn’t it?

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My respect always goes up for people who show they can laugh at themselves. The sardar who tells sardar jokes, the fat guy who jokes about his paunch, the poker player who mocks his own poor plays, these are my kind of people. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they get that we are a bumbling, imperfect species doomed, biologically, to self-destruct—so some things are just not worth getting het up about. The biggest human failing is that we take ourselves too damn seriously. When we do that, the universe laughs at us.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 December, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder

No, We Can’t

This is the 28th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 11.

Barack Obama’s visit to India has made him such a huge celebrity here that it’s a wonder he hasn’t yet been asked to appear on Bigg Boss. I can imagine the housemates being given a task: ‘The President is coming, prepare for the president’s visit.’ So they get all set to greet Obama: Veena Malik puts on her best make up and pouts in front of the mirror, Dolly Bindra personally supervises the making of special gaajar ka halwa with secret ingredients, Ashmit Patel and Hrishant Goswami trim their eyebrows again, Shweta Tiwari puts on a finely-tailored, figure-hugging anarkali churidar kurta, and choreographs a dance for herself, Manoj Tiwari composes and practises a Bhojpuri song written specially for the occasion, Mahabali Khali practises punching through walls to impress the president, Sara Khan decides that she will try and call Obama ‘Pops’ so as to cuddle up to him, and they all line up in the garden as the moment nears. The gates swing open. Pratibha Patil walks in.

Okay, this is unlikely to happen—as unlikely as our country is to ever throw up a politician quite like Obama. A few months ago I was invited for a television talk show to discuss “Who is India’s Obama?” I couldn’t participate because I was busy at the time, but I found the question ridiculous. For a political figure like Obama to rise in India would be as unusual as growing palm trees in a snowfield. India’s political system would never allow someone like Obama to rise, and would disincentivise entry in the first place.

Consider how Obama climbed the ladder in politics. He wasn’t from a privileged background or a political family: he worked as a community organiser in Chicago in the 1980s, and then graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review for a while. He worked as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School for a few years, and wrote an acclaimed memoir. Given that background, you’d have expected him to stay in academics and write more books, maybe even winning a Pulitizer along the way. (He’s a very fine writer.) But he saw a different calling for himself.

It might have been idealism that motivated him to join politics, but he also possessed the pragmatic street-smartness without which you can’t rise in that profession. He networked superbly in the local political scene and built a base for himself. (Interestingly, poker was a part of his tactical mix, as James McManus points out in this article in the New Yorker. For more on the role poker has played in American public life, I strongly recommend you read McManus’s magisterial history of poker in America, Cowboys Full.) But Obama’s rapid ascent in national politics was not a result of backroom wheeling-and-dealing, but of the power of ideas. He came on the national scene when America, tired of the Iraq war and the growing partisanship in politics, was ready for a change. Obama, a thinker of much nuance, was also a speaker of great clarity and eloquence, and galvanized a nation with his words alone. Despite being criticized for his lack of managerial experience, he also ran perhaps the greatest political campaign in American history.

Now, can you imagine a similar career graph for a politician in India today? America is the most meritocratic of all countries, and their politics is truly democratic, which is why they have an incumbent president whom pretty much no one outside his city had heard of just ten years ago. India, on the other hand, as I have written before, has a feudal political system, and none of our parties are internally democratic in the true sense of the term. All our promising young politicians are scions of political families who have been handed an inheritance. The time is past when someone like Obama could emerge on the scene from nowhere and rise to the very top in Indian politics through the force of his ideas. An Indian Obama would be a professor at a business school, a top manager in a multinational company, an acclaimed writer with a modest income—or he would simply have gone abroad, where the opportunities are far greater.

Obama’s visit hasn’t prompted any self-reflection in our political elite or our media, though. We gush over him, we get orgasms when he praises India or disses Pakistan, but we don’t think a little harder and realise that what Obama says about India not being an emerging nation any more is just sweet talk. We are still a backward, emerging nation, and this is amply reflected in the poverty of our political landscape, where Ashok Chavan and Suresh Kalmadi stand for the quintessential, typical Indian politician. Can India produce an Obama in this kind of system? No, we can’t.

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Needless to say, my admiration for Obama doesn’t necessarily translate to support for his policies. While it’s heartening to see a politician who doesn’t speak in platitudes and is capable of intellectual depth, Obama inherited an enormously difficult set of circumstances, and I find aspects of his approach to the economy somewhat dubious. (Indeed, when it comes to expanding the role of government in America, there isn’t much difference between GWB and BHO.) That said, even Lincoln and Roosevelt, it could be argued, were not confronted with two problems quite as complex as this economic crisis or as nebulous as the war on terror. But that’s a subject for another day.

*  *  *  *

Speaking of young politicians, check out England. Their prime minister, David Cameron, is 44 years old. His deputy prime minsiter, Nick Clegg, is 43. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (their equivalent of a finance minister) is the 39-year-old George Osborne. The leader of the opposition (and of the Labour Party) is Ed Miliband, who turns 41 this December. In contrast, Indian politicians in their 50s are often described as “young and upcoming”. It’s crazy—but perhaps a dysfunctional system deserves senile or our-of-date leaders. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder

Traffic Lights and Potholes

This is the 27th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 4.

It’s absolutely freaky, the shit that happens in the USA. A few days ago, my friend (and renowned former blogger)  Manish Vij lodged the following complaint online about a traffic signal (reproduced with permission; I’ve changed road and city names):

“The traffic signal on [AB-CD] Rd. at [XY] Dr. needs to be adjusted for traffic at night. The last five nights, the signal for through traffic on [AB-CD] has been red for up to 2 minutes when I’ve hit the signal between 1 and 4 am. It’s especially odd because [XY] is a small street which T intersections into [AB-CD], and even during the day rarely has more than a handful of cars turning left onto [AB-CD].”

Within two hours—yes, two hours—he got the following reply in his email inbox:

“Hi Manish,

The signalized intersection at [AB-CD] Rd. and [XY] Dr. is on a recall timing because of the recent construction of the new ramps some of the traffic detector loops have been cut. We have scheduled them to be replaced soon after the ramps at the intersection are all complete.

Thank you,

[Name here], P.E.

Associate Engineer

City of [AB] - Public Works”

In other words, he made a complaint to the local government, as a common citizen, without going through any contacts or other such loops, and actually got a reply the same day. That’s just crazy. Can you imagine that happening in, say, Mumbai? If a local traffic signal is malfunctioning, or neighbourhood garbage isn’t being cleared as regularly as it should, or the road outside my house is full of potholes, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue about where to go to complain. And if I did know where to go, I wouldn’t bother wasting my time for something that is merely a minor irritant for me, because I know that my government does not consider itself accountable to me. And there is not a damn thing I can do about it.

(On a tangent, if I did complain about potholed roads, I would be laughed out of whichever decrepit government building I lodged my complaint in. Everyone knows why Indian roads have potholes: so that they can be repaired, which means more commissions and kickbacks for everyone concerned. The government servants who look after our roads are incentivised, in a system where corruption is the norm, to build (or repair) roads badly so that they need to be repaired again soon. Rinse and repeat. For the common man, the roads are the point; for our government, the potholes are the point. The roads are merely the means to an end: the destination is the potholes.

Okay, end of bizarre parenthetical roads rant.)

What causes local governance to be so inept here when compared to the US? Well, firstly, it’s the incentives within our system of government. Our government is top-down and centralized. For example, it’s Sonia Gandhi in Delhi who will decide who becomes chief minister of Maharashtra, not local party workers driven by local concerns, and accountable directly to us. In an ideal system, government would be local at its core, like the Panchayati Raj kind of model, where we elect our local officials based on our immediate concerns, and their incentives are aligned towards servings us well—a sentiment that then travels upwards. But, as I wrote in an earlier column, ‘Politics and Inheritance’  there’s no inner-party democracy in India, and no local accountability (though tools like the RTI are a big step forward.) Our parties are effectively competing mafias. Consider the recent Adarsh Society scam, where a chief minister was found to have dubious dealings, and the party is still hunting around for a clean replacement. Well, here’s stating the obvious: There isn’t one. Politics in India is inherently dirty business, and you can’t rise to the top here without playing by the rules of that game.

The biggest cause for the state of governance in India, though, is our own attitudes. After I wrote in my last column that our governments believe they exist to rule the people, not serve them, my friend Vinay Suchede wrote in to elaborate: “Something that has irked me is the media itself uses phrases such as ‘Cong rule, BJP rule, Cong-ruled state, BJP-ruled state etc’. It promotes the notion that we are subjects and that we are ruled.” That’s a good observation, and illustrates that despite our managing to be rid of the British empire in 1947, we’re still not quite independent. We still have rulers, we still have royalty, and as long as we do, we will have potholes on our roads, garbage on our streets, and problematic traffic lights. And those are the least of our problems.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder

Politics and Inheritance

This is the 25th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 21.

One of the defining images of Indian politics of recent times came a few days ago in Mumbai when Aditya Thackeray stood on a stage at a Shiv Sena rally, drew a sword out of its sheath, and held it aloft. He had just been handed his inheritance—not the sword, but a political party. His grandfather Balasaheb Thackeray had just launched him in politics, and told the world that the Shiv Sena would now belong to him. (Not in so many words, of course: he asked SS supporters to ‘bless’ the young man.) And thus, a political party in the world’s largest democracy was handed over.

With a couple of exceptions, this is the fate of almost all Indian political parties. They are feudal and are run by dominant families like family-owned firms—which some might consider apt because the business of democracy is, after all, a business. The Congress is owned by the Gandhis: Rahul is almost uniformly considered to be a future prime minister, and most of their young leaders are themselves children of prominent politicians (there is no other way to get to the top on your own steam). But even here, there is a heirarchy, which is why there is no way Jyotiraditya Scindia or Sachin Pilot or Milind Deora is considered a future PM the way Rahul Gandhi is, because, like a kind of caste system, the heirarchy of families within the party percolates through generations.

Most regional parties are also like this. In Tamil Nadu, it is understood that after M Karunanidhi passes on, the DMK will pass on to one of his children. In Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy reacted with shock and horror when the state Congress wasn’t handed over to him after the death of his dad, the former chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. (It was like his dad died and suddenly some random stranger started living in his family home.) From Mulayam to Akhilesh, Narayan to Nitesh, Jaswant to Manvendra, Indian politics is one long family soap, with plenty of drama and predictable outcomes. (Indeed, think of the Congress as a saas-bahu saga, and there you have it, the last 45 years.)

I don’t have an issue with politicians’ children taking up their parent’s profession. Anyone should be free to enter politics, and the kids of a politician would have such an early and constant exposure to that world that their interest in it is quite natural. (Besides, power is intoxicating and addictive, a factor that would not feature in most other professions.) My issue, rather, is with the way our parties are structured: despite being players in a democracy, none of them are democratic themselves.

A political party should ideally be a democracy within a democracy. In the US, if you want to run for election as a Democrat or Republican, you first have to win primaries within the party. Even if you are from a royal family of politics, you need to get out in the political marketplace and convince the members of your party that you have what it takes. You need to be clear about where you’re coming from ideologically; you need to discuss policies in concrete terms; you are under public scrutiny, held accountable for your words. Even George W Bush and Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy weren’t handed their party on a platter: they had to go out and get the votes.

Well, over here, parties don’t have primaries, and are run by insiders in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Rahul Gandhi or MK Azhagiri or Uddhav (or Aditya) Thackeray do not have to campaign for votes within their parties and win party primaries—they are anointed, not elected. By saying this, I am not knocking them, but the systems they have inherited. Politics should find its expression from the grassroots up, but instead we have top-down politics, with all our parties—and therefore every government—believing that it exists to rule the people, not to serve them. Political parties, for all practical purposes, are competing mafias, battling for the spoils of power and the right to take hafta in a particular neighbourhood. The Thackerays are not all that different from the Corleones.

*  *  *  *

To his credit, Rahul Gandhi has made the right noises, spurning positions in government even as he speaks of introducing inner-party democracy in the Congress. His mother had also chosen to relinquish the prime minister’s seat, and for that, they have my respect, and the benefit of the doubt. But here’s the thing: despite his being such a prominent politician, a probable future PM, we know next to nothing about what Rahul believes in or stands for. What are his views on economic reform? What does he feel about greater fedaralism and smaller states and more local self-governance? What are his recipes to tackle the many ills that ail our society, from poverty to corruption to (the lack of) universal education? What does he think is the most likely practical solution to the Kashmir problem?  In the US, he would have to spell all this out in some detail, in TV debates and otherwise. Here, barring a few bromides and soundbytes, he has offered little.

How odd it is that in this political marketplace, we, the consumers, know so little about the products and brands we have to choose from. To a large extent, the fault is ours. We need to be more demanding of the people who take and squander our taxes. But our daily lives have enough to occupy us, and apathy comes easy. Isn’t that so?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder

Such a Wrong Journey

This is the 24th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 14.

You have to feel sorry for poor Rohinton Mistry. A few years ago he cancelled a book tour in the US because on its first leg, “as a person of colour he was stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way - to the point where the humiliation of both he and his wife [became] unbearable.” This was in the aftermath of 9/11, with racial profiling in full swing and Mistry, brown and bearded, having the wrong kind of looks. Still, he could have consoled himself with the thought that the US isn’t where he’s from, and he would never be treated that way in Canada, where he lives, or in Mumbai, where he was born. Right?

Ah well. While Mistry in person hasn’t been harrassed, his Booker-nominated book, Such a Long Journey, was recently withdrawn from the Mumbai University syllabus because of a protest spearheaded by Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of Bal Thackeray. Thackeray Jr., who is being launched in politics as the head of the Yuva Sena, a youth wing of the Shiv Sena, reportedly instigated the student wing of the party, the Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena, to launch a protest against the book. The reason, according to the BVS chief, was that the book “uses extremely obscene and vulgar language in its text and also makes anti-Sena remarks.” The university’s vice-chancellor, presumably not wishing to be beaten up by Shiv Sena thugs, duly took it off the syllabus.

Thackeray Jr. justified his decision in an interview to Mid Day saying, “It is a question of people’s sentiment and India is a very sensitive country. There is a man (Balasaheb Thackeray) who has millions of followers and the author insults him purely on the basis of his own opinion and not the facts. That is where the problem lies.” Watch the video of the full interview on that page, it’s fairly amusing—and also quite scary. When Thackeray says, “You can’t just abuse someone,” it’s not just the immature voicing-off of a random 20 year-old kid, but a portent for the future, from the inheritor of a political party that uses intimidation and thuggery as its political weapons of choice. True, it is not the only party doing so—but it is the primary party responsible for what my friend Salil Tripathi, in an excellent column published today in Mint, calls “Bombay’s decline into Mumbai.” This is what we are becoming, and these are the people who will take us there.

*  *  *  *

The Sena does not have a monopoly on intolerance: instead, it is actually written into our laws, and in our constitution, neither of which respect free speech. (I’ve been writing about this for years, for example in my old piece, ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) The Indian Penal Code, framed by the British in colonial times, contains a number of laws that make giving offence a crime, and throttle free speech. For example, there’s Section 295 (a), which makes it a non-bailable offence to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” There’s Section 153 (a), which seeks to punish “any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”. There’s Section 124 (a), which prescribes life imprisonment for anyone who “by words or expression of any kind brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government”—something that any critic of any government could be accused of.

The constitution, framed not by the British but by the freedom fighters who got us independence, cops out when it comes to free speech. While Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) lays out “reasonable restrictions” such as when it applies to matters such as “public order” and “decency or morality”, matters which are, of course, open to interpretation. I’d love it if we had something like the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which contains no such caveats—but sadly, we don’t.

Adults should not run around complaining about the words of others. Even in school, the kid who ran to the teacher demanding that the boy who called him a monkey should be punished was laughed upon by everyone. But in our public life, it has somehow become quite okay to complain that someone who has offended you should be punished. If giving offence is a crime, then free speech is impossible, because anything you say can potentially offend someone or the other. And people who take offence so seriously are demeaning both themselves and the entities on behalf of which they are getting offended.

If Bal Thackeray is indeed such a great figure, then why should the words of one Rohinton Mistry bother him? Are any of our religions so fragile that they need to be protected from the criticism of mere humans? God, if He existed, would no doubt be exasperated by the things humans do on His behalf. “Am I so powerless?” I can imagine him asking. “Am I so petty? Jeez, you humans suck. Stop this videogame already.”

My fellow Yahoo! columnist Nitin Pai coined a term a few years ago that I find very apt: Competitive Intolerance. It’s become a rising trend in politics in recent years, especially in Mumbai, where the Shiv Sena and the MNS, with their warring Thackerays, are constantly finding grievances to complain about. These have nothing to do with the state of public services or infrasructure or poverty or any of the urgent issues that should concern us all, but silly things like mere words in a book. Like, really, come on.

*  *  *  *

It, of course, remains a lasting matter of shame that India, the world’s largest democracy, was the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses. Until that ban is reversed, do not tell me that India is a free country. We accomplished part of the job in 1947—but much remains to be done, in so many different areas. Sadly, most people don’t care. Do you?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder

The Cockroach Party of India (Marxist)

Mamata Banerjee is a riot. But her allegations are borderline plausible. Tells you a lot about the CPI(M), eh?

(Via @geetharamc.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 July, 2010 in India | News | Politics | WTF

Anticipating Schadenfreude

At least the guy is being honest. Where do you get that in Politics?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 July, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Sport | WTF

Beware of the Cronies

This is the ninth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

In 1944 a group of seven businessmen, including JRD Tata, GD Birla and Kasturbhai Lalbhai, came together to produce a document titled A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India. As the name indicates, it outlined an economic vision for soon-to-be-independent India. It envisioned a mixed economy with strong government intervention in markets, a huge public sector, and much protectionism so that Indian companies would be sheltered from foreign competition. Jawaharlal Nehru’s eventual economic policy would be on the lines of what this document laid out, and one of its authors, John Mathai, was even a finance minister in Nehru’s government. Because ‘A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India’ is a most unfunky name, the document eventually came to be called The Bombay Plan. (Just as Hindus may be offended at their religion being associated, in name only, with the Hindu Rate of Growth, I am not too happy about that document being named after my beloved city. Ah, well.)

In his fine book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha cites the Bombay Plan as an example of the support Nehru’s Fabian Socialism got from industrialists of the day, and writes, “One wonders what free-market pundits would make of it now.” At a colloquium of classical liberals I attended a few days ago in Bangalore, one attendee wondered why more industrialists in present-day India don’t speak up for economic freedom. The answer to this is simple: big business is as much the enemy of free markets as big government is.

The cornerstone of free markets, competition, is great for consumers, as it delivers better-quality products and services at lower prices. But it is terrible for established businesses, which are constantly under pressure to keep prices low and salaries high, and may be wiped out by more innovative and efficient competitors. There’s nothing they’d like more than high entry barriers in their industry, so that their place is secure. Thus, to expect the established industrialists of the 1940s to support free markets would be naive: economic freedom is actually against the interests of big business. The journalist Seetha Parthasarathy pointed out at the colloquium I attended last week that the Swatantra Party, which spoke up so ardently for free markets in the 1950s and ‘60s, hardly got any funding from businessmen and industrialists of the day. That makes perfect sense: they would have felt threatened by it.

This is why it irritates me no end when critics of free markets point to the evils of big business as a repudiation of our principles. The truth is that a libertarian or classical liberal is as wary of big business as a socialist is. Indeed, now that communism is dead, one of the greatest threats to freedom everywhere is not socialism, but crony capitalism. To look after the interests of the common man, we must beware of the cronies.

*  *  *  *

Death, taxes and crony capitalism are inevitable. When I am in a pessimistic mood, generally after a bad meal or a spell of television surfing, I lose hope that we will ever have economic freedom. Free markets, indeed, seem slightly utopian. After all, we don’t live in an economy that is a blank slate. We live in times of big government. Big governments only get bigger, not smaller. (This is true even in the West, when the size of government expanded even under fiscal conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.) It is not in the interest of those who run governments to curtail their power or the money available to them. (Like, duh.) It is a beast that keeps on growing, and feeding on us.

Power and money always go together. The more power government has, the more it can subvert markets, the more big business runs to it, with big money, to safeguard its own interests. Crony capitalism is inevitable. Big government is one ass cheek, big business is another, and together they’re shitting on capitalism.

*  *  *  *

What about the recent financial crisis in the US? The notion that it illustrates the inadequacy of free markets is a simplistic one, like most narratives generated by the media. The crisis came about because of a melange of complex factors, and we’ll be debating the respective merits of those for decades. There is no shortage of actors to blame. The low interest rates of the Fed in the early 2000s played a key role. (It amuses me when Alan Greenspan is sometimes described as a libertarian. Whatever his youthful infatuations may have been, the chairman of a central bank can no more be a libertarian than General Dyer was a freedom fighter.) Defenders of free markets will also point to the Community Reinvestment Act, and the role played by Fannie and Freddie, both quasi-government entities. But it is true that there were structural issues with the way markets themselves functioned at the time.

Short-term incentives in the finance industry weren’t aligned with long-term interests. If you worked in Lehman Brothers, and had to choose between chasing massive short-term profits (with the consequent bonuses for yourself) that carried a long-term risk to your company, and a prudence that would put you out of step with your peers, for absolutely no benefit to you and the risk of losing your job, what would you do? C’mon, it’s human nature. As Chuck Prince famously said, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

How does capitalism deal with this? Simple: when companies screw up, their bottomline gets affected, and sometimes they go bust. The learning percolates through the markets, and the incentives change for future players. The problem here is that when the long-term consequences of their short-term behaviour hit the finance industry, the government stepped in. Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bust, but others were bailed out on the grounds that they were ‘too big to fail’, and that their failure threatened the entire economy. (Was this really so? We’ll never know. We’ll just have to take their word for it.) The result: Moral Hazard. The sort of short-term risk-taking that led to the crisis wasn’t punished, and the incentives haven’t changed. On the contrary, the financial whizkids out there will now be further emboldened to keep taking wild risks, secure in the knowledge that when things go bad, the government will bail them out.

What would you call this? Free markets? I don’t think so.

*  *  *  *

Until 1991, capitalism in India was crony capitalism. The license raj ensured that the markets were a tijori and the government held the key. All big industrialists had liaison offices in Delhi whose job was to deliver adequate chai-paani to government officials in exchange for licenses and other favours. Money chased power; power sought money.

The liberalisation of 1991 didn’t really change much. Firstly, it was a limited liberalisation, and most markets in India remain unfree. Secondly, the government still retains enormous power. As this paper (pdf link) points out, crony capitalism continues to thrive in India. R Jagannathan wrote in DNA last year: “In his current avatar as PM, Manmohan Singh, architect of the initial reforms involving delicensing, deregulation and downsizing, has presided over the largest expansion of government spending in living memory. In the current fiscal year (2009-10), government will borrow more than Rs 400,000 crore (probably Rs 500,000 crore, if you consider off-budget items like oil bonds), a figure that’s larger than the entire central expenditure for 2004-05, the first year of the UPA. Large government is invariably accompanied by crony capitalism. Reason: when government spends more, private companies do more business with it.”

And here’s an excerpt from a speech Manmohan gave in 2007: “Are we encouraging crony capitalism? Is this a necessary but transient phase in the development of modern capitalism in our country? Are we doing enough to protect consumers and small businesses from the consequences of crony capitalism? [...] Do we have a genuine level playing field for all businesses? What should be done to inject a greater degree of competitiveness in the industrial sector?”

One has to wonder, why on earth was he asking those questions? He’s the prime minister, no?

*  *  *  *

So should I be pessimistic? Naysayers of free markets argue that they’re a utopian construct, and that a perfect free market, with a government that limits its role to administering the rule of law and enforcing contracts, does not exist anywhere. Perhaps. But here’s the thing: perfect good health is also a utopian construct, and there is no one in the world who is perfectly healthy. And yet, it is something to aspire to, and as individuals, we’re constantly trying (or should be trying) to get as close to it as possible. (Just don’t ask me what I had for dinner last night.) Similarly, it is my contention that free markets are the surest route to prosperity, and we should keep fighting to make our markets as free as possible. We, the people, the consumers, are the biggest beneficiaries of this. Not the fat-ass businessmen, in bed with the sleazy politicians, who just want to milk us dry. As long as we are aware of this, there is hope—for we do live in a democracy, don’t we?

*  *  *  *

Further reading: I’d written a column on this subject a couple of years earlier: ‘Arpita and the Bombay Plan’.

My column last week was on a related subject: Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

Also, here’s a superb debate on Cato Unbound: ‘When Corporations Hate Markets’.

Previously on Viewfinder

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Postscript:  My thanks to Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Mana Shah, Raj Cherubal, Sumeet Kulkarni, Deepak Shenoy, Vikramjit Banerjee, Parth Shah, Seetha, Arun Simha, Sunil Laxman and Devangshu Datta for their part in discussions that helped me refine my views on this subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2010 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

This is the eighth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

Earlier this week, I spent two days at a fascinating colloquium on Indian liberalism in the outskirts of Bangalore. At night we slept in airconditioned tents, and in the day, gathered in a conference room and discussed weighty matters like the definition, relevance and scope of Indian liberalism. I was awed by the intellectual firepower that I was privileged to be in the company of—but, at the same time, there hung in the air a whiff of the same kind of dissonance that the airconditioned tents evoked.

To begin with, what is ‘Indian liberalism’? The term ‘liberal’ has been so debased and so variedly used as to have practically no meaning left in it. I consider myself a classical liberal, believing in individual freedom, negative rights and a free society, which is how liberals in continental Europe would see themselves. Yet, in the US, the term means practically the opposite, as American liberals, from the Left, are opposed to free markets, which makes their appropriation of the term oxymoronic. (Some of my friends would remove the ‘oxy’ from that judgment.)

In India, the term is used in a woolly way, and one can never quite be sure what it’s meant to mean. Ramachandra Guha, in his essay ‘The Absent Liberal’, referred to PC Mahalanobis as a liberal, and in a talk he gave us before the conference, to Jawaharlal Nehru as one. Labelling people is a complex matter, especially when they are politicians and contain multitudes of multitudes, and such a label is often both true and false, depending on perspective, as with Nehru. (His institution building and commitment to democracy and secularism mark him out as a great liberal; his economic policies, which so ravaged India, do not.)

Almost all of us at the conference were classical liberals, at siege in a world where the values we believe in have either not been accepted or are being questioned. The broad theme of the conference was how to spread liberal ideas, and the task seems hard for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the classic truths of liberalism are all counter-intuitive, such as the non-zero-sumness involved in progress, the concept of spontaneous order, and the fallibility of all human beings—the last especially important in the context of the blind faith we have in government, which is always a collection of flawed human beings, often with perverse incentives.

Secondly, economic liberalism is under increasing attack from people who point to the economic crisis in the US as a failure of free markets, or wonder why India has so many inequalities despite being supposedly liberalized. These kind of attacks deserve a serious and respectful response, but I don’t see much of that in the media around me. In next week’s column, I will attempt a partial response, and share my views on why neither the financial crisis nor India’s inequalities represent a failure of free markets. But for now, let’s get back to the subject of the colloquium, and this column: how can we spread classical liberal ideas in India?

Some of my fellow participants referred to the Swatantra Party, and were exploring whether a classical liberal party of that sort could build a following in the politics. More power to those who try, though I believe that such a political party is a pipe dream, and a waste of time. (I didn’t always hold this view.) A political party might start out liberal, but the many necessary compromises of politics will soon dilute any ideological stance it takes, till it ends up indistinguishable from the parties around it, slave to the imperatives of the political marketplace, where niches are formed more on the basis of identity than ideology.

Instead, I think classical liberals need to ask themselves the question, Why are we liberals? For me, the answer is not just that liberalism gives me an intellectual framework with which I can make sense of the world, but also that I believe that it has solutions to most of the political and economic problems that the world, and modern India, faces: from farmer suicides in Vidarbha to rising prices to deepening inequality. If this is the case, and my liberalism follows from the practical utility that it provides, then what I need to promote is not liberalism itself, but these immediate solutions to the urgent, pressing problems of our times, whose merit lies not in their being liberal but in their being both right and practical. Then I can avoid labels and focus purely on solving real-world problems with all the real-world constraints that a utopian vision of the world does not always taking into account.

This being the case, we do not need a separate liberal political party to spread liberal ideas. Instead, if we offer practical ways to make the world a better place, our ideas can spread through osmosis into every political party. Liberalism can then triumph in the political battlefield by winning in the marketplace of ideas—perhaps without the label attached, for ideological labels often hinder the spread of good ideas.

*  *  *  *

One example of such real-world problem solving comes in the work of Parth Shah, the founder of the Center for Civil Society in India, and the moderator of the sessions at the colloquium. For years now, Parth and his team have been promoting the concept of school vouchers. Many dogmatic classical liberals would be opposed to this idea, for it assumes state spending on education. But India is a poor country, education is key to our progress, and it is a given that the government will spend money to make this happen. The problem here is that our government, over the last 63 years, has achieved very little in this space. How can it spend its money more efficiently?

School vouchers, first championed by Milton Friedman, enable competition and the free market to lift the standards of education. The quality of government schools is abysmal, teacher absenteeism is a constant problem, and the incentives are all skewed. There’s one way to change these incentives, and to bring accountability into the system: fund the students, not the schools. If the students are given school vouchers, which they can take to whichever school serves them best, whether it is public or private, schools are forced to lift their standards in order to survive. The power shifts to students and their parents, and the quality of education necessarily rises.

Instead of writing op-eds and policy briefs about school vouchers from an armchair somewhere, Parth and the CCS gang have spent years talking to politicians and bureaucrats across the country to make it happen, offering real-world models of implementation, alongside studies of how low-cost private schools are already transforming education for the poor. To see the pilot projects that are already in place, and the difference they are beginning to make, check out their website. (Also, here are my earlier articles on this: 1, 2.)

*  *  *  *

Another of the participants at the colloquium, Raj Cherubal, offered me his prescription for how liberals can drive change: ‘colour pictures.’

Cherubal works as a coordinator at Chennai City Connect, and holds the view that politicians and bureaucrats, sometimes caricatured as the villains in the piece by dogmatic liberals, are often on our side, and agree with us about the nature of the problems. But giving them abstract ideas about what to do is pointless, for they don’t have the bandwidth to take them further. The only effective approach is two-pronged: One, show them case studies to demonstrate that our solutions have worked elegantly elsewhere; Two, give them a detailed road-map of how to implement the solution.

Raj offered an example of this from the domain of urban planning. His team went to the Chennai city authorities with a proposal to modernise LB Road. The babus were skeptical, and threw up various objections to this, such as how there wasn’t enough space to get the job done, what would happen to the hawkers, and so on. Cherubal and his team then walked the streets, measured every inch of space available for themselves, and drew up elegant redesigns and colour charts (‘red for footpath’) that showed exactly how the street would look when redesigned, how much space was currently being wasted, and the precise actions that could be undertaken to transform that space, right down to costs and so on. The project was approved, and is now underway. What made it happen? “Colour pictures,” said Raj.

In a similar proposal about transforming the T Nagar neighbourhood, Raj’s team showed the Chennai authorities detailed photographs of identical streets in Bogota and Manhattan as an example of how these Chennai streets, with identical space, could be transformed. (T Nagar’s Panagal Park can be just like Manhattan’s Union Square, Raj tells me.) Again, the colour pictures made all the difference.

Raj uses the term ‘colour pictures’ as a metaphor and a proxy: what he actually showed these men in power was “a vision for a better future”. He made it compelling and tangible, with no vague head-in-the-clouds talk about grand ideas. These examples are not examples of liberal ideas per se, but this is exactly the approach that classical liberals in India should take: Eschew the grand talk, get down to brass tacks, bring out the colour pictures.

An aside: The airconditioning in those tents actually worked wonderfully well. Who woulda thunk it?

Previously on Viewfinder

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 June, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

This is the second installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

A few days ago, a Delhi newspaper called me up to ask for a quote on a controversy that had begun, as any respectable controversy these days should begin, on Twitter. Sagarika Ghosh, allegedly harrassed by right-wing Hindutva types, had unleashed a series of tweets against what she termed ‘Internet Hindus’. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) The phrase caught on and led to much outrage from many bloggers, a spirited takedown of ‘the Hindutva fringe’ by my fellow Yahoo! columnist Ashok Malik, and a vehement defence of it by Kanchan Gupta.

I was baffled by the controversy. Firstly, the phrase itself seemed ridiculous to me, and I suspect that all the main protagonists using that term would have defined it differently. Secondly, I didn’t see what all of them were getting het up about to begin with. Ghose was over-reacting to criticism; the rest were losing their sleep over someone’s tweets: how noob of them.

If Ghose was, indeed, bothered by trolls, she would have done well to keep in mind the old jungle saying, ‘Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig enjoys it.’ The internet empowers loonies of all kinds by giving them a megaphone—but no one is forced to listen to them. The noise-to-signal ratio is way out of whack on the net (Sturgeon’s Law), and any smart internet veteran will tell you that to keep your sanity, you need to ignore the noise. Ghose, poor thing, had tried to engage with it.

We all know that people are more extreme on the net than they are in real life. The radical Hindutva dude who wants to nuke Pakistan on the net will, in the real world, sit meekly at Cafe Coffee Day arguing the relative merits of Atif Aslam and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. A commonly cited reason for this is the anonymity that the internet gives you. You get power without responsibility, and can say whatever you want without the fear of consequences. (This explains why so many comment trolls are anonymous or pseudonymous.)

But anonymity is just a small part of the story. Many people who take extreme positions on the internet do so under their real names.  What’s more, they hold these positions in the offline world as well, though they probably didn’t believe in them so vehemently before they got online. What’s going on here?

I got an insight into this a while ago when I read a book named On Rumours by Cass Sunstein. In it, Sunstein cites an experiment he carried out with a couple of colleagues in Colorado in the USA in 2005. These guys gathered 60 subjects and split them into ten groups of six people each. The experiment was designed so that each group was homogeneous and fit a particular profile. Half the groups were liberal; the others were conservative.

At the start of the experiment, each participant was asked a series of hot button questions, including one on that most polarising of topics, global warming. Their anonymous answers were noted down. Then they went into a room with a group of like-minded people and discussed those issues. Fifteen minutes after the group discussion ended, they were again asked the same set of questions, anonymously and one by one.

Here’s how Sunstein summarised the results in his book: “In almost every group, members ended up holding more extreme positions after they spoke with one another. [...] Aside from increasing extremism, the experiment had an independent effect: it made both liberal and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous—and thus squelched diversity. [...] Moreover, the rift between liberals and conservatives widened as a result of discussing.”

This phenomenon is called Group Polarization. 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.”

This explains why the internet is such a polarised space. Let us say that someone believes, to pick an especially ludicrous conspiracy theory, that Israel knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, and warned Jews who worked at the WTC not to go to work that day. In a relatively open society like the US or India, you’re unlikely to find too many people in your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances who would believe this. But on the internet, which serves the long tail of beliefs, you will find many like-minded people. There will be websites validating your view and bulletin boards full of kindred souls. The confirmation bias will also kick in, and you will ignore any potential source of disagreement, and hang around with your own kind. Information cascades will be in play, as your conviction will harden, and the vehemence with which you state your views will increase.

As Sunstein concluded in a working paper he wrote on group polarisation, it is “plausible to speculate that the Internet may be serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism.”


Such echo chambers don’t exist merely on the internet, of course. Societies that aren’t open, including ‘illiberal democracies’, to use Fareed Zakaria’s phrase, also serve as a breeding ground for extremism. To look at nearby examples from Pakistan, the following could well be the condensed biography of the median Lashkar or Taliban terrorist: He was born in a poor family, and the only education he received was in a Madrasa, which was essentially a place of indoctrination; he came of age thinking of America and India as evil, infidel lands, and of himself as an underdog whose duty was to fight a righteous battle; he had little or no exposure to conflicting views, or even to cultural products from outside his immediate environment; and he was probably sexually repressed, which increased his resentment.

Also, he was surrounded by people just like him. So really, there is no other belief system he could have in such a closed environment. I suspect if you or I were in his place, we’d pick up a gun too. How on earth would we know better?

This is not a justification for his actions. When it comes to terrorism, I am a hawk. I believe we should fight terrorists and terrorist groups without mercy or hesitation, and destroy the infrastructure that supports them. This is necessary—but not sufficient. It would tackle the symptoms, but not the disease itself.

Terrorism in Pakistan is enhanced by a structural problem: their society isn’t open enough, diverse enough, and prosperous enough. As long as this remains the case, echo chambers will abound, and the supply of extremists will not dry up. What can we do about this?

To begin with, it would help if we didn’t talk about Pakistan as if it was one monolithic entity. Just because ‘they’ attacked us on 26/11 does not mean we prevent ‘their’ musicians or cricketers from coming to India—we are talking of different creatures here, which are opposed to each other.

Broadly, and with the risk of simplifying, I see three distinct kinds of forces in Pakistan. One,  the jehadi groups, which grow larger and more extreme because of self-perpetuating feedback loops, but are by no means the whole country. Two, the military establishment, whose incentives, as I wrote in a column three years ago, are aligned towards continuing the conflict with India. They have supported the jehadis, and have waged proxy wars through them, but are now under credible pressure to withdraw this support. And three, civil society, which wants what people everywhere want: peace, prosperity and a good future for themselves and their children. This, I believe, is most of Pakistan.

The stronger civil society gets, the weaker the support for extremism, and the more tenuous the military’s hold on the country. This is why I support increased trade and cultural exchanges with Pakistan (which is mutually beneficial anyway, as it’s a positive-sum game). I don’t think it’s contradictory to take a hard line towards Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure and a soft line towards their artists and businessmen. Both have the same end in mind.

I am not suggesting that this would be a panacea. Not all terrorists come from repressive societies or poor backgrounds, and extremism will always be with us. But it would reduce the amount of polarisation that takes place—and hey, some of it might even shift to the internet. Then the Internet Hindus can fight the Online Muslims, and Sagarika Ghose can crawl up in a foetal position under her desk.


Lest my column be misinterpreted, let me state the obvious by saying that I am not implying any equivalence between ‘Internet Hindus’, whoever they are, who may cause Ghose to tear out her hair but haven’t otherwise caused any physical harm to anyone, and the jehadis of the Lashkar and the Taliban. I have mentioned them here only in the context of the mechanics of polarisation. There is no question who I would rather have lunch with.

Also, I would request anyone who wishes to coin more such terms to at least alliterate. Blogging Buddhists and Joomla Jains sound far more musical than Internet Hindus, if a little more niche. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 May, 2010 in India | Politics | Viewfinder

Feudal India

Check out this headline:

Karunanidhi praises Stalin, doesn’t mention Azagiri

What does it say about the state of our country that petty family politics is national news? And it’s not one state, it’s the whole damn country. We are ruled by families.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF

Geopolitical Irony

AP reports:

For nearly 30 years, India and Bangladesh have argued over control of a tiny rock island in the Bay of Bengal. Now rising sea levels have resolved the dispute for them: the island’s gone.

There is a lesson in this for all disputes, not just geopolitical ones: One day, that island will disappear. So just chill, no.

(Link via email from Godhuli.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 March, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts

A Garland for the Queen


Heard about the recent furore over the garland of thousand-rupee notes that was presented to her Royal Majesty, Mayawati, by her party workers? One of her cronies has now come out and said that the media reports got it all wrong, and the value of the garland was “only Rs.21 lakh,” and not the Rs 5 crore that some people reported. (The rally at which it was presented reportedly cost Rs 200 crore, though the crony denied that figure as well.) Since then, the IT department has ordered a probe into Mayawati’s funds, while Her Highness has gotten herself another garland of notes. (Only Rs 18 lakh this time.)

Now, really, as long as it isn’t our taxes being spent, this should not bother me. But this kind of behaviour demonstrates, yet again, how our politicians believe that they are our rulers, and not our servants. This seems to be an attitude shared by most voters as well. Sure, many of them don’t like Mayawati, and would rather have a tribal leader of their choice on the throne, but you get what I’m saying.

Also, I have to say that a garland of currency notes is more honest and apt for the times we live in than one of dead flowers. Such it goes.

(First link via email from Maria Thomas.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2010 in India | News | Politics | WTF

Topless Women and the Indian Government

The Times of India reports:

The government has banned Fashion TV for nine days after finding a program it aired offended good taste and decency by showing women partially nude.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry statement said FTV channel would go off the air later Thursday until March 21. The statement cited an unnamed FTV program aired in September that showed women with nude upper bodies.

It’s immensely WTF that someone should think that topless women offend “good taste and decency.” Women have breasts. Straight men are attracted to them. These are just ho-hum facts of biology. Only massively repressed and resentful men and women would find partial nudity offensive—and one factor in their repression, certainly, would be this attitude against anything sexual. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop—the more you repress, the more repressed they get, the more you find reason to repress them further. In the 21st century, its all a bit bizarre.

What is even weirder is that the continuing spread of the internet threatens to make all this moot. Far wilder things than mere toplessness are a Google search away, and its practically impossible to filter all of that out. And why would you want to do that anyway? Sex is healthy, so let’s be open about it, and not whisper while talking about it or blush when the subject comes up. Or censor boobs.


Earlier posts on the subject:

‘A Trial Balloon’.
The Ministry of Wet Dreams.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF

The Empire Strikes Back

Daniel Pepper of CMS has a worrying story up on how RTI activists in India are increasingly facing a backlash from the people they are trying to expose. He tells us about Ajay Kumar, who questioned “why a local politician had authorized the construction of private houses and shops on public land.” Consequently, Kumar was “attacked by a mob of two dozen” and “beaten in the head repeatedly by an iron rod, leaving him unconscious and bleeding profusely.”

At least he lived. On Valentine’s Day in Bihar, “well-known RTI activist Shashidhar Mishra was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles at the entrance of his home.” And in Pune, “another activist, Satish Shetty, was killed while on his morning walk.” I have no doubt that other RTI activists who are trying to expose the rot in the system must also be dealing with immense intimidation.

Shailesh Gandhi, once an RTI activist and now a commissioner with the CIC, hits the nail on the head:

It tells me that the rule of law is almost absent. The truth is that powerful people feel there is no law.

I’ve often argued that the rule of law is effectively absent in India for those without money, power or connections. But there’s more to this than even that. In most scams of the kind that these brave activists are trying to expose, private parties are actually in collusion with government authorities. Most mafias in the country are public-private partnerships, and the incentives of the men in power are obviously tailored to keeping these partnerships going. Thus, not only is the rule of law absent for the hapless RTI worker who chooses to challenge the system, the government is likely to actively work against him. The machinery he turns to for help generally has every reason to thwart him—and to look the other way when he’s beaten on the head with an iron rod.

That said, the RTI is a powerful tool, and it is precisely because of its power that there is such a backlash against those who use it. If the RTI was ineffectual, this backlash would not exist. These attacks, thus, demonstrate how much the RTI is capable of enabling. That leaves me both hopeful and worried. Perhaps a change is gonna come—but there will be a cost.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 March, 2010 in India | News | Politics

When the Marshalls Go Marching In

This sentence says so much about the level of parliamentary debate in India today:

Finally, marshals were called in to remove the unruly MPs.

Who elected these dudes and put them in parliament? We did. I would hang my head in shame if that didn’t mean I’d be staring at my paunch.


I have mixed feelings on the larger issue of women’s reservation. If I was a woman, I’d find it offensive. Implying that women can’t rise in politics on their own is terribly condescending, especially when so many counter-examples exist—strong women like Uma Bharti, Sushma Swaraj, Renuka Chowdhury and, um, Pratibha Patil. (And Sonia Gandhi, who may be at the top because of her last name, but then, so are so many male politicians.)

Also, it implies that there are fewer women MPs because women are discriminated against by political parties. I’m sure there is some discrimination, but it is not the sole factor. My hunch is that people enter politics because of their lust for power, and that men are biologically programmed to seek power actively, while women aren’t—at least not to the same extent. Thus, there are fewer women who seek validation in how much control they have over other people, and fewer women who are attracted to politics. (In saying this, by the way, I am dissing men and complimenting women, though Renuka Chowdhury, on an episode of We The People where I stated this opinion, attacked me because she thought I was disrespecting women. Quite the opposite.)

Having said that, I think the bill may have some positive unintended consequences. At the very least, parliamentary decorum is likely to improve, and MPs are likely to behave with somewhat more dignity. There might even be fewer instances of marshalls being called in to control unruly MPs. Who can complain about that?

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2010 in India | News | Politics | WTF

Mahalaxmi, the Goddess of Wealth


Posted by Amit Varma on 26 February, 2010 in India | Politics

The Lady With the Handbag

Revelation of the day: All of Mayawati’s statues in UP have a handbag included.

This via my friend Anand, who loves making up stuff but insists this is true. And I believe him. It’s too far out to be made up.

Update: This one cracks me up.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 February, 2010 in India | Politics | WTF

Waving to Nobody

The wonderful excerpt below from “Trail Fever” by Michael Lewis illustrates beautifully the nature of politics and public life. In it, Lewis recounts his experience of travelling with then-vice president Dan Quayle during the election campaign of 1992:

It wasn’t so much what Quayle had said that hooked me. It was what he had done—what the conventions of the campaign trail required him to do. Every few hours of every day, to take a tiny example, the vice president’s campaign plane, Air Force Two, came to rest on the tarmac of a military base on the outskirts of some medium-sized city, and Quayle appeared in the open door. He waved. It was not a natural gesture of greeting but a painfully enthusiastic window-washing motion. Like everyone else in America I had watched politicians do this on the evening news a thousand times. But I had always assumed there must be someone down below to wave at. Not so! Every few hours our vice president stood there at the top of the steps of Air Force Two waving to… nobody; waving, in fact, to a field in the middle distance over the heads of the cameramen, so that the people back home in their living rooms remained comfortably assured that a crowd had turned up to celebrate his arrival.

It is my case that most politics consists of waving to nobody. Someday, as the waving is going on, I’d love to see the cameras turn around and show the empty field. But nah, that won’t happen.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 February, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Politics | Small thoughts

‘Haiti Needs Business, Not Business As Usual’

That’s Salil Tripathi, on why foreign aid is the last thing that Haiti needs.

And here’s Bret Stephens on the same subject.


To shift the context to Africa, check out this wonderful TED Talk by Andrew Mwenda:

Also, here’s an old piece by William Easterly: “What Bono doesn’t say about Africa”.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2010 in Economics | Politics

The IPL Auction Hoo-Ha

Hindustan Times reports the WTF news of the day:

A Pakistani parliamentary delegation has cancelled its visit to India after none of the country’s cricketers found any takers at an auction for the third edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza made the announcement in the House on Wednesday after opposition members raised the issue, terming it a “planned conspiracy” to prevent Pakistani players from featuring in the cash-rich series.

Now, really, if you were in charge of an IPL franchise, what would you do? Your resources are limited, and you want to make sure that every player you bid for and buy actually turns up and plays. If there is a no-show, even if you don’t have to pay the player, you incur an opportunity cost, and there’s a gap in your team. And with India-Pakistan relations being the way they are, it’s quite possible that, like last season, there may be no Pakistan players. All it takes is one more terrorist attack like 26/11.

The rational thing to do—indeed, the responsible thing to do, from your shareholders’ point of view—is to play it safe and not bid for any of Pakistan’s players. As a cricket fan, I find this tragic, because I love watching Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi and Sohail Tanvir in action. But from a business point of view, there was really nothing else the franchises could have done.

All this speculation about government directives and collusion between teams is, thus, pointless. Each franchise looked to its self-interest and made a perfectly rational decision. Such it goes.

As for the anger in Pakistan about their players not playing in the IPL, it is entirely justified. But it should be directed at the Lashkar, not at the IPL franchises.


And I don’t get this whole business of auctioning players. Why can’t the franchises just negotiate with players on their own? Why do we need the BCCI in the middle, distorting price signals?

If I remember correctly, Lalit Modi had once argued that the auction system and the spending caps in place are necessary so that a franchise like the Mumbai Indians, flush with Mukesh Ambani’s money, can’t buy out all the good players, thus killing the competition. But such a state would be unsustainable—consider these two scenarios:

1. Assume that Ambani has way more money than anyone and can conceivably buy off all the good players. But once he has an XI full of superstars, the attraction of being part of his franchise diminishes for the others. No up-and-coming star will want to be part of his team because they need the exposure more than the extra money—that is where their long-term equity lies. And established stars not guaranteed a place in the XI will also have an issue with the tradeoffs involved, because their long-term brand value can only go down, not up, if they don’t play.

2] Make the far-fetched assumption that Ambani somehow pulls it off, and his team is by far the strongest, and is thrashing everyone else. What happens? Because the matches are one-sided, the crowds lose interest, ratings fall, revenues go down, and it is no longer sustainable for Ambani to be spending those big bucks. He scales down, the players drift to other teams, and we move towards an equilibrium again.

Also, the auctions harm the players more than they help them. A franchise may be willing to pay, say, US$80,000 for a player, but the base price set for him is $100,000. So they don’t bid for him, and both the franchise and the player suffer—after all, where he could have been earning 80k, he’s earning nothing. (At this point, you might want to listen to Milton Friedman on the minimum wage. Here’s the transcript.)

And this affects the superstar players as well, who might command much higher prices than the franchises are allowed to pay. In other words, players and franchises are all made worse off by this auction system—so what’s the point of it at all?

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Sport

‘There Is No Quit’

Bob Herbert writes about Haiti in The New York Times:

Just when you think the ultimate has happened, the absolute worst, something even more dire, comes along.

And yet. No matter how overwhelming the tragedy, how bleak the outlook, no matter what malevolent forces the fates see fit to hurl at this tiny, beleaguered, mountainous, sun-splashed portion of the planet, there is no quit in the Haitian people.

They rose up against the French and defeated the forces of Napoleon to become the only nation to grow out of a slave revolt. They rose up against the despotic Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier and sent him packing. Despite ruthless exploitation by more powerful nations, including the United States, and many long years of crippling civil strife, corruption, terror and chronic poverty, the Haitian people have endured.

They will not be defeated by this earthquake.

The overwrought prose and dubious insight here is more suited to a schoolboy’s essay than an NYT column. No quit in the Haitian people? That sounds just like the patronising remarks about Mumbai’s ‘resilience’ after each terrorist attack that we go through. Mumbaikars went to work on 27/11 not because they were resilient or especially brave but because they had no choice. They continued commuting in trains after the train blasts of 2006 because of the same reason. From outside it might look brave, but here, we see it as just getting on with our lives. Is there an option?

The people of Haiti, I’d imagine, are like people everywhere else—they make do with what there is, and respond to circumstances as they arise. That is a human quality, not a Haitian one. There is no quit across the world.


And while on NYT columns, I’m increasingly surprised by the kind of writing Gail Collins gets away with. Writing about Scott Brown, the Republican candidate in the Massachusetts senate elections, she says:

When he was 22, he [Brown] won an “America’s Sexiest Man” contest, the prize for which was $1,000 and a chance to pose naked in a Cosmopolitan magazine centerfold. One of his daughters — this is perhaps the best-known factoid in the campaign — came in somewhere between 13th and 16th on “American Idol.”

“For our family, especially me being on ‘Idol’ but my dad being in politics, there are always so many people who have something negative to say,” Ayla Brown told The Boston Herald this week. Her talent was singing, not sentence construction.

Now, how crass is that last sentence? When she’s writing about politics in these polarised times, one can expect her to get snarky and personal about the candidate from the party she opposes. But his daughter? I can imagine a tabloid going there, but an NYT columnist should surely consider it out of bounds.

I wonder, if Herbert and Collins left the awesome platform of the NYT and started independent blogs, how many readers would they have? That would be the real test, and I’m sure they’d be resilient if it went wrong.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 January, 2010 in Journalism | Media | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF

A Dress Code For Mannequins

The WTF statement of the day is the warning given by Chandra Shekhar, a politician in Bhopal, to local shopkeepers:

Your mannequins should wear sarees, not underwear. From now on, keep all undergarments inside. Show it to the customer when he or she asks for it. Five days from now if undergarments are still hanging outside, we will light a bonfire of the lingerie.

Yes, the culture police is protesting against the public display of lingerie now. In a country in which there are so many serious issues to tackle, this is getting surreal. But why, it must be asked, are they doing this? Is there actually a constituency that approves of this kind of behaviour?

My answer: Yes, there is. We are a country that contains around half-a-billion sexually repressed men. Many of these dudes, who don’t get the kind of action they desire, resent anything that reminds them of this. Like lingerie on mannequins. Like advertisements for coffee-flavoured condoms (another target of these thugs). Like the ubiquitous bogeyman of ‘Western Culture.’

And where there is widespread resentment, there will be a political party tapping into it. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 January, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF

Is India’s National Dish…

... pork?

Hindustan Times reports:

The Bombay High Court has stayed the disbursal of Rs 1,000 crore of the taxpayers’ money — in the form of subsidy by the Maharashtra government — to distilleries that make alcohol using foodgrains.

The subsidy is applicable to 21 distilleries, many of which are controlled by politicians.

Questioning the state’s policy, the court on Wednesday asked: “What is essential commodity — foodgrains or wine?”


The beneficiaries include former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s son Amit and Nationalist Congress Party leader Govindrao Aadik.

That last line I quoted is the killer, isn’t it? What’s the point of power, a politician might argue rationally, if you can’t enjoy its spoils?

(Link via email from Deepak Shenoy. For more posts on how our taxes are misused, click here.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2010 in India | News | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | WTF

The Lion in Winter

Much amusement comes from the news of the sex tapes that allegedly show ND Tiwari “in a compromising position with three women.” The guy is 86. I didn’t even know you could get it up at that age. What a man.

I can imagine him being confronted by the president:

Pratibha Patil: Mr Tiwari, I have seen these sex tapes of yours. Amazing. I mean, disgusting. You are a governer, how could you do this?

ND Tiwari: He he he. Is that a rhetorical question?

PP: No, I mean, yes. But tell me, why three women? That is so perverse!

NDT: Well, I was told once that I should only be sleeping with girls my age. Or, at least, not more than 20 years younger than me. And the three of them put together…

PP: Oh, you are so disgusting.

NDT: Thank you.


Well, Tiwari’s lost his job. Fair enough. But, as Prem Panicker tweeted, in this context,  a few hours ago:

Strange: so NDT’s bedroom antics bother us. But not the corruption? Strange sense of priorities.


Posted by Amit Varma on 28 December, 2009 in India | News | Politics

Keep Praying

The WTF statement of the day comes from Sheila Dikshit with regard to the Commonwealth Games:

I only keep praying that we won’t let the country down.


Posted by Amit Varma on 20 December, 2009 in India | News | Politics | WTF

Dear P Chidambaram

Dear P Chidambaram

A newspaper report today states that you are willing “to drop all cases against Telangana activists booked since November 29.” Many of these ‘activists’ were booked for rioting and damaging public and private property. Now, for political purposes, you wish to drop charges.

I don’t get it. For the rule of law to mean anything, surely the law must take its course. Even you, as the home minister, cannot be above the constitution. How then can you justify this move?

I’m not even getting into the bad precedent set by your succumbing to blackmail and gundagardi. Already the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha has announced “an indefinite hunger strike.” Who knows where this will end?


Amit Varma


More open letters here. Also read: “Mobs are Above the Law.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 December, 2009 in India | Letters | News | Politics | WTF

Fasting Unto Death

Mahatma Gandhi’s use of this particular tactic might have sanctified it, but in my opinion, threatening to fast unto death until your demand is met is a crude form of blackmail. Take K Chandrasekhar Rao, for example, the president of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, who recently announced that he would fast until he was given a separate Telengana state. In a democracy, there are constitutional ways to raise such issues—fasting unto death is just crude blackmail, and one that the state should not give in to. Rao was administered saline forcibly at a government hospital, an action that I consider a violation of his rights. If the man wants to fast unto death, let him fast unto death. It’s his life, his choice.

The TRS isn’t just about blackmail, of course—they’re also using standard political gundagardi. I find it delightfully ironical that after Rao broke his fast by having orange juice for health reasons, the “students who had attacked policemen and public and private property for two days to support Mr Rao did not take kindly to this sudden decision.” They might have suspected that Rao was not sufficiently dedicated to their cause, to which I’d respond that no politician is devoted to any cause other than himself. That’s human nature. Orange juice zindabad.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 December, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts

‘Nokia Hum Aapko Denge’

Via @saba_imtiaz, here’s a speech that’s surely going to become a YouTube classic: Bilawal Bhutto Zardari giving a speech to (presumably) his party workers in accented Urdu:

At the end of his speech, he’s like Rohit Verma and Vindu Dara Singh from Bigg Boss combined: Rohit’s hysteria, Vindu’s raw aggro. My advice to young Bilawal: try decaf. He sounds like he had 17 risterttos before breakfast, no?

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 November, 2009 in Politics | WTF

Where Your Taxes Go: 43

On doing up BS Yeddyurappa’s home. The Times of India reports:

An RTI reply has revealed that Yeddyurappa has [...] spent a staggering Rs 1.7 crore to renovate his bungalow, Rs 35 lakh of which went into redoing his bedroom. [...] Renovation and fittings of the master bedroom cost Rs 34.55 lakh. This includes toilet works and interiors at Rs 10 lakh, marble flooring at Rs 10 lakh, a false ceiling and wall designs at Rs 4.40 lakh and Rs 10.15 lakh for gypsum board and wall panelling.

Since that’s our money, that’s our bedroom, and we should all be allowed access. How would you like to spend a night in Yeddyurappa’s bed? I’m sure he has silk sheets.

Somewhere, though, Mayawati is snortling.

(Link via email from Dev. For more on how our government loots us, click here.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 November, 2009 in India | News | Old memes | Taxes | Politics

Naxalism and the Jagannath Turtle

Reuters reports:

Hundreds of poor Hindu villagers in eastern India have refused to hand over a rare turtle to authorities, saying it is an incarnation of God, officials said on Tuesday.

Villagers chanting hymns and carrying garlands, bowls of rice and fruits are pouring in from remote villages to a temple in Kendrapara, a coastal district in eastern Orissa state.


“Lord Jagannath has visited our village in the form of a turtle. We will not allow anybody to take the turtle away,” said Ramesh Mishra, a priest of the temple.

Ok, my question to you: What does the Jagannath Turtle have in common with Naxalism?

Answer: They are both indicators of the fucked-up lives of so many of the people of rural India. There is no development, there is little chance of upward mobility, there is often no law and order. Their lives are so screwed that they actually derive hope from a turtle that they think is Lord Jagannath. How sad is that?

And Naxalism is born in that same well of despair and anger.

Needless to say, the state of these people justifies neither Naxalism (or Maoism, or whatever you want to call it) or such stupid superstition. Anyone who resorts to the kind of violence the Maoists have taken up must be crushed. Equally, a belief that a turtle is a reincarnation of a deity should be given no respect whatsoever. (Leave the turtle aside, anyone who believes in a deity to begin with… never mind.)

But while we crush the Naxalites and go WTF over the turtle worship, it makes sense to remember why people give in to such madness. It is because of how abject their lives are. And if we don’t sort that out, we’ll have more batches of Naxalites after this one is dealt with, and more turtle gods. (A leech deity makes much more symbolic sense, actually.) There’s no point boasting of our ‘soft power’ and our IT revolution while 60% of the population survives on agriculture. (The figure in developed countries is around 5%.) It’s like showing off a gym-toned body with much muscle while there’s a cancer in the liver and a farm of worms in the intestines. That’s fool’s vanity.


Posted by Amit Varma on 13 November, 2009 in Economics | India | Politics | Small thoughts

Mohan Bhagwat and the Political Marketplace

In a column in The Hindustan Times, Pankaj Vohra writes that Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS, is making sure that the next leader of the BJP sticks to the RSS’s agenda. Vohra writes that “the RSS wants the BJP to return to its basic ideology,” and is “keen that a younger leader who works closely with the Sangh to further its ideology heads the party.”

What Bhagwat doesn’t get is that unlike the RSS, which doesn’t stand for elections or care about validation from anywhere other than its internal echo chambers, the BJP doesn’t function in a vacuum. The BJP is (like, duh) a political party. It is part of a political marketplace where its survival depends on getting the support of the people. Judging by recent events, voters across the country have rejected Hindutva. Indeed, most people seem to intuitively understand that Hindutva, a dangerous, divisive ideology, is not equal to Hinduism, an open-source religion.

What the BJP needs to do to survive, thus, is figure out gaps in the marketplace and cater to those needs. The Hindutva card only works for an increasingly small niche—and even in that virulent, nationalistic niche, there are local competitors everywhere, like the MNS and Pramod Muthalik’s goons.

What should their new direction be? I have no idea. I’d personally love to see them transformed into a secular-right party, but I don’t think that would work in the political marketplace either. Politics in India is mostly identity politics, and ideas have little place in it. Also, all politics is local, and the BJP would perhaps be best served by encouraging internal democracy and more importance on grassroots social work rather than elitist baithaks to discuss grand ideas. The question of who should be the next leader of the BJP should be a no-brainer: let the party workers decide that through secret ballot.


Bhagwat would no doubt argue that the BJP lost because their Hindutva wasn’t pure enough, and they should now get back to the basics. That is rubbish. In people’s minds, the BJP brand stands for just one thing—Hindutva. And that isn’t working any more. Smell the coffee, guys—and while you’re at it, please also ditch those embarrassing half-pants. Really, WTF?

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 November, 2009 in India | Politics

Third-Party Dynamism

Ross Douthat, in an excellent piece in The New York Times, argues that America needs more third-party dynamism, particularly at the local level. During his argument, he writes:

Imagine if California’s famously polarized legislature included several smaller parties — Libertarians, Socialists, Social Conservatives — capable of forming coalitions with either the left or the right, so that every budgetary debate didn’t pit a bloated Democratic majority against an intransigent Republican rump.

I have just one word for Douthat: India. Sometimes a dynamic political marketplace leads to less things getting done, not more, negating the benefits of less polarisation. The UPA’s last term at the center, especially when they still depended on the support of the Left Front to stay in power, is a classic case of how a splintered parliament can lead to a logjam. Given human nature, there is no reason why a similarly fractured legislature would work better anywhere.

That minor quibble aside, I agree with Douthat’s argument—especially with regard to more local parties fulfilling “the promise of federalism.”


It might seem that India’s politics is much more dynamic than America’s, with so many local parties in action, but that is a bit of an illusion. India’s parties are mostly feudal and/or undemocratic, ruled by a small elite. The Democrats and the Republicans, on the other hand, have vibrant inner-party democracy, with much lower entry barriers for new politicians. (Case in point: Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency. Can any Indian who is not part of a political family rise so fast in our system?) It is common for a successful professional in the USA, say a lawyer or an MBA, to switch to a career in politics. In India, politics has become so dirty that an Indian Obama would never contemplate moving to politics to begin with.

And yes, that renders that common talk-show question from a few months ago, ‘Who is India’s Obama?’, completely moot.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 November, 2009 in India | Politics

Capital Gains

Ashok Malik writes in The Hindustan Times that the BJP has hurt itself by chasing “straightforward capital gains” in a few states. He is right—but this is true of all parties in all states. People join the pursuit of power because they want the spoils of power. I would wager that not a single prominent politician in the country today gives a damn about public service.

This is not a problem by itself. We are all driven by self-interest, and that’s worked well for us. Human progress is based on individuals serving the needs of others for their own profit. In politics, this would work just fine if we held our politicians accountable for not serving us.

Sadly, in India we have retained the feudal mindset that our governments are there to rule us, not to serve us. With our apathy, we allow them to loot us—for their capital gains are really our capital to begin with. Our political parties are nothing more than competing mafia clans. If the BJP is down right now, it’s not because they are crooked, but because they’re not as smart as the other crooked players in the game. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2009 in Economics | India | Politics | Small thoughts

Jagdish Tytler Writes In

Earlier today, in reference to this old post of mine, Jagdish Tytler wrote to me:

Dear Amit,

The news is incorrect and giving wrong information to the public. Congress never dropped me, I myself stepped down. Kindly make correction because incorrect information can do lot of damage to my reputation.

Journalism should always be backed by evidence. You can even ask the Party president Mrs. Sonia Gandhi about your article and even she will be surprised.

I hope you will understand my concern and will communicate with me in case you want any proof of my non-involvement in 1984 riots.


Jagdish Tytler

Intrigued by the last line, I wrote back and asked for the proof he offered. His response:

Dear Amit,

First I will reply about 1984, I have published quite a few proofs in my own website and blog regarding the conspiracy and concocted stories against me. Kindly go through them and feel free to ask for other documents. I hope you will publish those too.

My websites and blogs:

Now coming back to the second issue that is either I have withdrawn myself or party told me to step down, I have never got any official order from the party to step down. It was my own decision because I was upset the way opposition tried to use me as scapegoat in order to target my party. Like I did before, I stepped down from union minister post myself, I did this time too. You can find my letter to the PM in one of my blogs.

I hope, you will change the headline of the article and will also make some adjustments in the article so that people can get the true information.

With warm regards,

Jadgish Tytler

Both these letters are published here with Mr Tytler’s permission, and I leave it to my readers to browse through the links he has offered and make up their own minds. My original post on the subject was written on the basis of reports such as this one. I shall update that post to direct readers to this one, so they can read Mr Tytler’s clarification.

For what it’s worth, my comment on the Congress remains the same: If the party believes Mr Tytler to be guilty, it should never have made him a candidate in the first place; and if it believes him to be innocent, it should have stood by him through that crisis.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 October, 2009 in India | Politics

Patient Needs Surgery, Says Pathogen

This is hilarious.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2009 in India | News | Politics | WTF

Dear Bal Thackeray

Dear Bal Thackeray

I read your diatribe against “the Marathi manoos” yesterday with great interest. I have two points to make:

One: You say that the Marathi manoos stabbed you in the back. You are wrong. They stabbed you in the front. Could the election results be any clearer?

Two: Has it ever struck you how limiting the term ‘Marathi manoos’ is? There are many markers of identity for a Maharashtrian person, and Marathiness is just one of them. A Marathi person could also be a cosmopolitan Indian, a secular humanist, a death-metal fan and an India Uncut reader. We all contain multitudes. By trying to reduce people to just one of these, or by insisting on its primacy, you insult them. You might be hurt that so many Marathi people have not voted for you—but I am surprised that so many have.

That said, even if your party has lost ground, your brand of politics is still alive and kicking. Many of the manoos who stabbed you in the front went and embraced your nephew Raj, who is a true heir to the Shiv Sena’s divisive legacy. Congratulations.


Amit Varma


More open letters here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 October, 2009 in India | Letters | News | Politics

Dear Kapil Sibal

Dear Mr Sibal

I have always thought that the IITs are the glowing successes of India’s educational system. Equally, I believe that the regular schooling system, including the Class X and Class XII boards, are #FAIL.

That is why I am rather surprised at your ministry’s proposal that it be mandatory for IIT entrants to score at least 80% in their Class XII board exams. They already have to work hard enough for the JEE, which seems to have served its purpose for generations now. Why add to their stress?

It’s been reported that your reason for doing this is “to squeeze out the hundreds of coaching institutes who thrive by selling hope to unrealistic aspirants.” But why do those coaching institutes exist in the first place? It is because students find the existing education system to be inadequate. So why not fix that first? The coaching institutes won’t have a reason to exist then.

You must have heard of that old cliché, If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. Mr Sibal, what you’re trying to fix ain’t broken. Yet.


Amit Varma


More open letters here. And some essays by me on our education system:

Our Unlucky Children.
Fund Schooling, Not Schools.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 October, 2009 in India | Letters | News | Politics

Uddhav Thackeray Shoots a Tiger

It’s hard to capture the essence of a man in just one sentence, but Aakar Patel does just that for Uddhav Thackeray here:

There’s a terrific picture of him shooting close-ups of a tiger that his chamchas are holding down with ropes.

Aakar’s piece is about Bal Thackeray, whom he’s going to miss because the guy provided entertainment. Okay.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 October, 2009 in India | Politics

Dear Rahul Gandhi

Dear Rahul Gandhi

You have been quoted today as saying that you don’t believe in caste. Bravo. That is a position I applaud.

May I then assume that you don’t believe in reservations also? After all, by discriminating on the basis of caste, reservations perpetuate the same kind of divisive thinking that the caste system did. They don’t solve the problem—they make it worse.


Amit Varma


Link via @iyerdeepak. More open letters here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 October, 2009 in Freedom | India | Letters | Politics | Small thoughts

“When Hands Are To Be Used Differently”

Barkha Dutt tweets that she thinks Uddhav Thackeray is trying to refashion the Shiv Sena. Perhaps she is being misled by his cultured way of talking, because this recent interview of his does not indicate that his vision for the Sena is any different from his dad’s. Consider, in particular, this bit:

Mid Day: Has MNS hijacked Sena’s aggressive, street-smart agenda?

Uddhav: Sena believes where one needs to be aggressive, one must be aggressive. Where we need to request with folded hands, we will. When hands are to be used differently, we will use them differently.

That, of course, renders the folded hands pointless in the first place. It’s like saying, Please do as I say—or my thugs will thrash you and trash your office. Why even bother with the polite facade then?

Later in the interview, we discover Uddhav’s fondness for Boney M. One more reason not to vote for him.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 October, 2009 in India | Politics

Like a Government Department

In an excellent column, Vir Sanghvi looks at all the reasons why Air India is run so badly. To sum it up:

If you run your country’s flag carrier like a government department, a decline is inevitable.

His remedy, which flows naturally from this, is to privatize Air India. I agree with him. But here’s a question:

If Air India should be privatized because it is run like a government department, what about government departments?

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 October, 2009 in Economics | India | Politics | Small thoughts

Preemptive Censorship

HT reports that the I&B ministry has just given the go-ahead to the producers of a film called The Indian Summer to shoot in India. However, after going through the script, it wants four scenes deleted from the film—these show “a kiss between Nehru and Edwina; a dancing scene; one where Nehru says ‘I Love You’; and a scene showing them in bed.”

Normally, when two people have an affair, there is kissing, there are confessions of love (or lust), and there is carnal action. I don’t see the point of pussyfooting around all this—an affair without these would not be an affair, so why should a film about an affair have to avoid these?

The government also insists that the film carry a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction. Why not keep those scenes then?

The ministry says it is doing this because it doesn’t want anyone to “show Nehru in a poor light.” That is bizarre: I don’t think his alleged affair with Edwina shows him in a poor light—the guy was human, after all. (Most Indian men would probably think more highly of him because he scored with a white chick, but leave that aside.)

And even if it did show Nehru in a poor light, so what?

Anyway, as revenge on the Indian government for this preemptive censorship, I suggest that the producers get Salman Khan to play Nehru, and have him sing a Himesh song as Edwina runs around a tree. That will show them.


And for what I think of the I&B ministry, see point 3 of this old wishlist of mine.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF

#Fail Parents

I’ve often made the point that parenthood is a massive responsibility, and way too many people become parents before they’re ready for it. Well, here are a few things that validate that belief:

Exhibit one: A Shiv Sainik named Kailash Patil had named his kids Uddhav and Raj after the now-warring Thackerays. Well, Patil is now pissed at the party because they denied a ticket to the candidate he supported. So is is renaming his son Uddhav to Anand. Who knows, if he later ends up in the Congress, he might change Anand’s name to Rahul. Imagine what all this does to the poor kid.

Exhibit two: An Australian baby of Indian origin gets eczema. Her dad, Thomas Sam, happens to be “a college lecturer in homoeopathy.” No doubt driven by hubris and dogma, he insists on treating her with homeopathy alone. Her condition becomes worse, and turns into a “severe skin disorder.” Her father refuses to change course. The girl dies. The parents are arrested—and I recommend that instead of getting a lawyer for themselves, they take Phos1M or Arsenic Iod. Anyway, what’s the point of my sarcasm now? The kid is dead.

Exhibit three: I’ve blogged about this before, but today was the first episode of Pati, Patni aur Woh, so I was reminded of it. What kind of parents would rent their babies out to a television channel? How can they live with themselves after doing that? What will their kids feel about it when they grow older? I’m baffled. Normally I’m a sucker for reality shows—but this one’s just a bit too bizarre.

And now I will reread Philip Larkin’s wonderful “This Be The Verse.”

Update: Whoops, sorry, I forgot to mention that the link to exhibit two was via email from Gaurav.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 September, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Miscellaneous | News | Politics | WTF

Who is the Indian Lion?

Mark Sarvas’s excellent blog, The Elegant Variation, features a guest essay by Jon Meacham, the author of American Lion, on Andrew Jackson. It begins:

He was a brawler and a courtier, a duelist and a conciliator, a warrior and a lover, a hothead and a cool calculator. Five summers ago, when I started reading deeply in the life of Andrew Jackson, I was struck by a seeming contradiction: he was at once the most remote of heroes and the most modern of men. He was the first truly self-made man to rise to the White House, the architect of the presidency as we know it and champion of democracy in an age of elites. Scarred and bloodied, wounded physically and emotionally, he carried two (that’s right, two) bullets in his body for much of his life; wracked by pain, he nevertheless persevered, enduring much in order to make America work for the good of the many. He was a candidate of change, and his White House—riven by passion, sexual scandal, political intrigue and fears of secession—was the first we would recognize as a presidency in action. But I should not have thought Jackson ’s complexities surprising: America is complex, too, and he was the consummate American. Not to be too grand about it, but if you want to understand America , you have to understand Andrew Jackson.

So here is my question to you—about whom could we say the following words?

India is complex, too, and X was the consummate Indian. Not to be too grand about it, but if you want to understand India, you have to understand X.

Well, yes, India is too varied for anyone to be a “consummate Indian”—but who comes closest? In my view, it isn’t Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani or Prakash Karat, even Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi. Instead, I’d say the two politicians who come the closest are Mayawati and Narendra Modi.

IU readers know the contempt I hold both leaders in (most Indian politicians, in fact, but these two especially), but Mayawati and Modi embody the attitudes and aspirations of millions. They are both genuine grassroots leaders, and they’re chief ministers of their states because millions of people see in them the kind of India they want. Neither of them is a “consummate Indian”, for they are too divisive for that, but if you want to understand the India of 2009, you have to understand Mayawati and Modi.

You can’t say that about Sonia or Manmohan.

And to state the obvious, this post is not an endorsement, it is a lament.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 September, 2009 in India | Politics | Small thoughts

Leave Global Capitalism Alone!

On the subject of mass protests, the world’s most famous community organizer has this to say:

I was always a big believer in - when I was doing organizing before I went to law school - that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people’s lives is what really makes a difference and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally, is not really going to make much of a difference.

I’d say that applies to candlelight vigils and online petitions as well, two forms of protest that more and more urban, middle-class Indians seem to be taking to. In general, they’re useful only as far as they make the participants feel good about themselves—and give randy young men a chance to hook up with pretty Leftist chicas. Apart from that, if you really want to be useful, get the municipal corporation to clear up the garbage outside your housing society. I doubt lighting candles will achieve that.

(Link via Kartikeya Date‘s Facebook status.)


An example of an online petition that does address a specific local issue is Vishal Dadlani’s petition against the new Shivaji statue. The petition states that the statue, “estimated to cost Rs.350 crores, is an unnecessary expense for the exchequer of the Government of Maharashtra.” This is a very good reason, but I’m sure that Ashok Chavan, our chief minister, travels economy class, just as his boss Sonia Gandhi does. Honestly, that’s all the austerity you can expect from them.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 September, 2009 in India | Miscellaneous | Politics

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