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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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I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.


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


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Politics

Mob rules

Capital chaos continues amid Gujjar protests,” the Times of India tells us.

Really, I don’t care what these chaps are protesting, or whether I agree with their cause or not—protests that inconvenience others in this manner should simply not be allowed. An ideal protest should be peaceful and non-intrusive, but in India the law turns a blind eye on all public displays that cause damage or disturb other people’s everyday lives, as long as it’s for a political or religious reason. Bandhs, morchas, processions, if they get in someone’s way, the law should crack down strongly. Period.

Sadly, that rarely happens. So the next time you want to protest, gather a mob and set some buses on fire. A lonely, civil voice counts for little.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 June, 2007 in India | Politics


In the prime of old age

Mint has a piece up today on some possible successors to APJ Abdul Kalam. They’ve profiled eight men, and I’d like to share their ages with you: 70, 78, 71, 83, 71, 65, 74, 75.

Now, I know that it’s a ceremonial post, but barring the 75-year-old Kalam and the 83-year-old Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, all of them are active politicians: They include the prime minister, the home minister, the foreign minister, the power minister and the HRD minister. So while our country may supposedly be full of youth and vitality, and our leaders aren’t, well, quite so young.

Meanwhile, in London, Tony Blair is set to leave politics at 54. And in Paris, the 52-year-old Nicholas Sarkozy has just taken over as president. In India, they’d still be wearing political diapers.

At this point, looking forward to my post-lunch fruit, I reiterate my support for the Mango as president of India. Amitava Kumar, who agrees with my recommendation, had written in saying, “Haan, theek hai. President bhi aakhir aam aadmi hota hai.” Quite, and fresh as well, if you choose carefully.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2007 in India | Politics


Religion isn’t just a personal matter…

... it can also be a political statement.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with political statements, and I wish these neo-Buddhists well, and respect their decision. But I wonder what the Buddha would have thought.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 May, 2007 in India | News | Politics


Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre

Barack Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope:

We all agree… that society has a right to constrain individual freedom when it threatens to do harm to others. The First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater; your right to practice your religion does not encompass human sacrifice.

Well, alongside the Harm Principle, there is a more fundamental reason why shouting “fire” in a crowded theater would be wrong: it is because that theater is someone else’s private property. All our rights, including the right to free speech, are nothing but extensions of property rights. As Murray Rothbard writes in “‘Human Rights’ as Property Rights”:

[T]he concept of “rights” only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard.

In the first place, there are two senses in which property rights are identical with human rights: one, that property can only accrue to humans, so that their rights to property are rights that belong to human beings; and two, that the person’s right to his own body, his personal liberty, is a property right in his own person as well as a “human right.” But more importantly for our discussion, human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of “public policy” or the “public good.” As I wrote in another work:

Take, for example, the “human right” of free speech. Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate “right to free speech”; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.

[...] [C]ouching the analysis in terms of a “right to free speech” instead of property rights leads to confusion and the weakening of the very concept of rights. The most famous example is Justice Holmes’s contention that no one has the right to shout “Fire” falsely in a crowded theater, and therefore that the right to freedom of speech cannot be absolute, but must be weakened and tempered by considerations of “public policy.” And yet, if we analyze the problem in terms of property rights we will see that no weakening of the absoluteness of rights is necessary. [My emphasis.]

Read the full piece, it’s wonderful. I try to get the same point through when people tell me that if I support free speech I should open comments on this blog—such a suggestion conflates private property and the public domain. For more, read my post, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster v Private Property.”

(Rothbard link via email from Sumeet Kulkarni. And do read Obama’s book: Few politicians write as well as he does, and much of what he says is a refreshing change from the usual political rhetoric that flies around, even if I have some minor misgivings about his thoughts on economics.)

Update: In case it needs to be spelt out, the references to shouting “fire” in a theater by Obama and me are obviously in a hypothetical instance in which the theater is not actually on fire. Heh!

Update 2: In Libertarianism: A Primer, David Boaz quotes Rothbard on this subject and then elaborates:

When we understand free speech this way, we see what’s wrong with Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes’s famous statement that free speech rights cannot be absolute because there is no right to falsely shout ‘Fire!” in a crowded theater. Who would be shouting “Fire”? Possibly the owner, or one of his agents, in which case the owner has defrauded his customers: he sold them tickets to a play or a movie and then disrupted the show, not to mention endangered their lives. If not the owner, then one of his customers, who is violating the terms of his contract; his ticket entitles him to enjoy the show, not to disrupt it. The falsely-shouting-fire-in-a-crowded-theater argument is no reason to limit the right of free speech; it’s an illustration of the way that property rights solve problems and of the need to protect and enforce them.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 May, 2007 in Freedom | Politics


Politics is different

The employee of a corporation who buys something for $10 and sells it for $8 is not likely to do so for long. Someone who, in a family setting, does much the same thing, may make his wife and children miserable throughout his life. A politician who wastes his country’s resources on a grand scale may have a successful career.

Ronald Coase, quoted in The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan, a book I’ve just started reading.

The excerpt above reminds me of Milton Friedman’s brilliant quote about the four ways in which you can spend money. But why don’t voters punish such extravagance? Well, that’s what Caplan’s book seeks to explain, so if you see it at a local bookstore, pick it up. I love what I’ve read of it so far, and you can read more about it from Tyler Cowen, Don Boudreaux and Greg Mankiw.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 May, 2007 in Economics | Politics


Dilip Chitre responds to Arun Jaitley

Some of you may have read Arun Jaitley’s deplorable piece in the Indian Express a week ago, in which he invoked the concept of blasphemy to justify the violation of free speech that took place in Baroda. (Blasphemy as a concept happens to be “alien to Hinduism,” as Salil Tripathi pointed out in this excellent piece.) Well, I was having an email conversation with the renowned poet and artist, Dilip Chitre, in the course of which he sent me a response to Jaitley’s piece. With his permission, I publish it below in full:

Crisis in Culture

by Dilip Chitre

The real crisis in contemporary Indian culture—where any dissent can be seen as an act aimed at ‘hurting sentiments’—is that few of us are prepared to celebrate the heterogeneity of our cultural heritage; and by dissent I mean any non-conformist self-expression. 

Politicians have always exploited religion and sectarian faith to create law and order problems. Today, they only need to announce that their followers’ ‘sentiments are hurt’ and we all understand the not-so-veiled threat to take the law into their own hands. The State—representing the political will of the people—is only too glad to clamp down bans, tighten censorship, and muzzle dissent. It only increases the State’s own power over the individual citizen and the minorities.

The latest example is the row between the Shiromani Akal Takht and the Dera Sachha Sauda. But our history provides ample examples of various inter-sectarian and intra-sectarian clashes among ‘Hindus’, Muslims, and others, not to speak of internecine communal conflicts. Religious sentiments are easy to hurt unless we accept heterogeneity in a religion-neutral sense as our common way of life. 

Caste has been constitutionally abolished in India. In practice, however, by drawing water from the same source, a dalit offends supposedly more chaste Hindus. The Hindu’s ‘religious sentiments’ are ‘hurt’ and the provocation is enough for caste Hindus to physically attack dalits, wherever they can be found isolated and vulnerable.

As regards ‘blasphemy’, it is true that British, European, and American law tacitly accords Christianity the title to all religion and the entire sacred domain. Our Constitution—-on paper and perhaps in spirit—-is more secular. But the catch here is the word ‘secular’. In India it is often misinterpreted as ‘equally sensitive to all religions’ and not as ‘equally neutral to all religions’. 

Via politics, religion has wreaked enough havoc in India since independence. Revivalists and atavists have succeeded in taking us back to a mythologized past which should have become increasingly irrelevant to our public life since we embraced our present Constitution. If the executive gives in to populist pressures and violent threats to any minority, and if even the judiciary succumbs to majority public opinion, all minority opinion and individual expression is doomed to go forever underground in this country.

Adult franchise gives each individual a vote. What if despite adult franchise no individual is allowed to voice dissent? For those who don’t believe in God, there can’t be any blasphemy. For those who don’t believe in fundamental rights, there can’t be any democracy. Whether God or democracy is our priority as citizens of this nation cannot be left to God to decide. He is not a registered voter in India.

That last para superbly puts it in perspective, as also the bit about the term ‘secular’ being “often misinterpreted as ‘equally sensitive to all religions’ and not as ‘equally neutral to all religions’.” Indeed, it strikes me that when the Hindutva right condemns the Congress for being pseudo-secular, they seem to be expressing their support for genuine secularism, in the sense in which Mr Chitre articulates it. That, sadly, could not be further from the truth.

(My posts after the Baroda incident: “Fascism in Baroda.” “Only live in fear.” “The Hindutva Rashtra.” “Why Indian ‘liberals’ aren’t quite liberal.”)

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics


Religion = Immunity

Dawood Ibrahim missed a trick. He should have established himself as a religious leader, and then entered the world of crime. The law would have been far more lenient towards him. Consider this Hindustan Times report:

Hardening its stand on seeking removal of Dera Sacha Sauda sect campuses from Punjab, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) Wednesday said it did not matter even if the move was unconstitutional.

[...]

Queried about the legality of the Akal Takht’s hukumnama, or edict, seeking closure of all Dera properties by May 27, SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar said he was “ignorant” of laws or the constitution.

“For us the Akal Takht is supreme and its hukumnama will be implemented. I have not read the law or the constitution and do not bother. We will ensure that the Dera activities are completely stopped in Punjab,” Makkar said. [My emphasis.]

I hope the law protects the victims of Makkar’s intended actions. But it does worry me that he can make such statements with such impunity, when even the mafia would not be so open about it. What gives him such confidence?

(Quiet! That’s a rhetorical question!)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 May, 2007 in India | Politics


“A trial balloon”

On the subject of Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, the information and broadcasting minister, playing the moral police, an unnamed news channel head is quoted as saying:

I don’t see why we are surprised a Congress government is playing moral police. All parties want to control a powerful medium like television. No political party can afford to ban a news channel. But going after soft targets like AXN and FTV is like floating a trial balloon. It sends a shiver down the spines of all broadcasters.

Well, hardly anyone protested. So will there be more balloons?

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Media | Politics


Mango for president

It seems that APJ Abdul Kalam is unlikely to be re-elected India’s president, so this is an appropriate time to suggest a successor. My candidate is the Indian Mango.

I ate a Mango a couple of hours ago, and it was immensely refreshing. Most importantly, it did nothing that would be inappropriate for the president’s office. Indeed, the Mango has many qualifications that make it ideal for that exalted post, and I list some of them here:

1. Mangoes do not write poetry.

2. Mangoes do not want to waste taxpayers’ money to put Indians on Mars.

3. Mangoes will not try to keep themselves out of the scope of the RTI, despite getting a salary from taxpayers’ money.

4. Mangoes will not make the news for trivial reasons, and will stay away from celebrityhood.

5. Mangoes will not have hairstyles.

And so on. You do realize that I can keep adding to this list, I’m sure. It is quite clear to me, and I hope you agree, that the Mango should be our next president. What’s that? What did you say?

How dare you? Let me reiterate my motto of the day: Mangoes are people too.

Thank you. Do come for the inauguration.

Update: An anonymous reader writes in:

I disagree with your choice. Amartya Sen would make a better president. How will a mango carry out the duties of the office?

What duties?

Update 2: Jim O’Neil writes in with a dramatic point of view that has made me think again about my endorsement. I reproduce his email below the fold:

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 May, 2007 in India | Personal | Politics


At what point do you stop being a slave?

I won’t be blogging for the next few hours—it is rumoured that I have a life outside of blogging—so for that time, I leave you with “The Tale of the Slave” by Robert Nozick. Magnificent.

(Link via Cafe Hayek.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 May, 2007 in Freedom | Politics


Why Indian ‘liberals’ aren’t quite liberal

Vir Sanghvi makes an immensely valid point here:

Every liberal I know argued that MF Husain had the right to paint a naked Saraswati or a nude Bharat Mata. Yet, hardly any liberal of my acquaintance extended the same principle to the Danish cartoons. The liberal position was that Hindus should be tolerant of the manner in which their gods and goddesses were portrayed but that Muslims were right to complain about any visual representation of the Prophet Mohammed.

By ‘liberal’, of course, he is referring to the Leftists who have appropriated that term (both in India and the US), and are hardly liberal in the classical sense. So while liberalism is all about individual freedoms, many Indian ‘liberals’ are actually against economic freedom, and their support for social freedoms depends on convenience. As Sanghvi points out, many of them have double standards, speaking out for free speech on issues where the BJP is involved, but being silent when people of other religions act in an equally repugnant manner. As I wrote here, such ad-hoc support does nothing for the cause.

(Readers of this blog would know that I invite abuse from intolerant people everywhere by speaking up against violations of free speech regardless of the religion of the violators: one of the most-read posts on this blog is the one speaking up for the Danish cartoonists, and I’ve expressed myself on the subject adequately in “Don’t Insult Pasta” and “Fighting Against Censorship”.)

What gets my youthful goat, however, is when Hindutva supporters use the hypocrisy of some of the protesters against the Baroda incidents to distract from the larger issue of oppression and free speech. Focussing on people instead of issues is a typical diversionary tactic, and I think they would be much better off simply stating, “We do not believe in free speech. We believe our religious sentiments are more important than your individual freedoms. So there.” That would at least be an honest position, and would address the issues involved. But public discourse in India focusses more on personality than on issues, ignoring arguments while attacking the people making them. Pity.

(My posts on the Baroda incidents: “Fascism in Baroda.” “Only live in fear.” “The Hindutva Rashtra.”)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics


Suckers!

The New York Times reports:

The United States is continuing to make large payments of roughly $1 billion a year to Pakistan for what it calls reimbursements to the country’s military for conducting counterterrorism efforts along the border with Afghanistan, even though Pakistan’s president decided eight months ago to slash patrols through the area where Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are most active.

[...] So far, Pakistan has received more than $5.6 billion under the program over five years, more than half of the total aid the United States has sent to the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, not counting covert funds.

As I’d written in my essay, “General Musharraf’s incentives,” the carrots aren’t working. And the US is too scared to try the stick, having bought Musharraf’s bluff of après him le déluge. And so it goes…

(Link via email from Manish Vij, who has recently returned to the US, and after numerous emails about how his broadband is 82 times faster than mine, has started sending me screenshot evidence. Fug you, Mr Vij. Fug you and your broadband. We have culture and family values here in India. You can stig your broadband you know where, and make that broad too. So there.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 May, 2007 in Personal | Politics


Mumbai buses blamed for blasts in Hyderabad

There have been bomb blasts in Hyderabad, at the the Mecca Masjid compound near the Charminar. Shivraj Patil has said that a crude bomb caused the blast, while AP chief minister, YS Rajasekhara Reddy, has stated the obvious.

Meanwhile, back in Mumbai, some chaps have reacted to this by stoning buses in Kurla. Why? What have buses in Kurla got to do with it? Have buses planned these attacks? Do we even know yet who has carried out these attacks? Who are we stoning?

I think I’m just going to go and get stoned now. If anything significant happens on this story, I’ll update this post and maybe make it sticky.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 May, 2007 in India | Politics


The Hindutva Rashtra

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

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

Dear Friends

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

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

Read more...

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


Question of the day

Why is the average age at nudist camps steadily rising?

My guess is that young people come to check it out, find themselves surrounded by older, fatter people, and don’t bother to turn up again. Meanwhile, older, fatter people who turn up see people like themselves, and feel comfortable enough to return. It’s a vicious circle—or a virtuous one if you don’t like youngsters around.

And what if someone started a nudist camp in India? My guess is that there would be no women and 80,000 men, all craning their necks madly to spot the women they fantasized about, and discreetly checking out each other’s, um, size. Social networking in the buff, until the moral police descends and points out that nudity is against Indian culture.

(Link via email from Abhinav.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2007 in India | Miscellaneous | Politics


Only live in fear

The placard in the picture below, from the protest in Mumbai about the Chandramohan affair, says it all (click to enlarge):

image

My summary of the events that led to the protest is in the post, “Fascism in Baroda.” The turnout at the protest was immensely encouraging, and Ranjit Hoskote and gang did a great job of organising it. Senior artists like Tyeb Mehta, Jehangir Sabawala and Jaideep Mehrotra turned up, and I spotted many younger artists among those gathered, such as Riyaz Komu, Payal Khandwala, Apnavi Thaker, Julius Macwan and Dhruvi Acharya. There were also others like Syed Mirza, Anil Dharkar, Pratap Sharma and Keku Gandhi present. A few speeches were made. The people gathered seemed attentive, and committed.

I have two concerns, though.

One, in rightly condemning the gundas, I worry that we might forget about the laws that enable such gundagardi in the first place. The Indian Penal Code has simply too many draconian laws that need to be scrapped, starting with Section 295 (a). These are not archaic laws that rarely gets used: As I outlined in my piece, “Don’t Insult Pasta,” these laws have been invoked with alarming regularity in recent times.

Two, I worry that protests such as these might turn out to be ad-hoc events, and not part of a broad-based movement to defend free speech. For example, as Peter pointed out in a chat when I mentioned this worry, when Blogspot was blocked by the Indian government, many bloggers rose up in arms because they were affected, but have not been heard from since. Similarly, the artist community has rallied superbly behind their man, but will they show the same commitment towards free speech if the moral police attacks someone from another profession tomorrow? For example, how many people protested when the publisher of a joke book was thrown in jail because the “religious sentiments” of some people were offended?

The issues here run deeper than one bunch of goons attacking one painter and his work. I hope the scope of the protest expands beyond that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Politics


Fascism in Baroda

I suppose many of you would be familiar with the recent events in Baroda. An internal evaluation of students is on at the Fine Arts Faculty in Baroda. A BJP leader named Neeraj Jain storms in with a bunch of gundas. He has a problem with some paintings by a student named Chandramohan that use religious imagery. Jain and his gundas beat up Chandramohan, and abuse faculty members and students. Things are getting out of hand when the police arrive. They will surely arrest Jain and put an end to this, you would think.

But no, they arrest the painter, for his art is the crime under the Indian Penal Code, not the hooliganism showed by Jain and his cohorts. Chandramohan is whisked off to jail. Five days later, as I type these words, he is still behind bars.

The artist community obviously rises up, and organises an exhibition documenting erotica in Indian and Western art. It is a peaceful way of showing their protest. The pro-vice-chancellor of the university arrives and demands that the exhibition be terminated. The dean of the faculty, Dr Shivaji Panikkar, takes a stand and refuses to do so. He is suspended. As I type these words, he is in hiding, worried about what the ruffians could do to him.

The matter is being followed at Art Concerns, who have a detailed chronology of events up here. Do also read what Ranjit Hoskote, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Johny ML have to say, as well as this piece by Abhijeet Tamhane. Peter Griffin has more links here, as well as details of a public protest I intend to be part of in Mumbai.

My feelings on this will be known to regular readers of India Uncut, and have been laid out in pieces like “Don’t Insult Pasta” and “Fighting Against Censorship”, as well as many posts (such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) It is ludicrous that giving offence is a crime in India, and shameful that the Indian Penal Code actually enables this suppression of free speech, and empowers oppression. For Chandramohan the artist to be in jail for five days (so far) and for Neeraj Jain the gunda to walk free is a slap on the face of all those who think that our nation respects and protects individual freedom.

No doubt some readers will be upset that I used the word “Fascism” in the headline to this post. Well, I hesitated before doing so, wondering if such a strong word was advisable. Then I went to the Wikipedia entry on Fascism, and came across this excellent definition by Robert Paxton (from this book):

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

The Wikipedia article then quotes Paxton as summing up the essence of Fascism thus:

1. a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond reach of traditional solutions; 2. belief one’s group is the victim, justifying any action without legal or moral limits; 3. need for authority by a natural leader above the law, relying on the superiority of his instincts; 4. right of the chosen people to dominate others without legal or moral restraint; 5. fear of foreign `contamination.

All this sounds immensely familiar to me. And so I shall end by quoting the end of Ranjit Hoskote’s fine piece:

It appears that the champions of a resurgent Hindu identity are acutely embarrassed by the presence of the erotic at the centre of Hindu sacred art. As they may well be, for the roots of Hindutva do not lie in Hinduism. Rather, they lie in a crude mixture of German romanticism, Victorian puritanism and Nazi methodology.

What happens next? Will the champions of Hindutva go around the country destroying temple murals, breaking down monuments, and burning manuscripts and folios?

Also, isn’t a Hindu then entitled to say that his religious feelings are offended by Hindutva? Huh?

Update: Chandramohan has got bail, but I am informed that things are still tense in Baroda. The protest there has been called off, but is very much on in Mumbai at least.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics


The Devil’s Compassion

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

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

Comrades and Monsters,

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

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

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

Read more...

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


The committee decides everything!

Karan Thapar is grilling Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi on banning FTV. The following delightful exchange takes place:

Karan Thapar: When does taste become good and bad?

Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi: When the committee feels it’s good, it’s good, when it feels its bad it’s bad.

Haysoos! This is a parody of itself. What comment can writers like me possibly make?

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics


Discarded poetry causes terror alert

Actually, the dark skin of the poetry discarder was the problem here. Not the poetry, which would be entirely more understandable, given how most poetry is.

Imagine if one day everyone wakes up to find that their skin colour has changed. All the whites are black, all the blacks are white, all the browns are also white, all the yellows are also white, even chimpanzees and gorillas are white. What fun, no?

(Link via Amitava Kumar.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2007 in Freedom | Politics


George Orwell and Ashwani Kumar

George Orwell once wrote, in his classic essay “Politics and the English language”:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

A fine illustration of the kind of sloppy language Orwell warned us about appears in the Hindustan Times today, in a piece written by a minister in our national government, Ashwani Kumar. He writes:

For the record, and by way of a gentle reminder, it needs to be reiterated that Nehru’s contribution as the architect of modern India and as the leader of the freedom movement is firmly established in the annals of modern Indian history. Nehru’s pre-eminence is assured for his idealism and for being the one who articulated in his vision the will of his age and redeemed his promise through ceaseless service of his people.

That second sentence, especially, is monstrous, and I worry when the language of our politicians is so shabby, for it surely reflects in the way they think as well. (“Will of his age”? Individuals have a will, ages don’t!) And yes, it is entirely possible that Mr Kumar’s first language may not be English, but there is then surely all the more reason for simple writing. The rest of his piece, in which he defends the Nehru-Gandhi family with all the eagerness and lucidity of a well-trained labrador, is quite as worrying.

(As if you haven’t read it already, here’s my piece on the Nehru-Gandhi family. And yes, I know a case can be made for the family as well, but for FSM’s sake, make it well then!)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 April, 2007 in India | Politics


Does the two-rupee coin reflect a communal agenda?

A few weeks ago, Prabhu had alerted me to a strange controversy over the new two-rupee coin. It seemed too bizarre to blog about: there are weirdos everywhere, and while they cause much amusement, it is best to leave them alone. Well, now reader Annette writes in to inform me that the BJP has taken up the issue, and wants to debate it in parliament. (Parliament runs on taxpayers’ money, I need not remind you.)

And what is the controversy about? Well, in the first article I linked to, a gentleman named V Sundaram pointed out that there is a cross with four dots on the back of the new two-rupee coin that is very similar to one issued by issued by Louis the Pious in the ninth century. See the picture below:

image

Mr Sundaram claims that this “calculated national mischief” reflects, in the words of a gentleman he approvingly quotes, “the calculated motive of the Italian-led government [...] to spread Christianity in India.” He writes:

Ever since the UPA government under the dynastic stranglehold of Sonia Gandhi came to power in New Delhi in May 2004, it has been following a calculated and damnable policy which I have often described times without number as ‘Christianity-Coveting, Islam-embracing and Hindu-Hating in stance, posture, ideology, philosophy, programme and action.’

Now, I’m no fan of the Nehru-Gandhi family, but I’m quite sure that Gandhi has no such “damnable policy” on her mind, “calculated” or otherwise. Indeed, when I first read that piece, I thought that maybe Mr Sundaram was trying a parody, and had gone slightly over the top in the process. Can anyone really think that someone would try to spread Christianity in India through a cross on a coin?

And now we have Vijay Kumar Malhotra of the BJP saying:

It’s the ruling Congress which is pursuing communal agenda in virtually every sphere, from social, political, economic, military to now in national currency.

A communal agenda in national currency? Our nation certainly needs humour, but these gentlemen aren’t comedians, they’re politicians, and they might rule us some day again. They’ll surely issue new two-rupee coins then, and we’ll get confused all over again. Sigh.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 April, 2007 in India | Politics


Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky

The next time some self-righteous gentleman rants about Bill Clinton’s blowjob, kindly send him to this page.

Sure, perjury was the problem with Clinton, not the sex. But still, his deception was a lot less harmful than the self-deception of some others. And he only deceived us about matters that were no business of ours anyway.

(Link via email from Prabhu.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2007 in Politics


Race in America…

... isn’t a social issue, but a political one, writes Sumit Dahiya.

And caste in India?

(Link via email from reader Sid Wade.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 April, 2007 in India | Politics | Small thoughts


Akhilesh Yadav on Rahul Gandhi

Remember how Rahul Gandhi shot his mouth off a couple of days ago? Well, Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, has responded in an interview:

Q: What do you think about Rahul Gandhi’s comment that his family divided Pakistan?

A: See, our socialist values do not encourage division of society. In fact, we encourage a European Union model where everyone can live together. Rahul, who the Congress says is its prime ministerial candidate of the future doesn’t know anything.

Heh. Such options we have when it comes to political leadership, no?

Anyway, I was informed by Mint that my column last week, “The Nehru-Gandhi Legacy of Shame,” got large amounts of appreciative mail. Here’s a cross-section of them. I thought N Bala Ganesan made a great point:

Ill-conceived policies and callousness can be as deadly as tyranny.

Indeed. The only difference is that you can’t count the lives lost due to the former.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 April, 2007 in Economics | India | Politics


Music Video 2.0: “Voice” by Pentagram

It seems like a gimmick, but how it worked. Sometime back, the Indian rock band Pentagram got together with VH1 and announced that they were going to ask their fans to make a music video for their next release, “Voice.” Making a video takes a lot of effort: listening to the song dozens of times, coming up with a concept, getting together cast and crew and props and so on, shooting the thing, editing the thing, and so on. You’d have imagined a handful of nuts would enter.

Pentagram got 991 entries.

Yes, that’s right, 991 music videos. A decade ago, when I worked in first Channel [V] and then MTV and wrote for Rock Street Journal, many of us thought that Indian rock was just about to take off in a big way. We were wrong then—there wasn’t much of a following for it outside the college circuit. But if 991 people make music videos for a song, you’ve got to imagine that the number of actual Pentagram fans out there must be many multiples of that. Who knows where this could go?

Anyway, Pentagram eventually used a composite of the 26 best videos as their official video release. But the rest are available on YouTube. One that Pentagram vocalist Vishal Dadlani especially likes, and that Mohit brought to my attention, is an anti-reservation video by Varun Agarwal from Bangalore. Here it is:

I’ve articulated my opposition to reservations in these posts: “It’s the thought that counts, right?”, “Protesting the politics of reservations”, “The calculus of reservation” and “Don’t think in categories” (last two paras).

And now, below the fold, the final video of “Voice,” putting together shots from the 26 best videos they received:

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 April, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | India | Politics


Anointing the successor

It seems appropriate that three days after my column, “The Nehru-Gandhi legacy of shame,” this should happen:

Addressing an election rally in Bijnore, his first in the current assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister [Manmohan Singh] said “Rahul Gandhi is your future. He is sweating it out for you. Please give one chance to Congress”.

Ah well.

And by the by, many readers have pointed out to me how the new design of the Hindustan Times website is a rip-off of the New York Times design. If only they could emulate the quality of the content as well.

Update (April 16): Abhinav points me, via email, to a Deccan Chronicle piece that quotes Rahul Gandhi as saying:

You know, when our (Gandhi) family commits itself to a task, it also completes it. We never rest till we complete the task and we never retrace our steps. In the past too, members of the Gandhi family have achieved the goals they have initiated, like the freedom of the country, dividing Pakistan into two and leading the nation into the 21st century

As you’d expect, a Pakistan spokesperson has jumped on the remark and said that this proves that “India interfered in Pakistan’s affairs and tried to destabilise it.”

Really, what to say about the man? He’s actually boasting of all the things his family did?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2007 in India | Journalism | Politics


Where your taxes go: 19

Subsidies for pilgrimages. The Times of India reports:

In its determination to protect Haj subsidies, particularly in view of the ongoing elections in UP, Centre has told Supreme Court that it was ready to offer similar support, at state expense, to pilgrimages organised by other communities.

Positing its offer as being in sync with the “secular ideals” of the Constitution, Centre virtually made a policy announcement by agreeing to provide financial assistance to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and other religious communities.

This is not secularism. To me, secularism has two implications:

1 A complete separation of state and religion.

2. Every person in this country having the right to follow a religion of their choice, as long as they don’t impose it on others.

The right to follow a religion of your choice, of course, is completely different from a right to having your religion sponsored by other people’s money, which is nothing short of theft. Do remember, after all, that “state expense” comes from my pockets and your bank account and suchlike. Money does not fall from the skies, and even if the government actually printed money to afford these subsidies, inflation would result, which is an indirect form of taxation.

If Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh genuinely believe that pilgrimages deserve to be funded, I recommend that they shell out their own money for the purpose. There is no justification for taking away our hard-earned money and spending it on building votebanks for themselves.

(Link via SMS from little n.

Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18. Also see: 1, 2, 3.

My essays on taxes and government: Your maid funds Unani, A beast called government.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Miscellaneous | Old memes | Taxes | Politics


Politics

The line of the day, from Uma Bharti:

We are working on the modalities to withdraw the candidates whose names are yet to be announced.

It ain’t easy, but it’s got to be done.

(Via email from BV Harish Kumar.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 April, 2007 in India | Politics


Scarier than the Gandhis

Much as I had criticised the Nehru-Gandhi family in my column today for the harm it has caused India, it could be worse. Indeed, even if Rahul Gandhi turns out to be exactly like his forefathers, I’d vote for him if the only options were the lunatics on the Hindu right. Much as we talk of a ‘secular mandate’, the Hindu right has a massive constituency in the country, illustrated superbly by a survey from Tehelka that shows that Bal Thackeray is “Mumbai’s Hero No. 1.”

To top it, we have Swapan Dasgupta arguing: “This poll is a compelling argument for the BJP fighting the next election with [Narendra] Modi at the helm.”

Gandhi vs Modi then, a few years from now? I know who I’ll go with.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 April, 2007 in India | Politics


The Nehru-Gandhi legacy of shame

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

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

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

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

Read more...

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


The mullahs and Musharraf

Gautam brings my attention, via email, to a story about how radical clerics from Islamabad’s Red Mosque are demanding that a minister be sacked from Pakistan’s government because she dared to hug a foreign man. As it happens a Pakistani journalist who is a friend of mine sent me an email a couple of days ago about this very mosque, in reaction to my piece on General Musharraf, “General Musharraf’s Incentives”. With his permission, and keeping him anonymous for obvious reasons, I reproduce some of it below:

To add further fuel to the theory that it is entirely in [Musharraf’s] interests to prolong this war against terror, this war against extremism, I wonder if you have been following the curious case of the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa in Islamabad?

In short, it is a madrassa illegally occupying government land in the heart of the capital, staffed by thousands of burqa-clad women and run by some hardcore maulvis who are, for all intents and purposes, running a state within a state.

They have Taliban-type aims - they have set up a department of vice and virtue - and recently kidnapped some women claiming they were running a brothel. And then some policemen too. Now they’ve set up a parallel court on their premises, they go around threatening dvd rental stores and take down license plate numbers of female drivers in the capital to harass them for being non-shariah compliant later. All this in the capital. With the President on one side and the PM on the other and all the intelligence agencies nearby.

Basically, the government is not doing anything about it, ostensibly because “they are women and we don’t want to hurt them and we’d rather negotiate with them”. (Balls - that didn’t stop them beating up Asma Jehangir last year when she tried to run a marathon.) The belief is though that it acts as a scary reminder of what the country may lurch towards if the President wasn’t around fighting the forces of extremism and playing saviour.

My friend also pointed me to an article by Masood Hasan in which Hasan describes Pakistan as “a banana republic which has run out of bananas.” Heh.

And also, via email from Quizman, here’s a letter by Hameed Haroon, the publisher of Dawn, about how Musharraf is clamping down on the press. In any case, Musharraf’s shameful behaviour during the Mukhtaran Mai affair should be enough indication of how deeply illiberal he is. He’s masterfully built an image of himself in the West as a moderate moderniser, but that facade is slowly and surely falling apart.

Update (April 12): Nitin Pai writes in to add some nuance:

The mullahs of Lal Masjid are not the same chaps that were long held as bogeys. Leaders of the MMA have not only have had little influence over this business, but they have actually criticised the Lal Masjid brigade for, well, politicising religion. The Lal Masjid brigade has everything to do with Khalid Khawaja-Hamid Gul & Co which are parts of the establishment. Since your post is about Mush using the Mullahs, I thought it is worth pointing this out.

(Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that Mush controls Gul & Co entirely. They may be trying to replace one Mush with another.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 April, 2007 in Freedom | Journalism | Politics


Legalize poppy production in Afghanistan

The Independent informs us:

Tony Blair is considering calls to legalise poppy production in the Taliban’s backyard. The plan could cut medical shortages of opiates worldwide, curb smuggling - and hit the insurgents.

This is immensely smart. George Bush is opposed to it, but it’s probably about time that Blair said to him, “I’m a poodle, here’s my paw, it has a middle finger.”

And do check out General Musharraf’s quote in the piece about buying all the poppy so that it can be destroyed—what a clown.

(Link via email from Gautam John. And on the subject of legalizing drugs, here’s my essay, “Don’t punish victimless crimes.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 April, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | Politics


Politics and caste

One question: will Bhavna Koli be any better or any worse a corporator if her caste certificate turns out to be genuine?

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 March, 2007 in India | News | Politics


Pakistanis don’t want violence

Mohsin Hamid writes in the New York Times:

Pakistan is both more complicated and less dangerous than America has been led to believe. General Musharraf has portrayed himself as America’s last line of defense in an angry and dangerous land. In reality, the vast majority of Pakistanis want nothing to do with violence. When thousands of cricket fans from our archenemy, India, wandered about Pakistan unprotected for days in 2004, not one was abducted or killed. At my own wedding two years ago, a dozen Americans came, disregarding State Department warnings. They, too, spent their time in Pakistan without incident.

Yes, there are militants in Pakistan. But they are a small minority in a country with a population of 165 million.

I spent a couple of months in Pakistan last year, and can attest to what Hamid says: most Pakistanis, like people from anywhere else, just want a peaceful, prosperous life, and have no desire to court conflict. The problem is that it is in Musharraf’s interests to portray Pakistan as a dangerous place, so that he can get the support of the West. So far, he has succeeded, but that may change. The next few months promise to be interesting.

Also read
: my recent essay, “General Musharraf’s Incentives.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 March, 2007 in Politics


Bal Thackeray’s culture

PTI reports:

Stating that “winning and losing is a part of the game”, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray on Monday asked the disappointed cricket fans not to attack the players’ houses.

Conceding that India’s defeat to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the World Cup was a cause of anguish, Thackeray said in a statement that attacking players’ houses and taking out their mock funeral processions was not the way to express anger.

“This is not our culture…It does not behove us. Nowhere in the world do such things happen,” Thackeray said.

Immense amusement bestows itself liberally. We all know what kind of culture Mr Thackeray believes in. Do we not?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 March, 2007 in India | News | Politics


General Musharraf’s incentives

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

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

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

Read more...

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


Cricket and politics

Superb headline in DNA:

Imran Khan attacks President Musharraf for World Cup debacle.

Right. And the economy and terrorism are Inzamam-ul-Haq’s fault, and democracy in Pakistan has been subverted by Younis Khan. Savage delight flows from the barrel of a gun.

By the way, won’t the Pakistan-Zimbabwe encounter tomorrow be the only one in the tournament between two countries led by dictators?

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2007 in Politics | Sport


Where your taxes go: 18

Advertising campaigns for governments.

It’s quite possible that Amitabh Bachchan did the ads for UP for free, but my contention is that the government shouldn’t be wasting our tax money in producing and broadcasting advertisements for itself.

(Update: Reader Hemant brings my attention, via his comment below, to an Amitabh quote in the article in which he says that the ads were funded by the SP. If so, then this is clearly a wrong example, as your taxes may not be involved in this particular case. My bad, sorry! My larger point about government advertising, though, remains.)

A government should not need to advertise, its efficiency or inefficiency will be evident to all the people it governs. By all means, let a political party advertise its achievements with its own money, but to spend taxpayers’ money on it is a waste.

(Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. Also see: 1, 2, 3.

My essays on taxes and government: Your maid funds Unani, A beast called government.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics


Take a stand, John McCain

The New York Times, reporting on John McCain’s campaign, writes:

On Thursday, even as he promised a stream of the candid comments that distinguished him in 2000 — “Anything, anything you want to talk about,” he said — he steered clear of offering opinions on two of the biggest issues on the political landscape this week. He declined to say whether he agreed with the assertion by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that homosexuality is immoral, or whether he thought Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales should be ousted for his handling of the firing of federal prosecutors.

I can understand the reluctance of a candidate to express strong opinions on anything: part of the secret to winning an election surely is pissing off less people than your opponents. But equally, you want to see your politicians stand for something.

By refusing to answer the question on homosexuality, McCain is signalling to non-homophobic voters that either he believes that “homosexuality is immoral,” or he is pandering to the religious right in order to win the Republican nomination. He is also signalling to the religious right that while he pretends to share their ‘values,’ he won’t come out and openly say it.

Either way, he could be losing himself voters, and that’s a damn good thing. He showed his disregard for free speech with the odious McCain-Feingold act, and hedging his bets on an issue like this is, in my book, disgraceful.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 March, 2007 in Politics


Reading about libertarianism

There’s a feast of good reading on libertarianism available at the moment: the latest issue of Cato Unbound has a lead essay by Brian Doherty mapping the growth of libertarianism through the last few decades and speaking about its prospects. In a reaction essay, “Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World,” Brink Lindsey explains why he feels optimistic despite the fact that:

As an intellectual movement, libertarianism has come a long way. As a political movement, however, we’re still pretty near square one.

Tyler Cowen’s essay, “The Paradox of Libertarianism,” takes a contrarian view, which is responded to superbly by Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan. Also read Tom G Palmer’s essay, “Libertarianism or Liberty?” in which he explains the perils of confusing “the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism.”

The greatest insight of all, though, comes from a fine essay, “Horror and Freedom,” in which we are informed: “Cthulhu is the State.” Immense trembling ensues.

(Links via separate emails from Confused, Kuttan, Gautam Bastian and Nitin Pai.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 March, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | Politics


Free markets and democracy

Imagine you want to buy a cola. But you’re not allowed to just buy the cola you want. Instead, all cola drinkers in the country get to vote for a cola brand of their choice. Whichever brand the majority chooses, that’s the one you’re forced to drink. So if you like Coke and the majority votes for Pepsi, too bad. Coke will have to wait four years.

That’s the difference between democracy and free markets.

Now, obviously I’m not suggesting that we all have the MP we want and have separate governments for each of us. That would be absurd, if enjoyable to watch. The point I’m making is this: people who praise democracy for empowering individuals with the power of choice should like free markets even more, for offering that empowerment to a much larger degree. But too often in our country, votaries of democracy rant against free markets. Isn’t that strange?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 March, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | Politics | Small thoughts


A beast called government

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

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

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

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

Read more...

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


Journalists in Russia

“Fear makes such a good soil for self-censorship,” says Garry Kasparov, as quoted by Business Week in their story on how the Russian government oppresses journalists, “Who is killing Russian journalists?” The question, of course, is merely rhetorical.

If you are an Indian journalist, do read and feel relieved. Immense boredom may sometimes come, but at least there is no greater threat to life.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2007 in Journalism | Politics


Let us trade with Pakistan

My belief in how we should deal with Pakistan was outlined in an earlier post, where I wrote:

I embrace what appears to many to be two contradictory approaches: an uncompromisingly hard line when it comes to terrorism, and a deepening of trade and people-to-people contact. Both work towards the same end.

I remmbering discussing this with Nitin Pai over a series of emails, trying to bring him round to my point of view, and Nitin has now come out with an excellent Op-Ed in Mint that elaborates on my point about using trade to subvert the military’s hold on Pakistan, and explains how the peace process should be re-engineered. Do read.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2007 in Economics | India | Politics


Singur: Media bias or media ignorance?

ATimes of India report begins:

Protests against Bengal’s industrial revitalisation could receive a new fillip after the suicide of a 62-year-old cultivator, an organiser of the Krishi Jami Raksha Committee (KJRC) in Singur, who lost nearly an acre of land to the Tata Motors project.

This is either dishonest reporting or shoddy journalism, and I shall give the benefit of the doubt to the reporter and assume that it is the latter. The protests at Singur are not against “Bengal’s industrial revitalisation” but against the forceful appropriation of land by the government. As I wrote in an earlier post on eminent domain and Singur, it really does not matter if the farmers got compensation: if they did not want to sell, it is theft.

Now, eminent domain might be justifiable as a last resort for matters of public use, such as building roads, but it is outrageous when it is applied to take land from poor farmers and give it to a rich industrial house. The irony here is that Tata would probably have been willing to negotiate with the farmers for the land directly, but by law, farmers aren’t allowed to sell their agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. Yes, that’s right: even if Tata was willing to talk to the farmers and negotiate with them, and farmers were willing to sell, it would have been an illegal transaction. So Tata had no choice but to go to the government, which, of course, is not into negotiating, and simply took the land by force.

I entirely agree with Shruti Rajagopalan when she writes here that the fundamental right to property, revoked in 1978, should be reinstated in our constitution. An “industrial revitalisation” is only sustainable when property rights are sacrosanct. Otherwise it’s a mockery.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Journalism | Politics


Pervez Musharraf’s incentives

Headlines like “India-Pak terror pact sinking fast” exasperate me. Whaddya expect? As I have written before, the India-Pakistan peace process is a charade. While it is in General Pervez Musharraf’s interest to talk peace with India, as it makes him appear responsible in the eyes of the international community, it is equally in his interest to continue the conflict, which Pakistan’s military needs for its sustenance. All talk, no walk, in other words.

Similar incentives drive Musharraf’s actions as far as the War on Terror is concerned. As I wrote here, appearing to be America’s ally gets the foreign aid flooding in (1, 2), which Pakistan’s economy desperately needs. However, if al-Qaeda and the Taliban are actually defeated, then that aid will begin to dry up, as Musharraf and Pakistan will no longer be needed so badly.

In each case, Musharraf is doing what any rational person in his place would do. The only way to solve either problem is to change his incentives. And, much as the mandarins in New Delhi may shudder at the thought, the Americans can do that far better than we can.

The next few months will be interesting.

(Some earlier posts on Musharraf.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2007 in Economics | Politics


The entitlement industry

Everybody wants a share of the pie. Reservations, pah!

(My feelings on reservations have been expressed here. What else is there to say? The divisions grow…)

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2007 in India | Politics


China, Taiwan and the Cricket World Cup

What does the cricket World Cup have to do with China and Taiwan, you may ask? Plenty. Sam Sheringham reports on Bloomberg:

More than 8,000 miles from Beijing, Chinese workers are putting the finishing touches on stadiums for a sport they’ve never played.

Living in temporary plastic huts and taking a single day off each month, about 1,000 employees of state-owned Chinese companies have sweated away the past year on the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Antigua and Grenada as the West Indies prepare to host the Cricket World Cup, the game’s premier international event.

Their presence has more to do with China’s drive to isolate Taiwan, the democracy it considers a breakaway province, than with what the Chinese call shen shi yun dong, or “the noble game.’’ China is using its economic might to break alliances Taiwan forged in the Caribbean to counter its status as a diplomatic outcast.

Later in the piece Winston Baldwin Spencer, the prime minister of Antigua & Barbuda, is quoted as confessing, “They knew we didn’t have the money. If we didn’t have the Chinese workers we wouldn’t have been able to complete the stadium.”

I knew geopolitics and sport often collided, but I never imagined that China could use cricket to isolate Taiwan. I just hope the sport doesn’t get into any more crosshairs now. How disastrous it would be if Islamic terrorists were to chose a cricketing stage to make a political statement.

(Link via email from Nitin Pai.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 March, 2007 in Politics | Sport


How to create terrorists

You can’t find a better manual on how to make people hate you than Tony Lagouranis’s description of how he tortured people in Iraq when he was in the US Army. An excerpt from John Conroy’s article on Lagouranis:

The warrant officer secured a shipping container that became the unit’s interrogation booth. Stress positions became standard operating procedure. They included standing for long periods; kneeling on concrete, gravel, or plywood; and crawling across gravel. “Another one we’d use was where they would have their back against the wall and their knees bent at right angles. We used to do that as an exercise in basic training and it gets real painful after a few minutes, but we’d make the prisoners do that for a long time.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 05 March, 2007 in Politics


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