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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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Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.

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

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: 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:


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:


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


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.


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?


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.


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.


Posted by Amit Varma on 05 March, 2007 in Politics

On the CBI

Mulayam Singh Yadav does not want the CBI to carry out the probe in the case of his alleged disproportionate assets. His fear of the CBI is, by itself, a sharp comment on the efficiency of the agency.

And what is that comment? I suppose that depends on which party you support.

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

Reading too much into elections

The BJP has done well in the Punjab and Uttarakhand elections, and already people are calling it “a saffron wave.” That is as much rubbish as all that talk about the UPA having got a mandate from the last elections. (As I mentioned here, one look at the constitution of this Lok Sabha should disabuse notions of a “collective will.”) Individuals vote in elections for their own individual reasons, and much of the time, in an age of a fractured electorate and hung parliaments, huge amounts of luck determines who gets into power.

It is, of course, typical of us to try to discern patterns in all of this. But these patterns, these mandates, they’re illusory things. No point celebrating or mourning yet, depending on which party you support. Flip-flop hota rahega.

Also read: my essay from last week, Don’t Think in Categories. It’s relevant.

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

On making budgets and winning elections

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, in a piece titled “Parable of the Shopkeeper,” offer us this mind game:

Suppose you plan to open a shop on a street that is lined with houses. These houses are evenly distributed along the street. There are two things you know at this point of time. There is a competitor who is patiently waiting to open a shop just next to yours. And the customers who live along this street will walk into the shop that is nearest to their homes.

So, where will you build your store?

Well, if you build it at the corner, your competitor will simply build one next to yours but closer to the center, so more people will end up going there. The logical thing, therefore, is to build one close to the center. And that, indeed, is what politicians do. As Niranjan writes:


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

Enough carrot. Time for stick

Dick Cheney landed in Pakistan a couple of days ago to urge Pervez Musharraf to get serious about fighting al Qaeda. About time. This acknowledges that Pakistan wasn’t doing enough to wipe out al Qaeda to begin with, and no sensible man would expect otherwise. As I wrote here and here, it is not in Musharraf’s interest to end the battle with al Qaeda by winning it. Pakistan’s economy has flourished after 9/11 because it is the USA’s main ally in the War on Terror, and an end to the War on Terror means an end to aid and preferential treatment.

So the carrot was never likely to work. Will the stick fare better?

(Previous posts on Musharraf.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 February, 2007 in Economics | Politics

Socialism and the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation

Kunal Sawardekar writes about how Douglas Adams’s description of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation fits socialism as well:

Their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws.

Kunal expands:

Whenever a Socialist policy fails, the blame falls on some minor (in the greater scheme of things) deviation from the Socialist Golden Path. For example, the National Rural Employment Scheme is a brilliant solution to rural poverty, it will only fail because the bureaucrats have weakened the Employment Guarantee Act. Forcing banks to give farmers in Vidharba low-interest loans in a good idea, the problem is that the interest is not low enough. Five-year-plans are a great idea, its just that our planners sucked. And so on.

Indeed. Always blame the execution—or order one, if it comes to that. That’s the way of socialism.

(Link via email from Ravikiran. And here’s an old Op-Ed by me on the REGB.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 February, 2007 in Economics | Politics

So much political analysis…

... is really just wishful thinking. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2007 in Politics | Small thoughts

“He makes her look like yesterday”

So says Peggy Noonan about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

I have just one thing to add: The browser I’m using right now is Firefox, and its automatic spellcheck puts a red underline under ‘Barack’ and ‘Obama’, but not under ‘Hillary’ and ‘Clinton’. How soon do you think it will take for that to change?

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2007 in Politics

The difference between American politics and Indian politics…

... can be condensed into one observation: American politicians often write books; Indian ones mostly don’t.

Indeed, I wonder if Indian politicians even read them.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 February, 2007 in Politics | Small thoughts

Don’t think in categories

This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.

As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”

Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.


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

No niche markets in presidential politics

Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal about the US presidential elections:

You remember the story, from Genesis, of the famished brother who gave up his birthright for food. “He sold his soul for a mess of pottage.” The problem in national politics this year is the number of candidates of whom it could plausibly said, “He sold his soul for a pot of message.” He became something else, adopted new views, took stands the opposite of what he’d taken in the past, because he thought that if he didn’t he could not win a base in the base. (“He” here includes “she.”) Candidates take new views to create a new message. You “sell your soul” to put on the policy skin media professionals fashion for you. In this way you make yourself into someone else. [...]


Posted by Amit Varma on 20 February, 2007 in Politics

Words, words, words

It hardly needs to be said that the bomb blasts inside the Samjhauta Express are a terrible tragedy, or that one feels awful for the people who lost family members in it, or that the perpetrators should be punished. Yet it is said, repeatedly, by leaders from all over the place, and duly reported. What’s the point of this? Does it matter to anyone?

And really, what’s the EU doing saying things like this:

The composite dialogue and reconciliation process between India and Pakistan should continue with all efforts.

Do they have any idea of the nuances involved? Who, exactly, is that statement meant for? It can’t be the governments of India or Pakistan, both of whom would snort, if governments can snort, at hearing such suggestions from the EU.

Perhaps Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf should get together and advise the EU on how to rework their anti-trust laws. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 February, 2007 in Politics

Amitabh for president?

I’m amused by all the speculation around whether Amitabh Bachchan will consent to being a candidate in India’s presidential elections. If anything, it shows how meaningless the post is, a vestigial organ of government. In the past, it’s been used to kick politicians upstairs, reward old partymen for a few decades of service, or make a symbolic gestures about inclusiveness. (The calculus of caste and religion plays a part; see here and here.) But at least most previous presidents have had some kind of experience in politics and governance. Why does Bachchan deserve to be president?

On the other hand, do consider who won it last. I can’t imagine Bachchan coming up with anything quite like APJ Abdul Kalam’s poetry. I can live with “Eir Bir Phatte.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2007 in India | Politics

Where’s the Freedom Party

My weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through, kicked off on February 8, 2007. It will appear every Thursday. This is the first installment, also posted on the old India Uncut.

It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.

Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.


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

The kidnapping of India

A version of my piece below was first published onOctober 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog

Imagine this scenario: someone kidnaps a child and, for decades, maims and exploits him. Then, in a sudden revelation, we learn that the kidnapper was once under the pay of a branch of the mafia that is now defunct. There is instant outrage, and everyone condemns the crime. “How could you have taken money from the mafia?” they ask.


Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces

The myth of India’s liberalization

The piece below by me was published on June 16, 2005 as an Op-Ed in the Asian Wall Street Journal, titled “India’s Far From Free Markets” (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to visit Washington in a few weeks, and editorialists and commentators have already started writing about the emerging economic power of India. New Delhi’s decision to start liberalizing its economy in 1991 is touted as a seminal event in India’s history, the moment when it threw off the shackles of Fabian socialism and embraced free markets. It is the stuff of myth—and to a large extent, it is exactly that.


Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces

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