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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.

To buy it online from the US, click here.

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.

If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho

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

Notes After a Journey

I arrived back in Bombay about 24 hours ago, wide awake until the sun came out, asleep all day, and then awake again into the late hours. Jet lag, you might say, but this was pretty much my schedule before I left for the US. Still, I need to move to a normal routine soon.

Below, some quick notes in lieu of many posts…

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The Incomparable Mr Vij

One of the great pleasures of my stay in NYC was hanging out with Manish Vij of Ultrabrown fame. I had a place to stay for just half my trip, and asked Manish if he knew of any cheap hotels where the partner and I could spend the remaining four days. Manish insisted that we stay at his place, a compact flat in Harlem. He left the bedroom to us, slummed out in the tiny hall, and took us around his city. No doubt it affected his work—he stayed up late finishing pending tasks, some of which have turned out ultracool.

Manish had spent a few months in India earlier this year, and my first impression of the guy when I met him in Bandra was of a dude who went around clicking pictures everywhere in a touristy way. But as time went by I realized that his interest in his surroundings went much below the skin. Manish has this fabulous skill of immersing himself in the local culture of wherever he is without being judgmental or cynical, and that native enthusiasm shows through on his blog. Spending time with him was most rewarding, even if his taste in movies differs rather drastically from mine. (He loves Devdas and hates Dor. Pah!)

So my deepest thanks to Manish, and here’s a picture of us below, taken by the partner. I’m presumably doing something disgusting with myself, while Manish looks on in bemused disapproval…


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On Tehelka and Gujarat

Tehelka‘s powerful expose on Gujarat broke while I was in NYC, and I simply didn’t have enough time to read up on it, and see the clips, and blog about it. A couple of things struck me early on:

1. We already knew what had happened in Gujarat—there was enough credible journalism on the subject. Tehelka‘s story gave us proof, and added details, and that will be valuable for historians at a later point in time. But I don’t expect it to change India’s politics, or change the way the Gujarat riots are perceived at large. People have already taken their positions on Gujarat, and expecting a BJP supporter to say “Oh my goodness, this has opened my eyes” is unrealistic.

2. I am cynical about the rule of law in India. In my eyes, it works only for the powerful, not for the common Indian. And just as justice has been hard to come by for the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, and the Bombay riots, justice may never be fully done in Gujarat—even if a few foot-soldiers get punished here and there.

I hope I’m wrong on both the above points, needless to say.

Also, I share the outrage expressed by Shoma Chaudhury in this piece, where she speaks of how so many people are speculating on Tehelka‘s motives rather than focussing on their journalism. “We can be shown a man gloating over a foetus ripped out of a mother’s womb,” she writes, “but we would rather embroider why we are being shown this than react with honest emotion to the fact.”

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It’s November? Really?

I walked a lot in New York, and it was a pleasure. Back in Mumbai, the weather is insanely hot, and such walking simply isn’t viable. And so the tummy will grow again.

Really, this is November, for FSM’s sake. Where’s winter?

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 November, 2007 in India | Personal | Politics

Got an Opinion?

Be prepared to apologize. In India, opinions can be problematic.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2007 in Freedom | India | Politics

What Arnie Really Means

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been quoted as saying:

Every decision has to based on what is the best for the people, how can I serve the people, rather than how can I serve my party.

What he really means is:

Every decision has to based on what is the best for me, how can I serve my own interests, rather than how I can serve my party. After all, I’m a Republican standing for governor in a Democratic state, and I must pretend to be non-partisan.

If Schwarzenegger was the governor of Texas, he’d have supported completely different policies from the one he now pushes. I’m not condemning the man—that’s just the nature of politics. Also, self-interest is a good thing. The trick is to make sure that our politicians’ interests are aligned with ours. That’s dreadfully difficult in practice.

(Link via email from Gaurav Sabnis.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 October, 2007 in Politics

The Understated Mr Modi

The line of the day comes from a news report on Narendra Modi abruptly terminating an interview by Karan Thapar because of questions about the Gujarat riots:

Before walking out, the firebrand leader said he never bothered to indulge in an image building exercise and argued that only two-three people have accused him of being prejudiced against Muslims.

Right. And only seven-eight people live in India.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 October, 2007 in India | Politics

Here, Kitty Kitty Kitty Kitty Kitty Kitty!

“Are you as sick as I am of all the web videos out there that get thousands of hits just because they have a girl in her underwear? This is not one of those videos. I may actually teach you how to do something! How to give your cat a bath.”

Sigh. Some cats have all the luck. Anyway, this is by a lady named Liv, also known as the Ron Paul Girl. What? You’ve never heard of the Ron Paul Girl? Eeks. Here, you simply have to watch Liv’s Ron Paul Girl videos, so here are three of them, below the fold:


Posted by Amit Varma on 20 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Miscellaneous | Politics

Dear Rahul Gandhi

This is the 36th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Dear Rahul

Congratulations on your recent elevation as general secretary of the Congress party. Yes, I know, it was just a formality, and there’s more to come. Still, it’s a start, and one that you used to make a statement.

Shortly after getting this post, you took a delegation to Manmohan Singh and asked for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) to be extended to all 593 districts of this country. A couple of days later, the Prime Minister announced that extension. With this, you demonstrated your clout in the party, and you also made a gesture of commitment towards the poor people of this country.

I have a question, though. Have you had a chance to look at the reports evaluating the NREGS that have been released recently? One of them, by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, found that just 6% of the households registered under the scheme actually got 100 days of employment in 2006-07. Another, carried out by the Centre of Environment and Food Security (CEFS) a few months ago, is even more worrying.


Posted by Amit Varma on 18 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Letters | Politics | Thinking it Through

How Not to Help India’s Rural Poor

This Op-Ed of mine was published in the Wall Street Journal Asia today.

Politics is often about grand gestures, and the Congress Party’s 37-year-old new general secretary, Rahul Gandhi, understands this perfectly. Shortly after landing his position last month, Mr. Gandhi demanded that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh extend a massive cash redistribution scheme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), to all 593 districts of the country. Mr. Singh duly assented.

If this is an indication of Mr. Gandhi’s power—and how he might use it in future—it’s not encouraging. The NREGA was enacted early last year by the Congress-led coalition. The act guarantees the government will provide 100 days of work every year to every rural household in India—there are no reliable figures on exactly how many of these there are—at an estimated total cost of $3 billion before the newly announced expansion. First launched in 200 districts, it was expanded to another 130 in the last fiscal year.

As expected, NREGA has proved little more than a siphon for corrupt bureaucrats, not a boon to the poor. And now, there are numbers to back up that assertion.

Last month, the Delhi-based Society for Participatory Research in Asia, a non-profit organization, released a preliminary study on NREGA’s governance. The results are shocking. In the financial year beginning in April 2006, only 6% of the households registered under the scheme actually received their 100 days of employment. PRIA’s study also cited shoddy implementation practices across 14 of India’s 28 states. In the surveyed villages, only 45% of registered households had even applied for work under the scheme. And of those households that had applied for a job, only 44% had received one within the required 15 days.

PRIA’s results mirror the findings of another study carried out by the Centre of Environment and Food Security earlier this year. The CEFS study focused on the state of Orissa, and found that about 75% of the funds spent in Orissa had been “siphoned and pocketed by the government officials.” “We could not find a single case where entries in the job cards are correct and match with the actual number of workdays physically verified with the villagers,” the study noted. Out of a total $187 million in public monies spent in the state during the 2006-2007 fiscal year, around $127 million was effectively stolen.

This kind of wastage shouldn’t come as a great surprise. India’s bureaucrats hold effectively tenured positions, and are often unaccountable to the public they serve. Their incentives are tailored only toward increasing their power and their budgets. Government is not transparent, and most common citizens do not contemplate legal recourse against it, as the legal system is dysfunctional and the rule of law is weak.

Instead of promising government jobs to agricultural workers, India’s government could do far greater good by stimulating competition—and investment—in rural India. As it is, government too often gets in the way. For example, one law limits the geographic area in which farmers can sell their produce, and some states require farmers to sell to monopolist distributors. Another law restricts produce shipments across state lines. Topping it all off, India is one of the biggest defenders of market-distorting agricultural tariffs in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round negotiations.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with India’s approach to economic reform. What’s needed is not grand gestures and more handouts, but a comprehensive review of how to stimulate private investment and entrepreneurship. Mr. Gandhi should understand that there is no better guarantee of employment than economic growth.

*  *  *

Also read: My Op-Ed in WSJ two years ago about the NREGA, Good Intentions, Bad Ideas.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces

I’ve Picked My President

Finally, a worthy contender for the 2008 US presidential elections.

(Breaking news via email from Gaurav Sabnis.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | News | Politics

Drunk With Power

The WTF lines of the day come from a report on the Rizwanur Rahman case in West Bengal. For those not familiar with the case, Rizwanur married Priyanka Todi, the daughter of an industrialist, against her father’s wishes, and the irate dad then got his pals in the police to put pressure on the young man and separate the couple. Rizwanur was eventually found dead under suspicious circumstances. DNA, writing about Kolkata Police Commissioner Prasun Mukherjee’s response, reports:

[Mukherjee] described the Rizwanur-Priyanka marriage as a relation between two individuals coming from diametrically opposite financial backgrounds and vowed that the police will continue to interfere in such marriages. [My emphasis.]

Coming from a police commissioner, these are stunning words. If two young adults choose to get married, it is the police’s job to protect them and prevent their rights from being violated. Instead, Mukherjee endorses police pressure to break the couple up. It is as if the rule of law does not exist, and we still live in a feudal society.

My friend JAP-da, an IAS officer in Kolkata, argues that we should not hold the officers named in the case guilty of murder until the investigations are over. Fair enough. But it is clear from Mukherjee’s own statement (”... vowed that the police will continue to interfere in such marriages”) that some of the policemen abused their positions of power. They should be sacked immediately. The murder inquiry can then proceed.

Update: The cops in question have been ‘transferred’, though the headline says ‘removed’. Which is it? Cynical ol’ me has a guess.

(Link via email from Yazad.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 October, 2007 in India | News | Politics | WTF

Al Gore and the IPCC

Al Gore and the IPCC may have shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on global warming, but they’re actually strange bedfellows. The IPCC is all about science; Gore is more about polemic. Bjorn Lomborg writes in the Boston Globe:

Gore told the world in his Academy Award-winning movie to expect 20-foot sea-level rises over this century. He ignores the findings of his Nobel co-winners, who conclude that sea levels will rise between only a half-foot and two feet over this century, with their best expectation being about one foot. That’s similar to what the world experienced over the past 150 years.

Likewise, Gore agonizes over the accelerated melting of ice in Greenland and what it means for the planet, but overlooks the IPCC’s conclusion that, if sustained, the current rate of melting would add just 3 inches to the sea-level rise by the end of the century. Gore also takes no notice of research showing that Greenland’s temperatures were higher in 1941 than they are today.

The politician-turned-moviemaker loses sleep over a predicted rise in heat-related deaths. There’s another side of the story that’s inconvenient to mention: rising temperatures will reduce the number of cold spells, which are a much bigger killer than heat. The best study shows that by 2050, heat will claim 400,000 more lives, but 1.8 million fewer will die because of cold. Indeed, according to the first complete survey of the economic effects of climate change for the world, global warming will actually save lives.

Lomborg isn’t saying that global warming doesn’t exist. His position is that the effects of it are vastly exaggerated, and that the world faces other problems that require urgent intervention. Given that we have limited resources to tackle these problems, it is important to prioritize. That’s precisely what Lomborg’s initiative, the Copenhagen Consensus, set out to do.

Also read: my earlier post on the subject, Global warming (or will it rain this weekend?).

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Politics

Let’s Have Some Cultural Exchange!

Here’s a WTF quote from a few months ago:

Sex education may be necessary in Western countries, but not in India, which has rich culture. It will have adverse effect on young minds, if implemented.

That’s HD Kumaraswamy speaking, former chief minister of Karnataka and the son of HD Deve Gowda, the former prime minister whose rich cultural exchange with his wife a few decades ago led to Kumaraswamy’s existence.

And the picture in that piece is priceless, isn’t it? Poor girls, made to pose like that.

(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 October, 2007 in India | Politics | WTF

Bad Horsemen Rule Us

This is spot on:

Politicians are like bad horsemen who are so preoccupied with keeping in the saddle that they can’t bother about where they go.

That’s Joseph Schumpeter, as quoted by Russell Roberts.

Coincidentally, just before I came across this quote I was reading Charles Krauthammer on why he can live with Hillary Clinton being president because “her ideology [is] subordinate to her political needs” and “she is so liberated from principle.” But is that not true of most successful politicians?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 October, 2007 in Politics

Loyal to Their Masters?

The WTF quote of the day comes from Chandra Bhan Prasad, trying to justify reservations in the private sector by arguing that it will help companies:

It is in the culture of dalits that they are least likely to change their employment because they are so loyal to their masters.

If I was a dalit, I’d be immensely offended by this statement. Leave that aside—Even if Prasad’s strange generalization is somehow accurate, his argument is all wrong. If a quota for dalits would help companies, then they would have such a quota without being forced to. In a competitive market, any company can only survive by maximising efficiencies. In this game of survival, companies don’t need to be told what is good for them—they find out by doing it and surviving, or not doing it and getting screwed.

But then, this meme of “we know what’s good for you and we’ll force you to do it” is a common justification for much government action of the last 60 years. It’s okay when parents say that to a child, but we are all adults here, and can decide for ourselves what’s good for us. Sadly, the state doesn’t agree.

By the by, the Economist piece that Prasad’s quote is from is worth a read. Check it out.

(Link via email from Ravikiran.)

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

A Political Game Show

This is the 35th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

In the last few days, I have been thinking deeply about how to solve India’s problems. I have interspersed this demanding activity with furious bouts of watching television. One moment I ponder over who I should vote for in the next general elections. The next moment I send an SMS voting for Aneek Dhar in Sa Ra Ga Ma Pa. A moment later I worry about poverty. Then I watch a repeat of Jhalak Dikhla Ja. Thus the moments pass.

After all this, I have come to the conclusion that only television can solve problems. This has been reinforced by some big bloggers, which means I am right. Scott Adams, on the Dilbert Blog, has proposed a new reality show that pits think tanks against one another, with the public getting to vote for the policies they like. Alex Tabarrok, on Marginal Revolution, has suggested a game show called So You Think You Can Be President?, which puts presidential candidates through rigorous and entertaining tests.

I suggest a similar game show for India, tailored to discovering the qualities that matter to Indian voters. Instead of going out to vote at polling booths, which involves arduous physical labour (at least to a desk-bound half-Bengali like me), we should be allowed to vote via SMS and phone calls. The revenues thus generated can go straight into the government’s coffers, and taxes can be abolished. (See, don’t you like this idea already?)


Posted by Amit Varma on 11 October, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

Who Will Inspect the Inspectors?

Line of the day:

[H]ow can we expect things to change when the inspector and the inspected are one and the same?

This is from a Hindustan Times edit on Bluelines buses. But it holds true for our entire system of government. Why should the inmates stop running the asylum? No one’s that crazy.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 October, 2007 in India | Politics

The Energy Policy of the USA

Politically incorrect line of the day:

At the risk of oversimplifying, our current energy policy in The United States involves shooting bearded people.

That’s Scott Adams, in a superb post proposing “a reality TV show where think tanks compete for the best solutions to everything from health care to energy policy to immigration.”

They should also have to sing, otherwise it’s no fun.

(Link via Silk-list.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 October, 2007 in Media | Politics

“Politics is About Power”

That’s the headline of a piece in the Hindustan Times today.

And journalism is about stating the obvious?

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 October, 2007 in India | Journalism | Media | Politics

“A Word Can Mean What I Choose It To Mean”

Bibek Debroy writes about why the Official Secrets Act of 1923 represents a “triple problem”:

First, it is ostensibly against spying and that apparently gives it some legitimacy. Second, it reflects a 1923 mindset and doesn’t recognise advances in technology. For instance, it prevents the taking of photographs at airports (even civilian ones), a provision that no sensible country anywhere in the world has any more. If one intended to use such pictures for anti-national purposes, more efficient ways of accessing such photographs are possible.

Third, the OSA doesn’t define what a secret is. So VK Singh is absolutely right when he says, “Even a circular for a tea party in RAW is secret. Your TA claim and cheque slip is secret. You take them out and you will be hauled up for it.” Indeed, it gets more bizarre. If something is in the public domain, it can continue to be a secret. No wonder that in the 1986 Ram Swaroop case, the court said, “Secret information is an information which may not be secret but relates to a matter the disclosure of which is likely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of State or friendly relation with foreign State or useful to an enemy.” Even if the secret is not a secret and is known, it can be held to be a secret under the OSA if it ‘adversely affects’ India’s security interests. This sounds like stuff straight out of Alice in Wonderland. A word can mean what I choose it to mean.

Earlier in the piece, Debroy quotes Max Weber:

Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret… Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament — at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy’s interests.

Precisely. And just as bureaucracy wants a poorly informed parliament, our politicians want a poorly informed (or misinformed) electorate. Information empowers, and it is essential for those in power to make sure that the people they are theoretically accountable to have as little of it as possible. Such it goes…

Also read: An old essay by me, A Beast Called Government.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 October, 2007 in India | Politics

William Easterly on Inequality

William Easterly, in a piece on how the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is trying to find a reason to exist, writes:

The inequality report is a good example of an iron law of aid: Aid agencies need bad news to justify their existence. Frantically trying to find some bad news in the greatest mass escape from poverty in world history, the quarter-century-old Asian boom, ADB complains that economic growth worsens “absolute inequality.” This is true, but meaningless. If I had a 10-fold income increase and Bill Gates only a 10% raise, such economic growth would still worsen the “absolute” income gap between Gates and me because billionaire Gates’ raise is larger in absolute size. But I think most of us would take this growth anyway.

Even ADB concedes the poor are growing richer with economic growth. But this obsession with inequality leads to bad policies, since the only way to avert rising absolute inequality is to stop growth. And anyway, if indeed that’s the goal, we don’t need ADB to tell us how to accomplish it—the Burmese junta has done an admirable job of avoiding growth, and the resulting “absolute inequality,” without much advice from ADB at all.

Exactly. And yet in India we find the bleeding-heart brigade go on and on about inequality, feeling noble and compassionate as they do so. The right questions to ask are not about inequality, but whether the poor in India are better off than they were in absolute terms, and whether there are policies that can help accelerate their journey out of poverty and towards prosperity.

On the latter question, I believe that a lot more can be done to fight poverty. And the way ahead lies in more reforms, not less.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 October, 2007 in Economics | India | Politics

Dear Pankaj Vohra

Dear Pankaj Vohra

In a recent column in the Hindustan Times, you wrote that Rahul Gandhi should “look into who among his colleagues were engaged in politics for their own narrow ends, and who were the ones who kept the party and the country in mind.”

I have a request for you: Could you please name three Indian politicians who keep the interests of their party and country above their self-interest?

Just three.

Thank you for your time, and warm regards

Amit Varma

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 October, 2007 in India | Letters | Politics

David Miliband, Blogger

David Miliband, Britain’s foreign minister, has started blogging. His reasons:

Diplomacy is traditionally seen as something that happens between governments and behind closed doors, but as the distinction between domestic and foreign becomes blurred, increasingly foreign policy is becoming the domain of all people. Whether it is climate change, the threat from extremism or the fight against poverty and degradation, these are challenges that have an impact on all of us and we can all play a part in tackling them.

Through this blog I want to explain my priorities, how I approach my job as Foreign Secretary and my ideas about the issues we face. But I also want to use it to hear the views of the readers across the world who have their own perspectives and ideas.

That’s quite excellent, but the last time Miliband started a blog, it was alleged to be costing the British taxpayer “somewhere approaching £40,000 a year,” in a classic example of government inefficiency—a blog costs next to nothing to set up and maintain. If he wishes to portray himself as transparent and accountable, he should first indicate on his new blog how much taxpayers’ money is going into it. After that we can look past the clunky prose and figure out if this is just an exercise in public relations, or Miliband really wishes to engage with the world. If it is the latter, hats off to him.

(Link to Milband’s blog via FP Passport, which Gautam John pointed me to via email.)

Update: Ravikiran Rao writes in:

You’ve mentioned that a blog “costs next to nothing to set up and maintain”. But that is true only if you ignore the opportunity cost of the blogger’s time. For comparison, if a CEO of a major corporation blogs, he will almost surely have an assistant to do the research for him, and that will cost him something. Given that, 40,000 pounds a year does not seem hugely inefficient to me. It is inefficient only if you think that blogging is just hot air, which seems to be the premise of the criticism.

Good point. But the premise of my criticism is not that blogging is hot air, which would be rather ironic given the medium of my message, but that money coercively gathered from citizens should, at the very least, be responsibly spent. So the big question here would be whether Miliband’s blog is worth the taxpayers’ money spent on it, a matter that can be left to individual taxpayers to decide for themselves. To do this, they should first know what Miliband really is spending.

Also, if Miliband’s blog really has value, there should be better ways of monetizing it than using funds coercively gathered from hapless citizens. And that principle applies to more than just the blog.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 October, 2007 in Blogging | Politics

Justice Delayed…

... is better than no justice at all.

Of course, this wouldn’t be so widely reported if such justice was not so unusual. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 October, 2007 in India | News | Politics

The Hardest Kind of Politics

Quote of the day:

We are not trying to win the elections, we are trying to have elections.

That’s Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess player ever, who is engaged in his hardest game yet—against Vladimir Putin, who has the equivalent of eight queens to begin with. Can Kasparov win?

If you’re interested in both chess and politics, as I am, I recommend you check out Kasparov’s book, How Life Imitates Chess. I found it immensely fascinating for his explanation of how his early matches against Anatoly Karpov taught him lessons that he is now using against Putin.

(First link via Instapundit.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 September, 2007 in Freedom | Politics | Sport

The Negative Proof Fallacy

The WTF quote of the day comes from Praveen Togadia, who says, in an interview with Rediff:

According to rationalists, anything that cannot be proven does not exist. Therefore, since God’s existence has not been proven, he too does not exist. I want to ask them: Has it been proven that God does not exist? So, why are you so eager to believe that God does not exist?

Togadia, of course, is committing the Negative Proof Fallacy. Daft, but entirely expected from the man.

Also, atheism, contrary to a common misconception, is not the belief that there is no God, but the absence of belief in God. There is a difference between believing that there is no God, and not believing that there is God. The former might be an article of faith, but the latter is entirely rational.

For more, read my post, Atheism as the Absence of Belief.

(Togadia link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 September, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Politics | WTF

Where Your Taxes Go: 25

The Indian cricket team.

Yes, the Maharashtra government is giving Rs10 Lakh each to Ajit Agarkar and Rohit Sharma, and the Delhi government is handing out Rs5 lakh each to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. This is disgraceful. If Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sheila Dikshit wish to use India’s victory to make a statement, they should spend their own money. All poor people in this country, from maids to chaprasis to cycle-rickshaw drivers, pay taxes every time they buy anything. It is ludicrous that their hard-earned money, coercively collected by the state, should be spent on cricketers with endorsements that are worth crores.

(Link via email from Jitendra Mohan. Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24. Also see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

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

Update: Speaking of endorsements...

(Link via reader Surendra.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 September, 2007 in Economics | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Sport

BP Singhal, Entertainer

WTF quote of the day:

Anybody who wants to denigrate another religion, I call him a Christian. You must find out Ambika Soni’s religion.

This is Hindutva defender BP Singhal, as interviewed by Shivam Vij. It is a priceless rant, but its entertainment value is diluted by the fact that many people take Singhal seriously, and share his sentiments.

This fine exchange takes place between Shivam and Singhal in another part of the interview:

[T]here is an objective way of looking at such things that can recognise mythology but not mythological beliefs.

If you come to the scientific realm I will give you scientific evidence. There are seventh century onward coins which have the word Setu on them. There are temple complexes in Indonesia which have sculptures of seven monkeys carrying stones on their arms and heads, and with bows and arrows Lakshman and Ram behind them.

But those could be artistic representations of mythological stories.

Who are you to give your interpretation, artistic or non-artistic! And who is anybody? There is a picture that speaks for itself. If you don’t understand its language say I don’t understand its language. But you have no right whatsoever to give another interpretation than what it is giving in your face!

That’s right, whatever Singhal says is fact, and anything else is an interpretation that no one has the right to articulate. Who are you to give your interpretation, eh?

The best part comes when Singhal is asked about what he thinks is the motive for wanting to destroy the Ram Setu, and he says:

Americans! Americans! Americans and the Christians. I mean, Christians because of Americans and Americans because of Christians, and Christians themselves.

So you see, illogical anti-Americanism is not just a feature of the Loony Left, but also of the Rabid Right. Such it is, such it goes…

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 September, 2007 in Politics | WTF

The Rise of Intolerance in Bangladesh

Our Gods are so weak that they cannot defend themselves, so we must do it for them. FP Passport reports that a controversy has erupted in Bangladesh over the publication of a cartoon with the following accompanying text:

A man: What is your name?
Boy: Babu.
Man: You should say “Mohammed Babu”. What’s is your father’s name?
Boy: X.
Man: You should say “Mohammed X”.  What is that in your lap?
Boy: Mohammed cat.

Pretty harmless, I would think—indeed, how can any cartoon be harmful?—but religious conservatives in Bangladesh are up in arms. The cartoonist, a 20-year-old kid, has reportedly been arrested, and the sub-editor of that humour section has been “terminated for carelessness.” (I’m presuming by ‘terminated’ they mean fired from his job, and nothing more sinister!) There are also calls to arrest the editor of the newspaper where the cartoon was published, the much-respected Matiur Rahman.

Commenting on it in that FP post, Blake Hounshell writes:

This story isn’t about hurt feelings; it’s about raw political power. [...] It’s a familiar pattern in Muslim countries ruled by authoritarian governments: Religious conservatives use religion cynically to embarrass the regime and whip up populist sentiment. Over time, they can force the government to make accommodating moves and concede elements of government to the clerics. And the state can’t exactly stand up for the principle of freedom of speech, because it’s usually no great shakes on that score, either.

This is a pattern that goes beyond Bangladesh and, indeed, beyond Muslim countries. In fact, it sounds quite familiar to me. You?

Rezwan of Global Voices has a round-up of the affair here. I got the FP link via email from Gautam John.

Also see: My piece on intolerance in India, “Don’t Insult Pasta.” And also, “God resigns.”

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

Political Correctness…

... knows no limits.

And that last line just makes me angry. Gendered normativity my ass.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 September, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Politics

The Hindu-American Lobby?

David Remnick quotes Zbigniew Brzezinski as writing:

The participation of ethnic or foreign-supported lobbies in the American policy process is nothing new. In my public life, I have dealt with a number of them. I would rank the Israeli-American, Cuban-American, and Armenian-American lobbies as the most effective in their assertiveness. The Greek- and Taiwanese-American lobbies also rank highly in my book. The Polish-American lobby was at one time influential (Franklin Roosevelt complained about it to Joseph Stalin), and I daresay that before long we will be hearing a lot from the Mexican-, Hindu-, and Chinese-American lobbies as well.

I presume he means the Indian-American lobby—I suppose one should be glad that he didn’t call it the Hindoo-American lobby. As Anand wrote when we were discussing this on email, “I suppose Hanlon’s Razor applies here too.”

(Remnick link via Smoke Signals.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 September, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Politics

The Public Distribution System (Heh)

The Economic Times reports:

In the last three years, Rs 31,585.98 crore worth of wheat and rice meant for the poorest of the poor was siphoned off from the public distribution system.

Last year alone, Rs 11,336.98 crore worth of foodgrain that the government is supposed to distribute to the needy at subsidised prices found its way into the market illegally.

Every year, India’s poor are cheated out of 53.3% of wheat and 39% of rice meant for them. [...] The North-East is in a class of its own. Of the eight states here, not a single grain of wheat supplied to six — Sikkim, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam — reaches the targeted poor.

All this, mind you, when farmers in most states are barred from selling their produce outside their state, and free markets aren’t allowed to function in agriculture. It’s a classic template: First you strangle the market; then you say, hey, some problems the market can’t solve, so the government, in all its bountiful compassion, must step in and take care of the poor. And then you have bureaucrats’ children going abroad to study on daddy’s money, and minor politicians buying farmhouses and fancy cars, and [fill in your illustration here]. Joyful.

Related columns by me: “A Beast Called Government.” “A Business Proposal.”

(Link via email from Jayakamal Balasubramani.)

Update: Ha!

(Via email from reader Vikram Chandrashekar.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 September, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics

Power and Corruption

Megan McArdle writes about the Republicans:

I think they are tarred with scandal right now because that’s what happens to the party in power—by which I mean, the party in power is the one with the big opportunities for corruption. Bill Clinton got caught renting out the Lincoln Bedroom to donors because he had the Lincoln Bedroom to rent out. I did not admire the Republican machine’s depradations on K Street, and think that they were a disgusting innovation in American political culture. But now that that machinery is in place, I will be very surprised if the Democrats don’t use it. I will be very pleased, of course, to be proven wrong; but if Democrats control Congress for ten years, I expect that the end result will be a rash of corruption scandals with Republicans crying that the Party of Tammany Hall is just doing what it has always done, while conveniently forgetting their own more recent history.

I think most politicians, like most people, are basically well meaning folks who act out of some combination of idealism, a fervent desire to be liked, greed, power hunger, and trenchant ability for self-deception. I do not think that these qualities are notably unequally distributed between the parties, which is why I don’t identify with either of them.

Indeed, the more power you give to government, and the more discretion you give to ‘public servants’, the more corrupt the party in power will be. That’s just how the incentives are lined up under our system of government (and, indeed, America’s). Changing the party in power won’t change that, just as slapping one mosquito on your arm won’t make sure that other mosquitoes don’t attack you if you live in a swamp.

Sadly, you do.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 September, 2007 in Economics | Politics

On Government Spending

The Libertarian Reader is an outstanding collection of essays, and one of my personal favourites is a piece by Russell Roberts (of Cafe Hayek) that appeared 12 years ago in the Wall Street Journal, “If You’re Paying, I’ll Have Top Sirloin.” Here’s an excerpt, in which Roberts describes “a very strange restaurant”:

When you eat there, you usually spend about $6—you have a sandwich, some fries and a drink. Of course you’d also enjoy dessert and a second drink, but that costs an additional $4. The extra food isn’t worth $4 to you, so you stick with the $6 meal.

Sometimes, you go to the same restaurant with three friends. The four of you are in the habit of splitting the check evenly. You realize after a while that the $4 drink and dessert will end up costing you only $1, because the total tab is split four ways. Should you order the drink and dessert? If you’re a nice person, you might want to spare your friends from having to subsidize your extravagance. Then it dawns on you that they may be ordering extras financed out of your pocket. But they’re your friends. They wouldn’t do that to you and you wouldn’t do that to them. And if anyone tries it among the group, social pressure will keep things under control.

But now suppose the tab is split not at each table but across the 100 diners that evening across all the tables. Now adding the $4 drink and dessert costs only 4¢. Splurging is easy to justify now. In fact you won’t just add a drink and dessert; you’ll upgrade to the steak and add a bottle of wine. Suppose you and everyone else each orders $40 worth of food. The tab for the entire restaurant will be $4000. Divided by the 100 diners, your bill comes to $40. Here is the irony. Like my neighbor at the theater, you’ll get your “fair share.” The stranger at the restaurant a few tables over pays for your meal, but you also help subsidize his. It all “evens out.”

But this outcome is a disaster. When you dine alone, you spend $6. The extra $34 of steak and other treats are not worth it. But in competition with the others, you’ve chosen a meal far out of your price range whose enjoyment falls far short of its cost.

Self-restraint goes unrewarded. If you go back to ordering your $6 meal in hopes of saving money, your tab will be close to $40 anyway unless the other 99 diners cut back also. The good citizen feels like a chump.

And so we read of the freshman Congressman who comes to Congress eager to cut pork out of the budget but in trouble back home because local projects will also come under the knife. Instead of being proud to lead the way, he is forced to fight for those projects to make sure his district gets its “fair share.”

Matters get much worse when there are gluttons and drunkards at the restaurant mixing with dieters and teetotalers. The average tab might be $40, but some are eating $80 worth of food while others are stuck with a salad and an iced tea.

Those with modest appetites would like to flee the smorgasbord, but suppose it’s the only restaurant in town and you are forced to eat there every night. Resentment and anger come naturally. And being the only restaurant in town, you can imagine the quality of the service.

That’s government. Read the full essay, it’s a classic. Also, here’s what Don Boudreaux has to say on the subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 September, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | IU Faves | Economics | Politics


Quote for the day:

The fanatic has no questions, only answers.

—Elie Wiesel, quoted in What Makes a Terrorist by Alan B Krueger.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 September, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Politics

On Bill Clinton’s Dedication

Line of the day:

Calling Hillary Clinton “a dedicated free-trader” is akin to calling Bill Clinton “a dedicated husband.”

That’s Don Boudreaux in a letter to the Washington Post. As readers of India Uncut know, I love Boudreaux’s writing. But I object to his implication that Bill Clinton is not a dedicated husband—it reduces the notion of marital commitment to sexual fidelity. That may be Boudreaux’s view of it, but Bill and Hillary might well view it differently. Hillary surely must think that Bill’s infidelities are outweighed by other manifestations of his dedication, or she would have walked away by now. No?

But yes, Hillary’s certainly no free-trader. No arguments there.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 September, 2007 in Economics | Miscellaneous | Politics

“A Series Of Historic Blunders”

Salil Tripathi points me, via email, to an essay by Rudrangshu Mukherjee in the Telegraph, in which Mukherjee explains how “[t]he communists have consistently betrayed national interests.” An excerpt:

If nationalism, as the historian Jack Gallagher was fond of quipping, devours its parents, communism consumes its own ideology. Communism was born under the sign of internationalism. The project of world revolution did not recognize national boundaries. Thus, it is funny to see Indian communists today positioning themselves as great protectors of national sovereignty.


The communists are poised at the moment to withdraw support from the government led by Manmohan Singh unless the latter agrees to renegotiate the Indo-US nuclear treaty. The opposition of the communists is based not on substantial objections to the terms of the treaty, but to the fact that it brings India closer to the US. Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the CPI(M), made this clear in an article in People’s Democracy. He wrote, “The Left parties have been watching with disquiet the way the UPA government has gone about forging close strategic and military ties with the United States….The Left is clear that going ahead with the agreement will bind India to the United States in a manner that will seriously impair an independent foreign policy and our strategic autonomy.”

These, as anyone will recognize, are a series of ideological assertions and not rational arguments. The Left, since the Nineties, has lost all its ideological moorings: socialism is gone and China has turned to market capitalism; within India it has no political base anywhere save in West Bengal and Kerala. With no policies of its own, it has accepted economic reforms and begun to woo capital with some gusto in West Bengal. With everything gone, the Left clings to its anti-Americanism as a last ideological anchor. In the present context, however, the Left’s anti-US position echoes what the Chinese Communist Party is saying on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Karat, whether he likes it or not, is only parroting, like his predecessors did in 1942, 1947 and 1962, a political line coming out of a foreign country, in this case one that is hostile to India.

Having invested their lifetimes in a mistaken ideology, Karat and his cronies, as I wrote here, are unlikely to change. In normal circumstances, it wouldn’t matter—it is an extraordinary twist of fate that a grouping with around 7% of the national vote holds such a powerful position in our politics. The next elections will hopefully change that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 September, 2007 in India | Politics

On Violence, Scepticism And Shame

I’ve been busy recently, and am heading in an hour—yes, in the middle of the night, such a freak I am—to Hyderabad for a conference on liberalism in India. (The classical kind, not the mutated American leftie version.) A backlog of intended posts have piled up, a couple of which I’m saving for later, as they deal with large themes I want to comment on at length. But before that, some quick links.

Ramachandra Guha writes in the Hindustan Times about how Veer Savarkar, Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose are making a resurgence as modern heroes in India. “These varying traditions and ideologies are united precisely by [a] call for blood” he writes. “Blood must be spilled, and plenty of it: whether to build a Hindu Rashtra, a Socialist Utopia, or a Bose-ian India.” He believes this is “mostly a male or macho thing” (isn’t all politics?), and finds it ironic, “this adoration of violent revolutionaries by men who owe their political independence and their democratic freedoms to a bunch of (now mostly dishonoured) non-violent reformers.”

I read the weekend columnists of our broadsheets with great interest—I will write more on what I think of each of them at length some other time—and I’m glad that the economist Kaushik Basu will write every Sunday for HT. In his first column last Sunday, he spoke of the virtues of scepticism. In a time when certainty counts for knowledge and vehemence is mistaken for strength, it is a welcome note to strike.

In a magnificent essay on cinematic style (via email from Prem), David Bordwell nails a challenge all columnists face. “Popular journalism doesn’t allow you to cite sources, counterpose arguments, develop subtle cases,” he writes. “No time! No space! No room for specialized explanations that might mystify ordinary readers! So when the critic proposes a controversial idea, he has to be brief, blunt, and absolute. If pressed, and still under the pressure of time and column inches, he will wave us toward other writers, appeal to intuition and authority, say that a broadside is really just aimed to get us thinking and talking.”

All true, the restraints we face, but still we try to be clear, and honest with ourselves and our readers. A column can’t be a book or a research paper, and I think readers appreciate that. No?

In my final link for this post (via Cafe Hayek), Noah Shachtman writes in his Iraq Diary of how a consultant on the middle east, “Mac” Macallister, enlightened him on the foolishness of the American policy to give free soccer balls to Iraqi kids. He writes:

“I, as an individual, may want that kid to have a soccer ball.  But consider the effect, okay?” he [Macallister] says.

Shame and honor are “limited resources,” Mac explains.  “They’re exchanged like currency.  And it’s a zero sum game.  If I embarrass you, I take some of your honor, and you give me some of your shame. Now you want to do something to get it back.

“The father, off to the side, is thinking, ‘Hey, that’s my job.’ So you’ve shamed him.  He might also know that the kid doesn’t deserve it.  Shamed him again.  And if you give the ball to the little kid, he could get beat up, since the bigger ones prey on the littler ones. More shame.  So does that father grab an Ak-47 and do a drive-by, to get back some of his honor?”

Okay, the soccer-for-shooting exchange is a little extreme…

That’s a superb point, and one that I’ve experienced in a different context. When I travelled through the tsunami-affected areas of Tamil Nadu in December 2004 and January 2005, I found that while many people donated clothes, those clothes mostly formed little colourful heaps by the roadsides of TN. The people they were meant for were not beggars, and their sense of honour would not allow them to take old clothes. If you wanted to help them, you had to be careful about how that help was offered. Even poor people have pride. (Some related posts I’d made then: 1, 2, 3.)

Blogging may be light over the next couple of days. Don’t be naughty and go surfing porn just because you don’t find new posts here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 September, 2007 in India | Journalism | Personal | Politics

Mandatory Health Care Or Predatory Health Care?

If John Edwards becomes the next US president, his government will force people to visit doctors. AP reports:

Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards said on Sunday that his universal health care proposal would require that Americans go to the doctor for preventive care.

“It requires that everybody be covered. It requires that everybody get preventive care,” he told a crowd sitting in lawn chairs in front of the Cedar County Courthouse. “If you are going to be in the system, you can’t choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years. You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK.”

I have a huge problem with anything that has the word ‘mandatory’ in it. Immense mummy-daddyness happening.

(Link via email from Ravikiran Rao.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 September, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | Politics

Pick A Number Between 20 And 93

Picked? Ok, so that’s the percentage of people in India below the poverty line.

Here, check out the numbers picked by others.

Why, you ask, is there such little agreement on this figure? The reason is that the figure people come up with often has more to do with ideology than with statistics, with what they want to believe than with what is true. Given what’s at stake, that’s such a pity.

(Link via Neelakantan at the IEB.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 September, 2007 in Economics | India | Politics

Critic = Madman

“Russian authorities are sending critics to psychiatric wards,” reports Newsweek. For example:

The most high-profile thus far involves Larisa Arap, a 48-year-old journalist in Apatity, near Murmansk, who had given an interview to a local newspaper in June that was highly critical of the region’s state psychiatric hospitals. Arap was also an activist with the local branch of United Civil Front, a Kremlin opposition movement. In early July, she went to the hospital for a routine check-up required by law to renew her driving license. But, as she recalls, someone in the hospital called the police, and by evening, she had been committed to a psychiatric hospital, stripped of her clothes, tied to a bed and sedated. “Doctors told me that I would experience all the practices I had complained about in the papers,” Arap told Newsweek while still in the hospital. “They also told me that I was locked up for life.” The hospital’s head doctor, Yevgeny Zenin, told Newsweek, “We do not care what independent commissions of psychiatrists, or the United Nations, or even aliens tell us. Once we decide to keep a patient here, we will. The courts will always listen to us and no one else.”

Thankfully, Arap has been released. But she was a high-profile victim—other, lesser-known critics of the Russian government may not be quite so lucky.

Further reading: “Russia: Is Coercive Psychology Staging A Comeback?”.

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

So Much For The Aam Aadmi

S Narayan comments on the government’s draft policy for relief and rehabilitation:

Two serious flaws in the draft are striking. First, those dispossessed of land by private developers, have to be given government land—an indirect subsidy for the developers. If that is not available, private land will be compulsorily acquired to rehabilitate them. For those dispossessed by such acquisition, the same process again. The outcome will be much more compulsory land acquisition, not less. Besides, the draft nowhere defines what measures of ‘relief’ or rehabilitation are adequate and leaves this to a group of officials. This implies incentive for rent seeking, by the officials and on behalf of the developers, to the detriment of the dispossessed.

So much for the aam admi.

For those on the receiving end of this, this is Kafkaesque madness. My views, as expressed here in the context of Singur, are that eminent domain—the coercive appropriation of land by the government—can at most be excused “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,” or to other private parties. Instead, the government should enable the private parties to acquire the land themselves, which will ensure that the farmers get the true market value for their land—if they wish to sell. If they don’t, they shouldn’t have to.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 September, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics

Opportunity Missed?

Manjeet Kripalani has a nice piece in the latest Business Week on how Manmohan Singh has been a disappointing prime minister. However, there is one sentence that befuddles me:

[Manmohan Singh’s] government has been so embroiled in internal disputes that New Delhi has failed to capitalize on an extraordinary opportunity to cut farm and oil subsidies, abolish rent control laws, and change onerous labor regulations.

When exactly did this opportunity exist? It is India’s tragedy that these reforms, so necessary for us, haven’t been politically possible for a long time now. That is especially true for Manmohan’s government, hobbled as it was by the Left parties, who could hold a gun to his head despite winning just around 7% of the votes in the last elections.

The opportunity, if it existed at any time, did so in the years following 1991, when the balance-of-payments crisis forced us into a half-hearted liberalization. Once that crisis passed, the pace of reforms slowed, and any talk of it since then has been mostly rhetoric and wishful thinking. If Manmohan’s performance has been a letdown, it is in the context of the hype built around him as the liberalizer of 1991, and not in the context of the state of Indian politics today. Given the composition of the Indian parliament, this is the best we could have hoped for. Alas.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

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

Meira Kumar’s Maths

Our minister for ‘social justice and empowerment’ is a hoot. In an interview with Ashish Sharma of Mint, Meira Kumar says:

You are talking about other parties, but let me tell you they are only building on the foundation laid by the Congress. Nobody sees the foundation, only the building is visible. If you add zero to zero, you still get zero. If you add one to one, you get two. Remember, the Congress had to start from zero.

Heh. As far as I’m concerned, we’re actually at minus three, working our way up from minus five (under Indira Gandhi) after the Congress started from zero. And if you think my math is dubious, hell, Meira started it!

(Link via email from Anand Krishnamoorthi.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 August, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics

Iraq Is Not Vietnam

Christopher Hitchens explains why.

Actually, there are such conflicting views of Iraq going around that it might also be true to say that Iraq is not Iraq. Such it is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 August, 2007 in Politics | Small thoughts

The State of the State

My buddy Rahul Bhatia messages me a newsflash he’s seen on CNN-IBN:

PM expresses concern over welfare of people’s welfare.

Indeed, the problem with India is that we are more concerned with the “welfare of people’s welfare” than with people’s welfare. If you know what I mean.

*  *  *

In other Rahul Bhatia news, the man has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal about the ICL and the BCCI. He had earlier written an editorial for Mint on the subject.

More: My take on that subject, “What Indian Cricket Needs.”

Prem Panicker’s post, “Cry Havoc.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 August, 2007 in India | Journalism | Media | Politics | Sport

Government control over reincarnation?

WTF news of the day:

“China bans Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.”

If this had happened in Hayek’s time, he might have written Fatal Delusion instead of Fatal Conceit. Immense amusement explodes, even as I wonder how the Chinese government will catch transgressors.

Also see: Scott Adams’s hilarious post on it.

(Link via email from Kartik Varadpande.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 August, 2007 in Freedom | Politics | WTF

Investing in an Ideology

Nick Cohen writes in his book, Far Left—How Liberals Lost Their Way:

Cult leaders know they must exhaust their followers as well as isolate them. The harder the party or the church forces them to work, the less time they have to think for themselves. As important, the harder they work, the greater their investment and the tougher it becomes to accept that the years of labour have been an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Overly rational historians wonder why supporters of causes from Bolshevism through to Islamism don’t give up when they realize that the death and suffering will never bring the workers’  paradise or new Caliphate; why they fight on for decades, only to achieve more death and suffering? They forget the emotional outlay and the lost lives of dead comrades and martyrs. For immense and minute revolutionary movements alike, more suffering is easier to accept than the admission that all the previous suffering was in vain.

The point of needing to justify the investment one has already made in a cause is spot on, and explains the central problem of the Indian Left. Even if all evidence shows that Leftist philosophy is fatally flawed, that everything the Left does in the name of the poor actually harms the poor, that it does not make moral or utilitarian sense to assign different values to personal and economic freedoms, people of the Left, and Indian intellectuals who have built their worldviews and staked their reputations on Leftist dogma, will continue to be in denial. No matter how often they are mugged by reality, the likes of Prakash Karat and AB Bardhan will never have the courage to confront a lifetime of mistaken thinking, and to admit that it was all a waste. Given that, one can rationalise anything.

Cohen’s book is a wonderful read, by the way, and I can’t resist sharing this wonderful nugget about Gerry Healy, the leader of the Workers Revolutionary party, which imploded spectacularly in 1985 when 26 woman members accused Healy of sexual abuse:

The Sunday Mirror described how Healy’s seduction technique included chat-up lines Leon Trotsky would have recognized. ‘He would throw his arms around women and tell them to submit. If they protested—and some of them did—he would say, “You are doing this for the party and I AM THE PARTY”’.


Posted by Amit Varma on 19 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | India | Politics

A Business Proposal

This is the 27th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Hello dear! Myself Ram Chander Misra, politician from India, bringing business proposal for your kind perusal. I have been politician for more than 30 years now, and have worked in all major parties. I am currently holding important ministry portfolio, and handling many crores of funds for social welfare scheme. Indeed, many thousands of crores of rupees. Which comes to many BILLIONS OF DOLLARS, dear. And this is where I need your help.

First, dear, let me tell you something about Indian government. Government of India is existing on the basis that it will help poor people of India. This it can only do if there are poor people in India. Thus, it is important to keep people in India poor. This is for their own good, dear, for how can we help them otherwise?

Government of India does this with very ingenuous method that is tried and tested through centuries. First, it taxes them vigorously, both their earnings and spendings, promising to spend their money back on them. But for every 100 rupees that we take, only 15 are spent as they should. I will come back to what happens to the rest, dear, because it CONCERNS YOU.


Posted by Amit Varma on 16 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through

What if Sardar Patel had been our first PM?

I had once mused on the prospect of Ramachandra Guha writing a counter-factual history that examined how India would have progressed if C Rajagopalachari had been India’s first prime minister instead of Jawaharlal Nehru. Guha was perhaps too busy writing the wonderful India After Gandhi, but Nitin Pai pointed me today to an excellent article by Ashok Desai that examines what would have happened had Sardar Vallabhai Patel been India’s first PM. An excerpt:

[I]t is fair to assume that a Patel government would have dismantled the import controls inherited from the War, and would not have introduced industrial licensing. During the War, India supplied a large volume of goods and services to Britain, which ran up a huge debt in the form of sterling balances. These were inconvertible into dollars because Britain had bought even more from the US without paying for it. But India could have used them to import anything from the Commonwealth — for instance, wheat from Australia, and machinery from Britain. India ran up an export surplus during the Korean War; it had so much foreign currency in 1950 that almost everything was on Open General Licence — that is, almost everything could be imported without a licence. So if the government had not launched the forced industrialization programme of 1956, if it had not wasted the sterling balances on building steel and heavy engineering plants, it could have maintained an open import regime throughout.

The major beneficiary of such a regime would have been industry. The control regime forced it to replace imports at exorbitant cost. Its high costs made it internationally uncompetitive and limited its exports. Its uncompetitiveness, together with the fixed-exchange-rate regime that prevailed throughout the world till 1970, made high protection necessary; the protection made industry even more uncompetitive. China made use of its labour to become the frontrunner in industrialization in the Nineties; India could have become the frontrunner in the Sixties. It would have run ahead of those little nations — South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia — which left it behind. In particular, it would have led the world in textiles. Textiles came in the Sixties to be dominated by synthetic fibres; and synthetic fibres became a major branch of petrochemicals. Japan came to dominate this industry; it could have been India instead.

As my friend Madhu likes to say, “Should have, could have, would have, didn’t.” Sigh. The last para of Desai’s piece is so true, and so depressing.

PS: Needless to say, in his piece Desai used the word ‘liberal’ in its classical liberal, pro-freedom sense, and not in its modern Leftist anti-freedom sense. I wish the word had never been hijacked!

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 August, 2007 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics

A rising tide, and leaky boats

Raju Narisetti writes in Mint:

In the daily hurry-up and wait rituals in front of rickety elevators that take us to our high-rise offices, I ask how such a vast and wise nation can create and accept self-inflicted bottlenecks of thought and action. After all, India can’t cross this river in two or three steps. I also note that a rising tide won’t lift leaky boats. So, I ask, shouldn’t our government focus on fixing the boats instead of constantly trying to control the tide?

Indeed, if it just allowed us to fix our own leaky boats, that would be enough.

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

In the name of Islam

Ranjit Hoskote, Naresh Fernandes and Jerry Pinto have drafted an eloquent letter protesting the attack on Taslima Nasreen that they have sent out to a few newspapers. I’ve received a copy as well, and it’s reproduced in full below, as I agree entirely with the sentiment they express:

Dear Editor,

We write to condemn, in the strongest terms, the physical assault on Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad last week, by political activists claiming to act in the name of Islam. Such violence can have no place in a liberal democracy, which guarantees the holders of all shades of opinion the right to express themselves in a peaceful and reasonable manner. The activists of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) have not only violated the contract of democratic citizenship, but have also done Islam a great injustice. The threat, issued by some representatives of the MIM, to “behead” Ms Nasreen if she should visit Hyderabad again, is particularly odious. The Islamic faith has been far better served by philosophers like Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, and by Sufis like Rumi and Attar, than by the bloodthirsty adventurers who have used its standard to further their personal ambitions.

We also deplore the attitude of the police, which has charged Ms Nasreen with inciting communal disharmony through her writing, as an example of the most misplaced even-handedness on the part of the authorities.

Ranjit Hoskote
Naresh Fernandes
Jerry Pinto
The Pen All-India Centre

Needless to say, if the attack had been made by a bunch of hoodlums unaffiliated to any political party, the cops would no doubt have taken strong action against them. As I wrote in my piece, “Mobs are above the law,” political protest has been sanctified by the law in India. So has protest under the guise of defending one’s religion, as if any religion was so brittle as to need such defense.

It’s ironic that a case has been filed against Taslima, for “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.” It reminds me of the Baroda incident, where it was the painter under attack by a similar extremist mob who found himself in jail. (My posts on that incident: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

The footage of the attack on Taslima is below the fold:


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

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