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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

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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