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Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Politics

Farmers, Technology and Freedom of Choice: A Tale of Two Satyagrahas

This is the 23rd installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

I had a strange dream last night. I dreamt that the government had passed a law that made using laptops illegal. I would have to write this column by hand. I would also have to leave my home in Mumbai to deliver it in person to my editor in Delhi. I woke up trembling and angry – and realised how Indian farmers feel every single day of their lives.

My column today is a tale of two satyagrahas. Both involve farmers, technology and the freedom of choice. One of them began this month – but first, let us go back to the turn of the millennium.

As the 1990s came to an end, cotton farmers across India were in distress. Pests known as bollworms were ravaging crops across the country. Farmers had to use increasing amounts of pesticide to keep them at bay. The costs of the pesticide and the amount of labour involved made it unviable – and often, the crops would fail anyway.

Then, technology came to the rescue. The farmers heard of Bt Cotton, a genetically modified type of cotton that kept these pests away, and was being used around the world. But they were illegal in India, even though no bad effects had ever been recorded. Well, who cares about ‘illegal’ when it is a matter of life and death?

Farmers in Gujarat got hold of Bt Cotton seeds from the black market and planted them. You’ll never guess what happened next. As 2002 began, all cotton crops in Gujarat failed – except the 10,000 hectares that had Bt Cotton. The government did not care about the failed crops. They cared about the ‘illegal’ ones. They ordered all the Bt Cotton crops to be destroyed.

It was time for a satyagraha – and not just in Gujarat. The late Sharad Joshi, leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana in Maharashtra, took around 10,000 farmers to Gujarat to stand with their fellows there. They sat in the fields of Bt Cotton and basically said, ‘Over our dead bodies.’ ¬Joshi’s point was simple: all other citizens of India have access to the latest technology from all over. They are all empowered with choice. Why should farmers be held back?

The satyagraha was successful. The ban on Bt Cotton was lifted.

There are three things I would like to point out here. One, the lifting of the ban transformed cotton farming in India. Over 90% of Indian farmers now use Bt Cotton. India has become the world’s largest producer of cotton, moving ahead of China. According to agriculture expert Ashok Gulati, India has gained US$ 67 billion in the years since from higher exports and import savings because of Bt Cotton. Most importantly, cotton farmers’ incomes have doubled.

Two, GMO crops have become standard across the world. Around 190 million hectares of GMO crops have been planted worldwide, and GMO foods are accepted in 67 countries. The humanitarian benefits have been massive: Golden Rice, a variety of rice packed with minerals and vitamins, has prevented blindness in countless new-born kids since it was introduced in the Philippines.

Three, despite the fear-mongering of some NGOs, whose existence depends on alarmism, the science behind GMO is settled. No harmful side effects have been noted in all these years, and millions of lives impacted positively. A couple of years ago, over 100 Nobel Laureates signed a petition asserting that GMO foods were safe, and blasting anti-science NGOs that stood in the way of progress. There is scientific consensus on this.

The science may be settled, but the politics is not. The government still bans some types of GMO seeds, such as Bt Brinjal, which was developed by an Indian company called Mahyco, and used successfully in Bangladesh. More crucially, a variety called HT Bt Cotton, which fights weeds, is also banned. Weeding takes up to 15% of a farmer’s time, and often makes farming unviable. Farmers across the world use this variant – 60% of global cotton crops are HT Bt. Indian farmers are so desperate for it that they choose to break the law and buy expensive seeds from the black market – but the government is cracking down. A farmer in Haryana had his crop destroyed by the government in May.

On June 10 this year, a farmer named Lalit Bahale in the Akola District of Maharashtra kicked off a satyagraha by planting banned seeds of HT Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal. He was soon joined by thousands of farmers. Far from our urban eyes, a heroic fight has begun. Our farmers, already victimised and oppressed by a predatory government in countless ways, are fighting for their right to take charge of their lives.

As this brave struggle unfolds, I am left with a troubling question: All those satyagrahas of the past by our great freedom fighters, what were they for, if all they got us was independence and not freedom?

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 June, 2019 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Trump and Modi are playing a Lose-Lose game

This is the 22nd installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Trade wars are on the rise, and it’s enough to get any nationalist all het up and excited. Earlier this week, Narendra Modi’s government announced that it would start imposing tariffs on 28 US products starting today. This is a response to similar treatment towards us from the US.

There is one thing I would invite you to consider: Trump and Modi are not engaged in a war with each other. Instead, they are waging war on their own people.

Let’s unpack that a bit. Part of the reason Trump came to power is that he provided simple and wrong answers for people’s problems. He responded to the growing jobs crisis in middle America with two explanations: one, foreigners are coming and taking your jobs; two, your jobs are being shipped overseas.

Both explanations are wrong but intuitive, and they worked for Trump. (He is stupid enough that he probably did not create these narratives for votes but actually believes them.) The first of those leads to the demonising of immigrants. The second leads to a demonising of trade. Trump has acted on his rhetoric after becoming president, and a modern US version of our old ‘Indira is India’ slogan might well be, “Trump is Tariff. Tariff is Trump.”

Contrary to the fulminations of the economically illiterate, all tariffs are bad, without exception. Let me illustrate this with an example. Say there is a fictional product called Brump. A local Brump costs Rs 100. Foreign manufacturers appear and offer better Brumps at a cheaper price, say Rs 90. Consumers shift to foreign Brumps.

Manufacturers of local Brumps get angry, and form an interest group. They lobby the government – or bribe it with campaign contributions – to impose a tariff on import of Brumps. The government puts a 20-rupee tariff. The foreign Brumps now cost Rs 110, and people start buying local Brumps again. This is a good thing, right? Local businesses have been helped, and local jobs have been saved.

But this is only the seen effect. The unseen effect of this tariff is that millions of Brump buyers would have saved Rs 10-per-Brump if there were no tariffs. This money would have gone out into the economy, been part of new demand, generated more jobs. Everyone would have been better off, and the overall standard of living would have been higher.

That brings to me to an essential truth about tariffs. Every tariff is a tax on your own people. And every intervention in markets amounts to a distribution of wealth from the people at large to specific interest groups. (In other words, from the poor to the rich.) The costs of this are dispersed and invisible – what is Rs 10 to any of us? – and the benefits are large and worth fighting for: Local manufacturers of Brumps can make crores extra. Much modern politics amounts to manufacturers of Brumps buying politicians to redistribute money from us to them.

There are second-order effects of protectionism as well. When the US imposes tariffs on other countries, those countries may respond by imposing tariffs back. Raw materials for many goods made locally are imported, and as these become expensive, so do those goods. That quintessential American product, the iPhone, uses parts from 43 countries. As local products rise in price because of expensive foreign parts, prices rise, demand goes down, jobs are lost, and everyone is worse off.

Trump keeps talking about how he wants to ‘win’ at trade, but trade is not a zero-sum game. The most misunderstood term in our times is probably ‘trade-deficit’. A country has a trade deficit when it imports more than what it exports, and Trump thinks of that as a bad thing. It is not. I run a trade deficit with my domestic help and my local grocery store. I buy more from them than they do from me. That is fine, because we all benefit. It is a win-win game.

Similarly, trade between countries is really trade between the people of both countries – and people trade with each other because they are both better off. To interfere in that process is to reduce the value created in their lives. It is immoral. To modify a slogan often identified with libertarians like me, ‘Tariffs are Theft.’

These trade wars, thus, carry a touch of the absurd. Any leader who imposes tariffs is imposing a tax on his own people. Just see the chain of events: Trump taxes the American people. In retaliation, Modi taxes the Indian people. Trump raises taxes. Modi raises taxes. Nationalists in both countries cheer. Interests groups in both countries laugh their way to the bank.

What kind of idiocy is this? How long will this lose-lose game continue?

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 June, 2019 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Population Is Not a Problem, but Our Greatest Strength

This is the 21st installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

When all political parties agree on something, you know you might have a problem. Giriraj Singh, a minister in Narendra Modi’s new cabinet, tweeted this week that our population control law should become a “movement.” This is something that would find bipartisan support – we are taught from school onwards that India’s population is a big problem, and we need to control it.

This is wrong. Contrary to popular belief, our population is not a problem. It is our greatest strength.

The notion that we should worry about a growing population is an intuitive one. The world has limited resources. People keep increasing. Something’s gotta give.

Robert Malthus made just this point in his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. He was worried that our population would grow exponentially while resources would grow arithmetically. As more people entered the workforce, wages would fall and goods would become scarce. Calamity was inevitable.

Malthus’s rationale was so influential that this mode of thinking was soon called ‘Malthusian.’ (It is a pejorative today.) A 20th-century follower of his, Harrison Brown, came up with one of my favourite images on this subject, arguing that a growing population would lead to the earth being “covered completely and to a considerable depth with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots.”

Another Malthusian, Paul Ehrlich, published a book called The Population Bomb in 1968, which began with the stirring lines, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich was, as you’d guess, a big supporter of India’s coercive family planning programs. ““I don’t see,” he wrote, “how India could possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

None of these fears have come true. A 2007 study by Nicholas Eberstadt called ‘Too Many People?’ found no correlation between population density and poverty. The greater the density of people, the more you’d expect them to fight for resources – and yet, Monaco, which has 40 times the population density of Bangladesh, is doing well for itself. So is Bahrain, which has three times the population density of India.

Not only does population not cause poverty, it makes us more prosperous. The economist Julian Simon pointed out in a 1981 book that through history, whenever there has been a spurt in population, it has coincided with a spurt in productivity. Such as, for example, between Malthus’s time and now. There were around a billion people on earth in 1798, and there are around 7.7 billion today. As you read these words, consider that you are better off than the richest person on the planet then.

Why is this? The answer lies in the title of Simon’s book: The Ultimate Resource. When we speak of resources, we forget that human beings are the finest resource of all. There is no limit to our ingenuity. And we interact with each other in positive-sum ways – every voluntary interactions leaves both people better off, and the amount of value in the world goes up. This is why we want to be part of economic networks that are as large, and as dense, as possible. This is why most people migrate to cities rather than away from them – and why cities are so much richer than towns or villages.

If Malthusians were right, essential commodities like wheat, maize and rice would become relatively scarcer over time, and thus more expensive – but they have actually become much cheaper in real terms. This is thanks to the productivity and creativity of humans, who, in Eberstadt’s words, are “in practice always renewable and in theory entirely inexhaustible.”

The error made by Malthus, Brown and Ehrlich is the same error that our politicians make today, and not just in the context of population: zero-sum thinking. If our population grows and resources stays the same, of course there will be scarcity. But this is never the case. All we need to do to learn this lesson is look at our cities!

This mistaken thinking has had savage humanitarian consequences in India. Think of the unborn millions over the decades because of our brutal family planning policies. How many Tendulkars, Rahmans and Satyajit Rays have we lost? Think of the immoral coercion still carried out on poor people across the country. And finally, think of the condescension of our politicians, asserting that people are India’s problem – but always other people, never themselves.

This arrogance is India’s greatest problem, not our people.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 June, 2019 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Can Amit Shah do for India what he did for the BJP?

This is the 20th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Amit Shah’s induction into the union cabinet is such an interesting moment. Even partisans who oppose the BJP, as I do, would admit that Shah is a political genius. Under his leadership, the BJP has become an electoral behemoth in the most complicated political landscape in the world. The big question that now arises is this: can Shah do for India what he did for the BJP?

This raises a perplexing question: in the last five years, as the BJP has flourished, India has languished. And yet, the leadership of both the party and the nation are more or less the same. Then why hasn’t the ability to manage the party translated to governing the country?

I would argue that there are two reasons for this. One, the skills required in those two tasks are different. Two, so are the incentives in play.

Let’s look at the skills first. Managing a party like the BJP is, in some ways, like managing a large multinational company. Shah is a master at top-down planning and micro-management. How he went about winning the 2014 elections, described in detail in Prashant Jha’s book How the BJP Wins, should be a Harvard Business School case study. The book describes how he fixed the BJP’s ground game in Uttar Pradesh, picking teams for 147,000 booths in Uttar Pradesh, monitoring them, and keeping them accountable.

Shah looked at the market segmentation in UP, and hit upon his now famous “60% formula”. He realised he could not deliver the votes of Muslims, Yadavs and Jatavs, who were 40% of the population. So he focussed on wooing the other 60%, including non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits. He carried out versions of these caste reconfigurations across states, and according to Jha, covered “over 5 lakh kilometres” between 2014 and 2017, consolidating market share in every state in this country. He nurtured “a pool of a thousand new OBC and Dalit leaders”, going well beyond the posturing of other parties.

That so many Dalits and OBCs voted for the BJP in 2019 is astonishing. Shah went past Mandal politics, managing to subsume previously antagonistic castes and sub-castes into a broad Hindutva identity. And as the BJP increased its depth, it expanded its breadth as well. What it has done in West Bengal, wiping out the Left and weakening Mamata Banerjee, is jaw-dropping. With hindsight, it may one day seem inevitable, but only a madman could have conceived it, and only a genius could have executed it.

Good man to be Home Minister then, eh? Not quite. A country is not like a large company or even a political party. It is much too complex to be managed from the top down, and a control freak is bound to flounder. The approach needed is very different.

Some tasks of governance, it is true, are tailor-made for efficient managers. Building infrastructure, taking care of roads and power, building toilets (even without an underlying drainage system) and PR campaigns can all be executed by good managers. But the deeper tasks of making an economy flourish require a different approach. They need a light touch, not a heavy hand.

The 20th century is full of cautionary tales that show that economies cannot be centrally planned from the top down. Examples of that ‘fatal conceit’, to use my hero Friedrich Hayek’s term, include the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and even the lady Modi most reminds me of, Indira Gandhi.

The task of the state, when it comes to the economy, is to administer a strong rule of law, and to make sure it is applied equally. No special favours to cronies or special interest groups. Just unleash the natural creativity of the people, and don’t try to micro-manage.

Sadly, the BJP’s impulse, like that of most governments of the past, is a statist one. India should have a small state that does a few things well. Instead, we have a large state that does many things badly, and acts as a parasite on its people.

As it happens, the few things that we should do well are all right up Shah’s managerial alley. For example, the rule of law is effectively absent in India today, especially for the poor. As Home Minister, Shah could fix this if he applied the same zeal to governing India as he did to growing the BJP. But will he?

And here we come to the question of incentives. What drives Amit Shah: maximising power, or serving the nation? What is good for the country will often coincide with what is good for the party – but not always. When they diverge, which path will Shah choose? So much rests on that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 June, 2019 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Lessons from an Ankhon Dekhi Prime Minister

This is the 19th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

A friend of mine was very impressed by the interview Narendra Modi granted last week to Akshay Kumar. ‘Such a charming man, such great work ethic,’ he gushed. ‘He is the kind of uncle I would want my kids to have.’ And then, in the same breath, he asked, ‘How can such a good man be such a bad prime minister?”

I don’t want to be uncharitable and suggest that Modi’s image is entirely manufactured, so let’s take the interview at face value. Let’s also grant Modi his claims about the purity of his neeyat (intentions), and reframe the question this way: when it comes to public policy, why do good intentions often lead to bad outcomes? To attempt an answer, I’ll refer to a story a friend of mine, who knows Modi well, once told me about him. 

Modi was chilling with his friends at home more than a decade ago, and told them an incident from his childhood. His mother was ill once, and the young Narendra was tending to her. The heat was enervating, so the boy went to the switchboard to switch on the fan. But there was no electricity. My friend said that as he told this story, Modi’s eyes filled with tears. Even after all these years, he was moved by the memory.

My friend used this story to make the point that Modi’s vision of the world is experiential. If he experiences something, he understands it. When he became chief minister of Gujarat, he made it his stated mission to get reliable electricity to every part of Gujarat. No doubt this was shaped by the time he flicked a switch as a young boy and the fan did not budge. Similarly, he has given importance to things like roads and cleanliness, since he would have experienced the impact of those as a young man.

My term for him, inspired by Rajat Kapoor’s 2014 film, is ‘the ankhon dekhi prime minister’. At one level, this is a good thing. He sees a problem and works for the rest of his life to solve it. But what of things he cannot experience?

The economy is a complex beast, as is society itself, and beyond a certain level, you need to grasp abstract concepts to understand how the world works. You cannot experience them. For example, spontaneous order, or the idea that society and markets, like language, cannot be centrally directed or planned. Or the positive-sum nature of things, which is the engine of our prosperity: the idea that every transaction is a win-win game, and that for one person to win, another does not have to lose. Or, indeed, respect for individual rights and free speech.

One understands abstract concepts by reading about them, understanding them, applying them to the real world. Modi is not known to be a reader, and this is not his fault. Given his background, it is a near-miracle that he has made it this far. He wasn’t born into a home with a reading culture, and did not have either the resources or the time when he was young to devote to reading. The only way he could learn about the world, thus, was by experiencing it.

There are two lessons here, one for Modi himself and others in his position, and another for everyone.

The lesson in this for Modi is a lesson for anyone who rises to such an important position, even if he is the smartest person in the world. That lesson is to have humility about the bounds of your knowledge, and to surround yourself with experts who can advise you well. Be driven by values and not confidence in your own knowledge. Gather intellectual giants around you, and stand on their shoulders.

Modi did not do this in the case of demonetisation, which he carried out against the advice of every expert he consulted. We all know the damage it caused to the economy.

The other learning from this is for all of us. How do we make sense of the world? By connecting dots. An ankhon-dekhi approach will get us very few dots, and our view of the world will be blurred and incomplete. The best way to gather more dots is reading. The more we read, the better we understand the world, and the better the decisions we take. When we can experience a thousand lives through books, why restrict ourselves to one?

A good man with noble intentions can make bad decisions with horrible consequences. The only way to hedge against this is by staying humble and reading more. So when you finish reading this piece, think of an unread book that you’d like to read today – and read it!

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 May, 2019 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | The Rationalist


We Must Reclaim Nationalism From the BJP

This is the 18th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

The man who gave us our national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore, once wrote that nationalism was “a great menace.” He went on to say, “It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.”

Not just India’s, but the world’s: In his book The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1945 as Adolf Hitler was defeated, Karl Popper ripped into nationalism, with all its “appeals to our tribal instincts, to passion and to prejudice, and to our nostalgic desire to be relieved from the strain of individual responsibility which it attempts to replace by a collective or group responsibility.”

Nationalism is resurgent today, stomping across the globe hand-in-hand with populism. In India, too, it is tearing us apart. But must nationalism always be a bad thing? A provocative new book by the Israeli thinker Yael Tamir argues otherwise.

In her book Why Nationalism, Tamir makes the following arguments. One, nation-states are here to stay. Two, the state needs the nation to be viable. Three, people need nationalism for the sense of community and belonging it gives them. Four, therefore, we need to build a better nationalism, which brings people together instead of driving them apart.

The first point needs no elaboration. We are a globalised world, but we are also trapped by geography and circumstance. “Only 3.3 percent of the world’s population,” Tamir points out, “lives outside their country of birth.” Nutopia, the borderless state dreamed up by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, is not happening anytime soon.

If the only thing that citizens of a state have in common is geographical circumstance, it is not enough. If the state is a necessary construct, a nation is its necessary justification. “Political institutions crave to form long-term political bonding,” writes Tamir, “and for that matter they must create a community that is neither momentary nor meaningless.” Nationalism, she says, “endows the state with intimate feelings linking the past, the present, and the future.”

More pertinently, Tamir argues, people need nationalism. I am a humanist with a belief in individual rights, but Tamir says that this is not enough. “The term ‘human’ is a far too thin mode of delineation,” she writes. “Individuals need to rely on ‘thick identities’ to make their lives meaningful.” This involves a shared past, a common culture and distinctive values.

Tamir also points out that there is a “strong correlation between social class and political preferences.” The privileged elites can afford to be globalists, but those less well off are inevitably drawn to other narratives that enrich their lives. “Rather than seeing nationalism as the last refuge of the scoundrel,” writes Tamir, “we should start thinking of nationalism as the last hope of the needy.”

Tamir’s book bases its arguments on the West, but the argument holds in India as well. In a country with so much poverty, is it any wonder that nationalism is on the rise? The cosmopolitan, globe-trotting elites don’t have daily realities to escape, but how are those less fortunate to find meaning in their lives?

I have one question, though. Why is our nationalism so exclusionary when our nation is so inclusive?

In the nationalism that our ruling party promotes, there are some communities who belong here, and others who don’t. (And even among those who ‘belong’, they exploit divisions.) In their us-vs-them vision of the world, some religions are foreign, some values are foreign, even some culinary traditions are foreign – and therefore frowned upon. But the India I know and love is just the opposite of that.

We embrace influences from all over. Our language, our food, our clothes, our music, our cinema have absorbed so many diverse influences that to pretend they come from a single legit source is absurd. (Even the elegant churidar-kurtas our prime minister wears have an Islamic origin.) As an example, take the recent film Gully Boy: its style of music, the clothes its protagonists wear, even the attitudes in the film would have seemed alien to us a few decades ago. And yet, could there be a truer portrait of young India?

This inclusiveness, this joyous khichdi that we are, is what makes our nation a model for the rest of the world. No nation embraces all other nations as ours does. My India celebrates differences, and I do as well. I wear my kurta with jeans, I listen to ghazals, I eat dhansak and kababs, and I dream in the Indian language called English. This is my nationalism.

Those who try to divide us, therefore, are the true anti-nationals. We must reclaim nationalism from them.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 April, 2019 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | The Rationalist


To Escalate or Not? This Is Modi’s Zugzwang Moment

This is the 17th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

One of my favourite English words comes from chess. If it is your turn to move, but any move you make makes your position worse, you are in ‘Zugzwang’. Narendra Modi was in zugzwang after the Pulwama attacks a few days ago—as any Indian prime minister in his place would have been.

An Indian PM, after an attack for which Pakistan is held responsible, has only unsavoury choices in front of him. He is pulled in two opposite directions. One, strategy dictates that he must not escalate. Two, politics dictates that he must.

Let’s unpack that. First, consider the strategic imperatives. Ever since both India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, a conventional war has become next to impossible because of the threat of a nuclear war. If India escalates beyond a point, Pakistan might bring their nuclear weapons into play. Even a limited nuclear war could cause millions of casualties and devastate our economy. Thus, no matter what the provocation, India needs to calibrate its response so that the Pakistan doesn’t take it all the way.

It’s impossible to predict what actions Pakistan might view as sufficient provocation, so India has tended to play it safe. Don’t capture territory, don’t attack military assets, don’t kill civilians. In other words, surgical strikes on alleged terrorist camps is the most we can do.

Given that Pakistan knows that it is irrational for India to react, and our leaders tend to be rational, they can ‘bleed us with a thousand cuts’, as their doctrine states, with impunity. Both in 2001, when our parliament was attacked and the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee was PM, and in 2008, when Mumbai was attacked and the Congress’s Manmohan Singh was PM, our leaders considered all the options on the table—but were forced to do nothing.

But is doing nothing an option in an election year?

Leave strategy aside and turn to politics. India has been attacked. Forty soldiers have been killed, and the nation is traumatised and baying for blood. It is now politically impossible to not retaliate—especially for a PM who has criticized his predecessor for being weak, and portrayed himself as a 56-inch-chested man of action.

I have no doubt that Modi is a rational man, and knows the possible consequences of escalation. But he also knows the possible consequences of not escalating—he could dilute his brand and lose the elections. Thus, he is forced to act. And after he acts, his Pakistan counterpart will face the same domestic pressure to retaliate, and will have to attack back. And so on till my home in Versova is swallowed up by a nuclear crater, right?

Well, not exactly. There is a way to resolve this paradox. India and Pakistan can both escalate, not via military actions, but via optics.

Modi and Imran Khan, who you’d expect to feel like the loneliest men on earth right now, can find sweet company in each other. Their incentives are aligned. Neither man wants this to turn into a full-fledged war. Both men want to appear macho in front of their domestic constituencies. Both men are masters at building narratives, and have a pliant media that will help them.

Thus, India can carry out a surgical strike and claim it destroyed a camp, killed terrorists, and forced Pakistan to return a braveheart prisoner of war. Pakistan can say India merely destroyed two trees plus a rock, and claim the high moral ground by returning the prisoner after giving him good masala tea. A benign military equilibrium is maintained, and both men come out looking like strong leaders: a win-win game for the PMs that avoids a lose-lose game for their nations. They can give themselves a high-five in private when they meet next, and Imran can whisper to Modi, “You’re a good spinner, bro.”

There is one problem here, though: what if the optics don’t work?

If Modi feels that his public is too sceptical and he needs to do more, he might feel forced to resort to actual military escalation. The fog of politics might obscure the possible consequences. If the resultant Indian military action causes serious damage, Pakistan will have to respond in kind. In the chain of events that then begins, with body bags piling up, neither man may be able to back down. They could end up as prisoners of circumstance—and so could we.

***

Also check out:

Why Modi Must Learn to Play the Game of Chicken With Pakistan—Amit Varma
The Two Pakistans—Episode 79 of The Seen and the Unseen
India in the Nuclear Age—Episode 80 of The Seen and the Unseen

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2019 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Here Is Why the Indian Voter Is Saddled With Bad Economics

This is the 15th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

It’s election season, and promises are raining down on voters like rose petals on naïve newlyweds. Earlier this week, the Congress party announced a minimum income guarantee for the poor. This Friday, the Modi government released a budget full of sops. As the days go by, the promises will get bolder, and you might feel important that so much attention is being given to you. Well, the joke is on you.

Every election, HL Mencken once said, is “an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” A bunch of competing mafias fight to rule over you for the next five years. You decide who wins, on the basis of who can bribe you better with your own money. This is an absurd situation, which I tried to express in a limerick I wrote for this page a couple of years ago:

POLITICS: A neta who loves currency notes/ Told me what his line of work denotes./ ‘It is kind of funny./ We steal people’s money/And use some of it to buy their votes.’

We’re the dupes here, and we pay far more to keep this circus going than this circus costs. It would be okay if the parties, once they came to power, provided good governance. But voters have given up on that, and now only want patronage and handouts. That leads to one of the biggest problems in Indian politics: We are stuck in an equilibrium where all good politics is bad economics, and vice versa.

For example, the minimum guarantee for the poor is good politics, because the optics are great. It’s basically Garibi Hatao: that slogan made Indira Gandhi a political juggernaut in the 1970s, at the same time that she unleashed a series of economic policies that kept millions of people in garibi for decades longer than they should have been.

This time, the Congress has released no details, and keeping it vague makes sense because I find it hard to see how it can make economic sense. Depending on how they define ‘poor’, how much income they offer and what the cost is, the plan will either be ineffective or unworkable.

The Modi government’s interim budget announced a handout for poor farmers that seemed rather pointless. Given our agricultural distress, offering a poor farmer 500 bucks a month seems almost like mockery.

Such condescending handouts solve nothing. The poor want jobs and opportunities. Those come with growth, which requires structural reforms. Structural reforms don’t sound sexy as election promises. Handouts do.

A classic example is farm loan waivers. We have reached a stage in our politics where every party has to promise them to assuage farmers, who are a strong vote bank everywhere. You can’t blame farmers for wanting them – they are a necessary anaesthetic. But no government has yet made a serious attempt at tackling the root causes of our agricultural crisis.

Why is it that Good Politics in India is always Bad Economics? Let me put forth some possible reasons. One, voters tend to think in zero-sum ways, as if the pie is fixed, and the only way to bring people out of poverty is to redistribute. The truth is that trade is a positive-sum game, and nations can only be lifted out of poverty when the whole pie grows. But this is unintuitive.

Two, Indian politics revolves around identity and patronage. The spoils of power are limited – that is indeed a zero-sum game – so you’re likely to vote for whoever can look after the interests of your in-group rather than care about the economy as a whole.

Three, voters tend to stay uninformed for good reasons, because of what Public Choice economists call Rational Ignorance. A single vote is unlikely to make a difference in an election, so why put in the effort to understand the nuances of economics and governance? Just ask, what is in it for me, and go with whatever seems to be the best answer.

Four, Politicians have a short-term horizon, geared towards winning the next election. A good policy that may take years to play out is unattractive. A policy that will win them votes in the short term is preferable.

Sadly, no Indian party has shown a willingness to aim for the long term. The Congress has produced new Gandhis, but not new ideas. And while the BJP did make some solid promises in 2014, they did not walk that talk, and have proved to be, as Arun Shourie once called them, UPA + Cow. Even the Congress is adopting the cow, in fact, so maybe the BJP will add Temple to that mix?

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” This election season, my friends, the people of India are on the menu. You have been deveined and deboned, marinated with rhetoric, seasoned with narrative – now enter the oven and vote.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 February, 2019 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | The Rationalist


We Live in an Age of Bullshit

A slightly shorter version of this was published as the 14th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Whenever the pressures of the world get too much for me, I lighten the burden by going over to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Trump, the only president who would fail the Turing Test, keeps lashing out at opponents and saying outrageous things, often in ALL-CAPS, the internet version of screaming. It’s wonderfully entertaining, and got even more so when he lashed out at Narendra Modi last week.

Trump said: “I could give you an example where I get along very well with India and Prime Minister Modi. But he is constantly telling me, he built a library in Afghanistan. Library! That’s like five hours of what we spend. And he tells me. He is very smart. We are supposed to say, oh thank you for the library. Don’t know who’s using it in Afghanistan.”

Modi fanbois also tend to be Trump fanbois because they like macho men, and this must have been confusing to them at multiple levels. One, why was Trump lashing out at Modi? Two, if Trump is telling the truth, why does Modi keep boasting about building a library? Three, what library?

After much googling in the PMO, our officials figured that despite having spent over US$ 3 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, we hadn’t built a library. Maybe Trump confused the parliament building with a library – but it was unlikely that Modi would boast to Trump even about that, especially ‘constantly.’ So Trump was lying, right?

No, Trump wasn’t lying, I say. He was bullshitting.

I’m not just dropping slang here. ‘Bullshit’ may appear to be a pejorative, but it has become a technical term after the philosopher Harry Frankfurt published his seminal book, On Bullshit, in 2005. And if we are to understand the likes of Trump, it is important to understand the distinction between ‘bullshit’ and ‘lies’.

A liar, as per Frankfurt, acknowledges the truth, and aims to deceive. For a bullshitter, the truth is irrelevant. Bullshitters aim not to deceive, but are just winging it, saying whatever comes into their head at a given point in time, which may or may not be true. For Trump, everything comes down to how macho he is, and how others are messing around at America’s expense and only he can stop them. His boast about Modi ‘constantly’ talking to him about a library was in this vein. He could also have said that Modi wears ladies underwear, or Modi begged him to open a casino in Lutyen’s Delhi, or Modi wore a suit with his name on it – any relationship that bullshit has with the truth is usually coincidental.

Trump bullshits a lot – and then doubles down on his bullshit once he has released it. For example, the wall that Mexico will pay for. I am sure he was winging it when he first came up with it.

Ironically, his latest target is a master bullshitter himself. When Modi spoke of the first plastic surgery in India being done on Lord Ganesha, or climate change being a consequence of people getting older, he wasn’t lying but bullshitting. He is not educated or knowledgeable enough to know the truth in any of those cases, so it does not matter to him. And it seems not to matter to any of us either.

Politicians can get away with bullshit (and lying) because people don’t care about facts. We tend to form echo chambers with like-minded people, form whatever worldview appeals to us, and shut ourselves off from conflicting views.

Behavioural scientists point to hard-wiring in the brain that strengthens this process. The Confirmation Bias ensures that we only consider facts that agree with our worldview and ignore the rest. The Backfire Effect, worryingly for fact-checkers, ensures that our worldviews actually grow stronger when we are presented with conflicting evidence.

These echo chambers, once formed, tend to grow more and more strident. Experiments by social scientists have found that when people with similar opinions are thrown together in a group, they tend to take decisions more extreme than any one individual would take. (This is known as ‘group polarisation’.) You see this in social media, where discourse is polarised and opposing sides are talking past each other, not to each other, with every individual performing to impress his own side.

When all discourse takes place along tribal lines, rhetoric matters, facts don’t.

Is bullshit a feature or a bug? An entire nation will vote upon it this year, as India goes to the polls. Narendra Modi has focussed entirely on optics and not on performance, betting that once people have formed a narrative inside their heads, facts are irrelevant. Is an A+ in campaigning more important than a F in governance? We will soon find out what the people of India think.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 January, 2019 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Wave Goodbye

This is the 88th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my occasional set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

WAVE GOODBYE

A Hindutva boss at a conclave
Said, “Amit, things are so very grave.
We are in dire straits.
We lost ground in five states.
Someone save us from this Modi Wave.”

HYPOCRISY

The Congress neta looked all around,
And then told me, “Amit, I have found
My high command’s a gem,
Made Kamal Nath CM,
And gave away the high moral ground.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 December, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains

This is the 11th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Remember, remember, the sixth of September. In many ways, this date in 2018 is as momentous as August 15, 1947 was. On that day, India gained freedom from a foreign ruler, but Indians remained unfree, subjects of an oppressive Indian state instead of an oppressive colonial one. We were denied so many types of freedom, and took that condition for granted. This week, though, an important sliver of liberty was finally handed to us. This is also Independence Day.

The repeal of Section 377 is an emotional victory, but the tears are bittersweet. The fact remains that it took five unelected men to set this right. In this great democracy of ours, where the voice of the people is supposed to find expression in its politics, not one political party in the last 71 years tried to repeal 377. Parties don’t have principles, only incentives, and all of them behaved this way because they feared that voters would not approve. That tells you what every gay person in this country already knows from lived experience: our society is homophobic. Not just that, our society and the state do not give a damn about Consent.

The central principle of this 377 judgement was Consent: no one has the right to come between two consenting adults. Consent is the foundation of all human rights, and should be the foundation of our Republic. And yet, despite this one historic judgement on one domain of Consent, we remain a land that does not care for this principle.

Consider the arts. We are a country where films made for adults by adults are routinely censored. Books are banned. ‘Objectionable’ art exhibitions are shut down or vandalised. Artists and patrons, consenting adults all, are prevented from enriching each other.

Consider free speech. As in any other marketplace, all of us benefit when there is competition in the marketplace of ideas. And yet, we have laws in the Indian Penal Code, like 295(a) and 153(a), which allow anyone to claim offence and shut free speech down. Like 377, these laws are colonial artefacts. But they are actually validated by the most illiberal part of our Constitution, Article 19(2), which allows caveats to free speech on grounds like ‘public order’ and ‘decency and morality.’ Those are open to interpretation, and anything goes.

Consider food. The government regulates what you may or may not eat. Consider health. You cannot take cannabis for medical use, or any other medicine not approved by a government body. Consider education. You could get arrested for home-schooling your children if you find government schools inadequate, and there are so many restrictions placed on private schools that come between consenting parents and consenting teachers.

Indeed, markets are as big a battleground for Consent as bedrooms or kitchens. If we don’t interfere between consenting adults in a bedroom or kitchen, what moral justification is there for doing so in the marketplace? Every time a voluntary exchange happens between two people, it does so because both people benefit. Life and markets are a positive-sum game. And yet, governments ‘regulate’ and stop voluntary exchanges between consenting adults all the time. Often acting on behalf of entrenched interests, they restrict competition, harming consumers aka citizens, and benefiting cronies.

The most poignant victims of this are our farmers. Our entire agricultural crisis is a result of our farmers having their autonomy snatched away from them. They are the least free of Indians, and are trapped in a cycle of dependency. But this is a subject for another column, perhaps.

71 years after the British left is, we have the mentality of the colonised. We behave as if we are subjects of a mai-baap state, and not its masters. The state should exist to serve us, not the other way around. We give the state a monopoly on violence so that it can protect our rights, not so that it takes them away with the threat of violence. It is not a safeguard for our liberty, but the biggest threat to it.

We got lucky this time with the Supreme Court ruling, but we cannot rely on the court every time. There are too many freedoms to fight for, and unless the parties that run this country see political capital in it, they will not grant us those freedoms. But I have hope.

The outpouring of joy at the repeal of 377 may indicate that things are changing. Have we started caring about each other, and about freedom, a little bit more? Are we beginning to recognise that a nation cannot truly be free until all its citizens are free? Are we going to bring about more trysts with destiny?

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 September, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist


What the Kerala Floods Tell Us About the Two Ideas of India

This is the 10th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

A debate has been conducted in India since the Kerala floods broke, not through words, but through actions. Two different Ideas of India are being debated. They are opposite ideas, and we will soon be called upon to choose one of them.

To get a sense of the first idea, consider the countless heroes who stepped up in Kerala to help the countless victims. As the water levels rose, as homes were submerged and livelihoods destroyed, fisherfolk from across the state turned their boats inwards to help. The most enduring image: Jaisal KP, a fisherman from Mallapuram, bending and offering his back as a ramp for rescued people getting on a boat.

Thousands of volunteers from across the country, even as far away as Kashmir, turned up to volunteer at relief camps. Those locals who escaped the worst of it stopped their Onam shopping to buy relief materials instead. Thousands donated to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, including an eight-year-girl who had been saving for four years to buy a bicycle. She donated every rupee. In the town of Suntikoppa, the local church, temple and madarsa turned into relief camps, coordinating with each other, as if to say, Our religion is humanity.

What is this Idea of India? It is the idea that we are one people. We celebrate our differences, but we recognise that what holds us together is stronger than anything that pulls us apart. In this India, when the water level rises, no one will ask what your religion, caste, language, state, cuisine or ideology is. They will offer you their hand – or their boat, or their bicycle.

The other Idea of India is filled with hate and anger. One man claimed this was God’s punishment on Kerala because menstruating women had been allowed into the Sabarimala temple. Another claimed that it was God’s punishment on Kerala’s Muslims and Christians for, well, not being Hindu. Another appeal went out for donations only to go to Hindu organisations, which would help only Hindus.

There were those who wanted not only to gloat on Kerala’s misfortune, but to prevent it from getting help. A gentleman, who was later revealed to be a member of the BJP IT Cell, put out a viral video saying that since Kerala did not have too many poor people, there was no need to donate. Another man in an army uniform gave a similar message, only for the army to then declare that the fellow was an imposter.

In all this, the Hindutva Whatsapp factories were active. They circulated images supposedly of RSS people distributing relief, though some of them turned out to be of non-RSS people – including from the communist parties – and the others were old, recycled pictures. Will not help, will not allow others to help, will take credit anyway: this was also the story of the central government.

When the Kerala government asked for aid, the Narendra Modi government gave a pittance, a fraction of what had been asked for and what they had given other states for smaller tragedies. When speculation spread that the UAE government had offered Rs 700 crores as relief, the Modi government said it would not allow the money to go from willing donor to needy recipient. Yes, really.

This is the second Idea of India. Here, we are divided by religion, caste, region, language. We feel schadenfreude, not sympathy, at the pain of others. Here, it is a zero-sum game, and we like to see others fall, as only their falling will help us rise.

I call this the Tukde-Tukde Vision of India. People who think in terms of divisions, who foment hate among their own people—what else can one call them but anti-national? They are betraying both the inclusive entities they claim to speak for: Hinduism and India. I consider them a greater threat to our nation than any terrorism from across the border.

It is true that all Indian politics is identity politics. Every government we have ever had, every party that exists today, has let this nation down. But this ruling party, and the entire Hindutva movement, has hit new lows with the way they actively tried to prevent aid from reaching Kerala. Such malice? Why?

The people they let down were not just the people of Kerala, but the citizens of India. From across the country, the rest of us were watching, and deciding which of these two Ideas of India is dear to us. And just as this debate unfolded through actions, we can make our choice clear through action. Vote wisely next year.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 August, 2018 in India | Politics | The Rationalist


Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

This is the first installment of Politics Without Romance, my monthly column with Bloomberg Quint. As the name indicates, this column will look at Indian politics through the lens of Public Choice Theory.

One more Independence Day comes up, and it’s time to ask that annual question again: Where have all the leaders gone?

It’s a common lament that the politicians of today are the opposite of the freedom fighters who got us this Independence. We had giants then. We have pygmies now. Our leaders then were driven by principle. Our leaders now are driven by the lust for power. Why?

If you look at politics through the lens of economics, which I will do in this column over the new few months, the answer lies in incentives. Why do people get into politics? What do they want from it? What can they realistically expect? What do they need to do to get to the top? What trade-offs do they need to make? What do they need to do to stay on top?

Right from the 19th century, our freedom fighters had little personal upside to their battles. We were ruled by the British Empire, and these men had no chance of coming to power and enjoying its rewards. The downside was significant, though. If you were in a position of influence, you could lose it. If you were not, and fought too vigorously, you could land up in jail or worse.

The generations of men and women who rose up to fight against the British empire did so because they were animated by a higher cause. There was no personal upside to it. There was a principle at stake. For example: Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it. And they cared about that principle so much that some of them were willing to die for it.

Once Independence was achieved, the incentives changed. Firstly, getting the British to leave was so miraculous, coming after a decades-long struggle, that our leaders did not notice what we did not achieve. Yes, we got political independence, but we still weren’t guaranteed the personal and economic freedoms that we had fought for.

One of the seminal moments of our Independence struggle was Mahatma Gandhi’s protest against the tyranny of the salt tax. Well, consider that the tax on salt is far higher today, not to mention other taxes or other tyrannies.

Here’s what we did on August 15, 1947. We replaced one set of rulers with another. Only the colour of their skin changed. And those who had fought against those in power were now in power themselves. Their incentives changed. Would they change?

In the early years of our independence, our politics was ruled by those who had come into the freedom struggle for the sake of principles, not power. I’m willing to give them the benefit of doubt. Their mistakes were honest mistakes – such as the embrace of the Fabian socialism that kept India poor for decades longer than it should have. That flawed thinking was the fashion of the times, and was not driven by bad incentives. The drive towards Big Government did, however, change incentives further.

Henceforth, it was natural that those who would be drawn to politics would be driven by the lust for power. Now that it was possible for Indians to join the ruling class, people were bound to want to do so. Now that we had achieved Independence, there no longer seemed a burning need to fight for higher principles. Principles would become a rationalisation, a way to position a political brand to differentiate it from others. 

Those who did enter politics for reasons of principle would soon find themselves having to compromise on those principles for pragmatic reasons. So much so that by the time they actually achieved power, there could be no trace of those original principles. There is an old truism that power corrupts. It is equally true that the quest for power corrodes character. There may be politicians who start off idealistic—but they cannot remain that way, no matter what their public positioning.

Why is this? Incentives. Achieving power requires two things: Money and Votes. (As you can only get Votes by spending Money, this is arguably one thing, but I’ll speak of them as two to illustrate the different directions that politicians are pulled in.)

First, money. Over the decades, it has gotten more and more prohibitive to fight an election. One needs crores to contest even a local election. Where does this money come from? Who can afford such large sums?

The money always comes from interest groups who expect a Return on Investment. There’s always a quid pro quo involved. I give you money, but when you come to power, you do XYZ for me. First, money leads to power. Then, power must lead to money. This is the chakravyuh of politics.

For example, if a big industrialist gives a political party money, what could he want out of it? One, he may want regulation that protects his industry or company from competition. Place tariffs on foreign goods, deny a license to a competitor, and so on. (All these can be done citing seemingly noble principles.)

Two, he may want special privileges that the government, using its monopoly on violence, can get him. For example, if he wants land for a factory, the government can use eminent domain to get it cheaply from villagers and hand it to him. Three, he may want soft loans from a Public Sector Bank, which he otherwise may not get from a private sector bank that has different incentives and does due diligence.

Contemporary examples of this abound. Consider the interest groups that benefit from any government policy, and you can follow the trail. You may oppose FDI in retail, for example, because small traders form a large chunk of your donor base, as is the case with AAP (and the BJP, until recently). You may allocate natural resources to favoured cronies, as the UPA was alleged to have done with coal and spectrum.

All of these, you will note, amount to a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, from us citizens to moneybag interest groups. This is how Power provides RoI to Money.

Needless to say, you don’t make money only for those who fund you, but also for yourself. (This might even be the prime personal incentive for wannabe politicians.) Our system of big government is especially lucrative. Wherever there is power, there is discretion, and there will be corruption. And our government is designed to give enormous amounts of power to those in charge, which makes immense corruption inevitable. This is not a function of the party in power, but of the incentives in play.

And now, to votes. In our democracy, elections are the process by which we decide which of the competing mafias will get to rule us for five years. There is just one way for these mafias to win our votes: by bribing us. The party in power may hand out immediate sops. The parties in opposition will promise them.

In the political marketplace, just as in any other marketplace, every brand does not try to woo every customer. (Unlike in a regular marketplace, of course, there is usually only one winner.) Parties will have vote banks that they will nurture over time, and reward when they are in power. The immense power of the state makes patronage politics lucrative.

For example, you can promise reservations in government jobs to a group of your choice. Or, even without explicit promises, you can make sure the state favours the groups you are wooing, either by giving them jobs or contracts or looking after them in other ways. (This is analogous to how a mafia rewards and protects those who give them hafta, except here it is legal.)

Or you can just bribe them directly, with free biryani or pressure cookers. This can become a vicious circle. For example, everyone wants farmers’ votes, and once one party promises farm loan waivers, every other party has to follow suit. Loan waivers are a temporary anaesthetic that perpetuate the problem, but politicians do not have the incentives to make the deep structural changes that are required in agriculture. Those will take years to play out, much beyond an election cycle – and parties need votes now.

The great tragedy of Indian politics is that all our politics is identity politics that centres around state patronage. All parties are guilty of this. Smaller regional parties nurture their own caste vote banks. The Congress pandered to minorities for decades. The BJP caters to the worst bigots among us – and there are enough of them now to make the party a force. They also manipulated the caste politics of UP masterfully in 2014 and 2017. As for AAP, they have pandered to Khalistanis and Kanwariyas alike, and a prominent supporter of theirs was made to apologize to a Jain Muni for the reason that Jains were a powerful vote bank for AAP.

All this is inevitable. What can a party do without votes? What can a party do without money? The imperatives of our democracy make politics morally corrosive. To get to power, you must privilege the means over the ends. And even if your ends were noble to begin with, by the time you are done, your only goal is power. You become the monster you might have tried to fight.

What could change this? Well, if the state had less power, it would offer less RoI to investors. There would be less money and less patronage for parties to bribe voters with. Imagine a limited government that existed just to protect our rights and nothing else. The incentives would change. It would have so little power that those who lust for power would be forced to look elsewhere for career options. (Maybe they’d join the mafia.) Interest groups would stop funding politicians because politicians would not have power to do something in return for them. Voters could not be induced with short-term sops or goodies.

Can that change in the design of our government ever take place? Who will have the incentives to make that change? Not the moneybags and the interest groups, that’s for sure. But what about the voters? If enough citizens demanded reform, the government would have to listen. Supply has to obey Demand.

Andrew Brietbart once said, ‘Politics is downstream of culture.’ This is exactly right. Before we change our politics, we must change our culture. This is as noble a battle to fight as the one our great freedom fighters fought against the British empire decades ago. Will new leaders emerge to fight it?

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 August, 2018 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Politics Without Romance


Every Act of Government Is an Act of Violence

This is the 9th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

There was outrage on Twitter this week when it was revealed that the union government had spent Rs 4880 crores since 2014 on government advertising. The outrage is justified—but it is not enough. It is not just this amount or this use of government money that we should question, but the whole concept of government spending. And indeed, government action.

We in India seem to think of Government as the solution to all our problems. (I often argue that India’s biggest religion is not Hinduism but the Religion of Government.) We behave as if the State is a benevolent entity with unlimited resources of its own with which it should fulfil all our wishes: ban what we don’t like, build what we want built, spend on what we think are good causes. Statues, loan waivers, awards for sportspeople, ministries for cow protection, and so on.

In all this, we ignore one essential truth: Every act of government is an act of violence.

Think about what the state needs in order to exist: our taxes. Money taken from us by force. No one pays taxes willingly. Without the threat of imprisonment—basically, abduction by the one entity that has a monopoly on violence—there would be no taxpayers. There are two words that mean the act of taking someone’s property without their consent: no wonder people say that Taxation is Theft.

Indeed, it is more than that. Assume that you pay 25% of your income in taxes. That amounts to one-fourth of your time and labour. It means that, for all practical purposes, from January to March every year, you are a slave to the state. Taxation is not just theft, it is part-time slavery.

Contrary to a common canard, everybody pays taxes. Taxes are not just income tax. Your domestic help is parted from her money when she buys a bar of soap. The beggar at the traffic signal near you loses money to the government every time he buys salt. Even inflation—usually caused by the government printing money—is basically a tax on the poor.

I am not arguing that we should pay no taxes and live in anarchy. The state is a necessary evil. We need it to protect our rights, and there is no way around the paradox that by allowing it to exist, we give away some of our rights. The state has to tax us to protect us, and the violence it thus commits is necessary to protect us from greater violence.

Regardless of what your ideology may be, none of what I have said above is contestable. It is plain fact that no one pays taxes willingly, and that the threat of coercion is involved. It is plain fact, thus, that every government action involves violence and coercion. Most people would also accept that some amount of this violence is necessary, for we need the state to protect our rights. The larger question then is, what actions of the state are justified, given the violence involved at every step?

This is where ideology begins. Person One (a libertarian like me) could argue for a minimal state that only protects our rights and nothing else. (If you feel the state should do other things, give me the moral justification for your preferences being funded by money coercively taken from others.) Person Two may advocate a state looking after its less fortunate members, proving free healthcare and education. Person Three may care about national glory, and want to build grand statues. Person Four could argue that building infrastructure is necessary, and has positive externalities.

(It is beside the point, of course, that political parties are driven by imperatives beyond ideology. They need money and votes to exist and win, and when in power, use the state as a tool to reward those who gave them money and votes—always at the expense of us citizens.)

The purpose of this column is not to argue for or against any of those ideologies. I just ask that every time you advocate government action of any kind, remember that the action comes at a cost. That cost is not just a financial cost, but a moral one. That cost involves violence committed on all of us—not just rich industrialists, but also the poorest of the poor.

Can you justify that violence?

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 August, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Huggers and Thuggers

This is the 86th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

HUGGERS

In the last elections, Modi won.
Since that time, he has hugged everyone.
But now the tables turn.
Modiji feels the burn.
It’s now RaGa who is having fun.

THUGGERS

Putin was in the gym doing weights.
I asked him, “How do you like your mates?”
He said, “They must obey.
I like men made of clay,
Like my lad in the United States.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 July, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Eminence, Preeminence

This is the 85th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

EMINENCE

I told Jayant Sinha, high on grass,
“Bro, you have to garland Hima Das.”
He said, “I don’t agree.
She has lynched nobody.
So I will have to give this a pass.”

PREEMINENCE

The tycoon said to me, “Listen bro,
The wealth that I have is not for show.
I bought the UPA,
I own the NDA,
And I will buy the next guy also.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 July, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Jumla

This is the 84th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

JUMLA

Modiji said, “I have so much spine.
I will arrest the rupee’s decline.”
Modiji talks the talk.
But he’s now in the dock,
And the rupee has reached sixty-nine.

JUMLA 2

There was a promise by Modiji.
“I’ll ensure safety of every stree.”
Sushmaji laughed out loud.
She said, “Bro, don’t be proud.
First get your bhakts to stop trolling me.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 July, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Kim and the Fitness Challenge

This is the 83rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

MODIJI’S FITNESS

A fitness expert said to me, ‘Bro,
Did you see Modiji on the go?
That routine made no sense.
I am now very tense.
Is everything about him for show?’

WRONG KIM

Trump was confused when he first saw Kim.
He said, ‘I do not recognise him
Where is Kardashian?
I want to have some fun.
Get me a Kim who is not so grim.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 June, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Futile Exercise

This is the 82nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FUTILE EXERCISE

I got an invite that was meaty.
RSS sent me an entreaty.
“Sir, do come and give talk.”
I said, “I will take stock.
Do I have to watch you do PT?”

ASSASSINATION PLOT

I know I can be very boring.
Yesterday my wife was ignoring.
Then I thought of a ruse.
I came up with fake news.
It did not work. She is now snoring.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 June, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


We Should Regulate the Government, Not the Other Way Around

This is the sixth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

From the way this government behaves, you would think that the people of India are a great danger. A few days ago, the government floated a tender asking for vendors who would build for it a “comprehensive analytics system to monitor and analyse various aspects of social media communication and World Wide Web.” Put simply, a surveillance system that will track all your online activity, and know everything about you, so that you behave. This tender came on the heels of an earlier proposal mooted by Smriti Irani, then the I&B Minister, to regulate online media.

These specific proposals were par for the course. Any government looks for ways to expand its power over its citizens. As much as we should protest these attempts, we should also consider that the real problem lies elsewhere. The biggest danger to our democracy is not one set of people lusting for power, but the mindset that all of us have.

The Indian people still behave as if we are subjects of an empire. We have no rights except those that our rulers are kind enough to grant us, and they are our mai-baap. Yes, since the British left we have a procedure to elect our own rulers – but we remain the ruled.

In a democratic republic, the people should be in charge, and the government should serve. The only legitimate role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens – that’s what laws are for. And yet, in this inversion of roles that we have accepted, laws become the tool by which our rulers keep us in check. The mere rule of law is never enough for this, and the state always seeks to expand its power with that magic word, ‘regulation’. We accept and encourage this: whenever we see a social or economic problem of any kind, we assume that the solution must lie with government, and demand ‘regulation.’

We need to reverse our thinking. We should regulate the government, and not the other way around.

You should always be suspicious of any sentence with the phrase ‘government regulation’. Most of the time when someone proposes any kind of government regulation, it is something that will harm the common citizen, help a special interest group and expand the power of an oppressive state. Let me explain.

First of all, let’s take for granted that the fundamental role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens. It has to maintain the rule of law. In any marketplace, whether of goods, services or ideas, this is all it needs to do. Punish cheats and thieves. Enforce contracts. Ensure that all interactions are voluntary and there is no coercion. It needs to do no more than this.

Now, consider what happens when the government decides to ‘regulate’ something in the ‘public interest’. The state is not a benevolent godlike force that works in society’s best interests. Politics is an interplay of power and money, and those in power have always been captured by special interests. There is already a power imbalance in favour of these special interests. To grant the government more power is to increase that imbalance.

Usually, in any market, competition is the best regulation. A common form of government regulation is to increase entry barriers in a marketplace, thus reducing competition. This hurts the consumers – or us common citizens. It helps entrenched special interests.

This is as true of the marketplace of ideas as it is of the marketplace for goods and services. Social and online media are already subject to laws that fight criminal activity—including many laws against free speech that should not exist. Further regulation is an attempt to protect one set of ideas and intimidate another. This reduces the possibility of dissent. This is bad for democracy.

The issue here is not which party happens to be in power at a given time. Whenever you concede a certain set of powers to a government, imagine the worst possible person in charge. It could be Yogi Adityanath or Sonia Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal—whoever you dislike most. The state should have so little power, and such strong checks and balances, that the worst person imaginable being in charge will not be a threat to the nation.

So the next time someone proposes government regulation of any kind, with the most noble rhetoric behind it, raise your voice. It is the natural tendency of the state to try to grab as much power as possible. It is the duty of the citizen to resist.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 June, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Media | News | Politics | The Rationalist


Modiji’s Fitness Challenge

This is the 81st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FITNESS CHALLENGE

Modiji said, as he tried to squat,
“This is so much harder than I thought.
Let us do Photoshop.
I will seem so tip-top.
Optics matters. Performance does not.”

EAVESDROPPING

The other day, my toaster complained,
“In the kitchen, I feel so constrained.
All I hear is your gloom.
Shift me to the bedroom
At least then I can be entertained.”

*

And a bonus limerick that I unleashed on Twitter:

SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY

I woke up excited last Sunday.
My guru said it was a fun day.
But the day was such crap,
All of it on Whatsapp.
I will quit this addiction one day.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Yanny, Laurel and Karnataka

This is the 80th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

WAR

Once I had a fight with my nanny.
She said she could only hear ‘Yanny’.
I said, “No! I will fight!
Only ‘Laurel’ is right!
Your insistence is so uncanny.”

KARNATAKA

My best friend happens to be a horse.
He said, “I must say I find it coarse.
It is so degrading
What you call horse-trading.
Such slander should fill you with remorse.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 May, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


The Binnys and the Karnataka Elections

This is the 79th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

ONE MORE CHANCE

It’s a good week to be a Binny.
Walmart saved one from ignominy.
Rajasthan Royals came
And gave Stuart a game
So he could show he’s not a ninny.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Karnataka, my friends, has voted.
Will the Congress be now demoted?
Whoever wins the game,
Government will stay the same:
Inefficient and much too bloated.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 May, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


It’s Modi vs Modi in 2019

This is the 49th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In next year’s election, only Narendra Modi can beat Narendra Modi. And he might just do it.

I had a strange dream the other night. I dreamed that Narendra Modi was in a room, all alone, surrounded by full-length mirrors. Mirrors to the right of him, mirrors to the left of him, mirrors behind, in front, on the ceiling. He was in an ecstatic frenzy, turning hither, looking thither, admiring himself from every angle. And then, suddenly, he realised that these were not all just reflections. No, all these Narendra Modis in the mirrors were Narendra Modi all right – but they weren’t him. They were all different Narendra Modis, and at any moment, one of them could stride forward and attack him. He must keep an eye on all of them! A Narendra Modi could not be trusted!

Ok, so obviously I did not have that dream – or if I did, I don’t remember it. But I wonder if Modi feels like that sometimes. Surrounded by sycophants, does he feel he has nowhere to turn but to himself? And yet, after all these years of playing to different galleries, who is he really?

Enough metaphysics. The most remarkable thing about Indian politics in this decade is how suddenly and completely it shifted from revolving around one family to revolving around one man. The 2014 elections, like every elections before, was Congress versus Everyone Else – and the Congress is the fiefdom of one family. After 2014, Indian politics remained unipolar, though that pole shifted from being the Congress to being Narendra Modi. Just as all elections until now have been Congress vs Everyone Else, the 2019 elections will be Modi vs Everyone Else. Like him or hate him, you have to hand it to Modi: this is a phenomenal political achievement.

Modi has been helped by the lack of stature of the opposition leaders. I suspect he smiles every time he thinks of Rahul Gandhi. The young Gandhi – Rahul is 47, but still a toddler compared to the doddering dotards of Indian politics – is a shy, graceful man who is almost too nice to be in politics. He is also, despite much coaching and recent efforts to revamp his image, not the sharpest kid on the block.

While a new face of the party, he is also the old face of the party, and has no new vision to offer the country. He lashes out at Modi for all the right reasons, but all he promises is a return to the Congress of old, and he often defends even the disastrous economic policies of his grandmother, Indira. That Congress mindset kept India poor for decades, and it was partly a backlash to that that brought Modi to power. Gandhi does not seem to understand this, and so his party flounders.

But just as Gandhi is a gift to Modi, Modi is a gift to Gandhi. Young Rahul lacks the charisma or vision or political skill to become prime minister on his own, but he may yet get there because someone else might beat Modi for him. That someone else is Modi himself.

I predict that the 2019 elections will be decided entirely by Modi. There will be a fight between a positive vote for him and a negative vote against him. If the negative wins, then by default someone else will take charge. Despite the comic posturing of various regional leaders, it will probably be Gandhi. Lucky lad.

There are various reasons for this negative vote. Reason one: While he continues to excel in optics, he has failed in governance. Demonetisation crippled our economy, the botched implementation of GST hurt it further, and he has carried out no reforms. He has shown the command-and-control mindset of Nehru, who he no doubt has a man-crush on, going by how often he invokes him. And he is Indira’s true heir, both in terms of economics and that authoritarian streak. Law and order is also in bad shape, and the BJP state governments seem particularly clueless.

Reason two: In 2014, Modi put together a brilliant identity-based coalition that is now unsustainable. In UP, for example, the BJP cobbled together an unlikely coalition of the upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and not-Jatav Dalits. After they won the state elections there, they’d all expect patronage gains, and there’s never enough to go around. Something has to give. The perfect storm that saw the BJP get 71 out of 80 seats in UP, 25 out of 25 in Rajasthan, 27 out of 29 in MP and all 26 in Gujarat cannot be repeated.

Reason 3: In 2014, as people fed up of the previous regime engaged in wishful thinking, Modi could be like a Rorschach test, all things to all people. But those who saw in him a reformer or a statesman should know better now. The ugly, petty venality of some of his electoral utterances – such as his recent jibe at Rahul Gandhi about his Italian roots – might please the converted, but are sure to repel others.

Reason 4: His shudh Hindi is impressive, but the South is fed up. You can’t condescend to Tamilians. You can’t tell Keralites not to eat beef. I don’t think the BJP think tank even understands South India.

When Modi came to power, someone in the know told me that Modi was boasting about being in power for at least 10 years. A couple of years ago, I would have thought it likely. 2019 seemed like a done deal. But nuh huh, not anymore. Modi might lose next year, struck down by the man in his mirror.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 May, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Peace Everywhere!

This is the 78th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PEACE IN ASIA

I asked Donald, “Bro, what have you sown?
North Korea has changed its time zone.”
Trump told me, “Look at Kim.
See what I’ve done to him.
I want a Nobel Prize of my own.”

PEACE IN INDIA

Modiji said to Trump, “Hey white knight,
Well done stopping that Korean fight.
Here’s a challenge for you,
What I need you to do.
Come make North and South India unite.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 May, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


It’s Too Late

This is the 77th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

TEMPORARY

A friend said, “Today is World Earth Day.
Do not eat too much at the buffet.”
I said, “Bro, take chill pill.
We will do what we will.
The earth will outlast us anyway.”

LATE

Yashwantji said to me, “Amit, bro,
Modiji threatens our tomorrow.
Hindutva gives me pain.”
I said, “Yo, please explain,
Did you protest sixteen years ago?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 April, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason


Smriti and Salman

This is the 76th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FAKE NEWS

Smriti Irani said, looking pale,
“Amit, editors should go to jail
If they fail a fact check.”
I said, “Hey, wait a sec,
Is it true that you have been to Yale?”

ENTITLEMENT

Salman said, “Amit, I have a flaw.
I am too soft inside. I am raw.
I killed an antelope,
But I give my fans hope.
Surely I should be above the law?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2018 in India | Media | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Zuckerberg’s Reply

This is the 74th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THE DIFFERENCE

I told Mark Zuckerberg, “I’m not sure
That my data is super secure.”
He said, “Bro, it’s your call.
You can just uninstall.
But what about Aadhaar? What’s your cure?”

THE SECRET

Modiji said to his friend, Putin,
“Bro, tell me, how do you always win?”
Putin said, with a smile,
“My old friend, use your guile.
Once you get power, never give in.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 March, 2018 in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Aadhaar, Adityanath

This is the 73rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

DEADLINE EXTENSION

My wife said, “Stay away, no kisses.
First link your Aadhaar to your Missus.”
I said, “Love, give your cheek.
Your plea, so very bleak,
Is one the Supreme Court dismisses.

REVERSAL

Adityanath said, “I am the King.
In Gorakhpur, I am everything.”
Then he got his ass kicked.
The voters can be strict.
Could this be the start of a downswing?

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 March, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


The Nehru Defence

This is the 47th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Narendra Modi seems to have one answer for every attack on him. But Jawaharlal has been dead for 54 years.

The Candidates tournament for the World Chess Championship is going on right now. Eight of the best chess players in the world are playing each other twice for 14 rounds of gruelling action. The winner will take on World Champion Magnus Carlsen for the title later this year. It is a close tournament and anyone can win, but I am a chess nostalgic with a fondness for symmetry, and I’m rooting for Vladimir Kramnik.

Kramnik first won the title at the turn of the century, beating Garry Kasparov at his peak. His masterstroke in that match was reviving an old opening for black called the Berlin Defence. Kasparov could not breach that wall, and the Berlin has since become an impregnable cliché in grandmaster circles.

This tournament is being held in Berlin, and I write this column after the third round, in which Kramnik played the Berlin against pre-tournament favourite Levon Aronian and won a spectacular game to go into the lead. It is as if the fates gathered around and decided, He revived the Berlin. Now Berlin will revive him.

Back in India, on the political chess board, Narendra Modi has found a similar defence for all seasons. It’s called the Nehru Defence. No matter what attack is unveiled against him, he counters it with the Nehru defence. Economy’s doing badly? Nehru started it. Problems in Kashmir? Nehru, doh. Modi hugs foreign leaders too much? Nehru hugged Edwina.

Well, not the last, but you get the drift. The obvious response to the Nehru Defence this is to point out that Nehru died in 1964. What he may or may not have done is irrelevant to Modi’s performance now. Modi may not like many of the policies that exist today because of Nehru, but hey, he got a mandate in 2014 to overturn them. Why hasn’t he?

There were a host of reforms Modi could have carried out in the last four years to make India more free. He hasn’t implemented any of them. Indeed, he has shown the same command-and-control mindset that was Nehru’s great failing. He has combined it with the authoritarianism of Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who he most resembles. If he hates them, then he hates them so much that he loves them. His actions indicate that he wants to be them.

What irritates me more than the irrationality and dishonesty of the Nehru Defence is how the discourse has been shaped by it. Everybody is thinking in binaries. One side thinks Nehru was a monster who ravaged India. The other side thinks Nehru was a great statesman who built everything that is good about this country. Both these narratives hold some truth, but you’re not allowed to acknowledge both. Either Nehru was evil or he was a God. You are either a patriot or an anti-national, depending on which simplistic fairy tale you believe.

These binaries apply to everything today, not just Nehru. This is a form of historical revisionism. Nothing can be grey any more. Everything must be black or white. You must take sides. Any attempt at nuance is considered a cop-out, and both sides could come after you. So it makes sense to either be unflinchingly partisan – or to stay shut altogether. And when those who care about nuance withdraw from the conversation, we are left with Republic TV.

Think about what this does to the discourse. Let’s continue the chess analogy. Aronian, Kramnik’s hapless victim and a cultured, thoughtful man, once said that a game of chess was like a conversation. One player asks a question; the other replies, and asks one herself; and so on, in the mutual quest for truth. I found this analogy moving – and also heartbreaking, because there is no space for such a respectful conversation in Indian politics.

If they play chess at all, the two sides in our politics – and there are two now, because of the forced binaries – are playing not against each other, but against imaginary opponents on adjacent chess boards. They are talking past each other, and each is convinced of possession of the truth. One side repeatedly plays the Nehru Defence. The other side, on the other board, plays I-don’t-even-know-what, it’s not coherent.

Maybe the game in question is not chess at all. Maybe it is mud-wrestling. And maybe in some parallel universe, a man in a pinstripe suit with a name on it wrestles a man in a sherwani. The man in the sherwani has been dead for 54 years, so he keeps getting flung to the ground. Finally, unable to take the gratuitous posthumous humiliation, he springs back to life and catches the man in the pinstripe suit, and then something strikes his eye. He realises that the name on the pinstripe suit of his opponent is not ‘Narendra Modi’ but ‘Jawaharlal Nehru’. What kind of man wears a suit like that?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 March, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Two Deaths

This is the 72nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

TWO DEATHS

I know many movie fans who cried
When that great actress Sridevi died.
She brought us such magic.
It was also tragic
Watching the press commit suicide.

ORIGINS

Isaac Newton said, “I’m sanskaari.
I saw an apple drop from a tree
And thought of a mantra
From the Panchatantra
That gave the concept of gravity.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 March, 2018 in India | Media | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Two Jokes

This is the 71st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FLAKE

Justin Trudeau is handsome and woke.
He is a virtue-signalling bloke.
See his Khalistan mess.
He’s really that clueless.
Frankly the guy’s a bit of a joke.

GOVT. ADS

One tendency that all netas share
Is one that should put you in dispair.
They love to advertise,
And all their sordid lies
Are funded by YOU, so please beware.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 February, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Fraudsters

This is the 70th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BAKRA

Nirav Modi told me, “This is nice.
Eleven thousand crores will suffice.
I love committing fraud.
I will now chill abroad
While taxpayers like you pay the price.”

WHATABOUT

Narendra Modi said, “This is great.
Why is always me you berate?
When will you understand?
All netas in this land
Are thieves looking to eat off your plate.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 February, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Deflection and Reflection

This is the 69th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

A DEFLECTION

Masterji said, sipping single malt,
“Bal Narendra’s committed assault.
He keeps using his force,
And he shows no remorse.
He says everything is Nehru’s fault.”

ON REFLECTION

In case the stock market makes you frown,
If you think Dear Leader is a clown,
Don’t panic. Think it through.
Just take the long-term view.
Everything that goes up must come down.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 February, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


It is Daft to Worry About Inequality

This is the 46th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Inequality and poverty are different problems, requiring different, even opposite, solutions. India’s problem is poverty.

Let me begin this column with a question, dear reader, which I urge you to read carefully and answer before reading on:

In which of these two countries would you rather be poor: the USA or Bangladesh?

Most people I ask this to go, Duh, of course I’d rather be poor in the US than in Bangladesh. Well, here’s something I’d like you to consider: the USA has far greater inequality than Bangladesh does. A measure called the Gini Index measures inequality across the world, and the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom all have greater inequality than Bangladesh, Liberia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. And yet, that second group of countries is by far poorer than the first group

It has become fashionable these days, especially in elite, privileged circles, to agitate about inequality. But as my question and the data above make clear, inequality and poverty are very different things. Some of the poorest countries in the world are among the most equal. (Some Communist countries of the last century came close to achieving equality in poverty.)

So here’s my contention, in three propositions:

One: India’s big problem is poverty.

Two: The more we reduce poverty, the more we are likely to increase inequality.

Three: It is perverse, therefore, to worry about inequality. We should only keep our eye on poverty, and not worry if inequality goes up.

There is a fundamental fallacy at the root of the obsession with inequality. We think of the world in zero-sum ways. That is, we behave as if there is a fixed pie, and the rich can only become richer if the poor become poorer. In this vision of the world, the more inequality increases, the more abject the suffering of the poor. Redistribution is the only solution.

And yet, this narrative is wrong. The world is not zero-sum but positive-sum. The size of the pie increases with every voluntary transaction. Every time I buy a cup of coffee from a café, both the café and I are better off – otherwise we would not have transacted to begin with. The amount of value in the world has gone up.

The more you allow and enable such voluntary exchange, the more people trade to mutual benefit, and we all become better off. And the larger these economic networks of voluntary exchange, the greater the scope for such mutual enrichment. That is why people migrate to cities from villages, and rarely the other way around.

In fact, within a country, cities are far more unequal than villages are. If inequality was such a bad thing, why would so many poor people vote with their feet by migrating to cities? They embrace this greater inequality because they want to escape poverty.

The reason India remained a poor country for so many decades after Independence is that, with the zero-sum vision of our leaders, we frowned upon free markets. While the rest of Asia shot ahead, we restrained the natural ingenuity and enterprise of our people with our mai-baap vision of politics. We did reform a bit in 1991, but too little and too late. Our poverty levels did go down a bit, though, even as we grew more unequal, illustrating the fact that there is no correlation at all between poverty and inequality.

I don’t want to talk only in terms of abstract ideas, so let me illustrate one way in which reducing poverty would raise inequality. There is consensus among economists today, even left-wing ones, that we have crippled our manufacturing sector for decades with a series of bad laws, such as our labour laws, which don’t allow small businesses to grow, and force much of our nation into the informal sector. These regulations stopped us from becoming a manufacturing superpower like China. What would happen if these restrictions were to magically disappear one day?

You would have growth in the manufacturing industry. There is no question that there would be far more employment generated, which would reduce poverty. You would also have some of these businesses achieving scale and becoming behemoths. Poverty would go down and our per-capita income would go up; but because of the winners at the top, inequality would also go up. Would this be a bad thing? I don’t think so.

The zero-sum instinct is ingrained in us: we evolved in prehistoric times when we lived in small tribes amid scarcity, and the positive-sum view of the world would have been unintuitive. It is also natural to resent the super-rich among us, especially when they behave in ostentatious, obnoxious ways, and game the system with their money, which happens a lot in our crony socialist state. Maybe a country that has eliminated poverty can have the luxury to think about Inequality. But not us.

It is a moral shame that seven decades after Independence, we still have millions of people living in poverty. We need to fight this. We should not be distracted by false metrics.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 February, 2018 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


A Special Cess

This is the 68th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BUDGET

My finances were in such a mess.
I said, “I demand an Amit cess.”
A gentleman named Shah
Said, “Arre bhaiyya, wah.
Super idea, I must confess.”

FIRST PRINCIPLE

Tom Friedman has defended Aadhaar.
He said, “Facebook has your data, yaar.”
Oh, what a clueless gent.
Facebook has our consent,
And consent must be our guiding star.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 February, 2018 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


A Special Cess

This is the 68th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BUDGET

My finances were in such a mess.
I said, “I demand an Amit cess.”
A gentleman named Shah
Said, “Arre bhaiyya, wah.
Super idea, I must confess.”

FIRST PRINCIPLE

Tom Friedman has defended Aadhaar.
He said, “Facebook has your data, yaar.”
Oh, what a clueless gent.
Facebook has our consent,
And consent must be our guiding star.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 February, 2018 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


A Fuss Over Pakodas

This is the 67th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BRAVERY

The Karni Sena kicked up a fuss.
Their boss said, “No one listens to us.
Our protests were a flop.
But now we cannot stop.
Let us go and attack a school bus.”

NO WORRIES

Jaitley told Modiji, with much dread,
“A massive jobs crisis lies ahead.
There’ll be no bread to eat.”
Modiji said, “That’s neat.
Just let them eat pakodas instead.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 January, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Diplomacy, Stormy Daniels and the Karni Sena

This is the 66th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

DIPLOMACY

Modiji found himself in full flow.
Netanyahu said, “Please take it slow.
You are a handsome man.
I am a massive fan,
But please don’t give me more jhappis, bro.”

OUTRAGE

Donald Trump hooked up with a porn star.
There was much outrage in the bazaar.
The Karni Sena said,
“We demand Stormy’s head
And that Donald should commit Jauhar.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 January, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Old Monk in the Supreme Court

This is the 65th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

OLD MONK

I told the bartender, with a wink,
“One Old Monk.” Now he began to think.
He looked me up and down,
And told me, with a frown,
“I can see that, but what will you drink?”

SUPREME COURT

Four Supreme Court judges met the press.
They said, “Everything is such a mess.
We just don’t understand
What that Virat has planned.
Cricket is causing us so much stress!”

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 January, 2018 in Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport


Aadhaar and the Miracle Man

This is the 64th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

SECURITY BREACH

I can’t afford to buy an old car.
I’m filled with envy at the bazaar.
However much that sucks,
I have 500 bucks,
Which means I can buy all of Aadhaar.

MIRACLE MAN

Rajinikanth authored the Dead Sea Scrolls.
He completes marathons on his strolls.
He can do anything.
On the screen, he’s the king.
I wonder how he’ll do at the polls.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2018 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Jealous Guy

This is the 63rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

JEALOUS GUY

Jignesh Mevani said, excited,
“Modi should retire. He is blighted.”
Modi said, “I know why
Jignesh is jealous guy.
I’m the one Virushka invited.”

DEFEAT

Sri Lanka lost yet another game.
Their captain said, “We deserve acclaim.
You see, we lost by less,
Exactly like Congress.
It’s a moral victory, not a shame.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 December, 2017 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


The Age of Sharma

This is the 62nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

UNRELIABLE

I was eating ice-cream from a bowl.
My wife said, “You are so gol-matol.”
I replied, “Don’t tell lies.
The fault lies in your eyes.
They are as flawed as an exit poll.”

REBUKE

A friend said to me, “Mister Varma,
We have entered the age of Sharma.
Virat-bhai married one.
Rohit got double ton.
You must really have some bad karma.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 December, 2017 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport


Facts. Don’t. Matter

This op-ed of mine was published in the Hindu today.

Politicians like Trump and Modi play to our worst impulses as people believe what they want to believe.

The most surprising thing about these Gujarat elections is that people are so surprised at our prime minister’s rhetoric. Narendra Modi has eschewed all talk of development, and has played to the worst impulses of the Gujarati people. His main tool is Hindu-Muslim polarisation, which is reflected in the crude language he uses for his opponents. The Congress has a ‘Mughlai’ mentality, they are ushering in an ‘Aurangzeb Raj’, and their top leaders are conspiring with Pakistan to make sure Modi loses. A BJP spokesperson has called Rahul Gandhi a ‘Babar Bhakt’ and ‘Kin of Khilji.’ None of this is new.

Modi’s rhetoric in the heat of campaigning has always come from the gutter. From his references to ‘Mian Musharraf’ over a decade ago to the ‘kabristan-shamshaan’ comments of the recent UP elections, it has been clear that the Otherness of Muslims is central to the BJP playbook. Hate drives more people to the polling booth than warm, fuzzy feelings of pluralism. But, the question is, are the Congress leaders really conspiring with Pakistan to make sure the BJP lose?

Answer: It doesn’t matter.

A Disregard for Truth

In 1986, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay named ‘On Bullshit’, which was published as a book on 2005 and became a surprise bestseller. The book attempts to arrive at “a theoretical understanding of bullshit.” The key difference between a liar and a bullshitter, Frankfurt tells us, is that the liar knows the truth and aims to deceive. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth. He is “neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false,” in Frankfurt’s words. “His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”

The bullshitter is wise, for he has cottoned on to an important truth that has become more and more glaring in these modern times: that facts don’t matter. And to understand why, I ask you to go back with me in time to another seminal book, this one published in 1922.

The first chapter of Public Opinion, by the American journalist Walter Lippmann, is titled ‘The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.’ In it, Lippmann makes the point that all of us have a version of the world inside our heads that resembles, but is not identical to, the world as it is. “The real environment,” he writes, “is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.”

We construct a version of the world in our heads, and feed that version, for modifying it too much will require too much effort. If facts conflict with it, we ignore those facts, and accept only those that conform to our worldview. (Cognitive psychologists call this the ‘Confirmation Bias’.)

Lippmann sees this as a challenge for democracy, for how are we to elect our leaders if we cannot comprehend the impact they will have on the world?

A Fragmented Media

I would argue that this is a far greater problem today than it was in Lippmann’s time. Back then, and until a couple of decades ago, there was a broad consensus on the truth. There were gatekeepers to information and knowledge. Even accounting for biases, the mainstream media agreed on some basic facts. That has changed. The media is fragmented, there are no barriers to entry, and the mainstream media no longer has a monopoly of the dissemination of information. This is a good thing, with one worrying side effect: whatever beliefs or impulses we might have – the earth is flat, the Jews carried out 9/11, India is a Hindu nation – we can find plenty of ‘evidence’ for it online, and connect with likeminded people. Finding others who share our beliefs makes us more strident, and soon we form multiple echo chambers that become more and more extreme. Polarisation increases. The space in the middle disappears. And the world inside our heads, shared by so many other, becomes impervious to facts.

This also means that impulses we would otherwise not express in polite society find validation, and a voice. Here’s another book you should read: in 1997, the sociologist Timur Kuran wrote Private Truths, Public Lies in which he coined the term ‘Preference Falsification’. There are many things we feel or believe but do not express because we fear social opprobrium. But as soon as we realise that others share our views, we are emboldened to express ourselves. This leads to a ‘Preference Cascade’: Kuran gives the example of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but an equally apt modern illustration is the rise of right-wing populists everywhere. I believe – and I apologize if this is too depressing to contemplate – that the majority of us are bigots, misogynists, racists, and tribal in our thinking. We have always been this way, but because liberal elites ran the media, and a liberal consensus seemed to prevail, we did not express these feelings. Social media showed us that we were not alone, and gave us the courage to express ourselves.

That’s where Donald Trump comes from. That’s where Modi comes from. Our masses vote for these fine gentlemen not in spite of their bigotry and misogyny, but because of it. Trump and Modi provide them a narrative that feeds the world inside their heads. Mexicans are rapists, foreigners are bad, Muslims are stealing our girls, gaumutra cures cancer – and so on. The truth is irrelevant. Facts. Don’t. Matter.

Think about the implication of this. This means that the men and women who wrote our constitution were an out-of-touch elite, and the values they embedded in it were not shared by most of the nation. (As a libertarian, I think our constitution was deeply flawed because it did not do enough to protect individual rights, but our society’s consensus would probably be that it did too much.) The ‘Idea of India’ that these elites spoke of was never India’s Idea of India. These ‘liberal’ values were imposed on an unwilling nation – and is such imposition, ironically, not deeply illiberal itself? This is what I call The Liberal Paradox.

All the ugliness in our politics today is the ugliness of the human condition. This is how we are. This is not a perversion of democracy but an expression of it. Those of us who are saddened by it – the liberal elites, libertarians like me – have to stop feeling entitled, and get down to work. The alt-right guru Andrew Breitbart once said something I never get tired of quoting: “Politics is downstream of Culture.” A political victory will now not come until there is a social revolution. Where will it begin?

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 December, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


Neech Whataboutery

This is the 61st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

DYNASTY

Mani said to RaGa, “You are neech.
You used to say in every speech,
Democracy should grow.
Well, your ‘election’ shows
That you do not practise what you preach.”

WHATABOUTERY

I just hate this political game.
All these parties are devoid of shame.
If you should call them out,
They just say, “What about… ?”
It just shows that they are all the same.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 December, 2017 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Hadiya and Ivanka

This is the 60th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

HADIYA

A Supreme Court judge remarked to me,
“You think we abolished slavery?
Well, let me tell you, mate,
You belong to the state.
Your rights mean nothing. You are not free.”

DADDY COOL

Ivanka told NaMo, “I am glad,
Even though your report card is bad,
You manage to muster
Such a lot of bluster.
You remind me so much of my dad!”

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 December, 2017 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Karma, Varma and a Fictional Queen

This is the 59th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PADMAVATI

There is a film that I have not seen.
It is based on a fictional queen.
Its name begins with ‘P’.
Somehow that offends me,
So I will not allow it to screen.

HEALTH MINISTER

A fellow named Himanta Sarma
Told me, “Cancer is caused by karma.
You are not sanskaari.
I feel really sorry.
What disease you will get, oh Varma!”

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 November, 2017 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | WTF


Love and Loneliness

This is the 58th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

POLITICAL LOVE

RaGa sang NaMo a sweet jingle.
“Modiji, you make my heart tingle.
Forget this doom and gloom.
We should just get a room.
We are both Qarib Qarib Single.”

THIRD MAN

One day Mufflerman began to shout,
“RaGa and NaMo just make me pout.
Amit, I have to say,
They are mile hue.
Why am I always the odd one out?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 November, 2017 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


The Gandhis Must Go

This is the 43rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

No party that has portraits of Indira Gandhi in its offices can be a credible Opposition.

These are grave times. Our prime minister is an incompetent and delusional megalomaniac. Our country is being polarised across religious lines because the ruling party deems it electorally advantageous. Despite bonanzas like low oil prices and good monsoons, our economy has gone backwards under this regime, mainly because of Tughlaqesque misadventures like Demonetisation. Across the country, millions of young people are coming into the jobs market and finding that there are no jobs for them. There is unrest.

All this is fertile ground for a resurgent opposition with new ideas. And yet, all we are getting is a return of the ‘same-old same-old.’ There seems to be a consensus among Delhi liberals that because we desperately need a strong opposition, we must desperately prop up Rahul Gandhi. At one level, for these three reasons, this seems to make sense: One, the Congress is still the only pan-India party besides the BJP; Two, the Gandhi family is so entrenched that no alternative leaders have emerged; Three, Rahul Gandhi is, at the least, a well-meaning, earnest chap, and not a venal sociopath.

However, this is a terrible idea. It is bad for the Congress, because they need rejuvenation, not this slow slide to death. It is bad for the country, because we need a strong opposition. There are two reasons, one small and one big, on why the Congress needs to move away from the Gandhis.

Reason one: There is no reason to believe that Rahul has suddenly gained the competence (or even the intelligence) that he has so clearly lacked all these years. In the past, he has repeatedly made a fool of himself in speeches and interview, which are embarrassingly numerous on YouTube. His new supporters point to his recent talks and interviews in the US, but those contain mainly rehearsed talking points, so clumsily articulated that it’s sometimes obvious that he’s mugged them up.

He says many of the right things – but so did Modi before he came to power. Words are not enough. Gandhi’s party was in power for most of the six-plus decades before Modi came around – and it did not walk this talk. That is why Modi got his chance.

What is more problematic is that he also says many of the wrong things. He praises bank nationalisations, for example, and seems to approve of Indira Gandhi. (More on this in the next point.) He doesn’t seem to have a basic grasp of economics – or indeed, the capacity to think critically about these subjects. In other words, it appears that he still is what I had referred to him as many years ago: a handsome village idiot, albeit one with a smart team that preps him well, and a witty new social media staff.

I have often been mistaken, and would be delighted to be proved wrong on this. Here’s one way to do this: rather than give rehearsed speeches and answer softball Q&As, let Rahul Gandhi give an interview to an independent, bipartisan journalist who will ask probing questions about public policy to understand the depth of Gandhi’s thinking on these issues. I nominate myself for this. If he can’t hold his own in an interview with me, he doesn’t deserve to be PM.

That will never happen. Meanwhile, here’s my second reason for why we need to move beyond the Gandhis: the legacy of this family is a harmful one, and the Congress can only progress if it comes to terms with this, and moves beyond it.

The sharpest criticism against Modi is that he is the true successor to Indira Gandhi. He has her authoritarian streak; and his economic policies are as damaging to this nation as hers were. How, then, can a party that has portraits of Indira in all its offices be a credible opposition?

Harmful as Jawaharlal Nehru’s economic thinking was – the command-and-control mindset that Modi shares – he was otherwise a great statesman, and his economic ideas were the fashion of the time. It is easy to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it is hard to be gracious about Indira.

I often make the point that some bad economic policies can be termed crimes on humanity. Indira carried out a series of policies – her bank nationalisations, FERA (1976), the Urban Land Ceiling Act (1976), the Industrial Disputes Acts of 1976 and 1982, alongside the many controls she imposed on the economy –that kept millions of Indians poor for decades longer than they should have been. The humanitarian cost was staggering.

The commentator Nitin Pai once estimated that a one percent rise in India’s GDP brings two million people out of poverty. This damage that Indira’s policies did to the country are unseen and unacknowledged – especially by her own party.

What is even more egregious is that Indira did not implement these out of conviction, in which case she would be wrong but not necessarily evil. (Hanlon’s Razor.) Her sharp move leftward came because she needed to differentiate herself from the Congress establishment, and began as an act of political positioning. And then, she got into full populist mode with attractive slogans like Garibi Hatao, which seemed to make sense as her policies harmed the rich. That zero-sum vision of the world she sold was wrong, of course, and her policies harmed the poor much more in the long run.

It is the damage that the Congress did to India for over 60 years that set Modi up for his resounding win in 2014. The Congress needs to come to terms with that, and articulate a new vision for the future. New ideas will only come with new leadership. And those who support the Congress have a responsibility to demand just that. Their message to the party should be, “Don’t keep taking us for granted. We deserve better. The country deserves better.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Fall Guy (and the Stampede)

This is the 51st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FALL GUY

Yashwant-bhai told me, quite sedately,
“Amit, have you seen the news lately?
Our nation has been shamed.
Modiji can’t be blamed,
So I will blame it all on Jaitley.”

ELPHINSTONE

There is more to Mumbai than the rain.
Human life keeps going down the drain.
Just another stampede
That will never impede
Our rush towards a grand bullet train.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 October, 2017 in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


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