About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.



My Friend Sancho

My first book, My Friend Sancho, was published in May 2009, and went on to become the biggest selling debut novel released that year in India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and had earlier been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


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


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


My posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner




The India Uncut Blog

17 December, 2017

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 at 12:01 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

15 December, 2017

The New World Upon Us

This is the 45th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Alpha Zero’s achievement in chess is staggering. It showcases a quantum leap for Artificial Intelligence.

If there is one thing that sets human beings apart from other species, it is this: we think too much of ourselves. Just because we lucked upon opposable thumbs and a powerful brain, both of which allowed us to dominate other species, we behave as if we are masters of the universe. It’s pathetic. We’re bawling babies in front of a bacterial onslaught, and we will soon find ourselves inadequate in front of machines that we ourselves will make. It is time for humility.

A few days ago, Alpha Zero beat Stockfish. We humans talk about Ali-Foreman and Federer-Nadal and Fischer-Spassky, but the most momentous match in human history might well have been the chess match between these two machines. But first, some context.

Here’s the Artificial Intelligence context. In 1950, when AI was in the realm of science fiction, Alan Turing came up with the Turing Test. Wikipedia defines this as “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” So if you’re having a text conversation with a party you cannot see, a machine would pass the Turing Test if you do not realise that it is a machine. I would hold that AI has achieved this easily, although many humans would probably fail. (Check out Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.)

Here’s the chess context. Until the early 1990s, the thought of a computer beating a human in chess was laughable. But technology progressed quickly, and in 1997 a machine called Deep Blue beat the then-World Champion, Garry Kasparov. Computers soon left humans far behind. Today, a program on your smartphone can thrash the best player in the world.

Now, you’d imagine that this would mean the end of chess. Everyone would use computers in their analysis and pedagogy, and we’d all start playing like machines. But exactly the opposite happened, and chess was instead enriched.

There was once a study that aimed to see how many moves a grandmaster and a novice could think ahead in a game of chess. The answer was that they saw the same number of moves ahead, but the GM saw the right ones. Learning chess is less about calculation and more about pattern recognition and heuristics. The more you play, the more patterns you learn to instinctively recognise, with an understanding of how they interact with other patterns. A strong player can glance at a position on the board and understand its salient aspects.

And then, the heuristics. Heuristics are simple rules that allow people to make decisions. For example, a chess player will be taught that it is important to occupy the center early, to take her king to safety by castling, to develop her pieces as much as she can, and so on. Now, humans cannot possibly calculate everything on the chess board. (The number of possible positions in a 40-move game is greater than the number of electrons in the observable universe.) So they use shortcuts – or these heuristics.

All humans learn chess by learning heuristics. These have evolved over centuries, and are a common body of knowledge that every player has to learn to reach a certain level. The famous Soviet School of Chess was the embodiment of this. Given this common body of knowledge, chess players actually played in a similar way, with individual style appearing on the margins.

Computers did not need heuristics, because they had the computing power to actually calculate every move and every position. (This is called ‘brute force’.) This did not make chess more homogenous, but less, as computers looked beyond the set of heuristics that were instinctive for players. This meant that the new generation of players who used chess programs as an analytical tool were no longer bound to the dogmas of the past, useful as they were. All the principles earlier generations had learned had exceptions, and all the exceptions could be explored using these programs.

As a result, the current generation of players has more stylistic variation than ones before. Younger players think about the game in unique ways that older ones can’t fathom, and is outside their playbook. And while all top players use programs like Stockfish for analysis, none of them plays games against it because Stockfish would thrash them, and it would be too demoralising. It’s like trying to race a car.

So what did Alpha Zero do? Well, Alpha Zero was built by Deep Mind, an AI division of Google. It is a self-learning program, and the rules of chess were fed into it, but nothing else. No opening databases, no heuristics. It played against itself for four hours to learn the game. Then it played Stockfish in a 100-game match. Alpha Zero won 28 games, and the rest were drawn. After four hours of learning, it beat a chess program into which years of development had gone.

Astonishingly, Alpha Zero achieved this by playing like a human. While Stockfish examined 70 million positions per second, Alpha Zero looked at only 80,000. While teaching itself chess, it discovered, developed and then used heuristics that seem to go beyond the ones humans discovered. For example, human are taught not to move the same piece multiple times in the opening when others lie undeveloped. Alpha Zero did this again and again, favouring activity over development. It also made long-term positional sacrifices, with no immediate gain, which machines otherwise do not do.

The games released by Alpha Zero are spectacular. Alpha Zero plays like a human, but an enhanced human. The grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen, Magnus Carlsen’s coach, told chess.com: “After reading the paper but especially seeing the games I thought, well, I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on earth and showed us how they play chess. I feel now I know.”

The implications of the Deep Learning that Alpha Zero demonstrates are fantastic and unfathomable, and not just for chess. AI is already embedded in our lives – your smartphone would have seemed like science fiction in 1990 – and will become more so. It has become fashionable to be worried about AI, but I am optimistic. Technology will make us all better versions of ourselves – and that journey begins by accepting that we aren’t all that awesome to begin with.

Posted at 1:22 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport

14 December, 2017

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 at 8:20 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

10 December, 2017

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 at 8:32 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

03 December, 2017

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 at 6:59 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

30 November, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Match Poker (and the Match IPL)

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in the Match IPL, playing for Goa Kings. The IPL here stands for Indian Poker League, and it follows a similar franchisee model as cricket’s IPL. I don’t play poker these days, having retired a couple of years ago, but a good friend, who was the mentor of this team, asked me to join, and I thought it would be fun.

Also, one important reason I joined was because this was a new format of poker, and I wanted to set myself the intellectual challenge of understanding it and optimising for it. When I was active, I was mainly a live cash game player, with decent tournament results in the Asian circuit. But this format of poker was different in key ways from both cash games and tournament poker.

The Format

Match Poker is a format played by teams. It’s explained here, but I’ll sum it up briefly. Let’s say there are seven teams with seven players each. They play each other on seven tables, with one player from each team on every table. Also, there’s one player from each team on every seat. So if you are on seat 1 on table 1, all the other tables with have players from other teams on seat 1. So every team will have a player on every table and every seat.

The idea is that the same hand is then dealt across tables. So all teams play the same hand from every position. At the end of every hand, a team’s chips across positions are added. The team with the best chip count gets 7 points, the next team gets 6, and so on down to 1. The chip count is reset, and all teams start the next hand equal in chips. At the end of a certain number of hands – 200 in the case of Match IPL – the team with the highest points (not chips) wins.

The Question of Luck

According to the guys who thought this up, this format ensures that “the luck element in conventional poker via the ‘random draw of cards’ has been removed.” In fact, the Match Poker guys claim that because this removes the element of luck, that makes poker a true sport. They are using this rationale to get Match Poker into the Olympics.

This claim is both moot and false. It is moot because of two reasons, one small and one big. The small reason is that all sports do have an element of luck, and that’s doesn’t make them less of a sport. The big reason is that even though poker has a greater quantum of luck than other sports, it is still a game of skill in the long run. What happens in any one hand is largely luck, but given a large enough sample size, skill will make the difference.

Also, the format doesn’t eliminate luck entirely because there is still much variance in the game. Let’s say you are the best player in the best team. You hit a set, and maximise pot size to get your opponent with top pair all in. No other team manages this. But then your opponent hits a runner-runner full house, as he will 2% of the time. Your team played the best here – but you will come last, and the team will get just one point. This is luck, and it doesn’t matter in the long run because it all evens out. But you need a decent sample size of hands for the skill to show. 200 hands – or even 2000, or perhaps 20,000 – is not enough.

How Match Poker is Different from Poker

Although Match Poker is set up like a deep-stack cash game, it is different in two fundamental ways. One, the unit of measurement here is not chips, but hands won. Two, you are not playing against your table, but against all the other players sitting on your seat (and dealt the same hand) at the other tables.

Let’s start with point one: chips don’t matter. Teams are not ranked according to how many chips they win in a session, but how many hands they win. This is the opposite of regular poker. A study on online sites showed years ago that the players who win the most hands lose the most money. A good cash game player will lose more hands than he wins, but will win more when he wins than when he loses, and be overall profitable.

An illustration of this is set-mining. I will always play 44 preflop, if there is just one raise, and I will hit my set only one in eight times. Seven times I don’t hit the set – but the one time I do, I make enough money to compensate for the times I folded. But in Match Poker, that doesn’t matter. Point two explains why.

Point two: You are not playing against the table, but against other players on your seat. Let me illustrate this with the set-mining example. Let’s say you get 44. You fold preflop, while you know all the other players on your seat will call. Seven out of eight times, they will fold on the flop, and because you saved that preflop call, you are first on your seat. One time you are last. Assuming ceteris paribus (all other teams and players get equal results in other seats), your team gets seven points seven times and 1 point once, for a total of 50 points in eight hands. All other teams get 24.3, splitting the remaining points. Thus, while set-mining with small pairs is profitable in regular poker, folding them preflop is profitable in Match Poker. It is +EV in this format, or as I’d call it, +MPEV.

The same logic holds for speculative hands like suited connectors. If other teams are likely to play those hands, and they lose more than 50% of the time, your profitable move is to fold. Ditto for chasing flush draws on a flop. Remember, pot odds and chip EV don’t matter, because this is not traditional poker. So a lot of moves that +EV in regular poker are -MPEV.

Three Rules

With this thinking in mind, I formulated three thoughts that I wanted my teammates to think before every hand.

1. I am not playing this hand against the table. I am playing it against other players on this seat.

2. What are the players on this seat likely to do with this hand?

3. Will I win this 50% of the time?

If you have a speculative hand that your opponents (the players on your seat) are likely to call, and that hand will lose more than 50% of the time, then it is +MPEV to fold it right away.

The Strategy

So here’s what the points system means. Teams get from seven to one points for every hand. The average is four. It’s all zero-sum, so teams win what other teams lose, and the amount won is equal to the amount lost. You might have one team winning chips on a given hand and six teams losing, in which case the team that lost the least gets six valuable points. You might have one team losing and six winning. But generally, if you fold every hand, you should get around 4 points per hand. (Simulations validate this, FWIW, with the limited data I had from a previous event.) The team that won Match IPL won with 821 points from 200 hands, or 4.1 per hand. Three out of seven teams finished above the mean (800).

Now, obviously, folding every hand does not win you the whole thing. What I considered the optimal strategy was to fold all speculative hands and medium-strength hands, and push all value hands hard, but to define these value hands tightly. Also, profit in poker comes not just from value hands but value spots. Position matters, and there is much value to be had if you can outplay people in a button-vs-blinds dynamic. I’ll come back to this later: our initial strategy was based on not thinking too hard about spots and focussing on hands.

Instead of playing 20% of hands, as we otherwise might, we decided to play 5%, fold 95% and see how it goes. We would fold all speculative hands, all medium-strength hands (like KJs in early position) and we would also fold strong hands in multiway pots where our chances of winning are less than 50%. (Remember, in this format, pot odds don’t matter. 50% is the magic number.) We even made a hand-chart by position for our players to memorise. This was a new format and we were all beginners here, so that made sense.

We started the tournament disastrously. There were 8 sessions of 25 hands each, and in our first session, we were hit by variance. The problem was Seat 1. Our man in Seat 1 made a series of correct folds, (correct in terms of MPEV), and those hands kept hitting. Sets hit. Random hands hit trips. Connectors hit straights. Hands that would win one in eight or 15 or 25 times kept hitting. And other teams played those hands, and got points for them. We got on the wrong side of variance, which happens. But with just 175 hands left in the session, could we recover?

We remained in the bottom half of teams through that first of two days, though I was topping the individual charts at the end of day 1. In fact, I topped the individual charts at the end of 5 sessions out of the eight, but fell short of winning the MPV at the end of it. And this brings me to the problem of the individual leaderboard.

I assumed that the individual leaderboard would be calculated the same way as the team leaderboard: they’d see how you did against the players on your seat, and assign between 7 to 1 points for each hand. I assumed I led for so long because I was playing optimally. But I later found that this was actually being decided on total chip counts – ie, just like normal poker. (They were assigning differential points based on how you outplayed guys on your seat, but it was still looking at overall chips, not hands won.) Thus, doing well in the individual charts had no correlation to how well you played for your team. One was calculated as per chips, the other was as per hands won.

Value Spots

So given our strategy, how the hell was I leading for so long? Well, this brings me to the issue of value spots. You not only have to play value hands strongly, but also keep your eyes peeled for value spots. When everyone folds to you on the button, that could be a value spot if the blinds are passive. If you are in the small blind against a button open, that could be a value spot if you get him to fold. These are also high-variance spots, but spots you could win more than 50% of the time, so you have to use your judgement. (In this format, btw, I’d define a Value Spot as a spot where you can win the hand more than 50% of the time, regardless of the actual hand you have.)

I took the liberty of searching for such spots against the guy on my left, an excellent cash game reg who would attack my button from his small-blind. I couldn’t simply fold all my buttons, because players on my seat would probably win there a fair bit. So I had to play back at this guy. We had a 3b-4b dynamic going on, and in one hand I stacked him with Q7s against 96. (It went raise-3b-4b-flat, flop came Q96, with 7 on the river. Standard spot.) In another hand on the second day, in another 3b-4b spot, I took an all-in call on the river with A-high, in a spot where he would check-call all showdown hands because I was guaranteed to bluff. His range was polarised, as I thought, but he happened to be bluffing with bottom pair and I lost. The call was correct anyway, because once I have put in enough chips to ensure that I am last on my seat, there is nothing to be lost going all the way. (Ceretis Paribus, again.)

Again, the key rule with value spots is simply whether you’ll win more than 50% of the time, and what your opponents do doesn’t even matter here, because you’ll either get 7 points or 1. You beat the average by winning more than 50%.

So, the optimal strategy is to fold a lot, including all speculative and medium-strength hands, push all value hands hard (if you get coolered, so will everyone on your seat) and use your judgement for value spots. We started off unlucky, some panic set in, and we ended fifth. I slipped off first place in the individual leaderboard, ending 11th, but that was a chip-count thing. (If they calculated that the same way as team points, I’m sure I’d be higher.)

What was worse was that the winning team, after getting lucky on day 1, followed my strategy on day 2 and were thus uncatchable. One of them mentioned that they looked at my hand histories at the end of day 1 as I was leading the individual leaderboard, and their chief strategist is a close friend to whom I had boasted that I had cracked the optimal strategy. They didn’t necessarily get it from me, and this stuff isn’t rocket science to figure out. The fact that they shifted to my strategy on day 2 (one of them folded 24 out of 25 hands in one session, I heard) is intellectual validation that my ideas were correct – though I would have preferred monetary validation. SAD!

(No other team seemed to have figured out the strategy, by the way, with the team that came second playing a LAG style that is perfect for deep-stack cash games but sub-optimal for this format.)

For what it’s worth, I don’t intend to play this again, which is why I am being free with my thoughts here. I expect all the teams to read this, though, thus adding a metagame element, and making their subsequent search for value spots that much more fascinating.

The event was glitzy, with drone cams and so on, so watch it on MTV if you can. I haven’t seen it yet, and I am sure that if I do, I’ll be even more determined to resume my Keto diet.

Also read

The archives of Range Rover, my old poker column for the Economic Times.

The Five Commandments of Poker, an episode of the podcast Mera Kaam Poker that features me.

Posted at 6:12 PM by Amit Varma in Personal | Poker | Sport

26 November, 2017

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 at 2:34 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | WTF

24 November, 2017

We all live in a Cannibal Holocaust

This is the 44th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

A horror film from 1980 anticipated the Age of Instagram. And it is indeed a horror.

William Shakespeare was once confronted by his girlfriend. “You pretended to be so gentle and millennial while wooing me,” she said, “and then you go and write Titus Andronicus. What’s going on in that head of yours?”

“All the world’s a stage,” replied Willy, “and we are all performing. Even I don’t know what I really am.”

We live in performative times. Peeps on Twitter are signalling virtue, peeps on Instagram are documenting what they want others to believe their life is like, and solitary loners are blogging about their solitary aloneness.  All this merely makes explicit what was true for humans all along: we’re putting on an act.

I thought of this recently while watching a masterpiece released in 1980: Cannibal Holocaust. This was one in a wave of Italian cannibal movies that came along in the late 70s and early 80s, and was directed by Ruggero Deodato, known to the French as ‘Monsieur Cannibal’. His work influenced directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. After Cannibal Holocaust, his ninth film, was released, Sergio Leone wrote to him to say: “Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”

He did. He was arrested because it was believed that the murders that took place in the film were real ones, and it was a snuff film, such was the realism with which it was shot. The actors had to show up in court to prove that they were alive. The film was banned in more than 50 countries, before which it grossed US$ 200 million worldwide.

In the film, a group of documentary filmmakers go off into the Amazon jungle to make a documentary about cannibal tribes. They go missing. A rescue team led by an American anthropologist goes off in search of them. After numerous adventures, they discover the mutilated bodies of the filmmakers – and all the footage that they shot. They bring this back to New York.

This footage is like a film within a film within a film, because the filmmakers are like conceited millennials instagramming everything. Whatever you see on camera is a performance, and they record everything, even sex. They are stars of their own reality show. They will use only some of what they shoot, but they shoot almost compulsively. It feels like an addiction.

A few days into the trip, their guide is bitten by a snake. They record his pain. They amputate his leg to save him. They record the aftermath. They leave him to die. The camera is on all the time.

When they reach the tribes, they need spectacular footage, so they stage a massacre, forcing tribe members into a hut, setting it on fire and not letting them escape. This is for their documentary. (For a previous documentary, we are told, they had incited executions in war-torn countries so that they’d get some dramatic footage.) What happens next is not for the documentary.

They trap a tribal girl, and gang-rape her. Every detail of this is filmed, with one man handing over the camera to another when his turn comes. Later, they come across the girl impaled on a wooden stick, and find it hard to hide their glee at getting such a great shot. They do a pop-sociological explanation for the camera by saying she was killed because she lost her virginity.

Later, the tribe comes for revenge. As they scurry through the jungle, one of the two cameramen is hit by a spear. The director shoots him so they can get footage of him being mutilated by the tribals, and tells the other guy, “Keep filming, Mark.” They do, as the tribals cut off their captive’s penis, decapitate him, hack his body into pieces and then cook and eat him.

Then they are on the run again, the director speaking to the camera as they run. His girlfriend, the lone woman in the group, is caught and dragged away. He decides not to try to rescue her, with the surviving cameraman reminding him of his priorities. “Think of the film! Think of the film!”

They follow, they shoot. The girl is stripped, raped, hacked, decapitated. The tribals hold her head aloft and celebrate – and then notice the filmmakers in the bushes, who keep the camera on. The last shot of the footage is the bleeding face of the director besides the fallen camera, and you have to wonder at what point he snapped out of his filming state and realised that this was real. The horror of that moment!

The film was controversial for other reasons. Although no humans were murdered, six animals were killed live on film. With each death, the director cuts off the sound to play the elegant score by Riz Ortolani, and that repeats when the human deaths are filmed. This is also commentary.

Interesting trivia: years later, Deodato played a sophisticated cannibal in one of my favourite scenes in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2. He walks into the room, elegantly slices off a piece of thigh from a conscious captive, and then proceeds to sit at a table and eat it, as a theme from Bizet’s Carmen plays in the background.

Roth was inspired by Deodato, and I consider Hostel 1 and 2 to be great films as well. Isn’t this odd, that I find social commentary in horror films? No, it isn’t. Given what human nature is like, there is no genre more apt.

*

If you have the stomach for it, you can watch Cannibal Holocaust here. NSFW, trigger warning, etc etc.

Posted at 2:35 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Media

19 November, 2017

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 at 9:16 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

12 November, 2017

Bye Bye Love. Hello Indigo

This is the 57th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

BYE BYE LOVE

A friend from Delhi told me one night,
“I once believed in love at first sight,
But now in all this smog,
I can’t see through the fog.
Help me, Amit! Save me from this plight!”

HELLO INDIGO

I met a friend who was full of dread.
He wore body armour made of lead.
He told me, full of fright,
“I am flying tonight.
I’m preparing for what lies ahead.”

Posted at 4:15 PM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

05 November, 2017

House of Khichdi

This is the 56th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

KHICHDI

A friend asked, “What makes India great?”
I said, “The variety on our plate.
We embrace difference,
And don’t lose our essence.
I just love how we assimilate.”

HOUSE OF CARDS

Donald Trump said to me with great joy,
“Kevin Spacey has been a bad boy.
He had to pay the price,
But you must realise,
Real presidents don’t need to be coy.”

Posted at 1:24 PM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

31 October, 2017

Shruti and DD at the Bastiat

I’m overjoyed that two good friends, Shruti Rajagopalan and Devangshu Datta have made the shortlist for the 2017 Bastiat Prize for Journalism. I won this in 2007 and 2015, and this is the first time two Indians have been shortlisted. I hope one of them can bring another Candlestick home.

What makes me especially proud is that they were nominated for pieces published in Pragati, the online magazine I relaunched as editor early this year. What better validation could there be that we are in the right direction?

Shruti wrote a magisterial eight-part essay series for us on The Right To Property that got her this nomination. Devangshu wrote three parts of a four-part series on victimless crimes. You will find them here. And here’s the editorial with which I relaunched Pragati.

The Bastiat Prize celebrates the same values that Pragati set out to enshrine, so this shortlist makes me especially happy. But these two were close friends before the magazine existed, and that’s the reason I’m so excited today.

Posted at 10:20 AM by Amit Varma in Media | Personal

29 October, 2017

Theft and Violence

This is the 55th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PERFORMING ASSETS

Do you wonder where your taxes go?
Where do the fruits of your hard work flow?
The sarkar loots your stash,
Gives its cronies your cash,
As this bailout of banks goes to show.

FATEHPUR SIKRI

People ask, what is our heritage?
Ask the Swiss couple who came to gauge
The beauty of this place.
We gave them a showcase.
How can we explain this seething rage?

Posted at 8:27 AM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

27 October, 2017

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 at 10:19 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

22 October, 2017

Me Too, This Diwali

This is the 54th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

ME TOO

For too long, men have not had a clue
What every woman has to go through.
This is a wake-up call.
This applies to us all.
That’s the value of saying ‘Me too.’

THIS DIWALI AIR

I asked a friend this festive season,
“Why are you coughing? What’s the reason?”
She said, “Though I am young,
I need a brand new lung.”
I said, “Shhh! To complain is treason.”

Posted at 8:23 AM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

15 October, 2017

Two Dreams

This is the 53rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I, ECONOMY

I had a strange dream the other night.
I happened to get into a fight.
Modiji bashing me,
Jaitleyji smashing me,
As they both said, ‘Hey, you look alright!’

JUDICIAL OVERREACH

I had a strange dream the other day.
A High Court judge came to me to say,
“Amit, you are so fat.
We will have to fix that.
Please stop eating crackers right away.”

*

And here’s a bonus limerick for the MAMI film festival that’s going on now:

FILM FESTIVAL

Chacha is banal. Chachi’s a drain.
Bua and Phoofa are such a pain.
Sasuma brings me grief,
But I have found relief:
This week I am on the MAMI train.

Posted at 8:10 AM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

08 October, 2017

The GST Rhymes

This is the 52nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

GST 1

I had been giving Jaitley some grief.
So he came home to give me relief.
“Amit bhai, kem chho bro?
You will be glad to know,
Khakras are now cheap beyond belief!”

GST 2

My CA said, while doing billing,
“Accountants are making a killing.
You are going berserk
With all the paperwork,
But hey, my life is so fulfilling!”

Earlier…

Posted at 9:48 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

01 October, 2017

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 at 6:33 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

24 September, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Limericks

The 50th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India, appeared today. I might be the only person in the world who gets paid for writing limericks, and the credit for this section has to go to Neelam Raaj, the editor at the Sunday ToI who saw me messing around with limericks on Twitter and asked me to write some for their columns page. I’ve never seen any other newspaper in the world run verse on their edit page, so this is a bold conception to begin with, and would never have occurred to me.

Until then, I’d been doing it for fun, but once you start getting paid for it, and published on a platform like that, you need to take it seriously. No guidelines existed, though: many folks—including Shakespeare—had tried the form, and a handful (like Ogden Nash) did some amazing work in it, but limericks have been more lighthearted bar-room amusement than a serious form. I would have to be my own guide. So, within a few weeks, I formulated the following set of three rules for myself.

1. The basic form of a the limerick must be sacrosanct. A limerick is not just a rhyme scheme of aabba, but also a syllable scheme of 99669. (One can do TT66T or 99559, but this pattern is important for the musicality that distinguishes limericks) I didn’t care about this when I would write them for Twitter, but decided that it was important to be disciplined about this.

2. The limerick should contain normal sentences with perfect grammar. They should not only be musical when read aloud, but also normal sentences that would not sound not out of place in conversation. As a nod to one poetic convention, I capitalise the beginning of each of the five lines. But the grammar otherwise is as it would be in prose. (This capitalisation is also necessary because it appears in a narrow column on the ToI page,and the longer lines sometimes get broken in two. The capitals indicate where each of the five limerick lines begin for someone who is reading it for the first time and may not be familiar with the form.)

3. The content of the limerick has to be worth putting out there even as prose. That is, the limerick needs to say something that would be worth saying even if it hadn’t been crafted into this form. A limerick should never have the sole purpose of saying, ‘Look Ma, I can rhyme!’ Indeed, guidelines 1 and 2 above are the easy part. So whether it’s a quip or satire or serious commentary, it should stand on its own, outside the form.

I’ve attempted to use this form not just for light-hearted quips, but also for serious commentary. Sometimes, I’ve blown it, especially with regards to 3, but at least I know what I don’t like about those. Equally, I’ve sometimes messed it up even after getting all three guidelines right because I chose a non-musical sentence construction, like the time I put three stresses one after another. (This is called a Molossus.) Iambic works best, and when one deviates, one should know why.

So yeah, a lot of effort goes into making it look easy. That said, writing verse is a de-stresser for me, and thus the opposite of any other writing I do. Rhyme & Reason is a work on progress, so I hope it keeps getting better. You can check out the archives here.

Posted at 11:07 AM by Amit Varma in Personal

Mentally Deranged

This is the 50th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I WAS THERE!

There’s a TV anchor with much flair.
He was caught lying. There was fanfare.
What’s the point of this rage?
This is the post-truth age.
Super Arnab can be everywhere.

MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR

Kim said Trump is mentally deranged.
Expect more insults to be exchanged.
I suggest, to stop doom,
Those two should get a room.
They sound like lovers who are estranged.

Posted at 5:04 AM by Amit Varma in India | Media | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

22 September, 2017

The Paradox of Democracy

This is the 42nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Many political parties are great at campaigning and winning elections. They all botch up governance. Here is why.

I just finished reading How the BJP Wins, an excellent book by the journalist Prashant Jha on the BJP election machine. It left me in awe of Narendra Modi’s political talent and Amit Shah’s management skills. Between them, they crafted a narrative that had wide resonance, constructed a masterplan based on reconfiguring caste alliances, and put together a ground game with booth-level granularity that won the BJP election after election. They redefined political campaigning in India, and the book deserves to be a case study on how to win elections. And as I finished the book, I was left with a disturbing question:

Why is it that the same group of men who are so good at campaigning are so bad at governing?

This is not a partisan question. Every party that has ever been in power in India has aced the campaigning (after all, they won) and provided appalling governance. The problem here is not competence: the BJP showed immense intelligence, ingenuity, will power and hard work on the campaign trail. The problem here is incentives.

The incentives of a party fighting elections are straightforward: they want to win the elections. The spoils of power are tempting, and everyone works hard. But once they come to power, their incentives are not quite so straightforward.

Consider the two things they needed to come to power: money and votes. Let’s start with money. All democratic politics is about the interplay between power and money. You need humungous amounts of money to win elections. Special interest groups or wealthy individuals provide this money. They do it as an investment, not out of benevolence. And when their horse wins, they want an RoI. They used money to buy power; now they want the power to be used to make them money.

So the first incentive for a politician is to make money for the people who gave him money. It’s as crude as that. In a local election, this could mean that a contractor funds a party so he gets pothole repair contracts from them once they come to power. (And of course, he messes up the repairs so he gets another contract the next year.) At a national level, it means policies that affect crores of people get framed to benefit certain funders.

For example, small traders have traditionally been a strong support base of the BJP. What do small traders want? They want to be protected from competition. How does this reflect in the BJP’s policies? They have traditionally been against Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail. What is the impact of keeping FDI out of retail? Less competition, and therefore less value for consumers. So this notional value that the consumer loses, where does it go? To the small trader, naturally. Basically, the government redistributed wealth from common consumers to a special interest group, all no doubt with rhetoric that sounds noble.

At an individual level, think of the big industrialists who backed this government, and the many ways in which the government pays them back will become obvious: the infrastructure projects, the defence contracts, and a million little invisible favours.

Besides funders, the politician in power has to keep voters happy. Specifically, he has to please those particular vote banks that brought him to power. This can happen through direct patronage. It can happen through policies that seem to benefit the vote bank in question. Note that policies that appear compassionate might actually be harmful in the long run.

For example, farmers are a big vote bank. But the average farmer will prefer mai-baap benevolence to deep structural reforms. Imagine a politician telling a farmer: “I will remove the minimum support price, remove all price controls, and abolish APMCs. Like it?” Ya, I know. Forget it and give the loan waiver already.

All politics, therefore, amounts to bribery. Whatever you do in terms of governance is not to make sure the nation is better off, but to give RoI to your investors, and inducements to your voters. Governance does not sell.

Government, of course, does not consist only of politicians but also of bureaucrats. Their incentives are aligned towards increasing their own budgets and power. To the extent that they are rent-seekers, they want to expand the scope of that as well. Why would anyone stop a gravy train they are on?

This, then, is what I call the Paradox of Democracy. A party that needs to win elections can never govern well because it needs to win elections again. And it does this by redistributing wealth from all of its citizens to some of them. I rarely quote myself, but I can’t resist ending this column with a limerick I once wrote:

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.’

*

Also read:

Politics = Bribery
The Great Redistribution

Posted at 3:43 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Inside the BJP Machine

This book review was first published in Pragati.

Prashant Jha’s book, How the BJP Wins, is an incisive look at how Narendra Modi and Amit Shah transformed Indian politics.

India is polarised when it comes to evaluating Narendra Modi’s performance, but unanimous on the subject of his political talent. Whether you love him or loathe him, it is clear that Modi has changed the landscape of Indian politics. This did not happen by accident. Prashant Jha’s book, How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine, aims to reveal the method behind the madness.

The BJP’s rise in the last few years has, in Jha’s words, “altered politics, created new social coalitions, dissolved older fault lines, generated new conflicts, empowered some, alienated others and is having a profound impact on state institutions.” Jha, without taking sides or getting into ideology or governance, aims to demystify the electoral machine that Modi and Amit Shah built. He does an exceptional job, travelling widely, speaking to many insiders and resisting the temptation to editorialise.

Despite being written so soon after the UP elections, which features prominently in this book, it is no quickie. It contains deep insights into how the BJP planned and executed its ascent, divided into these five areas.

One: The Narrative

Over the years, Modi has redefined himself from a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ to a ‘Vikas Purush’ to a ‘Garibon ka Neta.’ It is hard enough to build a successful brand once, but Modi has managed to redefine himself time and again, adding new layers to his appeal without losing the old ones. How does he do it? Well, consider that all of the three formulations above depend on simplistic binaries. That simplicity is the key.

Jha writes, in the context of Demonetisation, though this could hold in any other context:

[Modi] distils the most important policy decision of the times in simple, accessible terms. He frames it as a binary between right and wrong. He projects himself as the man fighting the good battle, on the side of the people, victimized by the bad guys. But while willing to fight, he also positions himself as a leader who can throw it all away, for he has no vested interests, nothing to lose. He also acknowledges the pain, but taps into the sense of righteousness, the sense of sacrifice and makes citizens feel they are participants in a great national mission, distinct from the prosaic and banal.

Jha breaks down one of Modi’s speeches in Moradabad to show how masterfully it is constructed. As contrast, he describes a speech by Rahul Gandhi in Bareilly that is not just complicated but also incoherent:

Instead of keeping the story simple, he added too many elements to it and complicated it for the crowd. After throwing in China, Himachal Pradesh, apples, Obamaji, he focussed on Bareilly’s own specialisation – this was clearly not the most effective way to explain a simple point.

Messaging matters, and Modi nailed it, not just by perfecting a simple, explicable message, but also by broadcasting it better than his opponents could manage. Consider how he continued so many of the UPA’s welfare schemes and claimed them as successes of his own administration. “Welfare delivery may or may not be sharper,” writes Jha, “but it is, as an observer put it, louder.”

Two: The Ground Game

Jha describes Modi and Shah as “ruthlessly expansionist, in terms of both territorial limits and social base.” One of the seminal moments in the BJP’s history was surely when Shah was appointed as the BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh. He asked the RSS for reinforcements, and they sent over “a rising organisation talent” Sunil Bansal. Bansal became Shah’s right-hand man, and together, they set about understanding UP.

In Bansal’s words, Shah “only got charge of UP in 2013. But within six months, he had travelled to every corner of the state. He knew issues in each region. He knew which leader fit in where.”

Shah and Bansal soon identified “six issues that were dominant in popular consciousness – law and order, women’s safety, corruption, jobs, migration and ‘appeasement.’” They narrowed this down to two, and came up with the slogan, Na gundaraj, na Bhrashtachar/ Is baar Bhajapa Sarkar.

Getting the messaging right is well and good, but how do you get it across, and how do you get people to the voting booth after that? Shah and Bansal set about revamping the organisation with stunning granularity, picking teams for each of the 147,000 booths in the state, fixing targets and responsibilities for each individual in the chain of command, including in terms of recruitment. Shah set a crazy target of getting one crore new BJP members, and “by 31 March 2015, the BJP had 1.8 crore new members in the state.” (Both the means and the number itself are dubious, but that’s part of the game.)

“Between August 2014 and March 2017,” writes Jha, “Shah travelled to almost every Indian state twice, covering over 5 lakh kilometres, to understand, supervise and direct party units.” As the chapter entitled ‘Shah’s Sangathan’ makes clear, Shah did not travel so much to micro-manage, but to put processes in place. Every cog of the machine had to function smoothly and in consonance with the others. Only then would it pull off the social engineering that Shah knew was required to win elections.

Three: Reconfiguring Caste

The chapter titled ‘Social Engineering’ is the most fascinating in Jha’s book. India votes on the basis of identity, and the caste landscape of UP seemed insurmountable for the BJP. But Shah “is slowly transforming the BJP into a party of the less privileged castes, while retaining the support of the privileged” – and UP is a fantastic case study of this.

How could the BJP move from being ‘a relatively exclusivist Hindu party’ to ‘an inclusive Hindu party’? In Jha’s words, “By identifying the most dominant political caste (which is not necessarily synonymous with the most dominant social caste) in a particular setting, and mobilizing the less dominant against them, Shah is weaving together unprecedented social coalitions.”

Jha elaborates:

The calculation is simple. All Indian states are plural in their composition. With the rise of Mandal politics, assertion of OBCs and their mobilisation, the more numerically and socially dominant of these groups – from peasant backgrounds – have also become politically dominant. But precisely because of that, a range of other castes – both the traditionally powerful and the more marginalised – feel alienated. And thus, the trick is to mobilise these castes and construct a coalition against the dominant caste – which is, in the post-Mandal era, usually the numerically largest middle caste of the particular setting.
In Maharashtra, for example, the dominant political caste is the Marathas. The BJP had traditionally employed a pro-OBC strategy, and for the last assembly elections, they “stitched together an alliance of upper castes, OBCs and, to a lesser extent, Dalits.” It got 52% of the upper-caste vote and 38% pf the OBC vote – and swept to power.

In UP, Shah came up with ‘The 60% Formula.” He knew that Muslims (20% of UP’s population), Yadavs (10%, and loyal to the SP) and Jatavs (10%, loyal to the BSP) would not vote for them. That left them with “55 to 60% of the electoral playing field.” This meant upper castes, OBCs who resented the Yadavs, and Dalit sub-castes who resented the Jatavs, the elite among the Dalits who had cornered the gains of the previous BSP administration.

How would the BJP reposition itself to appeal to all these people? Its methodology had three components:

Changes in the party’s organisation structure to make it more inclusive; reformulation of its messaging, so that backward communities felt both a sense of victimhood and a sense of emancipation; and alliances with parties with a base among these communities, despite the BJP’s [recent] overwhelming dominance.

In 2014, Shah “got a quick survey done of the composition and structure of the party in UP. And to his shock, […] he discovered that among party office-bearers across the state – from Lucknow down to the district level – only 7% were OBCs and 3% were Dalits.”

This dominance of the party by Brahmans, Thakurs and Banias had been a traditional problem for the BJP. But how could the party be revamped without upsetting existing office bearers?

[Shah and Bansal] then figured a way out. The party could increase the number of positions instead of eating into the existing pie. Shah gave his go-ahead. This became the license for the party to increase positions at all levels in the party, especially for OBCs and Dalits. Twelve new office-bearers were added in each district. A hundred new members were added to the state executive committee. Those who remained office-bearers were not removed, which helped in mitigating resentment.

Within a few months, the BJP had “a pool of a thousand new OBC and Dalit leaders.” As many as 34 of the 75 district presidents were OBCs, with 3 from the scheduled castes. The president of the state BJP was also an OBC: Keshav Prasad Maurya.

The BJP went beyond tokenism, though. Jha quotes Badri Narayan, a scholar on the subject, as saying:

What Kanshi Ram did for Jatavs, the RSS and BJP are doing for the rest of the Dalits. They are helping create their community leaders. They are helping document their caste histories. They are exploring heroes of their community. They are inventing and celebrating their festivals. They are placing shakhas near Dalit bastis.

The BJP applied this formula across states, and the results were overwhelming. But through all this, it did not forget its roots.

Four: The Sangh Parivar

Speaking of the BJP and RSS as separate entities might be a false dichotomy. All of the BJP’s key leaders – Modi, Shah, Bansal, Maurya – are products of the Sangh. Modi and Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, are good friends.

Jha describes the RSS campaign in 2014 – as opposed to the BJP campaign – as “a much quieter, parallel campaign […], the invisible campaign we did not see.” The main driver of this campaign was Ram Madhav, a pracharak based in New Delhi. He brought both technology and a data-driven approach to the Sangh grassroots.

Madhav started by buying Lenovo tablets for all the regional pracharaks, and training them in how to use it. Then he supplied them with “detailed constituency-wise booklets for each candidate,” prepared by Prashant Kishore’s team, and granular voter data across constituencies prepared by Rajesh Jain. “This data was then used by the Sangh to do the quiet door-to-door campaigning, and work on voter mobilisation which was critical to bringing them out on polling day at the booth level.”

After 2014, Madhav moved on to an important role in the BJP, which goes to show that the BJP is the Sangh.

That said, the Sangh made it a point to stay in the background. As an elderly, anonymous pracharak told Jha:

Let me explain it to you in another way. A parent takes care of the child, educates him, helps him settle down, provides him a home, but doesn’t go around announcing it. [As for doing visible organisation work], that is not out work. […] Our work revolves around quiet sampark, contact, on a door-to-door basis – encouraging people to vote for a leader and a party which thinks of the nation, increases India’s prestige worldwide, improves the army’s morale and believes in vikas for all.

And ah, one more thing, which is the note that Jha ends his chapter on: “The two (BJP and the Sangh) remain integrated in their quest for Hindu unity, and Hindu rule.”

Five: Hindus vs Muslims

At one point in the book, Jha is in the Lucknow office of the BJP – 800 Whatsapp groups are run from there, by the way – and tells a party leader that much of the news they spread about Muslim atrocities is fake. The reply:

Bhai saheb, that does not matter. The point is to show we are the victims. This will get Hindus angry. They will then realise they have to unite against the Muslims.

This is party strategy, and I wonder whether it reflects the bigotry of the party, or an amoral supplier’s response to the bigotry that exists in his marketplace – society itself. Jha doesn’t address this – it is a feature of the book, not a bug, that he doesn’t get side-tracked by digressions – and he lays out many of the ways in which the BJP is trying not just to bring disparate castes together, but to eventually construct a unified Hindu vote. And the way to do this is by demonising the other – the Muslims of India.

Some of this messaging is direct and to the point, as in the case of Love Jihad, Kabristan-Shamshaan and KASAB (the Congress [KA], Samajwadi party [SA] and Bahujan Samaj Party [B], their enemies in UP). Some of it is via proxies, such as the Anti-Romeo squads (“actually the Anti-Salman Squad”) and the gauraksha rhetoric, which hit out at Muslim livelihoods. All of it is meant to construct a simplistic Hindu-Muslim binary, and thus consolidate the Hindu vote.

It has worked. Jha writes of how a newly elected BJP MLA from UP explained his victory: “It was an India-Pakistan election.”

The Challenge Ahead

Jha ends his book with chapters on the BJP’s spread beyond North India and musings on its future. The key challenge before the BJP is this: their expanded electoral base means that they now represent multitudes, and contain contradictions. How long can the BJP claim to represent the interests of such a diverse collection of people? Surely at some point, something will give.

The largeness of the BJP’s social coalition holds an opportunity for the opposition, which is blowing it. Here’s what Jha writes about Rahul Gandhi (early in the book, and not in this context):

Rahul Gandhi did not appeal to the Lucknow Bania, he did not appeal to the Gorakhpur Thakur, he did not appeal to the Moradabad Dalit, he did not appeal to the Bundelkhand Brahman, he did not appeal to the Allahabad Kushwaha, he did not appeal to the Muzaffarnagar Jat, he did not appeal to the Saharanpur Saini. He did not appeal to the rich trader, he did not appeal to the middle-class teacher, he did not appeal to the young man who works as a taxi driver in Delhi and had returned home to vote, he did not appeal to the farmer with marginal landholdings, he did not appeal to the woman who was below the poverty line, he did not appeal to a college student now ready for the job market.

In other words, Gandhi is the opposite of Modi, diminishing the Congress as much as Modi and Shah have grown the BJP. Things change very fast in politics, of course, and nothing can be taken for granted. The BJP can be beaten – but before that, one must understand how they won to begin with. Jha’s book is an excellent guide.

Here’s a thought…

While reading Jha’s book, I was filled with awe for the BJP’s election machine. And it struck me, what if Modi and Shah put as much effort into governance as they do into campaigning? This country would be transformed. But they won’t – and it’s worth reflecting on why that is the case.

Posted at 2:25 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics

10 September, 2017

Death of a Writer

This is the 49th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THE KILLERS

What is the difference between ISIS
And home-grown terrorists? It is this:
ISIS takes full credit
For the crimes they commit.
Our boys are cowards in the abyss.

IMMORTAL

It’s not easy to kill a writer.
Get dry wood, fuel, cigarette lighter.
Flick a switch, set a fire.
She will merely perspire.
Words live forever, you can’t fight her.

Posted at 5:37 AM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

01 September, 2017

Agarkar’s Donkeys: A Meditation on God

This is the 41st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

It should be our default position that God does not exist, all believers are delusional and all godmen are frauds.

Dear readers, let me begin this column with a question for you: “If donkeys were to paint their own God, what do you think the picture would be like?”

This question was asked in the late-1880s in a classroom in Fergusson College in Poona, where Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, the second principal of that institution, was giving a lecture on logic. What would the Donkey God look like? Agarkar answered his question silently, raising both his hands above his ears and shaking them.

Agarkar was an atheist and a rationalist, and the institution he built carried that reputation as well. The anecdote above is from BR Nanda’s biography of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and also mentions the time a gentleman named VR Shinde introduced himself as “a Fergussonian” to the Christian reformer, Pandita Ramabai. Her response: “Oh! You come from that Atmosphere of Atheism!”

I graduated from Fergusson College more than two decades ago, and though I am an atheist now, I didn’t have an opinion on the subject of God at the time. There was certainly no Atmosphere of Atheism then, and I suspect that while there has been much progress since Agarkar’s time, his views would be as unpopular today as they were then. We have made wonderful progress thanks to technology, but the human brain is one gadget that cannot be upgraded. It fell into its current design in prehistoric times, and there have been no updates since. Many modules that were features then are bugs now, including a propensity to construct (or be drawn towards) simple narratives that help you navigate a complex world. Religion is the perfect app for that ecosystem.

I wrote about atheism in the very first installment of Lighthouse, this column for BLink. I won’t repeat myself here, but in these days of resurgent religion and gimmicky godmen, here are five things I have to say that I think the good Mr Agarkar would agree with.

One: There is no God. By this, I am taking a default scientific position on everything: unless something can be proven to exist, the default position is that it does not. The existence of God, in many shapes and sizes, has been asserted for millennia without any evidence. The burden of proof is on those who say that God exists, not on those who claim otherwise. (You cannot prove a negative.) Thus, atheism is the common-sense default position, and not something radical.

I should point out here that when I say There is no God, I do not mean There is definitely no God. Instead, I mean There is no God, unless proven otherwise. Please think for a moment about this subtle difference: Atheism is not a belief that there is no God, but an absence of belief in God.

This is an important distinction because it answers those who classify atheism as a belief system just like religion. As a letter writer to the Economist put it many years ago, atheism is no more a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Two: If there was a God, he’d be a terrible, immoral God, worthy of our contempt. Everything that happens in the universe would be caused by Him. Every rape, every murder, all the suffering of starving infants, all the pain. It doesn’t matter how you justify it, if God exists, he’s a sadist creep. Richard Dawkins once described the God of the Old Testament in terms that would, more or less, fit all Gods:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirst ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Three: All religious people are delusional by definition. This follows from point one. It is problematic that you believe in something that cannot be proven. It is pathetic that you reside this belief in someone else’s imaginary friend. At least have an original delusion.

It astonishes me that religious belief is actually looked upon a prerequisite for high office. It should be a disqualifier. Even in the USA, for all the hoopla about the first black president, I wait for the day they have an openly atheist president. There was recent praise for a Supreme Court judgement in India by a five-member bench where each judge belonged to a separate religion. If they were all believers, then this only means that they were delusional in different ways. Big deal.

Four: All Godmen are frauds. Don’t fall for the false dichotomy of good godmen and bad godmen, where the bad ones are rapists and paedophiles, while the good ones are sophisticated and gentle. They are all frauds. They are delusional to begin with – unless their piousness is also faked – and masters at mass manipulation. They all use other human beings as a means to an end, and are therefore on the same moral plane. They all deserve our contempt.

Five: We don’t need God to be moral. The ‘morality’ that comes from religion is morality for the wrong reasons. We do certain things because we want to belong in a group. We behave in a particular way because we want to go to heaven or earn good karma, in which case our behaviour is an instrument towards a selfish purpose, and not an end in itself. The best kind of morality arises from reason. It can come from empathy for others. It can come from self-interest, for we are all in this together. (This is a subject for a whole different piece, actually.)

To end this column, here’s a thought experiment inspired by Agarkar’s donkeys: If we make God in our own image, what would your God look like – and what would that say about you? I can easily imagine mine. He would be an atheist God, lacking self-belief, horrified at His own actions. He would also wonder who created Him.

*

Also read: A Godless Congregation.

Posted at 12:21 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse

27 August, 2017

Rights and Riots

This is the 48th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PRIVACY

The Supreme Court upheld our birthright.
I jumped with joy. I screamed with delight,
“Governments, leave us alone!
We are fine on our own!
You are nothing but a parasite.”

RIOTS

There are mobs out there on the rampage.
We must not give in to their outrage.
To crush them is our task,
But we must also ask,
What is the deeper cause of their rage?

Posted at 3:25 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

20 August, 2017

The Wheel Turns

This is the 47th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THE WHEEL TURNS

Sikka is great, everyone chanted.
They hailed Mistry, and then recanted.
Whoever is to blame,
The lesson is the same:
Never take anything for granted.

EK PREM KATHA

I said to my love, “How do you do?
I will build a toilet just for you.”
She gave me one tight slap,
And said, “Bro, cut the crap.
First get swachh yourself. Until then, boo!”

Posted at 4:33 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

13 August, 2017

Searching For Macho

This is the 46th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

SEARCH

Once I was searching for a torrent,
When a woman who was abhorrent
Popped up in front of me,
As naked as can be,
And said, “Sir, where is your search warrant?”

MACHO

Donald Trump was mad at Mister Kim.
He said, “I am more MACHO than him.
I have ORANGE aplomb.
I also have a BOMB.
I can do ANYTHING on a whim.”

Posted at 8:33 AM by Amit Varma in Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

06 August, 2017

Immortal Mishtake

This is the 45th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

NO AADHAAR

A friend told me, “You need Aadhaar, mate,
If you want a death certificate.
You just can’t get away.”
I jumped and said, “Hurray!
I will live forever at this rate.”

MISHTAKE

Sushmaji told Modi, “What a scam!
How could you gift away our Doklam?”
Modi said, “Galti se,
I just gave it away.
I thought they wanted dhokla. Goddamn!”

Posted at 11:28 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

04 August, 2017

Misogyny is the Oldest Indian Tradition

This is the 40th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Women are treated as the property of men in India. This is not merely reflected in our culture, but is enshrined in our laws.

Early last year, a 13-year-old girl was raped in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. In October, she gave birth to a child. A month ago, she married her rapist. Or rather, she was married off to her rapist. Village elders intervened and felt that to be the honourable course of action.

This is not new, and this anecdote will soon be statistic. Rape victims have been married off to their rapists before. The thinking behind this: now that the girl is ‘damaged goods’, no one will marry her, so why not let the onus fall upon the man who ‘damaged’ her. It’s almost as if a man walks into a shop and breaks a vase, and is then forced to buy it. Who else will buy the vase?

The key word in the paragraph above is not ‘damaged’ but ‘goods’. In India, women are treated as the property of men. It is not only backward villages in the hinterland where this attitude exists – it is enshrined in our laws. I ask you to consider Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code:

497. Adultery

Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall be punishable as an abettor.

The italics are mine. Consider the words without the consent or connivance of that man. As if a woman’s husband is her owner, and you are wronging him by sleeping with her – even if she consents, which would be a crime on her part.

Now take a look at another law from the IPC:

498. Enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman

Whoever takes or entices away any woman who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of any other man, from that man, or from any person having the care of her on behalf of that man, with intent that she may have illicit intercourse with any person, or conceals or detains with that intent any such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Again, the woman’s consent doesn’t matter, as per this law. Two consenting adults could have sex, and it would qualify as a crime on the woman’s husband. (And not the man’s wife, mind you, showing that it is not marriage that is the issue here but gender.)

This misogyny is common in our laws, but you could argue that the IPC is a colonial relic from Victorian times. We Indians treat our women well. Nonsense. Treating women as property is an old Indian tradition, and finds reflection in our epics. In the Mahabharata, for example, Yudhishthir gambles Draupadi away, as if she is not an autonomous human being but his possession. Read up on the way Kunti, Amba, Gandhari and Madri were treated, and you will see that their fates were never in their own hands. (I recommend reading Irawati Karve’s Yuganta for her brilliant analysis of how the Mahabharata treated women.) And don’t get me started on the Ramayana, and Ram’s treatment of Sita.

This attitude percolates down to modern-day India. Reports on rapes will often mention the marital status of the woman, especially if she was a newlywed. (Do a Google search for “housewife raped.”) This carries the implication that the crime is more serious than if she was single, because it is also a crime against the man she was married to.

This is not an attitude only villagers have. A few years ago, the cultured, well-to-do (and repugnant) Tarun Tejpal, in an email to the woman he was alleged to have raped, offered to apologise to her boyfriend. Why? If he had committed a crime against her, why on earth should be apologise to her boyfriend? What kind of patriarchal nonsense was that? (Perpetuating patriarchy and purple prose are the least of the notorious Tejpal’s sins, of course.)

And just look at Bollywood. The Bollywood hero is the perfect archetype for the entitled Indian male. Most Bollywood wooing is basically sexual harassment. You could argue about whether popular culture reflects society or shapes it, but they amount to the same thing.

This dehumanising of women – as a means to satisfy various male urges – might account for our skewed sex ratios. If girls are looked upon as a liability, no wonder the rates of female foeticide are so high. At one level, there is even a perverse rationale to this: why give birth to a girl child in one of the most misogynist countries in the world?

There has been much posturing from our governments – not just the current one – about how much they care for our women. I call it Patriarchal Paternalism. #SelfieWithDaughter is just optics, and all the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojanas of the world will amount to just talk unless things change at a fundamental level. Social change does take time, and will not happen overnight. But the government could make a start by changing some of our ludicrous, outdated laws, like the ones mentioned earlier in this piece. Do you think that will happen?

Posted at 2:55 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse

Beware of the Useful Idiots

This editorial by me appeared today in Pragati.

Many of the intellectuals who supported Narendra Modi in 2014 should have realised their mistake by now. They haven’t. Here is why.

Almost a century ago, Vladimir Lenin is said to have coined the term ‘Useful Idiots.’ The term referred to those intellectuals or eminent people who gave a movement respectability by association, but weren’t actually respected within the movement itself. RationalWiki defines a Useful Idiot as “someone who supports one side of an ideological debate, but who is manipulated and held in contempt by the leaders of their faction or is unaware of the ultimate agenda driving the ideology to which they subscribe.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. Useful Idiots abounded in Lenin and Stalin’s time – many were sent to the Gulag once their utility diminished – and authoritarian despots since, from Hitler to Mao to Chavez – have had their own set. And of course, if you live in India in 2017, there are Useful Idiots here as well.

I want to make it clear that I am not referring to any of the people I mention in this essay as idiots. I will use the term ‘Useful Idiot’ only in the sense outlined above. Some of the Useful Idiots that will come to mind are accomplished individuals, even giants of their field, and their behaviour is as much poignant as it is deplorable. Some of them are people I admired or liked, and as I look at them, it strikes me that in a parallel universe, I could be in their shoes. We are all frail.

Act 1: The Longing for Better Days

When Narendra Modi spoke of Achhe Din, it had enormous resonance for many people. Here are things reasonable people can agree on: India had been ravaged by over six decades of mostly Congress rule; the bad economic policies of Nehru (otherwise a great leader) and Indira had kept us in poverty for decades longer than we should have; government was basically a mafia, and we were ruled by a kleptocracy rather than served by public-spirited statesmen; the ‘liberalisation’ of 1991, forced upon us by a balance-of-payments crisis, had helped but only a little, as many reforms remained to be done; the current dispensation did not show the will to make reforms; the people of India languished as a parasitic beast called government sucked us dry.

In every tunnel, the eye searches for light. It was easy to be seduced by Modi’s rhetoric. (Much of that rhetoric – ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ – came from outside intellectuals, and not inner conviction.) It was tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt for the riots of 2002 – after all, it is a liberal principle that a man is innocent until pronounced guilty. It was tempting to see him as the messiah.

I am not saying that the beliefs above are correct. (I myself did not hold them, and was undecided.) I am saying that they are reasonable. It was reasonable to look at 67 years of opportunity cost and ask, What could be worse? It was reasonable to look at the derelict UPA government and ask, What could be worse? I would even say that it was reasonable to recognise that things could indeed be worse under Modi, but consider it a chance worth taking.

With the benefit of hindsight, I feel it is unfair to gloat about the people who got this wrong, as they clearly did. Anyone can be wrong once. But to be wrong repeatedly, when all the facts are before you, when the stakes are so high, is unpardonable.

Many of those who supported Modi did so assuming that the social wing of the Hindutva movement would be kept in check while long-awaited economic reforms would happen. The eminent economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya voiced their support of Modi. (Their books contain an excellent diagnosis of India’s condition, as well as a road map for the future.) Many people on the ‘economic right’ (more on this phraseology later) walked into his camp. Modi got a resounding victory, and had the mandate he needed to carry out sweeping changes. He did nothing.

Act 2: Mugged by Reality

I outlined, in a keynote speech I gave a few months ago, all the evident failings of Modi’s government since 2014. I don’t want to spend too much time on them, so a brief summary: no reforms; a move leftwards to a Nehruvian command-and-control view of the economy; a continuation (and even expansion) of most of the flawed schemes of the previous government, often with fancy name changes; maximum government, minimum governance; a rollout of GST, which they had earlier opposed, with so many slabs and exemptions that it was a wet dream for those hoping for another Inspector Raj; demonetisation.

And that’s just the economics. (Saffron is the New Red.) At home, Modi mishandled Kashmir, with violence escalating. And the social wing of the Hindutva Project that he clearly believes in is tearing Indian society apart. Quips about it being safer to be a cow than a woman have become a cliché.

As Arun Shourie famously said, NDA = UPA + Cow.

Many who had supported Modi in 2014 now realised that their optimism was misplaced and the worst-case-scenario was unfolding. Public intellectuals like Sadanand Dhume deserve credit for changing their mind when they were mugged by reality, and for having the intellectual honesty to continue to speak truth to power. But many did not.

Demonetisation (or DeMon) was described by a friend of mine as a litmus test that revealed which intellectuals cared about their principles, and which just wanted proximity to power. DeMon, on which I published many pieces, was the largest assault on property rights in the history of humanity. It led to people dying in queues, businesses shutting down, livelihoods being decimated. There was no way any of its goals could be achieved, and there was no way taking 86% of the money supply out of circulation would fail to devastate the economy. All this was evident from the start. Any economist who supported DeMon lacked either intelligence or integrity. I don’t even know which is the charitable explanation.

Modi is a master of optics, and controlled the narrative to actually make short-terms gains from DeMon. But it was worrying and depressing that so many people who should know better continued in their steadfast support of him. Why did they do so? I posit four reasons.

Act 3: Living in Denial

Here are four possible reasons why these Useful Idiots continued to stay Idiots.

One: Rationalisation

These Useful Idiots, having gone public with their support of Modi, had their reputations and self-esteem at threat. They could not simply change their minds. Also, they badly wanted to be right. So they rationalised away Modi’s inaction. When he did not reform, they called it ‘gradualism’, and pretended that change necessarily had to happen slowly. Let him settle in. Give him time. The political economy is complicated. And so on, despite the fact that the man wasn’t even trying.

Confirmation bias also kicked in. Every time he said something they wanted to hear, they clapped vociferously. Every time he did something they would have condemned under previous administrations, they stayed silent. Every time violence erupted against Muslims or Dalits or anyone near a cow, they blamed it on ‘fringe elements.’ They could rationalise everything until DeMon. But how could they continue to do so after that?

Two: The Carrot

The Patronage Economy swung into place after Modi came to power. Ignore the rumours about the BJP’s IT cell having prominent people on their payroll. There were enough legitimate ways to reward cronies. Rajya Sabha seats, Padma Awards, sinecures at government institutions, lucrative directorships in PSUs, seats in the Niti Aayog, and so on. I bought a recent issue of a magazine that supports the BJP, and most of the advertisements inside were by PSUs. Their editor keeps writing in praise of free markets, but is no more than a parasite living off taxpayers’ money. The irony.

To pre-empt the inevitable Whataboutery, let me agree that such a Patronage Economy existed for decades under the Congress as well. But the honourable thing to do then is to dismantle it once and for all. Instead: jobs for the boys!

Three: The Stick

This government is vindictive, and it appears that it will remain in power for a long time. Who would want to mess around? I know of two free-market supporters in Niti Aayog (not Panagariya) who were appalled by DeMon. But they were given orders to support it publicly. Both of them did so, in ways that would make you cringe. Indeed, friends from within the establishment have told me that those orders were given to all their Useful Idiots. Silence was not an option. Even the previously venerable Jagdish Bhagwati debased himself. (In his case, it could have been any of the above three factors. Does it matter which?)

There were Useful Idiots who had spent their lives on the periphery, dreaming of power. Now that they were establishment intellectuals, why would they risk losing that position? For the sake of principles and truth? Come on!

Four: The Lust For Power

For some of us, power is the means to an end. For others, it is an end in itself. Everything you do to get there is a façade. I have been stunned and saddened over the last few months to see how so many people I knew have been transformed by proximity to power. These Useful Idiots never actually believed in anything: their principles were all Useful Principles. Once close to power, they discarded these principles; just as their masters will one day discard them.

A friend I respect told me a few months ago, “Amit, the economic right must ally with the social right. Then we will be an unbeatable force.” I disagreed. Although ‘right’ and ‘left’ are now useless terms, I’d fall into the economic right because I support free markets. I support free markets because I support individual freedom. And individual freedom is incompatible with the agenda of the social right – which, in India, basically means bigots and misogynists. I told my friend that he was wrong, and that people like him would merely give respectability to this ‘social right’, which would eventually spit them out like paan on the roadside. That process has begun.

Arvind Panagariya left Niti Aayog recently, reportedly under pressure from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, his reputation in shreds. Modi and gang have consolidated their political capital, and no longer need these Useful Idiots. These Useful Idiots will rationalise, will enjoy the trappings of power and money, and will be cautious about pissing off The Supreme Leader. They may even sleep well at night, for self-delusion is the essential human attribute.

I feel sad for what they have done to themselves. But I feel sadder for what is happening to this country.

*

Also read

Saffron is the New Red —Amit Varma and Barun Mitra
The Landscape of Freedom in India—Amit Varma

Posted at 2:47 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

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