The Halo Effect

This is the 13th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I am in Thailand as you read this, and no, I haven’t been deported by the Indian government for joking about our anthem and flag – things aren’t that bad yet. Instead, I’m vacationing, gathering up sea, sand and seafood. I knew I would enjoy the visit as soon as I saw Bangkok’s airport. Compared to Indian airports, it was a swank expanse of ease and luxury, and I immediately felt good about being here. 

On the other hand, when a foreign traveller comes in to Mumbai, as has been much written about, among the first things he is likely to see, from the air, are slums. The airport itself is shabby and disorganised, and delays and dysfunctional staff abound. And if he hasn’t organised transport in advance, he’d have to be lucky not to get ripped off. His first experiences of India are likely to be rather unpleasant.

Why should first impressions matter? Well, because of a cognitive bias called the Halo Effect. We tend to carry over impressions of one aspect of something to everything else about that thing. For example, if we get a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere, and a friendly passerby helps us out, we are likely to think of him as a good sort, even if we are later told that he also happens to be a wife-beater. Our early bias affects the way we view him, and we are more likely to gloss over his other failings.

Similarly, if we have an unpleasant experience in an airport, the bad taste it leaves in our mouth is likely to impact the way we view that country. If the staff is rude and inefficient, and the toilets are dirty, that forms the prism through which we view the rest of the country. Indian airport staff, it is true, speak English better than Thai airport staff. But India makes a worse first impression by far.

Businesses understand the importance of the halo effect. Hotels make sure their front desks are efficient and their lobby area is inviting and comfortable. Manufacturers of consumer goods pay immense importance to packaging. Brand building itself, in fact, is about getting the halo effect to work for you. It is commonly surmised that the ultra-cool iPod has had a halo effect on other Apple products, making Windows users more open to buying them because they associate the hipness and ease of use of the iPod with other Apple offerings. In the automobile industry, a “halo vehicle” is the term used for a successful car brand whose sheen runs off on other cars by the same manufacturer.

The halo effect is not just about business and investment. A common context in which we see the halo effect involves celebrities. Celebrities generally have one extraordinary talent, which could range from being a good actor, sportsman, or just a regular Page 3 type with admirable cleavage. But this one ability casts a halo effect on the rest of their personalities, and our papers are full of celebs being asked for quotes on subjects on which they have no expertise whatsoever. Indeed, if not for the halo effect, I don’t see how celebrity endorsements would work. 

It also explains why so many actors take to politics and win elections, despite having just platitudes and dialogues from their films to offer. Speaking of politics, even a family name casts a halo. Rahul Gandhi’s sole achievement in politics so far is his last name, but already he is being spoken off as a future prime minister.

One celebrity who casts a massive halo is Amitabh Bachchan. He might be a good actor and an excellent showman, but the people of India treat him like a semi-God. And yet, this is a man who marries his would-be daughter-in-law to a tree because of her supposed manglikness. He hob-nobs with the likes of Amar Singh and the venal Mulayam Singh Yadav, who personify cynical votebank politics. Besides his professional skills, there is nothing to admire about him. 

The halo effect carries through to our personal lives as well. So many relationships are doomed because they are based on first impressions. You meet a witty man at a party, and your positive impression of him carries through to everything he does. You meet a beautiful woman, and assume that her character is quite as graceful as her bearing. Both of you ignore all evidence to the contrary, and boom, ten years later you’re fighting over the kids, who don’t see their daddy as witty or their mommy as graceful, but are doomed to make the same mistakes their parents made.

Sadly, there is nothing we can do about the halo effect – it is hardwired into us. But understanding its effects can help us be prudent in love and mindful of the impression we make on others. You may not be in a position to influence the government to refurbish its airports, or persuade the local political party to cancel their bandh because of the effect it has on investment, but you can certainly remember to dab on some cologne before you head out for that hot date, and comb your hair well. Use the lessons our government hasn’t learned!

The Devil’s Compassion

This is the 12th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the transcript of a speech given by the demon Beelzebub at the 90th Annual Convention of Demonic Beings.

Comrades and Monsters,

Welcome. I can barely express my joy at the unspeakable horror of being present among such hideous monsters as yourselves – demonic beings dedicated to the ruin and damnation of humanity. In various ways, under the cunning guise of doing good, we have brought sadness and misery upon humanity. We have perpetuated poverty, hatred and ill-health. I wish today, for the sake of the young apprentice beasts present here, to speak about our primary tool of achieving all this: Compassion.

Humans, you see, are fooled by appearances. Come to them as a wrinkled monster with horns, and they recoil. Pretend to be a loving grandpa, and their defences are down. We senior demons realised long ago that to hurt the humans, we have to pretend to care for them. Even as we have nothing but their marination in mind, we must appear compassionate. Stating the most noble intent, we must unleash the very worst of policies. Even better, we must fool some humans, who themselves wish to appear compassionate, into pushing these very policies.

And how we have succeeded! Everywhere there are politicians sincerely pushing well-intentioned policies that are disastrous for the people they are supposed to help. Of course, some people see through our evil designs and protest, but they are dismissed as cruel and uncaring, for they are questioning compassion itself. The irony!

A good example of this comes from Kolkata, a city you must be familiar with. The government there is outlawing all rickshaws pulled by men, because they feel it is “inhuman for a human being to carry another in this day and age,” as their mayor recently said. How caring this seems! And yet, this policy will put 18,000 rickshaw pullers out of a job that they preferred to all other options available to them. Now, that is inhuman. Joy!

Hell be praised, the same logic has long been used to protest sweatshops and call centers and dance bars. The people working there are being “robbed of their dignity,” we are told. Those pretending to care about them would love to deny them of the best options available to them, thus pushing them into a worse existence, and they often succeed. When dance bars were outlawed in Maharashtra – another of my favourite weapons, morality, played a leading role in that decision – many dancers went into prostitution.

Ah, Maharashtra! Mumbai is particularly dear to me as a demonstration of what compassion can achieve: Just see the misery rent control has inflicted there. It was supposed to protect tenants from evil landlords, but by restricting the supply of housing, has driven up rents, made affordable housing scarce, and made slums inevitable. Even more, it has disincentivised landlords from looking after rent-controlled houses, some of which are close to falling apart. Gravity is an invention of hell, I am proud to remind you!

India has many such price controls, which inevitably distort our enemy, the free market. These apply not just to goods but also to labour – how noble these legislators feel when they bring about a minimum wage, or support labour laws that dry up the supply of jobs and hurt the ones they’re supposed to help: the workers.

India’s redistributive schemes are also a devilish masterstroke, based on the principle, “Steal from the Rich and Pretend to Give to the Poor.” Actually our unknowing stooges, India’s well-meaning and compassionate politicians and bureaucrats, steal from everybody, and the money they steal has a cost: It acts as a disincentive to those it is stolen from, and would often have helped the poor more if simply left with the taxpayer.

The social policies we promote are as much of a slow poison as our economics. Why redistribute only wealth when one can redistribute opportunities as well? Consider reservations in India: Under the guise of being compassionate towards castes that have been discriminated against, reservations perpetuate thinking along caste lines, and increase awareness of and animus towards other castes. Some individuals benefit at the cost of other individuals, and they cancel each other out. But the hatred that is spread at the injustice, ah, priceless! (They even call it social justice! How noble they feel!)

There is lots more to say, and I could speak of India for eons, so much harm has been caused there under the guise of compassion. But I shall end here, for I know that you are looking forward to your repast. Let us move onwards to the dining room, my friends, where India’s poor have been laid out on the dining table. Let us feast!

The Anthem and the Flag

This is the 11th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through. It has its genesis in this post.

It was a hot April afternoon in Delhi. The Rashtrapati Bhavan Barista was empty. A waiter lounged by the counter, patriotically indulging in the national pastime (see 94th amendment) of doing nothing much. Then two customers walked in: National Anthem and National Flag.

“Sit,” said Flag to Anthem. “It looks like it’s been a tough month for you.”

Anthem sat. “Damn right it’s been tough,” he said. “You have no idea. I’ve constantly been insulted of late. Do they not know that I am synonymous with the Nation, and by insulting me, they’re insulting the Nation?”

The waiter walked up to the table. “What can I serve you, gentlemen?”

“Lassi,” barked the Anthem. “You think I’ll order Romanov? Huh? Those days are gone!”

“Calm down, Anthem,” said Flag. He turned to the waiter: “One chhaas for me.” Then he said to Anthem. “Tell me, what’s the problem?”

“Listen, I’m the Anthem of India, ok,” said the Anthem. “I am the very reason this country is proud, and one of the few repositories of its honour. Everyone is supposed to respect me, otherwise no one respects India. That is common sense! Well, what happened the other day was that this fellow Narayana Murthy, he did not allow me to be sung when our president visited his office. Can you believe that?”

The drinks arrived. “Shocking,” said Flag. “Here, drink up.” Anthem downed his peg of lassi with immense indignation, and asked for another. Flag nursed his chhaas.

“What has that fellow done for the country anyway?” said Anthem. “Created billions of dollars of wealth? Enabled tens of thousands of jobs? Allowed India to thrive in the services sector? Pah! Who needs wealth? Who needs jobs? Those things are not the stuff of which a nation is made, which make a country proud. Symbols are!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Flag. “Symbols make a nation rich. Symbols make its people happy.”

“You know what the government should decree,” said Anthem. “They should make it compulsory for me to be the default ringtone all across the country. That way, every time a phone rings, everybody in the vicinity will have to stand. As telephony grows in India, so will respect. Tring tring, stand, respect your country. Tring tring…”

“Yeah, and I should be the telephone wallpaper,” said Flag. “That way, every time a call is made, a proud Indian stands up and salutes me.”

Anthem leaned forward and touched Flag’s hand. “You’re my friend, you know. And I’ve been rattling on and on about myself, but now let’s talk about you. How have things been for you?”

Flag sighed. “Well, when we met last month I told you about that religious woman who stepped on a mat on which I’d been placed. Well, people stepping on me might seem tough, but what about being cut with a knife, huh? This month, I’ve been cut with a knife.”

“You’re kidding me,” said Anthem. “I’m sure the pain must have felt across the country, and the scars must run from Gujarat to the northeast.”

“And from Karol Bagh to Nungambakkam,” said Flag. “I was cut from top to bottom as well, and proud Indians everywhere have protested. You see, some chaps at a function made a cake with my design, and Sachin Tendulkar, he came and cut me up. Cut me up! And then I was eaten! Oh, the indignity!” Flag’s colour drained out of him as he remembered the harm inflicted on India.

“Listen,” said Anthem, “it could be worse: people could be burning you across the country. Do you know that burning the national flag is legal in the US? People routinely burn the flag there! No wonder they’re such a weak nation, and we’re so strong!”

Flag sighed. “I know, that would be terrible,” he said. “Fluttering on top of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in April and May isn’t very different in terms of temperature, actually, but I’m a survivor.”

“So far,” said Anthem. “Things are getting worse for us, my friend. In Mumbai, it is compulsory to play me in cinema theatres before a film, and everyone is supposed to stand. But recently I have noticed that some people don’t. This columnist, Amit Varma, he doesn’t stand as a matter of principle! He says he’s objecting to coercion! He says that the values of his nation worth standing up for are things like individual freedom and other such rubbish.”

“I have heard,” said Flag, “that he is even planning to write a column in which he will write flippantly about you and me, and everything we stand for. Does he not realize that by doing so, he will rip apart the fabric of the nation? What will they make me out of then, paper?”

Anthem sighed. And fell silent.

Indian Idolatry

This piece of mine has been published today in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscription link.) It was written on Monday, before Sanjaya Malakar got voted off American Idol.

By the time you read this, Sanjaya Malakar might well have been voted off of American Idol. If so, you won’t hear many groans of disappointment from India. Mr. Malakar, a 17-year-old of Indian and Italian descent, has mostly slipped below the radar here. But if he continues to capture the attention of millions of Americans the Indian media will change its tune, and not out of a newfound appreciation of Mr. Malakar’s singing ability. More likely, the local press will celebrate him as an Indian talent applauded by the West.

Hardly anyone here watches the American Idol singing competion, which is telecast on Star World, an English-language channel that, in India at least, caters to the elite. The domestic media have mentioned Mr. Malakar, now a finalist in the competition, just a handful of times, and that too in the context of the derision he has received in America. The dearth of media chatter here almost certainly results from the fact that the American press doesn’t have too many good things to say about him.

Of course, India has plenty of its own celebrities to gush over, some of them even less talented than the young Sanjaya. India produces more films than any other country in the world. Products from Bollywood (the Hindi film industry), Kollywood (the Tamil film industry) and Tollywood (the Telugu and Bengali film industries both claim that title) have audiences many orders of magnitude larger than those of the few Hollywood films that actually get released here. Successful music albums in local languages, mainly film soundtracks, sell in the millions, while the best a Western album can achieve is a few thousand. Indian Idol, the local version of the American show (which is itself an import to the U.S. from the U.K.), inspires national debate and heartbreak, while most people have probably not seen American Idol even once.

But even with this flourishing pop culture, many Indians still crave validation from the West. We see this every year before the Oscars, when a national soap opera unfolds surrounding which film will be chosen to be India’s entry for the foreign-language film category. (Only three Indian entries have ever been nominated, and none has won.)

The media celebrated when an Indian was chosen to umpire at Wimbledon. Indian writers become celebrities for life when they get big advances abroad, or win British or American literary awards. News of Madonna practising Yoga or pictures of Gwen Stefani with a bindi on her head are treated by the media as tributes to Indian culture.

When Indian actress Shilpa Shetty participated in the British TV show Celebrity Big Brother, her progress in the show received extensive coverage in the local media. Racist remarks directed at Ms. Shetty by a couple of participants on the show sparked outrage across India. When Richard Gere kissed her at a recent AIDS-awareness event, one local report began triumphantly, “We’ve always known Shilpa Shetty is a pretty woman, but now we have an official endorsement from a visibly smitten Richard Gere.”

This sensitivity to India’s reception in the West cuts both both ways, of course. As news of Mr. Gere kissing Ms. Shetty spread, protests were held across the country, effigies of the actor were burned, and one protestor even gave sound-bytes about how the kiss had “blemished the rich Indian culture.” When designer Anand Jon was arrested in Los Angeles for alleged rape and sexual assault, much of the Indian press wrote up the story as if he had been framed. And so on.

This all raises the question: Why does India care so much about what the West thinks of it? Perhaps it is a legacy of colonialism, or just the inferiority complex of a developing country whose economic progress has not yet been matched by cultural self-confidence.

Whatever the reasons, this preoccupation with the West is needless. The films coming out of India’s booming industry, for example, hardly need the approval of foreign audiences. Shekhar Kapur, one of the few Indian filmmakers to have worked in Hollywood, often criticises the use of the label “Bollywood” to describe Mumbai’s film industry. His point is that Indian films function in a space of their own, and draw large audiences that prefer it to any other cinema. The industry hardly needs to pay homage to Hollywood, and India doesn’t need to look West in order to appreciate its own culture.

Indian attitudes toward Mr. Malakar are likely to be shaped by how he is received in the United States. Mr. Malakar may be more American than Indian, and he may be singing American pop that hardly sells here, but if Americans choose him as their idol he will become a source of national pride. That is all good for Mr. Malakar—but what does it say about India?

Don’t insult pasta

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

I have a word of advice for the readers of this column: Do not make fun of pasta. My religious sensibilities will be offended, and I shall compel the government to take action against you.

You see, I belong to a religion called Pastafarianism, and we worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). We follow a religious text called the Loose Canon. If we stay true to its principles, we shall get to Heaven, where there are beer volcanoes and stripper factories. What’s more… wait, why are you snickering? Are you making fun of the FSM? Do you not realise that I am protected by Indian law against being offended?

Section 295 (a) of the Indian Penal Code is on my side: it protects me against “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” It states: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both.”

Section 295 (a), let me inform you with pride in our penal system, is a non-bailable offence. Sure, like other Gods, my FSM is capable of taking care of itself, and may well choke you with its meatballs. On the other hand, why should I not act as its tool, and choke you with mine? (I am speaking metaphorically, of course, as devout people often do.) Pastafarians have been rather tolerant in India so far – not to mention sparse – but members of other religions have used 295 (a) with immense relish.

For example, when the Indian cricket team was touring South Africa, a kind gentlemen had filed a case under 295 (a) against Ravi Shastri. No, it was not incited by his cliché-ridden commentary, which is offensive for other reasons. It was because he said that he enjoyed eating beef, conveniently forgetting the exalted status Cow has in our country: Being his Mother is just one of Her responsibilities.

Just a month ago, a gentleman named Ranjit Parande was arrested by the Mumbai police under 295 (a) for publishing The Santa and Banta Joke Book. I can imagine how offensive the Sikh community must have found it: I shiver with disquiet when I think of pasta cookbooks. And a few days ago, a gentleman named Vishnu Khandelwal, described as “a devout Hindu” by reliable news sources, filed a case under 295 (a) against Arun Nayar and Liz Hurley. His religious sensibilities were offended because the couple did not adhere to all the Hindu customs required at the wedding. Look, forget the wedding: to begin with, Nayar is rich, and I am offended by that alone. On top of that he gets to apply his lips to Hurley’s, and FSM knows where else. Just the thought offends me! Ban sex!

Sorry, I admit I got a bit carried away there. We certainly shouldn’t ban all sex – but if it is found to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities, we should rethink our laissez faire attitude towards it. We must not follow the West in these matters. They are promiscuous, and look what they have ended up with: hip hop!

I know you can argue that India is a free country, and people should be allowed to say what they want. But that is a misconception. Our great leaders, in their infinite wisdom, merely got political freedom for our country. They understood the consequences of allowing personal freedoms, and put many restrictions on it. For example, while Article 19 (1) (a) of the constitution seems to allow you free speech, Article 19 (2) allows limits to it on behalf of concepts such as “public order” and “decency and morality.” These terms are at the discretion of our presumably devout judges, and can be interpreted liberally – we are a liberal nation.

The most widespread religion in our country, of course, is faith in our system of governance. In an earlier column, I had blasphemously dared to criticize our government. A kind reader instantly set me on the correct path by pointing out Section 124 (a) to me: “Sedition: anyone who by words or expression of any kind brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government established by law shall be punished with life imprisonment.” An editor in Surat was arrested last year under this law, and I am grateful that I have been shown the light.

You might now argue that anything one says can offend someone or the other, and if giving offence is a crime, free speech becomes impossible. Yes it does, and I find that delightful: No more cracks about meatballs. You just have to learn to deal with it, though I sincerely hope it does not offend you. That could be a problem.

The Nehru-Gandhi legacy of shame

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

Last week I caught an episode of the charming show, Koffee with Karan, in which Karan Johar was chatting with Shobha De and Vijay Mallya. I enjoy the rapid-fire round on this show, because it reveals much about the celebrity-culture of our times, as well as about our celebrities. One question Johar asked De and Mallya on the show stood out: “Rahul or Priyanka?”

Now, Johar wasn’t asking De and Mallya which of the two Gandhis was better looking or suchlike. He wanted to know who they preferred as a politician. There was an implicit assumption that one of them is certain to be a future prime minister. This has nothing to do with with their political skills or leanings, of which little is known. It is all about their last name, which is the most powerful brand in the biggest market of India: our democracy.

Rahul understandably wants to exploit this, and build the brand: a few days ago, while campaigning in UP, he spoke of how the Babri Masjid would never have been demolished had the Gandhi family been active in politics. It’s natural for Rahul to invoke the Gandhi brand, given the resonance it carries in this country. But it’s also somewhat ironic. Despite their iconic status among our economically illiterate masses, the Nehru-Gandhi family has been nothing but disastrous for our country.

Jawaharlal Nehru was one of our foremost freedom fighters, but the freedom he fought for was restricted to the political domain. Once the British had been ousted, he replaced them with a new oppressor: the Indian government. He distrusted free trade, and once famously told JRD Tata that profit was “a dirty word.” He shackled private enterprise with a license-and-regulation raj and tried to build a command economy where the state was all-powerful. His fatal conceit, to borrow Friedrich Hayek’s phrase, ensured that India limped into the modern age while other Asian countries, once behind us, leaped ahead.

One can be charitable and say that the well-intentioned Nehru was a creature of his times. It is hard to give his daughter similar benefit of the doubt. Indira Gandhi not only took Nehru’s policies forward at a time when it should have been obvious that they weren’t working, she systematically began to strip away the little economic freedom that existed in the country. In colleges it would make good material for a course titled “How To Savage An Economy 101.”

She nationalised all our big banks. She stopped foreign exchange from kick-starting the country’s development, and thus creating employment and productive growth, with the Foreign Exchange Regulation act in 1973. The Urban Land Ceiling Act of 1976 distorted land markets, thus raising land prices and aggravating the problem of slums in cities.  The Industrial Disputes act (1976 and 1982) distorted labour markets and acted as a disincentive to industrial expansion. And so on and on.

With our natural strengths, India should have dominated labour-intensive manufacture and become a manufacturing superpower decades before we started doing well in services, but Jawarharlal and Indira never let that happen. The consequences of Indira’s policies look dry in economic terms, but by perpetuating poverty and shackling growth, they unquestionably had an impact on millions of lives.

Indira attacked more than economic freedom, of course. The emergency was a period of shame for our country, and yet, quite what you’d expect from a leader who took ruling India as a birthright. Her son, Sanjay, had authoritarian instincts even more pernicious than hers, but we were thankfully spared his rule. Rajiv Gandhi, when he took over, seemed a good man, if an inexperienced one. But can naïvete – he was in his 40s during his prime ministership – serve as a suffiicient excuse for, say, Shah Bano, or the foolish intervention in Sri Lanka?

Sonia Gandhi, while she had the character to refuse the prime ministership, also has all the wrong ideas. Her doubts about foreign investment and her support for well-intentioned but short-sighted programs such as the Rural Employment Guarantee Act demonstrate that the lessons of the past haven’t been learnt, and that the communists in the UPA aren’t the only forces holding back India’s progress.

It would be unfair to hold this shameful legacy against Rahul Gandhi. Even if political leadership comes to him as inheritance, he may turn out to be his own man, and recompense for the sins of his forefathers. But here’s what worries me: the best we can do, in our elite drawing rooms watching elite TV shows reading elite papers like Mint, is hope that he turns out well. Of his coming to power, there is no doubt at all. Isn’t that scary?

Don’t regulate either ghee or endorsements

This piece first appeared on Rediff.

Indian cricket has many problems, but imagine the following scenario: An investigative committee formed by the BCCI finds out that the reason many Indian players are unfit is pure ghee. On their time off, it seems, many of them eat food cooked in pure ghee, and as a result put on weight and become lethargic. It starts with Virender Sehwag, spreads to Sachin Tendulkar, and soon they all became pure ghee addicts and lost their vigour on the field.

The mandarins at the BCCI come up with an obvious solution: ban pure ghee! Or rather, ban the cricketers from having any food cooked in it, even in the off season. “Our cricketers are losing their focus on cricket because of pure ghee,” they argue. “We can only counter this with strong action.”

It’s obvious what is wrong with the above scenario, isn’t it? If the players are unfit, they should be punished for that alone. If they don’t perform, drop them. They will soon enough do whatever they need to in order to get their place back, including renouncing pure ghee, if that’s what the problem really is. Focus on their fitness and performance alone, and try to regulate no more than that. Pure ghee is just a red herring, a convenient excuse for a system that does not focus enough on pure merit.

So are endorsements. The BCCI has announced that it will henceforth regulate the endorsements of its cricketers. “A player will endorse not more than 3 sponsors or products,” their statement reads. “No Sponsor can contract more than 2 players.” And so on.

The primary logic behind this is that endorsements distract players from their performance on the field. This is a popular view – thus this populist action by the BCCI – but even if it was true, is it any of the board’s business what players do in their free time? The BCCI’s only concern should be how their players perform on the field, which should be the basis of how they treat those players.

It is a common view that cricketers owe their massive endorsement deals to the fact that they play for the BCCI, and thus the BCCI should have the right to control their endorsements. But by that logic, your employer would want control over all your purchases, and your boss could show up at your house at midnight and demand that you change the furniture. If that were to happen to you, would you not ask him to get off your private property?

A player’s image rights belong to him alone, and this is respected in other sports across the world. You will not find Wayne Rooney asking either Manchester United or the English soccer authorities for permission to endorse a product. Sure, Man U and England have a right to demand that Rooney not do so in Man U or England colours, because those are trademarked material. But Rooney belongs to no one but himself.

You could argue that the BCCI, as a private body, has the right to put whatever clauses it wants in its contracts, and the players have a right to walk away if they object. Indeed. But consider that Indian cricketers have nowhere else to sell their wares: as Niranjan Rajadhyaksha pointed out recently (free registration required), the BCCI has a monopsony on the game. It can use this to strong-arm players to agree to just about any terms. That does not mean that those terms are correct.

Apart from systemic reform, Indian cricket also needs attitudinal change at the top. The board must introduce a meritocracy, and evaluate the players on nothing other than performance and attitude. If they simply do this dispassionately, there will be no need to blame either pure ghee or endorsements for what their players do wrong. They should, simply put, treat their players according to how they perform at the office, and not try to influence their behaviour at home.

Comments are open.

The Matunga Racket

A version of this piece was published today as the eighth installment of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I had begun my piece on victimless crimes by asking you to imagine a dystopia where sex is banned. Smugly, I had referred to it as a mere thought experiment. I apologize for that: for millions of Indians, it isn’t a thought experiment, it’s reality. They’re gay.

I’m sure you all know about Section 377, the archaic law in the Indian Penal Code that bans “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While it seems to deal just with anal sex, the way the law has been used effectively makes homosexuality illegal in India. Still, until recently I assumed that this law would be used only occasionally, and that too for non-consensual sex, and that gay people had more reason to worry about social attitudes than the legal system.

Well, I was wrong. I met a couple of friends over the weekend who told me about how Section 377 is used as a tool of extortion. Note, I said “is used”, not “has been used” or “can be used”. There are systematic rackets run throughout the country to extort money from gay people scared of having a case filed against them under Section 377. These rackets are run by the police. One example of this is what activists refer to as The Matunga Racket.

Here’s how The Matunga Racket works. Say you’re a gay man in an internet chat room, trying to connect with other gay men. Someone asks you if you want to exchange some porn. It seems harmless, and even if you’re generally wary of sexual encounters with strangers, you agree. You fix up a rendezvous at Dadar station. You land up and meet this guy, who seems quite nice. He suggests that you walk over to his motorcycle.

While you are doing so, a plainclothes policeman swoops down on you. He accuses you of breaking the law. (You know which law.) Your gay porn is on you, which he says is proof. He bundles you off to a place in King’s Circle, just near the police chowki there. A cop duly comes and slaps you a couple of times, and threatens to file a case against you under section 377. There is a way out, of course. Money.

If you have what they ask for, it’s cool. If not, they simply take your ATM cards and suchlike and empty them out as you wait there. They have picked you, of course, because you seem closeted, and are likely to be terrified of your family finding out that you’re gay. What they are doing is illegal, a criminal act, but you will never file an official complaint. If you show any sign of defiance, or try to call your lawyer, they will let you go. Indeed, if you had seemed to be that type, they would have parted ways with you at Dadar itself. They will never actually file a case of Section 377 against you: it is just an immensely potent threat.

Another organized racket, my friends told me, is run on some railway stations of Mumbai, such as VT and Andheri. A cop will hang around inside the toilet, pretending to masturbate. If he finds someone looking longer than expected, he will ask that person to come and touch his penis. (He will always be well-endowed: “do these policemen compare sizes and make the biggest guy the bait?” the friend who told me this story wondered.) Just as any straight person would be tempted at the chance to feel up a nice pair of breasts, the prey will often go ahead. As soon as he touches it, four or five cops will jump on him, drag him out onto the platform, beating him as they do so, and take him into a room where cops hang out. Then they’ll put him through the grinder: 377 or money? You know how this story ends.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the cops do this. Our policemen are tenured and effectively unaccountable, and while we would like them to focus on crimes such as murder, rape and robbery, there are few disincentives to punish them if they do not do so. Instead, considering that they are generally poorly paid, their incentives are aligned towards seeking alternate revenue streams, if I may call it that. Laws against victimless crimes provide a perfect opportunity.

In Goa, I am told, cops often stake out foreigners staying there, raid them, plant small quantities of drugs if they cannot find any, and then extort money. You’re a foreigner in a strange land in trouble with the cops, of course you’ll pay up. Driving a motorcycle without a yellow license plate is illegal in Goa – a rather ludicrous victimless crime – and all motorcycles there have white license plates. Thus, anyone who rents a motorcycle can be randomly stopped. And so on and on and on and on.

Of course, homosexuality is different from other victimless crimes because it doesn’t involve choice. We can choose not to gamble or to do drugs, but sexual orientation, like the colour of our eyes, is something we’re born with. If you’re straight, imagine one more time the dystopia gay Indians live in, where not just sex but love and companionship are elusive. Isn’t that criminal?

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Many thanks to Vikram Doctor and Alok Gupta for spending time with me and sharing their insights in the subject. If you want to read about the history and scope of Section 377, there is no better place to start than Alok’s fine essay, “Section 377 and the Dignity of Indian Homosexuals.” (PDF link.)

Cricket and The Mad Dog Show

This piece has been published in the April 2007 issue of Cricinfo Magazine. It was written the day before India’s loss to Sri Lanka.

Imagine a man, dressed respectfully, and a scruffy dog he owns. The man catches the dog and sets its tail on fire. And then, as the dog runs around frenetically, the man says smugly: “Look – mad dog.” He even sells tickets. He calls it: “The Mad Dog Show.”

Indian cricket is The Mad Dog Show. Indian fans are like that burning doggie. The media is the respectable gentleman. Every time I see footage of mobs burning the effigy of a cricketer, and the voice-over of an anchor droning sanctimoniously in the background, I am appalled by the hypocrisy. “That is a beast you feed,” I feel like screaming. For all their talk about crazed subcontinental fans, the crazed subcontinental media is no different.

It is a cliche that cricket and Bollywood are India’s two great passions, but perhaps there really is just one. The media presents cricket like Bollywood drama, not sport. There aren’t winners and losers, there are heroes and villains. If India wins a game, they have lifted the nation. If they lose, they are traitors. Every act is wilful. 

In the quintessential Bollywood blockbuster, there are many twists and few shades of gray. Similarly, in their coverage of cricket, our media does not bother with nuance. Everything is larger than life. A mighty heave that just sails over the midwicket fence conjures up epic adjectives. An identical shot that is caught at the boundary is unequivocally condemned. One is “flamboyant”, “brilliant”, “stunning”; the other is “careless” and “irresponsible”. Note, for the latter set of adjectives, the implication of volition. 

The media is merely catering to the market, of course. The Indian Cricket Fan™ is a mighty beast which brings in much advertising money, but a dumb one. The nuances of the game do not matter to it. It wants spectacle. Passages of obdurate defence against wily spin do not excite it: wickets and sixes do. It wants batsmen to whack the ball, not nudge it around, and bowlers to grab wickets, not buy them. It cannot accept defeat – as in a Bollywood film, the hero must win – and does not enjoy the intricate dramas constructed from ball to ball. Indeed, what it really wants, and will slobber over, is a highlights package that shows it winning. It probably wishes the channels could just broadcast the highlights live. The rest is boring filler material. 

All subcontinental fans aren’t like this, of course. But there aren’t enough exceptions to constitute a significant market segment. Cricket coverage is such that niches cannot be satisfied: one official channel, the one that paid exorbitant amounts of money that it must earn back, broadcasts any particular game. All the news channels – and there is a glut of them – have to cater to the lowest common denominator to survive. The connoisseur has few options, such as, ahem, the magazine you hold, that look at cricket as more than gladiatorial combat for jaded voyeurs.

Indeed, the fear of the voyeurs getting jaded makes the media try harder to produce sensation. The most tried and tested way of doing this in the subcontinent is through shrill nationalism. So you have “Pakraman”. Also “War in the Windies”. And, of course, LOC. (“Love of cricket,” it seems!) This ensures that emotions are most pitched, and this also plays up on the theme of defeat as national betrayal. No true fan would stone the house of a player. But no true patriot would let a traitor go unpunished. 

As this self-fulfilling feedback loop between the media and The Indian Cricket Fan™ plays itself out, think of the players. International cricket is a demanding sport, and the physical and mental stresses it puts a player through are formidable. When one adds to that the stress of our media, searching for sensationalistic headlines, behaving like paparazzi, it must be almost unbearable. It is common to say that our cricketers bear the burden of a nation, but they also bear the burden of madness. How can that beast be satiated? What are the consequences if the other team plays better on the day, as is often inevitable? Cricket is a hard sport, but the cricket that our players play is much, much harder.

Don’t punish victimless crimes

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

Imagine a dystopia where a mad dictator comes to power and decides to ban sex and dating. Sex is ruining the moral fabric of our nation, he decides. Men and women must not be allowed to get together. What will happen?

Here is what I imagine: One, immense copulation will still take place behind closed doors, and as no one engaged in consensual sex will complain, the state will have to spend considerable resources and do invasive policing to make sure people don’t break the law. Two, the underworld will get involved in enabling encounters between the sexes, as those won’t be legal any more, and couples will no more be able to shoot the breeze at a Barista. Three, there will be more rapes, as repressed men denied normal outlets will resort to force.

What a silly thought experiment, you say, it could never happen. After all, what two consenting adults choose to do together, harming no one else in the process, should never be the state’s business. And yet, while sex and dating are thankfully allowed in our country, many other consensual, harmless acts are banned. Allow me to give you a few examples of such victimless crimes.

First, take betting. Betting on cricket matches is, ludicrously, illegal in India. (Other forms of betting are allowed, such as speculative investments in the stock market or in real estate or betting at horse races, which all amount to the same thing.) If I choose to bet with another private party on the outcome of whatever, it should be no one else’s business.

Now, what happens when you ban something that has a high demand? The underworld gets in. As it operates beyond the arm of the law, there is no transparency, and the cost to consumers is higher. It is hard to monitor and, since it’s illegal, there is no industry mechanism to do so. Match-fixing becomes more possible. (People speak of betting and match-fixing in the same breath, but that’s really like conflating sex and rape.)

If betting was legal, though, the underworld would find little scope to be involved. In a competitive market, legitimate companies would raise customer service and transparency while driving down costs. Like your bank gives you a demat account to invest in shares, it might provide one for betting. You’d have various vendors to choose from and the chances of getting ripped off would be less. It wouldn’t be a panacea, but it would be an improvement on what exists. Consider that match-fixing in cricket has germinated from exactly those countries where it is illegal.

Another example of a victimless crime: prostitution. A consensual transaction between two adults is nobody else’s business, but prostitution evokes sordid images of young girls being kidnapped and beaten and forced into the profession. Why does such violence happen? It is because prostitution is effectively illegal in India and, therefore, the underworld is involved.

If it was legalised, it would be easier to police, and to safeguard the rights of the women involved. Legitimate companies in the hospitality industry might choose to get involved. To attract clients, they would have to have standards and practices. Yes, it would be sad that some women would choose to be prostitutes for a living, but they would do so because they prefer it to other available choices. Why should we pass moral judgement on them, or deny them some of those choices?

Again, legalising prostitution would be no panacea, but would cut down on much of the criminal abduction-rape cycle that forces so many young girls into the business in the first place. A perfect example of how legalised prostitution can function without coercion is the Netherlands, where prostitutes pay taxes and are part of unions, which look after their interests, and brothels advertise like other respectable businesses.

One more example of a victimless crime: taking drugs. A study published recently by the Lancet shows that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than LSD, cannabis and ecstasy. If an adult chooses to smoke a joint, is it not immoral to stop them and impinge on their freedom? You might argue that people commit crimes under the influence of drugs, but then, punishing those crimes should be deterrent enough. (Tobacco is an exception, though: I support banning smoking in public places because it harms other people.)

Indeed, the drug trade is the lifeblood of the underworld in many countries. Consumers have none of the protections that a well-functioning free market affords, and might end up buying adulterated drugs at exorbitant prices. In contrast, consider the Netherlands, where drugs are legal and cannabis is purchased mainly in coffee shops. They have the lowest rate of drug-related-deaths-per-million in Europe.

While our cops are busy busting “betting rackets” and “dens of vice” and “rave parties”, do note that I am not endorsing either gambling or prostitution or drugs use. I am simply speaking out for individual freedom, and pointing out that the costs of denying such freedom are generally greater than any intended benefits.