India’s Problem is Poverty, Not Inequality

This is the 16th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, relates an old Russian joke about two peasants named Boris and Igor. They are both poor. Boris has a goat. Igor does not. One day, Igor is granted a wish by a visiting fairy. What will he wish for?

“I wish,” he says, “that Boris’s goat should die.”

The joke ends there, revealing as much about human nature as about economics. Consider the three things that happen if the fairy grants the wish. One, Boris becomes poorer. Two, Igor stays poor. Three, inequality reduces. Is any of them a good outcome?

I feel exasperated when I hear intellectuals and columnists talking about economic inequality. It is my contention that India’s problem is poverty – and that poverty and inequality are two very different things that often do not coincide.

To illustrate this, I sometimes ask this question: In which of the following countries would you rather be poor: USA or Bangladesh? The obvious answer is USA, where the poor are much better off than the poor of Bangladesh. And yet, while Bangladesh has greater poverty, the USA has higher inequality.

Indeed, take a look at the countries of the world measured by the Gini Index, which is that standard metric used to measure inequality, and you will find that USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom all have greater inequality than Bangladesh, Liberia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, which are much poorer. And yet, while the poor of Bangladesh would love to migrate to unequal USA, I don’t hear of too many people wishing to go in the opposite direction.

Indeed, people vote with their feet when it comes to choosing between poverty and inequality. All of human history is a story of migration from rural areas to cities – which have greater inequality.

If poverty and inequality are so different, why do people conflate the two? A key reason is that we tend to think of the world in zero-sum ways. For someone to win, someone else must lose. If the rich get richer, the poor must be getting poorer, and the presence of poverty must be proof of inequality.

But that’s not how the world works. The pie is not fixed. Economic growth is a positive-sum game and leads to an expansion of the pie, and everybody benefits. In absolute terms, the rich get richer, and so do the poor, often enough to come out of poverty. And so, in any growing economy, as poverty reduces, inequality tends to increase. (This is counter-intuitive, I know, so used are we to zero-sum thinking.) This is exactly what has happened in India since we liberalised parts of our economy in 1991.

Most people who complain about inequality in India are using the wrong word, and are really worried about poverty. Put a millionaire in a room with a billionaire, and no one will complain about the inequality in that room. But put a starving beggar in there, and the situation is morally objectionable. It is the poverty that makes it a problem, not the inequality.

You might think that this is just semantics, but words matter. Poverty and inequality are different phenomena with opposite solutions. You can solve for inequality by making everyone equally poor. Or you could solve for it by redistributing from the rich to the poor, as if the pie was fixed. The problem with this, as any economist will tell you, is that there is a trade-off between redistribution and growth. All redistribution comes at the cost of growing the pie – and only growth can solve the problem of poverty in a country like ours.

It has been estimated that in India, for every one percent rise in GDP, two million people come out of poverty. That is a stunning statistic. When millions of Indians don’t have enough money to eat properly or sleep with a roof over their heads, it is our moral imperative to help them rise out of poverty. The policies that will make this possible – allowing free markets, incentivising investment and job creation, removing state oppression – are likely to lead to greater inequality. So what? It is more urgent to make sure that every Indian has enough to fulfil his basic needs – what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his fine book On Inequality, called the Doctrine of Sufficiency.

The elite in their airconditioned drawing rooms, and those who live in rich countries, can follow the fashions of the West and talk compassionately about inequality. India does not have that luxury.

Here Is Why the Indian Voter Is Saddled With Bad Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Live in an Age of Bullshit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wave Goodbye

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

WAVE GOODBYE

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

HYPOCRISY

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

The Indian State Is the Greatest Enemy of the Indian Farmer

This is the 13th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

The late farmer leader Sharad Joshi used to enjoy reciting a poem that described the Indian farmer’s plight perfectly. It addresses the non-farmer from the farmer’s point of view, and it goes:

Marte hum bhi hain. Marte tum bhi ho.
Marte hum bhi hain, marte tum bhi ho.
Hum sasta bech ke marte hain,
Tum mahanga khareedke marte ho.

I would translate it thus:

I die, my friend, and so do you.
I die, my friend, and so do you.
I sell my produce cheap, and die.
You pay so much that you die too.

This beautiful shair expresses an old truth that many investigative journalists wrote about anew this week, as protesting farmers congregated on Delhi: the gap between what farmers get for their produce, and what the consumer pays. One report revealed that a farmer sold tomatoes at Rs 2 per kg, and consumers bought them for Rs 20. Too little; and too much. Both the farmers and consumers were getting killed by this, just like in the poem.

Joshi’s insight in the late 1970s was that this was caused not by the greed of middlemen, but the interference of the Indian state. The state had set forth rules that the farmer could not sell his produce in an open market, responding to supply and demand, but only to a government-appointed body called the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC). Because the farmers are not allowed to sell to anyone else, they are forced to take the price offered to them. And because all produce comes through the APMC, buyers also have no bargaining power.

Now imagine what would happen if the free market was allowed to operate. Middlemen would compete to buy goods from farmers, and that competition would ensure that farmers would get a better price. They would also compete for customers, this ensuring that customers would pay less. Instead of farmers selling for Rs 2 and the consumer buying for Rs 20, you could have the farmer selling for Rs 10 and the consumer buying for Rs 12. Both farmer and consumer would benefit by Rs 8 per KG. But the government does not allow this, and both farmers and consumers get hurt.

Joshi referred to this notional cost paid by the farmer as a ‘negative subsidy’. He viewed it, correctly, as theft. The issue here is not that farmers are hard up and the government is not helping them. The issue is that the government is responsible for the poverty of the farmer, and is stealing from him. And this is not the only way that the government is crippling our farmers.

Farmers are not allowed access to markets in anything they do. The state doesn’t allow free markets in inputs, because of which many of the inputs a farmer needs, from seeds to fertilisers to energy to even credit, are either hard to come by or of a low quality. And when they do manage to produce crops, they are not allowed to get the best price for it, as an open market would enable. By denying them freedom, the state effectively imprisons our farmers in what a friend of mine calls PPP: Perpetually Planned Poverty.

This extends not just to their produce, but to their property. Farmers are not allowed to sell their land for non-agricultural purposes. This restricts their market to other farmers, and ensures that the price they can get for their land is so low that it becomes pointless to sell. It has been estimated that some farmland would be forty times as valuable if this law did not exist.

Indeed, a common scam is for a crony of the state to acquire land from farmers, through the state, at low prices, and then get the land-use certificate changed so that they can sell at many multiples of that price. All perfectly legal – and deeply unethical. This is how Robert Vadra was alleged to have made his money, in fact.

Every political party in our history has let our farmers down, but there is a reason things are coming to a head now. India is already facing a jobs crisis, made worse by the deepening of the agricultural crisis. With every generation, land holdings get smaller – one farmer’s land is split among multiple children – and more and more unsustainable. It is no coincidence that many recent popular uprisings have been around demand for jobs from land-owning castes like like Jats, Patidars and Marathas.

Indian agriculture has been in crisis for decades. More than 50% of our country is in the agricultural sector, producing 14% of our GDP. In developing countries, less than 10% of the population works in agriculture. Here, we have trapped our farmers in poverty, and also not allowed the industrial revolution that would have provided an escape route. We pay lip service to farmers, but instead of making the necessary structural reforms, we give handouts like farm loan waivers that provide only temporary relief.

It is like handing aspirin to a burning man. “Here,” we say, “take this for the pain.” And everybody claps.

*  *  *

Also check out:
The State of Our Farmers—Epsiode 86 of The Seen and the Unseen, featuring farmer leader Gunvant Patil.
We Must Save Our Farmers — Amit Varma
Free the Farmers — Barun Mitra
The Crisis in Indian Agriculture — Brainstorm discussion on Pragati
Entry and Exit in Agriculture — Episode 1 of The Seen and the Unseen
The Farmer Rolls the Dice — Episode 12 of The Seen and the Unseen
The Unseen Effects of Farm Loan Waivers — Episode 25 of The Seen and the Unseen
Down to Earth — The collected writings of Sharad Joshi

Understanding Consent

This is the 87th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my occasional set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

DON’T WAIT FOR ‘NO’

Sometimes you sense that she’s full of dread.
Sometimes ‘No’ does not have to be said.
If you see discomfort,
Back away. Don’t cause hurt.
Let the onus be on you instead.

ONE EASY METRIC

A macho stud said to me, “Hey bro,
I don’t know when to stop or go slow.
Consent confuses me.”
I told him, “Well, you see,
If she does not say ‘yes’, it means ‘no’.”

One Bad Law Goes, but Women Remain Second-Class Citizens

This is the 12th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

This has been a year of glorious gifts from unelected middle-aged men. The Supreme Court of India is churning out enlightened judgements as if oppression is going out of fashion: Privacy, 377, and now Adultery.

On Thursday, the court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code. This section read: “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 offense of adultery, and shall be punished.”

As the part about the consent of the husband indicates, the law treated women as the property of their husbands, and adultery like a form of theft. Justice DY Chandrachud wrote in his judgement: “The history of Section 497 reveals that the law on adultery was for the benefit of the husband, for him to secure ownership over the sexuality of his wife. It was aimed at preventing the woman from exercising her sexual agency.”

As Chandrachud elaborates in his judgement, this has been a ubiquitous attitude towards adultery throughout history. Babylon’s ancient Hammurabi Code prescribed that a married woman caught in adultery “be bound to her lover and thrown into the water so that they drown together.” (No such punishment for an unfaithful man, mind you.) Ancient Greco-Roman societies considered adultery to be “a violation of a husband’s exclusive sexual access to his wife,” and Judaic and Christian laws followed a similar logic.

This went beyond ancient times. In 1650, England introduced the death penalty for adultery with the Act for Suppressing the Detestable Sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication. Section 497, which they later thrust upon this particular colony, was an adulterated version of this.

In the 21st century, no law should deny the autonomy and agency of a woman. But what if society itself is regressive, and denies women basic human dignity, as is the case in India? Chandrachud remarks, “Law and Society are intrinsically connected and oppressive social values often find expression in legal structures.” But he adds, “The Constitution, both in text and interpretation, has played a significant role in the evolution of law from being an instrument of oppression to becoming one of liberation.”

One bad law has gone, but we remain a nation in which women are second-class citizens. Firstly, similar laws remain in the books, such as Section 498, which deals with “enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman,” and also treats women as the property of men. Secondly, hell, look at Indian society around you.

Some of us Engish-speaking elite types imagine that things must be getting better because we see so many strong, articulate women around us. But that’s the Selection Bias at play. Outside these circles, women in India are having a tough time. Women still fill government forms that insist on Father’s/Husbands name, as if to establish ownership. One telling metric: female participation in the workforce has actually gone down in the last two decades.

Much of what we call ‘empowerment’ is on the terms of men. So many men signal how modern they are by boasting about how they ‘let’ their wife work, or how they ‘help out’ with domestic chores. They behave as if they deserve a pat of their backs for not beating their wives, and chaining them to the kitchen. We have set the bar so low that not being a monster is now a matter of congratulations.

Men tend to be oblivious of how women carry their gender as a burden. Something I realised recently – and shame on me for being so late to realise it, in my forties – is that my gender is not a factor in my everyday life. I can ignore and take for granted my maleness. But in every single thing a woman does, her gender comes into play. An empty compartment at a train station, the tone of voice in a job interview, the supercilious, sniggering men who always interrupt, whose eyes travel like you know their hands would if they had the license.

Every day, women have to confront and make peace with their own thingness. Every day they find new reasons to question themselves. The ever-present human anxiety about what others think of us is amplified for women, and restraint becomes a reflex.

I have a secondary rant here. Just as the adultery law saw women as the property of men, many of our laws, and parts of our constitution, treat citizens as the property of the state. We are subjects of a mai-baap master, which can regulate our speech and our behaviour. We take this for granted, just as many women take the oppression they face for granted.

We cannot be a free society until we address this. The Supreme Court cannot deliver us from ourselves. No matter how ugly the sight, we must look within.

Also check out:
‘Misogyny is the Oldest Indian Tradition’—Amit Varma
‘Misogyny and Our Legal System’—Episode 58 of The Seen and the Unseen
‘Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains’—Amit Varma
‘I am a Feminist. You should be too’—Amit Varma
‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen

Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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