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?

*    *    *

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.)

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.

A beast called government

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

There is nothing in the world as dangerous as blind faith. No, no, this is not yet another rant against organised religion: there is enough damnation already scheduled upon me. There is another beast that benefits from blind faith quite as much as religion, and that causes as much harm from our lack of questioning: a beast called government.

Don’t get me wrong, we need government. We need it to take care of law and order, of defense, and for a handful of other things. (I don’t have a very large hand.) But the governments we have, not just in India but virtually everywhere, are vast, monstrous behemoths that are many multiples of the size they need to be. The cost of this, of course, is borne by us: we pay far more tax than we should need to in order to keep government going, and to justify its size the government clamps down on private enterprise and individual freedoms.

Part of our blind faith in government comes from the way we view it. Governments are not supercomputers programmed to work tirelessly for the public interest, nor are they benevolent, supernatural beings constantly striving to give us what we require. On the contrary, governments are collections of people, individuals like you and me, motivated by self-interest. The actions of government are the actions of these men and women, and the best way to understand how they are likely to behave—and therefore, how governments are likely to behave—is to consider their incentives.

Outside of government, we get ahead, whether in our jobs or doing business, by giving other people goods or services that they require. There is a direct correlation between what we give and what we get, and clear accountability: if I overstep my deadline for this column one more time, for example, Mint will surely find another columnist to fill this space!

But the incentives in government are different, and they do not drive a bureaucrat to work in the public interest. This is superbly illustrated in C Northcote Parkinson’s delightful classic, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress. Parkinson, examining the British civil service, found that it tended to expand by a predictable percentage every year, “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.” He explained this with “two almost axiomatic sentences”: “(1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and (2) “Officials make work for each other.”

In other words, it is in bureaucrats’ interest to expand their departments and get greater budgets allocated to them so as to increase their sphere of power. Indeed, mandarins who solve problems and increase efficiency actually risk making themselves, or their departments, redundant. Do we really expect them to be like the proverbial fool on the tree, who cuts the branch he sits on?

If bureaucrats want to increase the power they have, politicians want to build vote banks. That is how they rise in the political system, and it is silly to expect them to stop when they get to power. This means giving sops to interest groups that have supported them when they come to power, and reaching out to others. One illustration that speaks for itself is the Haj subsidy. Indeed, it would be irrational for a politician to focus on anything else but what will get him elected.

But we’re a democracy, so why don’t we just vote such politicians out? Well, to begin with, our system of government has what public choice theorists would call “concentrated benefits and diffused costs.” In other words, what is hundreds of crores of subsidy for a troubled industry or a free TV to a Tamil Nadu voter is just a few paise a year for you. Who do you think is more likely to lobby a politician or bother to go out and vote?

Of course, a few paise a year for thousands of pointless causes each add up to the majority of your tax money, but now we come to another reason for why people don’t vote against government wastage: what economists call ‘rational ignorance’. Besides earning a living, there are many good uses of your time, and finding out a break-up of where your tax money goes would simply take too much of your time. This is exacerbated by the fact that many taxes are indirect and hidden away – indeed, inflation often functions as a form of taxation – and that the politicians you have to choose from, all driven by the same impulses and catering to different interest groups, really aren’t too different from each other.

I had promised last week to elaborate on how a lot of well-intentioned and seemingly sensible government spending actually harms us all, and I shall do so in the weeks to come. I wanted to first highlight how wastage in government is not an aberration, but is written in the DNA of our system, and is integral to its nature. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Understanding that process is the first step to turning it around.

Television and cricket

This piece of mine has been published in the March 9, 2007 issue of Time Out Mumbai as “Field Days.”

Television was the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, and then the worst.

Once upon a time television pushed cricket into the modern age in India. As India opened up to the world a decade-and-a-half ago, in more ways than one, kids in small towns throughout the country tuned into satellite television and saw a brave new world. Instead of homegrown DD commentators uttering banalities in two languages, they saw the best cricket broadcasters in the world educating them on the game: From the likes of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Martin Crowe, they learned to appreciate the nuances of the sport. They picked up the values that would help them thrive in international cricket: once, pot-bellied Indian cricketers would saunter between wickets and refuse to dive while fielding because, apparently, Indian grounds were hard. Look at any Indian cricketer below the age of 25, and you shall see the good that television has done.

But television also made itself a slave to the monster it created. In a celebrity-obsessed era, viewers craved the familiar, and broadcasters stopped taking chances: at a certain point in time, it became default policy to hire ex-cricketers as commentators. Sometimes ex-cricketers provide the insight only a player can. But most ex-cricketers who have turned to commentary in the last few years have been hired for star value. They know it, and don’t work as hard at preparing for a game as they should, and it shows. Cliches abound, as they work on auto-pilot. It is no coincidence that India’s only world-class commentator is the only non-player who’s made a place for himself in the commentary box: Harsha Bhogle. It is unlikely that too many others will get a chance.

Broadcasters have also started treating cricket less as a sport and more as entertainment. In the breaks during a game, there is less analysis and more tamasha. So when, during a tea-break, we expect cogent commentary about the pitched battle on the field during the last session, we get the Shaz and Waz show, with impromptu beauty contest thrown in. “The voting is still on,” says Shaz. “Pinky is ahead of Minky. SMS now!” Cut to close-up of cleavage. And the cricket: yes, there’s also cricket. Damn.

It is believed that this is what the people want, but is that true? There is no feedback mechanism from the market to indicate that. When a channel broadcasts a game of cricket, it has an effective monopoly on that match: once it has acquired the telecast rights, no one else can show it, and the fan has to stay with them. In the absence of competition in terms of broadcast quality, there is no way for people to indicate when they don’t like a feature on the show. They will watch the World Cup regardless of whether there is statistical analysis in the breaks or Mandira Bedi in noodlestraps.

But maybe that is, indeed, what viewers want. Glamour brings in the column inches and attention. Controvery brings in the eyeballs in an era when people are so jaded that they want sensation, action, fighting. Over the next couple of months, expect some rivetting cricket in the World Cup. Also expect some pretty faces on television, and Extraa Innings with 816 ‘A’s at the end of extraaa. There will be the Match Ka Mujrim type of shows on the news channels, picking villains for the Bollywood drama the game has become. There will be debates about Ganguly, debates about Tendulkar, debates about Dravid and Chappell. There will be jingoism, there will be hyperbole, there will be crass sensationalism, but there will be cricket as well. That’s all we really want, the 22 men in pajamas battling it out on the field with bat and ball. Isn’t it?

Do we really love cricket?

A version of my story below was published today in Mint.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it?

The historian Ram Guha once compared cricket in India to football in Brazil. It is easy to disagree with that, but hard to figure out which hairs to split. On one hand, cricket in India is surely followed more fervently, with temples made for some cricketers, with an obsessive passion that Brazilians, for all their lust for football, surely can’t match. People have even speculated, not entirely flippantly, on the economic impact cricket has on India because so many people stop working when a cricket match is on.

On the other hand, football matches between minor club teams in Brazil can attract tens of thousands of spectators, while Ranji Trophy games in India generally draw so few people that you could fit them all in a bus. Much of the following of the game in India revolves around celebrities, with few fans concerned about the nuances of the game.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it? Do Indians really love cricket? It is futile to generalise about an entire country – each individual has his own relationship with the game – but certain patterns of love and longing for cricket run through the country. And outside it.

*  *  *

People who are cynical about long-distance relationships know nothing of cricket and Indians. Non-resident Indians around the world pine for cricket as if their lover is an ocean away, and go to insane lengths to stay in touch. Prem Panicker, a legend among NRIs for his cricket writing for Rediff, once told me about a bunch of US-based Indians who, visiting India, dropped in to his office to chat with his team. This was a decade ago, and Rediff had just finished doing ball-by-ball commentary of the 1996 World Cup, and were wondering if such effort was worth it. “We wrote more than 60,000 words over eight hours during a day’s play,” Panicker told me. “We were wondering if anyone actually read that much.”

These kids did. They described to him how six of them would gather at one of their places, and they would follow the game in batches of three. One batch would sleep while the other half would ‘watch’ the game via the ball-by-ball commentary, refreshing the screen ferociously. Then, at the innings break, they’d wake the other batch up, brief them on what had happened, and go off to sleep. The other three would then take over. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. All night.

Panicker said that this story was an eye-opener for him, as he realised how much cricket meant to these kids. “All of us like the game,” he said to me, “but this was like an obsession.”

*  *  *

If you love cricket, really really love cricket, watching it on television just won’t do: you have to go to the ground once in a while. Being at the ground is not just about ambience and being part of the event and so on: it’s about seeing the bits of the game that television cannot show you, the big picture instead of selected little details, the thousand dramas that the cameras don’t capture, the ebb and flow, and not overs punctuated by commercial breaks. You see subtle changes in field placings,  and the way batsmen react to them. You notice the way fielders walk or strut or bite their nails, and how they interact between overs. Every ball has a back story, and you get a lot more of the context at the ground – even if you’re sitting at square leg and can’t see the ball swing.

And what love it takes to watch cricket in India! Cricket stadiums here, with a couple of notable exceptions, are monstrously uncomfortable at best and torture chambers at worst. Spectators spend their entire day sitting on damaged wooden benches or stone slaps, often under the direct gaze of the sun. Some grounds do not allow them to even carry water inside. Toilets are pathetic, often messy and lacking running water.

In many other countries, such as Australia or South Africa, watching cricket at the ground is a pleasure in itself: you hang out with friends, maybe get a tan, maybe spread out a rug and enjoy a beer or two, listen to some music that’s playing in the stands or, during breaks, on the PA. The cricket is just one part of the event. But in India, everything apart from the cricket is excruciating. What else but an unrelenting love for cricket can then drive people to the grounds?

*  *  *

But sometimes even love has limits, and can be harshly tested. As our lovers sit and sit and sit, slowly being cooked in the sun, the discomfort in their backsides often reaches their heads. And when the cricket is also not to their satisfaction, they can get violent. It is no surprise to me that the Indian venue most famous for its crowd disturbances is also one of the most uncomfortable: Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Part of the blame for that has to fall on the stadium itself.

But not all of it.

*  *  *

Are those who throw Bisleri bottles or other projectiles onto the field expressing some kind of love? In my view: No. It is like throwing acid on someone who has rejected you and saying, “Ah but this is an indication of the depth of my desire.” Those who talk about the passion Indians feel for cricket often refer to public displays of it that are not a sign of love, but something more perverse.

Cricket in India, sadly, is tied up with nationalism. This is a product of our past: for the first few decades of our independence, there was nothing at which an Indian could point and say, “Ah, India dominates in that, it can show the rest of the world how it’s done.” Cricket, for what its worth, turned out to be something we weren’t too bad at. (Leave aside the inconvenient fact of how few countries play cricket.)

In the 1970s, for example, we may not have had a bustling economy and world-famous Indians, but we did have Sunil Gavaskar. Some years after that, we won the World Cup! For a country with such an inferiority complex about firangs, one that we are only now getting over, that was huge. Popular emotions over India-Pakistan matches are the stuff of cliché now, and there could be no worse expression of nationalistic pride. The ‘Pakraman’ branding when India resumed cricket against Pakistan; the jingoism whipped up by a shameless press because they know there is a market for it; the MPs raising questions about cricket in parliament; the mobs burning effigies and stoning players’ houses – all that isn’t love, its acid.

*  *  *

And the media cannot separate nation from cricket either. Some of our best writers still talk of our players being symbols of a newly assertive India, of how the journey of the cricket team mirrors the rise of our nation, and other such impressive-sounding rubbish. Listen, Sourav Ganguly took off his shirt at Lord’s and waved it around because he was a wonderfully spirited and passionate individual expressing his joy at the moment. There was no national or post-colonial significance to that. Enough half-baked analysis!

*  *  *

There are really two crickets: there’s cricket the sport, and there’s cricket the entertainment. As a sport, there is much to love in it: the length of a cricket match and the vast number of variables involved make it highly nuanced. It is like a play with many acts that makes most other sports seem like hurried vignettes. There is epic drama, with scope enough for Machiaveli, Mephistopheles and Sun Tzu to display their wares. There is space to think and evaluate options – a ball is bowled, then the universe stops and rewires itself, then rinse and repeat – and the true cricket lover is never short of things to immerse himself in. Surges of adrenalin can alternate with meditative thinking on the game. Even seemingly boring passages of play – batsmen letting balls go by, a spinner bowling six maiden overs in a row – is filled with action in the mind of the cricket lover.

Plenty of Indians love cricket the sport. They note the delicate shifts in a bowler’s follow-through that cause him to lose his ability to reverse-swing the ball, they are experts on seam position, and they notice when a batsman’s propensity to inside-edge the ball on to his stumps increases because of an unconscious change in his backlift. But there are also other Indians who yawn or boo at times of the most intricately contructed drama. They want fours and sixes and wickets and action and shots of women in the crowd. They want to be entertained.

Many more Indians care for cricket the entertainment than cricket the sport. For them, cricket is like another Salman Khan film, only with Yuvraj Singh as the star. Will he hammer the bad guys? Will he be the hero, or will they let them down? Will he be paisa wasool?

It is they who make cricket such big business in India. Cricket as sport is a niche pursuit for aficionados. Cricket as entertainment is a mainstream moneyspinner. Getting Mandira Bedi and Rohit Roy to do a cricket show makes perfect sense in those terms, however much they make purists like me cringe. Their ignorance of the sport is entirely besides the point, because who cares about the sport anyway? Audiences want action, excitement and eye candy.

This is why so much coverage of the game is hyperbolic, designed to keep viewers perpetually excited. That is why most commentators are ex-cricketers, hired for being familiar to a celebrity-obsessed audience, and rarely for the insights they offer. Tamasha rules, entertainment rules. Will the sport survive?

*  *  *

Two decades ago, when I was a boy, there weren’t too many ways for most Indians to entertain themselves. There was Bollywood. And there was cricket. The opportunity cost for watching a game of cricket wasn’t much: what else would you do in its place anyway? That has changed.

Since India began liberalising 16 years ago, a burgeoning middle class has found itself with many other ways of spending its time. As India has opened up to the world, hazaar things have flooded in from outside, competing with cricket for our attention. There is much more on TV to watch, there is the internet with all its riches, there are many more nifty places to hang out at: who’s got time for bat and ball?

Indeed, this is one reason India’s big cities – in particular, Mumbai – no longer churn out top cricketers like they used to. Kids in big cities find a lot else to do with their time, and many career opportunities that are far more lucrative than the risk that taking up cricket involves. At the same time, the smaller towns have developed fast enough for opportunities to play cricket to grow, but small-town kids don’t yet have so many options of timepass to compete with cricket. That is why so many new-generation India cricketers are from the smaller towns – Dhoni, Pathan, Munaf, Raina, and so on.

But as time goes by, and India develops, that will change. As globalisation proceeds, cricket will be competing with more and more alternatives for a potential fan’s time. And consider this: what is called the shorter form of the game takes up a full working day. No longer insulated from competition, can cricket retain its following as the years go by? Will Indians still have time for the game ten years from now?

Reason says it won’t. But what does love know of reason?

Don’t think in categories

This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.

As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”

Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.

Bloggers have a community as much as drivers have a community. Would you ask a random person in a car, “So sir, what do drivers feel about abortion?” You wouldn’t dream of doing that, because you know that drivers are just individuals who happen to drive cars. And yet, we lump all bloggers under one convenient label.

And we have many convenient labels like that. Imagine someone saying, “Some Indian bloggers have been seen cheering for Pakistan during cricket matches. Therefore, all Indian bloggers are anti-national.” Or “Some bloggers burnt a train full of drivers, therefore we drivers will slaughter all the bloggers we can find.” Or “Bloggers have been discriminated against in the days before the internet, when they didn’t have access to any readership, therefore we will reserve a set amount of newspaper space for them.”

Would it not be equally ridiculous to take a poll of bloggers, find out that the majority prefer to use the blogging service Blogspot, and then force all bloggers to use only that service? “This is the will of the bloggers,” you could say, or “the bloggers have given their mandate.”

The above examples sound ridiculous, but you would have recognised the references. We tend to think in categories, and ignore individuals in the process. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and this can be a useful cognitive shortcut: classifying things into groups of things helps us make sense of the world. But it has its perils when we take it too far.

And we do. Millions have been killed citing the good of ‘nation’ and ‘race’ and so on. Every day, individual rights are trampled upon under the guise of the good of ‘society’ or ‘community’. This is a mistake committed on both extremes of the political spectrum, both by ‘pseudo-secularists’ and those who have coined that term.

The Hindutva parties in India and their supporters do this all the time when it comes to terms like ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ and ‘Pakistan’ and so on. Claiming to speak for all Hindus, as if that is even possible, they whip up hatred against Muslims in general citing the acts of particular Muslims. They demonise Pakistan and Pakistanis because of the acts of its government, as if that government is a representative one. They oppose globalisation in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, as if those two things lie preserved in a glass case.

The Left parties aren’t behind. How much generalising do they do against ‘multinationals,’ ‘imperialists,’ ‘upper castes,’ ‘the middle class’ and so on? They praise democracy but speak darkly of ‘free markets’ as if they represent anything other than individuals being empowered to make their own choices. They claim to speak for some mythical beast called ‘workers’, though all their policies harm individual workers, and as if workers aren’t also ‘consumers,’ a kind of beast that they don’t quite like.

The classic example of thinking in categories gone wrong is our reservations policy. Under the pretext of clearing up historical wrongs done to one group of people by another, we effectively redistribute opportunities and resources by taking them from one bunch of individuals and handing them to another. Some individuals suffer, others get lucky, and that’s all there is to it. What is worse, they actually perpetuate such thinking in categories instead of bringing an end to it, and make the problem worse instead of solving it.

It reminds me of Ayn Rand’s famous quote, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” But do we really care about individual rights, and personal freedom, in India?

Where’s the Freedom Party

My weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through, kicked off on February 8, 2007. It will appear every Thursday. This is the first installment, also posted on the old India Uncut.

It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.

Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.

Consider our Left parties. They speak up for personal freedoms (though often as a matter of convenience), such as for free speech and against censorship, but, bound by dogma, they oppose economic freedom. They do not understand that when two people trade with each other, they do so because they both benefit, and that allowing people to trade freely creates prosperity better than government handouts can. They do not see the good that our limited reforms of the last 15 years have done. They point to the existence of poverty as evidence that the reforms have failed, not admitting that the reforms have not been carried out in the areas that affect our poor the most.

The Left claims to speak for the poor, but most of the policies it supports, such as the labour laws and the minimum wage, harm poor people the most. It does not accept that poverty is a result of inadequate employment and insufficient productivity, and that unleashing private enterprise, by removing all the barriers to it that still exist, would solve these problems. It opposes foreign investment, as if anything but employment and prosperity could result from it. It views economics as a zero-sum game, and assumes that the only way to enrich the poor is to steal from the rich.

Then consider the Right. The religious right routinely tramples on personal freedoms in the name of religion and tradition and suchlike. It takes offence at any criticism, and is an enemy of free speech. The extreme elements of it, which are more common than we acknowledge, and even won a state election resoundingly not long ago, treat an entire minority as subhuman. And yes, inspired by nationalistic fervour, they often oppose economic freedoms as well.

But why blame the political parties? Politics is all about demand and supply: our politicians do not value freedom because our people do not demand it. There are a variety of different reasons for why this is so.

When it comes to economic freedoms, it so happens that many of the great truths of economics are deeply unintuitive. The fact that markets aren’t zero-sum, for example, or that the spontaneous order of millions of individuals working separately towards their self-interest can produce and distribute goods far more efficiently than central planning can. Also, most of us have grown up in a socialist framework, and instinctively look to our mai-baap state for solutions. We look to the government to provide jobs, to lift people out of poverty, to provide free education to all, and so on. “What does a poor man care about freedom?” an IAS officer friend recently asked me. “All he wants is food.” And indeed, the connection between economic freedom and jobs and food on the plate is not one that is immediately obvious.

When it comes to personal freedoms, we are so used to living in a country where they are denied to us that we don’t even notice their absence. As a matter of routine, films are censored, books are banned, and our personal and sexual preferences are restricted. Free expression is endangered in this country, and whether it’s MF Hussain painting a Hindu goddess nude or an Orkut forum about Shivaji or a comedian making fun of Mahatma Gandhi, our default reaction is to ask that it be stopped. How can free speech thrive in a country where giving offence is treated as a crime?

Am I hopeful for things changing? Yes and no. Yes, because as the cause and effect of economic freedom becomes clearer, people will see through socialist rhetoric and realise that only free enterprise can provide jobs, lift our living standards, and raise this country out of poverty. On the other hand, such a clear-cut utilitarian case is harder to make for personal freedoms, and political parties, in any case, thrive on catering to special interest groups. They are, thus, generally likelier to restrict freedom even further instead of removing existing restrictions.

Immense sighs emerge. Perhaps I should simply have been a Communist or a Fascist.

Bollywood hails the free market

A version of my piece below was published on January 19, 2007 in the Wall Street Journal as “Bollywood’s New Capitalist Hero.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut. It isn’t meant to be a review of “Guru”, towards which I have mixed feelings, but a comment on one aspect of it.

Who would ever have thought that one of the villains of a Bollywood film could be import duty? “Guru”, the latest Bollywood blockbuster by the respected director Mani Ratnam, is that rare film—perhaps Bollywood’s first—in which free markets are lauded as a force for good. Aliens emerging from the Taj Mahal would be less surprising.

“Guru” stars Abhishek Bachchan as Gurukant Desai, a character inspired by Dhirubhai Ambani. Ambani was that rare tycoon who went from rags to riches during the worst years of India’s license raj, building Reliance Industries, which today is India’s largest private sector company. In the era in which Ambani flourished, the state throttled private enterprise with licenses, regulations and sundry restrictions that had at their core Jawaharlal Nehru’s pithy sentiment: “Profit is a dirty word.” Ambani built an empire in spite of this system, enriching millions of middle-class shareholders in the process, for whom he became a folk hero well before his death in 2002.

Ambani’s means were sometimes controversial, and the film reflects this. Towards the end,  Desai is on trial for economic offences that have much to do with import duty and the like. He stands up to make his final statement, and is asked if he is going to speak standing up. In a memorable moment, he thunders, “Do I need a license to stand?”

Desai then evokes the name of Mahatma Gandhi, and implicitly compares Gandhi’s freedom struggle against imperialism to his own struggle with the forces of economic oppression. It is an apt comparison, stated with all the drama and flourish that Bollywood is famous for, but it is almost unbelievable that it is being made in a Hindi film.

In Bollywood, over the ages, one of the template villains has been the businessman. He will look suitably sinister, will alienate his own children, and will either deal in drugs or arms on the side, or spend his time evicting slum dwellers. Anything for profit, especially murder and rape. Most Bollywood businessman villains were classic caricatures of “the evil capitalist,” exploiting the workers and growing rich on their blood and toil. They often freelanced as mafia dons or were crony capitalists, but when the hero raged against their greed, this distinction was lost: business—and the profit motive—were itself painted as twisted, and the rare benevolent businessman stood out starkly as an exception to the rule.

Indeed, Abhishek Bachchan’s father, the screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, himself acted in many films as the angry young man who speaks up for the poor against big business. The senior Bachchan’s best years were in the 1970s, when the Soviets were idolized and America and free enterprise were reviled. Times have changed, and for the first time, Bollywood has acknowledged that change.