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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is doing nothing an option in an election year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Also check out:

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

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

Cricketers Focus on Process, Not Results. So Should Fans

This is the third installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 15, 2018.

Every time India loses a Test series abroad, the doomed relationship between the Indian Cricket Fan and the Indian Cricket Player comes into focus. The Player usually disappoints the Fan; and when the Fan is delighted, it is often for the wrong reason. This is because the Player and the Fan look at the game in completely different ways. So different, in fact, that we might be talking about different sports here.

The crux of this difference: the Indian Cricket Fan is results-oriented.

There have been many loud judgements made by Fans in the course of this series against England, all expressed with great passion and conviction. Hardik Pandya should not have played the first two Tests. Virat Kohli was right to pick Hardik for the third Test; redemption! Kohli was wrong to pick Hardik for the fourth, and he must be dropped. (I have heard these three come from the same person, though they are absurd together.) KL Rahul should be not be in the side. After the fifth Test, wait, oops.

What these judgements, and so many others through the series, have in common is that they are based on results. Consider the different types of judgements Fans tend to pass.

Judgements around selection. So-and-so should not be picked instead of you-and-yo. Example: picking Rohit Sharma instead of Ajinkya Rahane at the start of the Test series in South Africa.

Judgements around events. What a horrible shot Rishabh Pant played to get out in the fifth Test. Bad boy!

Judgements around a side’s approach. Why were Rahul and Pant so aggressive after tea on the fifth day in the fifth Test? Maybe we could have gotten a draw if they had tried to play the day out.

Judgements around, well, results. We lost 4-1. We are a horrible side!

I’m not taking a position on these specific judgements, but on the basis on which they are made. At this point, you would be justified in asking me, WTF columnist bro, if we don’t make judgements based on results, what do we base them on? Don’t players look at the game the same way? Shouldn’t they?

Well, no. All elite sportspeople think about the game probabilistically, and aren’t results-oriented. They value process more than results. That is the only route to success in anything – and I learnt it, viscerally, when I shifted from being a Fan to a Player.

Not a cricket player, don’t worry. After about a decade in cricket journalism, I chucked it around eight years ago, and spent five years as a professional poker player. Poker is a game of skill, but has a higher quantum of luck than other sports – in fact, it has been said that the key skill in poker is the management of luck. This might well be true to any other sport, and of life itself.

One of the early lessons I learnt in poker was that one cannot be results-oriented. I won’t bore you with poker talk, so let me give my favourite illustration of this. (I promise this is relevant to cricket and Kohli and 4-1, so bear with me!)

Let’s say you have an evenly weighted coin, that will fall heads or tails 50% of the time each – over the long run. A friend offers you a deal. You will flip that coin an unspecified number of times. Every time it hands on heads, he will give you Rs 51. Every time it lands on tails, you give him Rs 49.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out why this is profitable. You calculate the Expected Value (EV) of a single flip to be Rs 1. (If you flip it 100 times, you get 51×50 and lose 49×50 to gain 100 rupees. Divide by 100.) The more you flip, the more money you make. It is clearly right to accept the bet and start spinning that coin.

But here’s the thing: thinking probabilistically tells you that the decision to flip the coin is always profitable (to the tune of one rupee), but the actual result is always a harsh binary. You either win 51 bucks or lose 49. Let’s say you flip the coin once, it lands on tails, and your friend takes the money and walks off. Does that make it a bad decision?

Maybe he sees your downcast face and spins it again. Tails again. Now? Hell, he could even get ten tails in a row – unlikely as that seems, ten tails in a row is actually inevitable at some point if you spin the coin enough, and you just got unlucky here. (To get a sense of this, do read my old piece, ‘Unlikely is Inevitable’.) So you end up as a big loser – but does this mean your decision-making was flawed?

The key to winning in poker is to keep making the best decision you can, and not worry about the short-term variance of results. This is also the key to winning in life – but I won’t bore you any more on this. (For a deeper explanation involving football and parallel universes, do read my old essay, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’.) My point is that all actions in all sports carry probabilities with them, and have an inherent EV.

For example, when Lionel Messi find the ball at his feet three feet outside the box with two defenders converging to get in his way, he knows the probabilities of a) trying to weave his way through them to score directly, b) drawing them away from the goal and passing into the space his run would have created for his colleague Luis Suarez, c) Suarez scoring from there, d) Messi just going for a direct shot on goal now, e) Messi sprinting into the box and falling, hoping for a penalty. These numbers would be internalised by Messi’s coaches, and the optimal behaviour in such a spot would be second nature to Messi.

The thing is, he could make the optimal move, with a 15% chance of success, and miss. He could do something sub-optimal, with a 5% chance, and succeed, as he will one-twentieth of the time in that situation. The first decision would not be wrong just because he did not score. The second would not be right just because he did. We have no way of knowing – though Messi is in the best position to judge – and we can only tell how good a player’s decision-making is over an extremely long term, when we have good enough sample sizes to draw reliable conclusions.

In cricket, that long term is not possible. Now, consider the many kinds of EV a captain like Virat Kohli has to calculate when he takes the field.

One is of the strategic value of aggression. Should batsmen be aggressive and show ‘intent’ in Test matches? The merit in this: you don’t let bowlers get into a rhythm; you could take the game away in one good session; if it works, the confidence can create a decisive virtuous cycle. The danger: you could lose too many wickets too quickly when it doesn’t work, and lose the game in a session; the players who fail thus could lose confidence; this could create a vicious cycle.

This is a tough decision. Every Test match has uniquely different conditions, and it is impossible to get a large enough sample size to come to any conclusion. I’d need data from tens of thousands of games with and without this approach to have confidence in a judgement. In the absence of such a sample, a captain like Kohli has to go with his gut to form a philosophy around this.

He has chosen aggression, and prefers free-scoring batsmen like KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Hardik Pandya to plodders like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. (He is no doubt biased by the good results of his own aggression, ignoring the fact that the risk-reward ratio is different for him because he is a superior player to all the guys named above.)

From the EV of a strategy, let’s move to the EV of a specific decision: picking Hardik Pandya in a Test XI in England. I am a fan of Pandya, and I think Kohli’s rationale for playing him would be the same as mine. He is an under-rated batsman, whose aggression can swing a game in a session. Even if he averages five-runs-an-innings lower than a specialist No. 6 batsman, the ten useful overs he can provide in a day, giving rest to the specialist bowlers, is worth those five runs. Playing him instead of a specialist No 6, in my opinion, carries a positive EV.

Now, he was our matchwinner in the third Test, and Kohli’s faith in him seemed vindicated. He flopped in the fourth, and had to be dropped following the public outcry from Fans. But this is indisputable: his EV in the third and fourth Test was identical. The results, though, were very different.

What is that EV? Should he play Tests for us? We can make our own judgements on that. But those two results, which drew such acclaim and derision respectively, are, for all practical purposes, random noise.

At the moment, the results indicate that Kohli is a bad captain, and made mistakes in this series. But are five Tests in England enough to judge, in a season where this batch of the Duke’s ball swung more than normal, tosses were decisive, and England won all the tosses? Could the probabilities have been on his side, but not luck? Are Fans being harsh by judging Kohli on the results of the series? What are the possible counterfactuals?

I don’t want to defend Kohli or take a specific stance here. Nor am I arguing that we should suspend all judgement entirely. But we should be aware that what happens on a cricket field is an inadequate way to evaluate a game, because it is a tiny fraction of what the sport is about. The real drama of cricket, the ebb and flow that matters, lies in the possibilities and probabilities of what can happen, not in the boring binaries of what does. Watching the game would be a richer experience for us if we focussed, as the players do, on the journey and not the destination.

What Virat Kohli Should Consider About the Machinery of His Brain

This is the second installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 5, 2018.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote a play called Man and Superman. You could steal that title and use it for a film on Virat Kohli’s life right now. As a batsman, he is in superhero territory: he plays every match on a different, easier pitch than his colleagues do, and has established himself as an all-time great. English conditions were once held to be his Kryptonyte, but he’s put that to rest with his sublime batting in this series. Leaving aside costume requirements—he still wears his underwear inside his pants—he is every bit a batting superhero.

Kohli is also the captain of his side, though, and in that avatar is just a frail human. India was walloped in South Africa earlier this year, and just lost the fourth Test in England to go 3-1 down. Both these opponents were themselves far from at their best, and the decisions Kohli made as captain have gotten much of the flak for these defeats. Especially selectorial decisions: Why Rohit over Rahane at the start of the SA series? Why drop Cheteshwar Pujara in the first Test in England? Why persist with Hardik Pandya when he doesn’t seem to bring enough value with either bat or ball?;

I agree with some of those criticisms, but not others, and I feel the critics may be making a mistake by being too results-oriented—I’ll elaborate on that in my next column. It is certainly true, though, that while Kohli has transcended his human limitations when it comes to the skill of batting, he hasn’t done so when it comes to decision-making as a captain. Like all of us, he has a flawed machine inside his skull, with modules that evolved as features in prehistoric times, but which are bugs now. There are cognitive biases and flawed heuristic that can lead us astray in our decision-making, and I’ll try to address some of them in this piece.

Note that while I will cite examples of specific decisions, I am not taking a position on any of them here. Maybe they were good decisions unfairly criticized; maybe they were bad ones; maybe we will never know. I am just going to lay out some of the traps that anyone who selects a cricket team can fall into—and these apply to all of us, in everything we do. Do they apply to Kohli? That is something for you—and him—to think about.

First up, there is the Availability Heuristic, which is defined as “a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.” There are various ways this can play out. Number one, when a captain speaks up in selection meetings, he is likely to favour players he has actually seen up close, as opposed to those who have performed as well but he hasn’t seen so much of them.

This could lead Kohli, for example, to be more likely to bat for players who qualities he knows personally from teams he has played for, like RCB. Or it could lead to the Status Quo Bias, where he opts to stick with players he is familiar with, rather than take a risk on the relatively unknown. This can also come from the Ambiguity Effect, “a cognitive bias where decision making is affected by a lack of information.”

Kohli is not the sole selector, of course, and you could argue that they often pick fresh talent from the IPL more than from domestic cricket because the IPL is much more in the spotlight. Domestic first-class cricket is supposed to be the feeder system for Test cricket, and by that logic, you’d imagine Mayank Agarwal, with his prolific performances in the Ranji Trophy, would be in the Indian squad. Could his absence be because he had a mediocre IPL, and the Availability Heuristic kicked in?

All humans give in to the Narrative Bias, “our tendency to make sense of the world through stories.” This is actually a necessity, for how else can we navigate a complex world, but we must beware of getting wedded to a false narrative. For example, let’s say that Kohli decides that Rohit Sharma has too much talent to be left out of the Test side, plays with the correct intent, and must be persisted with. (I’m not expressing a view on the merit of this particular narrative, just using it as an example, since it’s a common criticism of Kohli.)

Once Kohli has picked this narrative, he is wired to ignore all evidence against it, and consider only all evidence that supports it. This is called the Confirmation Bias, defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” You see this all the time among political and ideological tribes on Twitter. In the context of our example narrative, it could mean that every time Rohit (derisively and unfairly called ‘NoHit’ by his detractors) does well, Kohli says, Ah, I knew it all along, and every time he fails, Kohli shrugs it off as an aberration. It becomes easy to do Post-Purchase Rationalisation, and explain Rohit’s failures by citing small sample sizes – which is a reasonable argument in its own right.

A related tendency is the Backfire Effect, which is “the finding that, given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.” So if Rohit makes a quick cameo and gets out, that could actually strengthen Kohli’s belief rather than weaken it. The Endowment Effect may have something to do with it. This is “the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.” In this case, Kohli would own the decision to persist with Rohit, and it would seem better to him than it actually is.

Here are some other biases that could apply to this narrative. The Ben Franklin Effect: “a proposed psychological phenomenon [that] a person who has already performed a favor for another is more likely to do another favor for the other than if they had received a favor from that person.” The Semmelweis Reflex: “a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.” Do consider also the Optimism Bias and the Ostrich Effect, which I hardly need to define.

Another factor that comes into play when sticking with a bad decision is the Sunk Cost Fallacy, which can also be described as Escalation of Commitment. This is “a human behavior pattern in which an individual or group facing increasingly negative outcomes from some decision, action, or investment nevertheless continues the same behavior rather than alter course.” An everyday example of this: we buy a ticket to watch a movie, hate the first half, but don’t walk out at the interval because hey, the money we spent on the ticket will be wasted. The correct approach is to view the ticket money as a sunk cost, and optimise our enjoyment in the time to come. But no, there is this fallacy.

This might also lead to The Gambler’s Fallacy: “The mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future.” An example: you flip an evenly weighted coin three times, and each time, it lands on ‘tails.’ So you feel that ‘heads’ is ‘due’, and the next one will surely be ‘heads’. (The probability remains 50% for any individual spin of the coin because coins don’t have a memory.) Similarly, a batsman’s chances of succeeding in the next innings are what they are: past failures does not mean that a success is ‘due’.

Kohli might also suffer from the Curse of Knowledge: “A cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.” Is it possible, for example, that he unfairly expects less talented players like Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to bat at a similar strike rate to him because he himself knows how to bat at a healthy momentum, and has the skill to do so?

Even if he does, his teammates are unlikely to dissent too much, which might lead to the False Consensus Effect: “The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.” This would ensure that he gets no negative feedback from within the team. What about from outside? Well, Indian captains have a tradition of ignoring the media, which a smart thing to do these days given the quality of it. But could Kohli also be giving in to the Hostile Attribution Effect: “The tendency to interpret others’ behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.”

I could go on forever, but you get the drift. The purpose of this piece is not to criticize Kohli, or even the individuals mentioned in the example, such as poor Rohit/NoHit, who was finally removed from the Test side when it all got too much. We are all hardwired with these cognitive biases. We would all improve our decision-making if we were aware of them. Our quest as humans, always, is to transcend ourselves. Kohli has done this as a batsman, and I hope he manages to do it as a captain.