Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Wheel of Ashoka

Watching "Inshallah Kashmir" the other day, I had an epiphany.

I now understand why we talk past each other on so many things.


All issues worth debating have layers in them. Which layer one chooses to look at frames one's narrative.

There is the human layer. Nothing more personal than raw human emotion.

There is the institutional layer. Nothing more practical than policy prescriptions.

There is the ideas layer. Nothing more inspiring than the force of ideas.

We talk past each other because we talk in different layers.


I've often made larger points using stories of humble people.

Personalizing any issue makes it hard for empathetic people to turn away. The stories of the tortured and the exiled of Kashmir are precisely that. Or those of Indians charred to death in their own homes, by their neighbors in Gujarat. Or the human-level horrors in Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Jaffna, Iraq, Afghanistan, Balochistan, Dharavi, Rwanda, and all manner of other places.

Suffering lives where humans dwell. Their stories tell themselves, often ending without closure.


Then, there are failing Governments, amoral Corporations, and communal identities to talk about.

Talking at this layer moves the conversation away from personal horrors to policy debates. These stories are about institutional interests, goals, capabilities, actions, conflicts, successes, and failures. They lend themselves to analysis and prescription. It feels great to lay out options, debate pros and cons, and make recommendations - even if nothing is ever done about what one suggests. Kashmir, for example, becomes a discussion of Center vs State, Army and AFSPA, Pakistan and jihadis, NHPC and CRPF, etc etc etc

Institutions are actionable. Their stories are mostly academic, but satisfy like comfort food.


Finally, there is the realm of ideas.

Here, we abstract far away from the suffering people or their failing institutions. Our focus is on the eternal story of right versus wrong. There are larger patterns in the ebb and flow of history. These allow us to see the world beyond our own humble existence. Here, Kashmir is not a heaven on earth or hell on people but a battle of big ideas like faith and identity and freedom and modern nationhood.

Ideas are where history is made. Their stories are grand because this is how humans become gods.


We talk past each other because we talk in different layers.

Those without authority talk at the human-layer. Those with authority talk at the institutional-layer. The dispassionate talk at the ideas-layer.

For example, I do not like Narendra Modi and his government in Gujarat. My arguments are almost always about human suffering and failure - Zakia Jafri and Sanjiv Bhatt and Mayaben Kodnani and Narendra Modi. His supporters talk about institutional success. Look at Gujarat, look at its governance, look we have data and upward pointing GDP charts. We end up talking past each other.

Happens in every situation. I can write the foregoing paragraph for Kashmir or Salman Rushdie without any effort.

The arguments are all fine - it's just that we aren't engaging at the same layer. Parallel polemics don't a debate make.


In my humble view, we should really talk at the layer of ideas. That's what history remembers.

There was a lot of human suffering and institutional failure in Ashoka slaughtering Kalinga. Today, his Chakra is India's national emblem. Not to diminish anyone' suffering, but we don't remember the names of those who died at his sword. We remember his embrace of Buddhism as a consequence. In the end, this big idea is all that mattered.

I believe that some ideas are better than others and, in time, they always prevail.

In my eyes, there are no better political ideas than secular democracy and free markets. All other ideas have had their moment in the sun, and they have always come up short. Always.

Regardless of how I feel at the human and institutional levels, ultimately the only question that really matters for me is this: 

Will my argument advance secular democracy and free markets or set these winning ideas back?

You don't have to agree with the ideas I favor but surely you can see this is an extremely clarifying way to think. It cuts through the heart-rending emotion of human suffering and the never-ending boasts of human institutions. It makes the complex simple.

I think we can make great headway if we all talked at this level.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Black Swan in Dal Lake

The specifics of the CISF shooting will emerge in time. I'd like to make three larger points.

One. The governance capacity of the Indian State falls far short of the demands on it.

Two. This capacity deficit is dramatically exposed in conditions of extreme stress.

Three. Addressing this requires both capacity building and impact mitigation when the State fails.

Let me draw a parallel.

In Finance, credit analysts use two independent measures of risk. Probability of Default measures the odds that a borrower will fail to make the required payments in a given time frame. Loss given Default measures what the lender is expected to lose in the event of default by the borrower.

One can have a high probability of default (say, if the borrower doesn't have income to pay his interest) but low loss given default (say, if the loan is collateralized by real assets).

Imagine the Indian State as the borrower. It has borrowed governance authorities from the citizenry. In return, it must provide good governance as interest for the authorities it has borrowed.

Given its means to provide such good governance are limited, the Indian State defaults repeatedly. In other words, the probability of default of the Indian State is high, which manifests itself in a myriad of ways too numerous to list but familiar to us all.

This does not mean, however, that - when the State inevitably fails - the impact should be tragic. The loss given default can be managed and mitigated in the event the State defaults.


When the demands on the State are many and it further arrogates to itself a breathtaking array of responsibilities, it can either find limitless resources to satisfy these demands/responsibilities adequately, or cut corners everywhere to make its limited resources appear to be satisfying these.

The Indian State specializes in the latter. It pretends to do a lot while doing very little, and that too poorly. 

This pitiable circumstance is made much worse under conditions of stress. All human systems are designed for "acceptable" fault tolerance levels. They work - more or less - under normal conditions but start fraying at the edges under stress. Even the best of systems will fail, by design, under extraordinary stress. The black swan cannot be evaded.  

A State with means designs systems that fail in extremely rare circumstances. A State without means designs systems that fail far more frequently. What is manageable stress for the former can be extreme for the latter. These are tradeoffs States make based on their political and economic realities.


That Indian State is designed poorly and fails - repeatedly and pervasively - shouldn't be surprising. India has a patronizing State that thinks it must supervise and control every aspect of human existence. Its reach exceeds its grasp by a mile, but that doesn't seem to deter its dismaying ambition. 

Should we really be shocked that Indian security forces are simply not equipped enough to do their job professionally? I've written about the Indian police previously here. What these forces lack in capacity, they make up in brutality.

The excesses of poor policing are amplified in places like Kashmir or the North East where war-like conditions have prevailed over extended periods of time. The fault tolerance of the State has a much worse threshold in these conditions.

Clearly, the people who live there know this. Their provocations are partly a means to expose the weakness of the State through its dramatically tragic failures. The fact that a young child dies is supremely tragic - but his death becomes a very powerful stick to beat the State with. Such opportunistic cynicism is at least as bad as the original tragedy.

These tragedies will continue, alas, because the State is weak and brutal AND its foes are not above exploiting the death of a young child to make their political argument.


So what is to be done?

Far be it for me to suggest solutions to the cynicism of the human heart.

But, this is not an altogether hopeless situation. We may not be able to stop State failures in the short term but we can and must mitigate their impact. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions:

1. Strengthen State capacity

This will take time and resources and - most crucially - a willingness of the resource-constrained State to focus on the things it must do and let go of things it need not do. Also, merely because the horizon for this is the long-term does not mean the State can make pious noises and go back to its comfort with failure. The long-term after all is a series of short-terms - so the effort has to begin now.

2.  Identify State failures that hurt national interest

Not all State failure is created equal. My parents await their passport renewal four months after application but this is not a life and death issue. A high school kid being shot in his chest, merely for protesting, is.

So, State failures should be analyzed to identify those whose impact is so severe as to damage national interest. Every Kashmiri kid who is shot while protesting non-violently, for example, falls in this category. An innocent Indian dies, the stress on the State rises further causing even more failures, and India is demoralized by the politicization that follows.

Identifying such failures is crucial if India is to prevent them in the long-term and mitigate their impact in the short-term.

3. Mitigate failure impact

Once the State knows its greatest vulnerabilities, it should mitigate their impact. This requires resources, yes, but in a prioritized way. So, maybe my parents can wait another month for their passports but if that delay creates resources to buy rubber bullets for CISF, it's entirely worth it.

India wouldn't have strengthened its governance capacity as the CISF jawan would still shoot at the kid. But, at least, the kid won't die.


This is basics of management. Why the Indian discourse doesn't take this form baffles me. All the debate tends to be is about disputes on a specific tragedy, arguments of political oneupmanship, and a transient outrage that solves nothing.

Instead, the conversation should be about how to fight off the Black Swan when it inevitably flaps its wings.