Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Dunciad

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall
And Universal Darkness buries All | Alexander Pope


Mamata Banerjee is merely one more petty dictator in our dunciad full of them.

You see them in buses and airplanes, on bylanes and highways, in pawn shops and palaces. Elbowing for space, clamoring for attention, snarling for effect.

Everyone is an emperor in their own mind. Everyone else is a serf to be trampled on. Our culture's apotheosis of political strongmen is to be seen in this context. They are national role models.

To be credible in this dystopia, Mamata di really has no choice. We should be kind to her.


Of course, it's not at all natural for a civilization to be this way. This is a warped way to compensate for something that's broken in the civilization's psyche.

Easiest way to see this is in Pakistan. We find the venom of Zaid Hamid amusing, the baseless boastfulness of her army mirthful, and the stylized propaganda from her analysts absurd.

Still, deep down, we sympathize because we know this lashing out compensates for dreams gone sour.

Much harder is to stare in the mirror. Our petty dictators are compensation too.


Going from serfdom to suffrage has not come easy to our profoundly class-obsessed society. Equality of vote has only served to expose every other inequity that scalds the Indian psyche like molten lava.

These inequities are perceived as grievous wrongs which must forcibly be reversed.

For some, the wrongs go back to Manu. For others, to Mohammad bin Qasim. For still others, to Robert Clive. From Bluestar to Babri, Godhra to Gulbarg, Kalahandi to Kargil, Naxalbari to Nelli - wherever one turns, there the wrongs are.

When we stare into history, to coin a phrase, it stares back into us. We all feel wronged in this eternal abyss.

Thence flow envy, bitterness, resentment, and rage - all jostling in a cauldron of deep-seated complexes - inferiority, mostly, which masks itself as superiority in some.


All humans have some degree of inferiority in us. A healthy response makes us better ourselves. An unhealthy response makes us lord over others.

This "will to power" is perfectly understandable in a traumatized people. This is how we compensate.

Sensitivity to harmless cartoons and disproportionate aggression are just one example of this. Violence against women is yet another. Also road rage. A more trivial illustration are internet trolls who delude themselves into thinking they are equals of more accomplished persons they abuse without provocation.

Once you understand the psychopathy, a lot of behaviors become crystal clear.

Institutional checks and balances can certainly keep a lid on such outbursts. But they can't cure them.


There are no easy answers here.

Part of the cure, however, is an honest acceptance of the malady. Dialogs of truth and reconciliation are a crucial place to start.

It then requires a mature people to look ahead, not with a view to reverse or avenge past wrongs but to make a world where all of these grudges have been set aside and buried.

But none of this is remotely possible as long as we keep looking up to leaders who can't overcome their own personal demons.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Indian Right

National Review, founded by the late William F Buckley, has long been the intellectual fuel behind the American conservative revolution.

When faced with John Derbyshire, one of its prized writers, having penned an astonishingly racist screed, it fired him.

This is what human decency and moral courage required.

It's also what conservatism demands. We conservatives, after all, respect people as individuals. Demonizing people on the basis of their group identities is the very antithesis of conservatism.


It's worth contrasting how the self-proclaimed Indian "Right" dealt with a near-identical situation recently.

Subramanian Swamy publicly demanded that Indian Muslims acknowledge their ancestral conversion from Hinduism or forfeit their vote.

When he was confronted, the Indian "Right" reacted with fury. They stood by Dr Swamy over fellow Indians whose right to vote he had brazenly challenged.

They cloaked their indignation in intellectual terms. Freedom of Speech is at stake, they falsely claimed. Then, they welcomed Dr Swamy into their political embrace.

The only morally appropriate response came from Harvard where he will no longer be allowed to teach.

There is no circumstance in which thought leaders of the Indian "Right" would have repudiated someone like John Derbyshire in their midst. Instead, their defensive reflexes would have kicked in and they'd have viciously - and personally - attacked attacked attacked anyone who had the temerity to challenge him.


The Indian "Right" is in crisis.

It has no intellectual foundation, no political coherence, and no moral courage.

Intellectually, its views seem indiscernible from social bigotry that litters history's discard pile.

Politically, its machinations seem identical to the establishment it seeks to replace.

Morally, to coin an expression, it has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to stand up for what is right.


The Indian "Right" seems to bundle pride in pre-modern tradition with a wooly notion of modern conservatism.

Not much more needs saying on its intellectual pretenses.


A social media star on the "Right" told me once (and I paraphrase) that pandering to India's sub-intellectual communal polity is a necessary means to come to power. Once in power, he asserted, the "Right" would do the right things.

Think about this for a minute.

He was saying that the political support Indian "Right" enjoys comes from people who he didn't think would support anything but the raw meat of soft bigotry.

He was also saying that the rabid views of these supporters could be ignored once the "Right" was in power.

The cynical and patronizing nature of this perspective is breathtaking.

Reminds one of the liberal establishment that this so-called "Right" seeks to displace, doesn't it?


The Dr Swamy episode is just one where the "Right" failed a moral test.

There are others.

What if the CM had gone to Zakia Jafri's home and said to her: you are like my mother. I can't possibly fathom your pain but I am sorry that you had to endure it. I can't reverse the horror of what happened and I can't make you less angry, but I can give you justice. This people, this state, this nation - and I -  owe you that.

She would still not forgive him. But he would be a mensch for doing this.

But being a mensch is not what the Indian "Right" does. Instead, its words and actions drip with a cauldron of complexes that are frequently ugly.

Even those who eschew such attitudes feel perfectly at home with those who embrace them.

The Indian Right needs to be reinvented.

God knows, we desperately need an intellectually honest, politically vital, and morally strong Right to confront the mediocrity of the Left-Liberal establishment.

But this Right will not emerge from sewers of bigotry, echo chambers of hate, or cultish adulation of individuals. Nor will it ride the horse of establishment mimicry.

Not until the Indian "Right" purges the bigots from its ranks, no matter how seemingly "respectable", will it have the legitimacy to confront the evil of the Left.

Too bad the self-proclaimed Indian "Right" couldn't be more ignorant about this reality.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A False Tryst With Destiny

"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die" | Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie

The India that emerged from that dark midnight in August was a fantasy.

The elite believed in it for they were the new viceroys. Freedom fighters believed in it for this was their life's work. Everyone else came along grudgingly or with indifference.

Over the decades that followed, these grudging acquiescences became political fault-lines. Kashmiris, Tamil, Nagas, Assamese, Sikhs - all fought in various ways to negotiate their compact with India. Hindus did the same as did Muslims. Every caste and tribe you can imagine got into the act as well.

The Indian elite - like the British before it - used Saam, Daam, Dand, Bhed to manage this manthan.

The Trillion Dollar question is why?

India was the jewel in the British crown for she had the necessary resources that powered the empire.

She had wealth buried in her earth, she had labor to man the outposts of the empire, and she had capital.

After the idealism wore off, the new Indian elite saw precisely what the British or Moguls had seen before. It isn't shared purpose or ideas or values that hold India together - it is her exploitable wealth. 

India went from being a colony of the British to becoming a colony of her new elite. Mumbai simply replaced Manchester.

In this sense, India's freedom struggle was a profound failure.

Indians fought the British when they should have fought the reasons British were here in the first place.

There hasn't been a shared sense of Indian destiny in at least two thousand years.

The freedom struggle could have shaped this. Instead, it blamed the British for divide and rule, papered over real Indian differences, and talked about a tryst without spelling out the destiny.

Its legacy is two bloody partitions and the kleptocracies that have inherited the severed limbs.

People I respect tell me social reform will resolve this original sin.

I am skeptical for I do not see the centripetal force that will compel such reform.

The Government is at best an impotent spectator and, at worst, a tool of the new colonialists. It borrows from future generations to buy time and space for these colonialists to walk away with India's wealth.

The small number of idealists count for nothing.

The vast everybody else is too distracted with Bollywood and Chetan Bhagat and Sachin's centuries or too numb from shock to even bother.

Maybe I see through the glass too darkly.

Maybe, magically, India's unified young have moved beyond their fragmented ancestors.

Maybe an Indian superman will fly in from Krypton to change the course of history.

Or, more likely, eternal India will look at the fantasy of our freedom and, in Eliot's words, laugh without mirth.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Missing Mirror

The Indian State should have been as relentless as Zakia Jaffri has been.

It should have heard every allegation, pursued every lead, tried the accused, and jailed the guilty.

That it hasn't will haunt this nation for a very long time.

After 9/11, even as America reeled, it didn't unleash a murderous frenzy on its own people. Even its incensed bigots knew that the American State would not tolerate such murder. 

Indian bigots, on the other hand, knew full well that the Indian State looks away during such pogroms. The consequence was 1984 and 2002.

In the law, the Indian State may not be the accused. On moral grounds, it is fully guilty.

I don't know what Mr Modi did or say during those fateful hours.

I do know that Indians were charred by the hundreds and nobody came to their aid. I also know that men in power have systematically hounded those who've accused them of vile acts of commission and omission.

I'm not a lawyer but, just on this, I can argue for a prima facie case of obstruction of justice.

It matters little if the obstructor is innocent or guilty of the original crime. That he takes overt actions to prevent the airing of all possible evidence is in itself an affront to justice. That he does so using the authority of the State makes him still more culpable.

Even so, I doubt if the Indian State will press obstruction charges. That's not what it does.

Instead, it smothers the uncomfortable silences of places like Gulbarg Society and Trilokpuri.

The process of so-called justice takes deliberate decades. In this time, the victims - traumatized widows mostly - fade away into death or shadows. Numbness and forgetting constitutes justice for them.

If justice forces society to confront its own reality in the mirror of truth, India doesn't even have a mirror.

History is kinder to victims.

Aurangzeb may have been the Emperor in his time, but his legacy is that of cold-blooded murder.

He wasn't present at Sis Ganj in the November of 1675. Yet, it is he - not the executioner - who we remember. We spit at Aurangzeb's name and revere the unflinching Guru Tegh Bahadur.

That's how history is. That's how history will be.

It will silently record the failures of the Indian State and the cowardice of her people who - repeatedly - have failed to use democracy to show their own moral spine.

It will record that India voted for a leader who rationalized mass murder in 1984. It will also record that Gujarat voted for a leader whose abominable political views, at a minimum, set stage for 2002.

And, history will never forget Zakia Jaffri for her unrelenting efforts to unearth the truth. It will walk in her shoes and see with her eyes.

In her shoes, we would all do exactly what she has done.

What about those who wield words to dismiss the wail of widows? For them, history reserves obscurity - its ultimate contempt.

Their politics is cynical pandering to the insecure impulses in human nature. Their justice is clever arguments, brazen intimidation, and a technical reading of the law. Their closure is a self-congratulatory game of blaming the victim for her own unfathomable sorrow.

History will not care for any of this. It will ask where they stood in the deliberate decades of injustice.

With the powerless widow helping her in every possible way to uncover the truth? Or, with the powerful State helping it at every step to delay, deny, and diminish the widow's wail?

And that is the bottom line.

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.