Can I have an opinion on how to annihilate caste?

Social reform is too important an issue to surrender to an ideological monopoly

It’s twitter. So it should not be surprising that it didn’t long for my tweet supporting ACLU against Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees to turn into a debate on caste. I also found out that I am not qualified to have an opinion on the latter because, well, of who I am.

Responses from thoughtful, otherwise sensible and non-partisan people prompted me to write this post. It cannot be that on an issue that is so central to Indian society, we weigh arguments not on their merits, but on the caste identity of the people who make them.

This is not to belittle the sufferings of those who are at the receiving end of discrimination. Rather, it is to reject the dangerous argument that we ought to discount opinions of people based on the community they belong to. It is also to reject the dangerous argument that only members of a community or group have the legitimate right to debate issues concerning their group. I’ve criticised Islamism without being a Muslim, supported women’s rights without being a woman, commented on Pakistani politics without being a Pakistani and recommended military strategy without being a soldier. I could go on, but nowhere have I encountered people telling me I lack the legitimacy to have an opinion on these subjects. On caste, though, terms like “savarna” and “privilege” are flung about as disqualifications by some, and epithets by others.

It may well be that privilege allows some citizens the luxury to be identity-agnostic and caste-blind. Condemning them for this makes no sense: is it wrong to be privileged, to be caste-blind or both? Votaries of an egalitarian society ought to celebrate every additional child that is raised caste-blind. Instead, political correctness requires the caste-agnostic to feel guilty, stay silent and become caste-conscious. This leaves the field only to those who will fight, violently, to protect their social power. Such rancour and strife is counterproductive to the progress towards an egalitarian society.

So here’s my argument. As I wrote, “the annihilation of caste cannot come without the annihilation of caste discourse; you can’t erase it if you keep talking about it.” Now, progressive conventional wisdom is—as one well-meaning person pointed out—“constantly acknowledging and talking about it is actually a very powerful way to erase it.”

Unfortunately, this is not borne out by empirical evidence. Caste consciousness is much stronger today than it ever was. It has become the very currency of political power. I do not see it being erased — on the contrary, it is being reinforced in every generation. The social and political empowerment of historically weaker sections of our society is a wonderful achievement, yet caste-based policies cannot remain the primary mechanism to achieve this. A couple of years ago, for the first time in independent India, the state conducted a caste census. If it were on its way of being erased, this wouldn’t have happened. People even declare their castes on their car bumper stickers now. Given this trend, the best we can hope for is not the annihilation of caste, but merely a caste-conscious society with less social discrimination. It might be a realistic assessment of where we are going, but it’s not the destination I would like for my country.

Indeed, there is evidence that reminding people of their caste adversely affects their performance. One experimental study found that “there were no caste differences in performance when caste was not publicly revealed, but making caste salient created a large and robust caste gap.” A more recent study using NSSO data found that “that caste identity in contemporary India does shape perceptions of self-worth. Among the fully self-employed, we find that controlling for other characteristics, lower-ranked groups earn lower amounts and perceive lower amounts as being remunerative.”

There is enough here to suggest that perhaps not reminding people of their caste will make them perform to their true potential. It is morally repugnant to ignore such evidence merely to conform to conventional wisdom or worse, political correctness. It would be tragedy to dismiss such insights because the researcher is born into the ‘wrong’ community.

Finally, a point about of privilege: what we should care is not whether a person enjoys privilege (or sits in an air-conditioned armchair), but what he or she chooses to do with it. Most members of the Constituent Assembly were men and women of privilege. That didn’t prevent them from producing a Constitution that was far ahead of its times. Should we summarily dismiss their arguments as being the result of privilege?

The poet and social reformer Kabir offers the necessary wisdom:

Don’t ask what his caste is, ask what he knows
Value the sword, not the scabbard it came out of.

Three thoughts for the Republic

On defending democracy from populists, reminding the Supreme Court of its duty to protect liberty and on upholding representative democracy.

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

Eternal nervousness might be the price of democracy

Should liberals relax when populists are democratically elected?
Supporters of liberal politicians and parties sometimes do engage in the dubious sport of blaming democracy for their electoral reverses. It would be appropriate to call out such behaviour as self-serving and hypocritical.

However, sometimes the sourness of the grapes is an early sign of bitter poisonousness. Communists, Fascists, Populists and authoritarians-sans-ideology can use democratic process to acquire power, and then systematically undermine the institutions and values that enabled them to do so. Like burning the ladder after you’ve climbed it, there are many instances in world history where this has occurred (even without invoking Godwin’s Law). The fear of “one man, one vote, one time” can be ignored at our peril. [Read the rest]

The Supreme Court must not hold in contempt what it is mandated to uphold

[In the case of the requiring cinemagoers to stand up for the national anthem] the Supreme Court dissed individual liberty.
The bench sneered at one of the pillars of the Indian Constitution. Troubling as it is, more than the ruling itself we should be concerned that India’s highest judges think this way, and think nothing of expressing it this way. The Supreme Court is, after all, the ultimate guardian of individual liberty. It gets this responsibility from no less an authority than the Constitution of India. Citizens will be justified in wondering if the Supreme Court can discharge this assigned responsibility if it harbours such cynicism or disdain for individual liberty. [Read the rest]

Why democratic governments must consult, but must neither be obliged to nor bound by the results

Ultimately, the government must have the discretion to make the decision. As Brexit has shown, doing what the majority wants does not necessarily benefit the public interest. If it comes to that, the government has the legitimate authority to decide against the most popular choice. It might have to incur political costs of doing this, but a constitutional government’s authority must be upheld. [Read the rest]

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on

On Republic Day 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

On Independence Day 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004;

America defeats itself

There will be fewer takers for US promises in Asia now

As promised, Donald Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional preferential trade agreement that his predecessor put together to secure American primacy in East Asia against a rising China. It does not matter that the TPP had not yet been tabled for Congressional approval. It does not matter that the TPP might not have yielded the outcomes its proponents claimed it would.

What matters is that in one stroke of a pen, President Trump has confirmed the lingering fears among East Asian countries that the United States is unreliable as a partner in their attempts to manage an aggressively rising China. Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia–of which TPP was an important plank–was itself a response to similar fears during his first term. That pivot was at best a promise that the United States will remain engaged in the region, realists in East Asia tended to suspect that it was reassurance without adequate credibility.

The thinking within the Trump establishment appears to be that the United States can take on China on world trade and militarily in the waters of East Asia. Rex Tillerson, who will head the State Department, took a hawkish line on the latter, suggesting that the United States might deny China access to the islands it claims. Mr Trump and his colleagues seem to believe they can confront China in trade and in East Asian waters while eschewing economic engagement with the countries of the region. They will soon find out how mistaken they are.

Economics is the bloodstream of East Asian geopolitics. China is a major actor in the region not because it has gunboats and missiles, but because it has deep and growing economic relationships with almost all countries of the region. The economies of East Asia, South East Asia and Australia depend on China for their prosperity to various extents. Whatever disputes they might have with Beijing, if they do not see an alternative to China-driven growth, they are unlikely to support President Trump’s moves against China. The United States is likely to find itself isolated if it contemplates escalating conflict levels in the region.

It is likely that the powers in the region will seek protection by increasing their military capacity, and the bigger ones might even contemplate nuclearisation. Most will try to make their peace with China—to the extent possible, as long as it is possible. They will look towards India as a potential actor that can help balance China: to what extent this will work depends on how much and how fast New Delhi liberalises the Indian economy. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the Modi government is prepared to accelerate domestic liberalisation at a pace that can reassure its Asian neighbours.

India is in the geography, and over the long term will remain a potential hedge against China. The United States, though, has just about defeated itself.

“If at the end of it all you let [Abe] down, which next Japanese prime minister is going to count on you — not just on trade but on security?…If you are not prepared to deal when it comes to cars and services and agriculture, can we depend on you when it comes to security and military arrangements?”

— Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, WSJ

How social change happens?

The speed and legitimacy of social change

Here’s a chart that compares various ways social change can be attempted. In the light of contemporary public debates on a number of issues — most of which land up in the Supreme Court — it is appropriate to examine the menu of options and the trade-offs in using them.

Being credible

New Delhi must not buckle to Chinese pressure in its engagement of Indo-Pacific countries.

After hiatus of over a year, I resume my monthly column in the Business Standard on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Indo-Pacific region. As the edit page is behind a paywall, I will put up unedited drafts, excerpts or the published column a day or two after it is published.


The central argument of the first innings of this column (September 2010-October 2015) was a simple one: that India should recognise that East Asia is a part of its extended neighbourhood and that it is in our national interest to invest in the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region.

Why? Because by the mid-2000s, China under Hu Jintao was shedding the facade of ‘peaceful rise’ and beginning to take assertive positions on its territorial disputes and claims in the waters off East and South-East Asia, causing the countries of the region to look towards India for support. In their strategic calculus, if they fail to bring the United States, China and India into a balance, they had little choice but to hop onto the Beijing bandwagon. Month after month, your columnist exhorted New Delhi to exploit the geopolitical and geoeconomic opportunities that Beijing had unintentionally created.

That prescription is just as valid today as it was seven years ago. Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping has moved from assertive to aggressive, always arrogant and increasingly adventurous. The men in black suits and hair dye in Beijing have not only completely blown the cover story of ‘peaceful rise’ but have managed to antagonise the regional powers in the Indo-Pacific.

Even as Beijing pushes Chinese hegemony under clever phrases such as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), Maritime Silk Road and “China Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC), it does so in the absence of the regional goodwill that enabled its entry into the ASEAN-centred economic and security architectures in the early-2000s. South East Asian countries watch with increasing anxiety as their more of their ASEAN counterparts are attracted or coerced onto China’s camp. The divide that your columnist had predicted within ASEAN is now gaping wide.

President Xi appears to have moved beyond merely maintaining China’s claim in a dispute to pressing it. He might have calculated that Beijing is now strong enough to negotiate where it cannot just coerce the other side into caving in. In November last year, Hong Kong authorities seized military vehicles belonging to the Singapore Armed Forces on their way back from routine exercises in Taiwan. Given that the Singaporean armed forces have been training in Taiwan since the 1970s with China’s tacit non-disapproval, it is clear that Mr Xi deliberately upped the ante. Similarly, Beijing coerced Mongolia into submission after the latter allowed the Dalai Lama to visit the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar the same month. Since the Dalai Lama had visited Mongolia at least eight times earlier, Beijing’s reaction this time stands out as extraordinary.

This week, China sent its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan straits quite likely signalling a more aggressive stance on that issue. This comes a few weeks after it challenged the US Navy in the region by stealing an underwater drone from under its noses. It is uncertain how the incoming administration of Donald Trump will handle the military dimension of its relations with China, but Mr Xi is not done with testing the nerve of Washington’s new establishment.

As much as there is a regional demand for India to play a stronger role in regional security, it has become harder and riskier for New Delhi to do so. The Modi government is reportedly considering selling medium-range surface-to-air missiles to Viet Nam. Both New Delhi and Hanoi will come under Chinese pressure and possible retaliation if the deal goes through. It would be imprudent for New Delhi or Hanoi to back down under pressure. It is in Beijing’s interest to create a perception that India is unreliable as a partner, whose promise falls short of delivery. Chinese commentators suggested as much after Beijing arm-twisted Mongolia over the Dalai Lama’s visit, drawing attention to the fact that New Delhi’s promised $1 billion line of credit failed to save Ulaanbaatar from China’s economic coercion.

New Delhi should thus be scrupulously careful about the commitments that it makes, implies, or might be construed. Once made, it should not hesitate to keep them in the face of China’s opposition. With rising risks and emerging uncertainties, credibility is the new currency in the Indo-Pacific.

This is by no means an argument to deliberately antagonise China: it is in India’s interests to nurture a close relationship with its northern neighbour. To be an effective swing power, we must enjoy better relations with China and the United States than they have with each other.

This will not come by wishing for it, especially if the wishing is one-sided. Nor will it come by succumbing to Chinese hegemony. To the extent New Delhi accumulates economic strength and demonstrates foreign policy credibility, Beijing is likely to reciprocate India’s desire for amicable bilateral relations.

Copyright: Business Standard

Geopolitics in Trump’s age

Perhaps it’s time for new champions of democracy, liberty and open economies

I was in a panel discussion with Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and T K Arun, senior editor of the Deccan Herald at the Deccan Herald Spotlight, Taj West End, Bangalore on 9th January 2017. The topic of discussion was Trump and geopolitics. The following is an outline of my initial remarks. (Read the newspaper report here)

  1. The bases for US global leadership have become uncertain
    • Resilience of its democracy is uncertain (more than merely risky)
    • Its status as a magnet for the world’s most talented people is also uncertain
  2. Trump’s rhetoric and posturing will cause others to adopt protectionist policies and withdraw behind walls and fences, at least in the short term.
    • This might reverse in the longer term but we can’t be sure how long that will take and what we’ll have to endure in the meantime
  3. For the first time, the factors that propelled India’s & China’s unprecedented growth will come under a cloud. China is luckier because it started earlier and was most focused.
    • For India the challenge will be to generate 8% growth without a benign external environment
    • How fast can India integrate domestically and iron out the kinks regarding movement of people, goods and capital across state boundaries
    • How fast can India create external relationships that will allow growth to take place?
  4. In geopolitics, it all the more clear that India will have to become a swing power. This means selective alignment with the US and China where interests coincide, without joining any one camp.
    • Better relations with US and China than they have with each other
    • Ability and willingness to inflict pain and give pleasure
  5. Finally, a more mischievous point: if the West is ceding leadership of values of democracy, liberty and free markets, then India should stake its claim to that leadership.
    • Do we really need so many illiberal democracies and authoritarian states in the permanent membership of the UNSC?
    • Do we need four or five Putins in the UN Security Council

Trump is not Putin’s puppet

Stop worrying about Trump being in Putin’s pocket. Start thinking of how to deal with him.

Donald Trump’s attitude and statements both during the election campaign and after his victory have led many analysts to conclude that the new president of the United States will share an unprecedented cosy relationship with Vladimir Putin, the long-time president of Russia. The uncharitable view is that Mr Trump is in Mr Putin’s pocket. The charitable view is that Mr Trump’s affinity for Mr Putin will cause US foreign policy to be less antagonistic to Russia.

Here’s the thing though: for all his statements, posturing and actions, it is unlikely that Mr Trump is a sellout. Why so? First, his populist credentials will not survive a concession to Russia that hurts the United States’ interests or prestige. Second, the Republican party might have changed over the past few years, but cannot condone a pro-Russia policy where that is against the party’s institutional interests. Third, there are strong bureaucratic bases for foreign policy that cannot simply change because a new president is in power. Like every new head of government, Mr Trump will discover that once he occupies the office. Finally, for all appearances and commentary there is the possibility that Mr Trump is not Putin’s puppet at all.

Some of the more astute analysts I have discussed the issue with think that Mr Trump will be the dealmaking, transactional president. What this means is allies, partners, neutrals and adversaries will need to figure out what they are prepared to concede to the United States obtain what they wish to procure. A deal is a deal only when there is mutual agreement on the give and the take. Mr Trump’s prejudices, campaign rhetoric and political interests will both determine his administration’s priorities and constrain his dealmaking. With Russia as with Japan. With China as with India. On climate change as with nuclear weapons, trade and so on.

Seen from this perspective, Mr Trump might well have — intentionally or willy nilly — created favourable negotiating conditions with respect to Mr Putin. Consider. Will Mr Putin be willing to risk jeopardising a friendly relationship with Mr Trump should the United States push Russia to yield a little more on some issue? With Mr Trump in the White House, the Russian president will have to choose between a hard line on a specific issue and the long term advantage of having a friendly relationship with his US counterpart. He is unlikely to want to throw away his advantage quickly or cheaply.

And if Mr Trump is the dealmaker that he believes he is, he won’t pass up this chance to secure an advantage.

Medalless army

The defence ministry must quickly resume issuing official medals.

Last week, a colleague and I were struck by what we saw at a new military supplies store that had opened in our neighbourhood. Among the usual uniforms, shoes, hats, bags and kit, we were surprised to see medals. Not just the ribbons, but the entire suites of medals ready to be stuck on to uniforms. This struck us strange and dubious.

Dinakar Peri’s report in The Hindu tells us why. It turns out that the defence ministry department in charge of issuing medals has not been doing so. Since 2008. So for eight years, the defence ministry has been awarding medals but not issuing them to officers. That’s so long that many younger officers do not even know that they ought to receive the medals from the defence ministry, and not have to buy them from military stores.

It’s not only sad, but undermines the purpose of medals by devaluing them. The economic reasoning behind issuing medals for service and gallantry is to create a “honour incentive” which can both be stronger and more effective than monetary incentives. If you undermine the honour attached to a medal, you weaken the incentive that encourages the behaviour that the medal recognises. If devalued to the point of become a routine, the incentive fails. The fact that the defence ministry hasn’t bothered to issue medals for eight years is therefore disturbing.

It should be the easiest of things for Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to do to order the Department of Medals in his ministry to resume issuing medals prospectively, and clear the backlog over time. It’s not merely what society owes to its soldiers. It’s an important step in arresting a drift in professional standards.

Why parking needs more than proof of space

The big idea in urban transport is to get users to pay for parking and suchlike. Not another piece of paper.

The Union government is considering a proposal to make car ownership contingent on the prospective buyer producing an “adequate parking space available certificate.” M Venkaiah Naidu, Union urban development minister stated that he was keen on this and promised to persuade the Union surface transport minister and the state governments on the need to do this. A recent magazine article claims that this is an “absolutely sensible move” as it has been implemented in Sikkim and Mizoram, and has is compulsory in Japan and in one place in South Korea.

Mr Naidu means well, but by itself, the requirement of a parking space certificate will open another source of corruption without doing much to reduce traffic congestion. Anyone who’s visited a local road transport office (RTO) or obtained a pollution under control certificate will know how this works.

But let’s spell it out nevertheless: it is easy to ‘show’ you have adequate parking space because spaces do not have unique identities that are in a common database. It may be necessary to pay someone — a petty official or a person with space — to ‘show’ that you have parking space. Actually, few will take the trouble to do this. It’s more likely that the licencepreneur who owns the photocopying shop next to the RTO will arrange for the parking space available certificate for a small fee. Neither the RTO, nor the traffic police, nor the Union development ministry have the resources to check whether the certified parking space exists in reality or merely in-between folds of red tape.

Needless to say this won’t make a dent in the number of vehicles being purchased. Sikkim and Mizoram are small states with populations and geographies that might even make such a policy workable. In most other places in India, especially in places where traffic congestion is a massive problem, we will just have one more layer of regulation, one more piece of paper to be procured, some more money for petty officials an licencepreneurs.

That said, Mr Naidu is nearly on the mark. The way to reduces incentives for people to purchase and use cars is to charge for parking. Every car parked on public roads not only creates road cholesterol, but also is an implicit, undeserved subsidy to a car owner. The more cars you park on public roads, the greater the subsidy you get from the government. This creates positive incentives for vehicle ownership and use. If we stop rewarding vehicle users for parking on public roads and charge them the market price of the real estate they temporarily occupy, then we will see vehicle use coming down. That, by the way, is what they do not only in Japan, but in almost in every country and city that has sensible urban traffic. It’s not unusual for parking fees to be exhorbitant in central business districts of the world’s cities. In fact, when governments charge market prices for parking in public spaces, more parking space is created as private owners realise there’s good money to be made by creating private parking lots. [Parking availability certificates have reduced car ownership in Japan because parking spaces are available at market prices. See Paul Barter’s blog post.]

The Union and state governments must come to an arrangement on pricing vehicle parking. As Donald Shoup’s research shows, the best way to make the policy work, and get public acceptance, is to ensure that the parking fees collected go to the localities from where it is collected. People are less likely to oppose paid parking if they are convinced that the proceeds from their locality will largely be used to improve that very locality. Funds can be used to finance public transport: from bus services to bus stops, to metro and commuter rail. My colleagues at Takshashila estimate, conservatively, that implementing paid parking on fewer than 10% of Bangalore’s roads can add more than 20% additional revenue to the municipal corporation’s annual budget.

A national policy to make road users pay for parking (or dumping construction material, or hawking) would be a GST-scale reform that Mr Naidu has the opportunity to be the author of. He shouldn’t settle for that red herring called the parking space proof certificate.

Related Post: Eight ways to improve traffic flows in our cities quickly and without spending a lot of money.

Tailpiece: Donald Shoup’s insight:

Drivers want to park free, and that will never change. What can change, however, is that people can want to charge for curb parking. The simplest way to convince people to charge for curb parking in their neighborhood is to dedicate the resulting revenue to paying for added public services in the neighborhood, such as repairing sidewalks, planting street trees, and putting utility wires underground. That is, the city can offer each neighborhood a package that includes both performance-priced curb parking and the added public services financed by the meters. Performance pricing will improve the parking and the revenue will improve the neighborhood. The people who live and work and own property in the neighborhood will see the meter money at work, and the package will be much more popular than meters alone. [Cato Unbound]