Three thoughts on Independence Day

On freedom, constitutional balance & the dangers of majoritarianism

For quiet contemplation on Independence Day

— A good time to read and reflect on Tagore’s verse

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

— On freedom of religion

the emergence of contentious issues relating to the place of religion is also an opportunity for another generation to re-examine the balance the Indian Republic has struck on those very issues, and hopefully, allow us to get past them and onto the more important items on the public agenda. [More]

— On protecting liberty from democracy

we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty? That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. [More]

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 Independence Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

and on Republic Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

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When should the government subsidise training filmmakers?

There is no case for government to subsidise FTII (and, for that matter, IITs and IIMs too)

One of the numerous controversies surrounding the Modi government’s appointments in the education sector revolves around a minor television actor being appointed the chairman of a government-run institute on the basis of his party, and perhaps ideological, affiliation. Students, alumni and many public commentators have opposed the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan on account of his weak acting credentials and lack of stature in the industry.

Mr Chauhan’s critics might be right. His defence — that he is being judged ahead of his performance — can also be taken at face value, not least in a country where “officially certified” graduates are unemployable, and great actors and film-makers need not necessarily be good administrators.It is not as if having great personalities running the film institute has prevented the Indian film industry from distinguishing itself through sheer mediocrity. Mr Chauhan does deserve a chance.

The Film and Television Institute of India is a government run institution. The elected government has the prerogative to appoint whoever it likes. If students and faculty do not like it, they can voice their protests, which the government ought to listen to. But if the government does not, or does not accept the criticism, then that should be the end of the matter. Students and faculty who cannot accept Mr Chauhan’s leadership can decide to quit. Whatever your politics, this is the right conduct in a republic. With apologies to John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, it is not the purpose of democracy to protect the people from the consequences of their electoral decisions.

However, the bigger issue is why is the Union government running a film institute and training actors and filmmakers with public funds? The economic argument is that the government can subsidise education that has large externalities, if there is an undersupply of such education. In other words, the reason to subsidise medical education (whether or not through government medical colleges) is that a doctor benefits society even when making money for herself. If there are too few doctors, there is a case for subsidising medical education. If there are too many of them, it doesn’t.

So do actors and filmmakers have large positive externalities? To the extent that entertainment is necessary for the well being of individuals and society, then it is possible to make a case that filmmaking ought to be supported with public funds. But are there too few actors? Are there insufficient incentives for the private sector to invest in filmmaking institutes? You could argue that a few decades ago, there was a need for government to subsidise Indian actors and filmmaking. It is difficult to argue that is the case today: the film industry was worth over $2 billion last year and almost produces more films than the United States, China and Japan (the next three biggest producers) combined. There are too many films. There are too many television channels. There is an oversupply of films, television programmes, actors and filmmakers. It makes no sense to subsidise film-making in this situation. Privatising the Film and Television Institute of India is a good idea, especially if it can use the autonomy to improve industry standards.

In a twitter conversation, a fimmaker retorted saying if government can run IITs and IIMs, then why not FTII? The answer really is that just like FTII, the government should get out of running IITs and IIMs too. Where there is need for government is in the running of 665 universities where around 30 million students are enrolled. All the IITs and IIMs together account for a mere 15000 students. The poorest student who secures admission to IITs or IIMs is likely to secure grants, scholarships or loans to pay her fees. On the other hand, the pure sciences, social sciences and arts need greater public funding because of the dismal state these disciplines are in. Universities represent education in its broadest sense, and has the broadest externalities — an educated population is in the public interest.

The debate on a few elite institutions is misplaced. The government ought to get out of running film, engineering, management and law institutes. There is no case for pouring scarce public funds in areas where there is a glut and where there are enough incentives for private provision.

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Pakistans and talks

The problem with talking to Pakistan is that there are two of them

It’s happened again to yet another Indian prime minister. He’s decided to resume talks with the Pakistani government after the process had been halted due to Pakistani transgressions and bad faith. 

Now, there is sense in talking to the Pakistani government because that’s exactly what that country’s military-jihadi complex — and India’s irreconcilable adversary — does not want. In normal course of events denying the adversary the response he desires is good strategy. However, the problem in the case of Pakistan is that there are two ‘Pakistans': the putative state (represented now by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and the military-jihadi complex that dominates the former.

Denying the military-jihadi complex what it desires means India sends a signal that it cannot punish transgressions, and allows Pakistan’s civilian government to raise its bottom lines. This risks India making incremental concessions each time without gaining anything in return. In other words, Pakistan has the ability to take by salami-slicing what it cannot achieve through war or negotiations.

What about not talking? This plays into the military-jihadi complex’s hands, which derives its own legitimacy and power by rallying all anti-India forces. In Pakistan’s domestic context, the army and the jihadi groups become more popular vis-a-vis the civilian government. Since the military-jihadi complex is irreconcilable and there is a chance that the civilian state is not, this is bad news from the Indian perspective. No surprises then, that the army and the Islamists will do whatever is possible to scuttle diplomacy.

In other words, India risks losing out on substantive issues by pursuing talks with Pakistan despite the latter’s hostility. If it does not do this, India risks strengthening its worst adversary on the other side. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. 

So how should New Delhi deal with this situation? Ignore it. Focus on economic growth.

What Pakistan does or doesn’t do is a minor variable in India’s growth story. Growth, on the other hand, is a major factor in India’s foreign and security policies. Putting Pakistan on the back burner (actually, keeping it in the refrigerator) is not only possible, but is necessary at this time. Just half-a-decade of high economic growth will transform the geopolitical context around Pakistan, enough to swing the negotiating environment in India’s favour. The more we wait, the better it will be for us.

Let Pakistan undergo its internal transformation. New Delhi can deal with the outcomes rather than engaging in a game where it loses out, no matter what it does.

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A democratic death knell for individual liberty

A referendum is a bad idea

Caught in a political tussle with the Union government that has administrative and “superuser rights”, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government has thrown up the idea of a referendum to decide whether the union territory should become fully a state. Since there is no scope for a referendum within India’s constitutional structure, everything about the proposal—from who are the voters, to who will conduct it to what does any result mean—is an open question.

Regardless, the proposal for a referendum is dangerous, poorly conceived and might destabilise India’s politics more than anyone has imagined. Not for the textual reason that the Constitution does not permit it, but for the deeper, conceptual reason as to why the Constitution does not permit it.

There are two broad arguments for representative democracy: first, the practical transaction costs of taking every issue to all the voters are massive for anything larger than a community of a few thousand people. It would be prohibitively expensive even for a small Indian state to decide every issue by asking voters directly. Technology reduces costs: it is possible that in the coming decades, the availability and adoption of technology will make referenda rather inexpensive to conduct.

So should human civilisation move ahead to direct democracy when transaction costs of referenda are lower than the transaction costs of representative democracy (all that money spent on parliament, legislators and so on)? Not quite. That is because the second argument for representative democracy–even with the quality of legislators that we often detest–is that direct democracy can lead to highly illiberal outcomes. It would be dangerous enough in a homogenous, egalitarian society. It would be extremely risky in a highly diverse society like India’s. Politics is often a contest for relative power among different communities, quite often expressed through imposition or prohibition of their mores. In India we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty?

That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. The Indian Constitution is a balance between a democracy that expresses the will of the majority, and the fundamental rights of the individual. Weaken this edifice and individual liberty will be the first against the wall.

Referenda are dangerous not merely because people in some states might choose to secede from the Indian Union, but really because rule-by-referenda will be the death knell for the rights of the individual. There is no safeguard for liberty in a referendum.

The AAP government in Delhi would do well not to stoke fires it cannot control. If it does want to assess public preferences–for administrative or political purposes–it can conduct large scale public consultations that ask thousands or hundreds of thousands of people for their opinion. Results of such a consultation will have no constitutional basis, but can go some way in bringing in popular sentiment into public policy.

Related Posts: Dogma, Reason & Democracy; and how to escape the tyranny of the ignorant.

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Where there is no party line

Think tanking in the age of extreme partisanship

Takshashila People

One reason there has been a fall (okay, precipitous fall) in the frequency of posts on this blog is that the day-to-day challenges of building an upstart think tank drain one’s time and energy. Another is laziness, lethargy and procrastination. Yet another is twitter, which is still the path of least resistance for the current of thought to reach the ground of public discourse. Laziness and twitter are easy to understand reasons, but what is this business of building a think tank? Almost five years since the first stamp paper was stamped at a registrar’s office in Chennai, it might be a good time to share some thoughts and experiences to deter other thoughtful, unsuspecting souls from attempting something similar.

This post is written with the intent of being the first in a series. But just like how N is initially unknown in a 1/N series of tweets, it is by no means certain that this series will be any longer than this first post. With that disclaimer, let us look at two of our core values: funding, and independence & non-partisanship.

From the outset, Takshashila’s founders decided that the organisation, a non-profit public charitable trust, will operate solely on Indian money. After all, it would be ironic for an ambition that reads “building the intellectual foundations of an India with global interests” to be financed with foreign donations. Also, foreign funding would hand detractors and opponents of our ideas a convenient handle to deliberately mischaracterise our public policy arguments as playing to a foreign agenda. Since many of the arguments that we make ruthlessly in the national interest are counter-intuitive, they are vulnerable to smear campaigns. Imagine arguing (as we have done) for 100% FDI in defence production with an unconditional, unrelated grant from a respected foreign foundation. The elimination of foreign funding has made life a lot more tougher than it could have been, but since we are set for the long haul, it is a price we have happily paid.

Maintaining independence and non-partisanship the other hard challenge, and one we’ve managed to address quite well. First, while it is relatively easy to manage an organisation (a private corporation, an association or a political party) that has an official view that everyone must fall in line with (or leave), it is much more difficult to manage one that doesn’t. A think tank and a public policy school cannot function effectively unless its members have full intellectual freedom. Yet when this freedom causes a diversity of opinions to be expressed, there is often a internal tension among those supporting different positions, and an external confusion as to whether the institution supports one or the other view. The one on whose shoulders falls the job of managing the institution, yours truly’s in this case, has to act as a mediator, negotiating platform and conciliator internally, and an official disclaimer-issuer and ‘brand manager’ externally. This is not easy. Worse, in a small start-up institution like ours, there is always the possibility that my own views–and those of the other co-founders–are conflated with that of the organisation’s, which sometimes leads to pulled punches, less trenchant blog posts and blander language in newspaper columns.

Since 2010, public discourse in India has become edgy, sharply divisive and polarised. Everyone is quick to paint an unfamiliar or unsavoury opinion as an attack on one’s favoured politician or party. The political campaigns of the 2014 general election had massive online components, and online political entrepreneurs seeking to gain political prominence and spoils of power by attacking ‘the other side’. So Takshashila was on Congress payroll for the BJP’s vociferous online partisans (who we endearingly call “the wrong wing”), an RSS front for the Congress’s beleaguered but spirited online brigade and pro-corruption for Anna Hazare & Arvind Kejriwal supporters. The Communists somehow forgot to attack us, which is perhaps an indication of their irrelevance, or ours. Kabira had gone to the bazaar to ask for everyone’s well-being, but ended up being attacked by them all. There is a lesson in this which we took and we teach.

Another interesting phenomenon was that those who donated to us—including Rohini Nilekani, our first donor—did not once even hint what positions Takshashila should or shouldn’t take. But those who didn’t give us any money often vociferously insisted what political positions we should take for our own good. It is now not too hard to detect political partisans pretending to be broad-minded philanthropists. It is also heartening that there are enough of the latter to lend their support to us, in big or small ways.

I have always found the allegation “you are saying this because XYZ is your donor” an indication of the person making the allegation projecting his own values on his target. As acts of honour and integrity even in today’s famously compromised media industry show, not everyone who draws a pay cheque necessarily dances to the tunes of the owners or donors. For small startups like ours, with low stakes, it is relatively inexpensive to be independent and non-partisan and call things as we see them. Judgement calls on the safety of our members and their families apart, there is little to make us toe anyone’s line. So we merrily advocate what we see as the national interest, and we try to persuade others to see things our way.

This does not mean that we are “neutral”. Our ideological leanings are openly advertised: freedom, a culture of tolerance, an open society and strengthening India’s national power. These set of ideas can be called “liberal nationalism”, but it is the values that matter, not the label.

It’s not enough to be and act independently and in a non-partisan manner. It is important to be perceived as such by the people we are trying to persuade. That was a problem I had no good solution for until the good Jay Panda, BJD MP from Odisha, gave me an idea from his own experience: set up a Ombudsman with a mandate to deal with complaints regarding these values. The Ombudsman can also solicit informal and formal feedback if he deems necessary. So we instituted a powerful Ombudsman—a trustee with no role in management—who anyone can directly write to. It’s early days yet, but this does appear a good process to manage the tensions that arise from an organisation whose members are making forceful arguments in a politicised public discourse. In our view, “non-partisanship does not mean non-engagement. On the contrary, Takshashila’s policy remains to engage with all political parties while remaining firmly independent of them. We believe that engagement with the political process is an important aspect in achieving public outcomes in a democracy.”

The biggest asset Takshashila has today is the goodwill of its supporters and the credibility among a small section of India’s elite. Our success will continue to come from this, hopefully growing constituency.

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On net neutrality and the national interest

Net neutrality might be an optimum compromise in the absence of full liberalisation of the telecom industry

This is a comment I wrote for the Hindi newspaper Naidunia (Indore). Given that Takshashila might submit an official response to the TRAI public consultation on the subject, it is important to state that this is my personal opinion.

The ongoing debate on net neutrality reveals clashes of several public goals and interest groups. Should service providers have the freedom to sell products of their choice to customers of their choice, or should they not have this freedom? Do consumers have the right to use internet services as they have always been used to? Should the open “ethos of the internet” continue to remain so even after it has passed out of the US government’s management and into the hands of the international community? Will an internet with different lanes for different traffic remain the internet as we know it? Should application and content providers like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp enjoy greater profits despite making much smaller investments than telecom service providers?

The issue is complex and entangled, and we should resist the temptation to see it as a fight between good guys and bad guys. There is nothing wrong in corporations trying to maximise their profits as long as they conduct business in a legal and ethical manner. It would be wrong to project telecom service providers who are seeking to improve their profitability as villains. Similarly, it is rather pointless for them to look at over-the-top (OTT) services like Facebook and begrudge them their profits. Different industries have different risks and different rewards. Consumers too cannot claim that things should be as they are and every change is a negative development.

So what should we make of this issue? I would like to answer this question by asking “what is India’s national interest with regard to IT in general and the internet in particular?”. There are three aspects to our national interest:

First, given that less than one in ten Indians has access to broadband, it should be a national priority to increase penetration. There is a correlation between broadband penetration and economic growth rate. India’s development needs our economy to leapfrog into the information age: for this we need reliable, affordable services. So when thinking about net neutrality at this stage, the government must give the highest priority to ensuring the maximum number of people take up broadband in the shortest duration possible.

This, however, should not come as a result of price regulation. Fixing prices and a government that worships at the altar of “low cost” will result in damage. Low prices should come as a result of market forces and competition.

Second, given that India’s IT industry is an engine for growth and development, we must ensure that it remains globally competitive. The industry is worth more than 100 billion dollars and employs more than 10 million people. There are thousands of startups in the country aiming to become the next Infosys and FlipKart. Our IT policy should not create more hurdles for entrepreneurs and ensure that they have the best possible start to build world-class companies. Without Net Neutrality, the risk that startups will face even greater “unfair disadvantages” against established firms is higher.

Third, it is in the public interest for the telecom and mobile service provider industry is healthy and competitive. In the past decade, the regulators pursued the goal of forcing the telecom providers to lower user tariffs. While India has one of the lowest costs of telecom services in the world, the service quality is patchy. Calls drop frequently. Broadband service often is of lower speed and suffers outages. Billing services are terrible. Anyone who has tried calling the customer service helpline of any telecom provider will attest to the fact that it is very difficult to get anything done. All this is because telcos are cutting costs in these areas. There are few lucrative or premium services left where they can increase their profitability. The only protection they enjoy is through licensing — the government limits the competition they face.

When deciding what to do about net neutrality, we must keep all three considerations in mind, and optimise them simultaneously. If the government opens up the telecom service market to greater competition, perhaps by issuing unlimited licenses, then there is a case to allow them the freedom to discriminate among customers. As the state-owned carrier, BSNL can provide a neutral internet. However, if the government does not open the sector to further competition, therefore shielding the telecom service providers from more competition, then mandating net neutrality provides a reasonable approach to promoting the public interest.

The current debate calls for the government to review the entire licensing regime and consider full liberalisation of the telecom industry.

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The Pakistan stop of the SAARC yatra

Dispute management, not resolution

This is the gist of the points I made in a brief interview on Channel NewsAsia at 6:40pm IST yesterday. This was in the context of Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Pakistan as part of his SAARC Yaatra.

Q. Amid an aggressive growth agenda, how much of a priority is being placed by Mr Modi on resolving disputes with Pakistan, according to you?

Mr Modi has been keen on improving relations with India’s neighbours right from the word go. I think it reveals something about his mindset — the need for India to carry along its neighbours and its region — because strictly speaking, the neighbourhood does not matter a lot for India’s growth and development.

India’s linkages are to the West to the US and Europe and to East Asia. The subcontinental neighbourhood does not matter much for now. A lot of constraints to growth are domestic.

Q. There have been over 600 ceasefire violations in the past eight months. How much of an impact can high-level talks have on ground reality and actions?

The ceasefire has held for over a decade, so there is abundant evidence that the armed forces can hold their fire if there are top level instructions. A ceasefire is in the interests of both countries: Pakistan can focus on managing its own domestic violence. So too for India.

Q. This is all ostensibly a part of the ‘SAARC Yatra’ by the Indian government. How much has the India-Pakistan problem impaired SAARC’s development?

The problem with SAARC is not merely India-Pakistan relations, although they share part of the blame. The ethos of SAARC is more a collective bargaining forum for India’s neighbours against New Delhi. So countries focus more on what they can achieve vis-a-vis India, than what they can achieve as a group.

India’s growth and development will propel SAARC by presenting an opportunity to neighbours to benefit from the process.

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Osama bin Laden, the ISI and the USA

The ISI might have known about bin Laden. What did the United States know?

For the first time, a person close enough to the Pakistani military establishment—and often its unofficial mouthpiece—has suggested that the ISI might have known about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and might have traded him in for US concessions in Afghanistan. Asad Durrani, retired ISI chief and regular television talking-head, said this in an interview to Al Jazeera at Oxford recently.

“I cannot say exactly what happened but my assessment […] was it is quite possible that they [the ISI] did not know but it was more probable that they did. And the idea was that at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been, when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.

He asserted that Bin Laden was, in his opinion, handed over in exchange for an agreement on “how to bring the Afghan problem to an end”. Asked by Hasan whether Bin Laden’s compound was an ISI safe house, Durrani responded:

“If ISI was doing that, than I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done.” [Al Jazeera PR]

This is exactly what The Acorn had argued in May 2011.

His death also means that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex gave him up. This will allow Barack Obama to declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani army can then orchestrate an post-US dispensation wherein its proxies first share power with the Karzai regime. And then, sometime in the near future, take over power. [The Osama card has been played]

In an INILive discussion analysing the possibilities around bin Laden’s killing, I had argued that the most likely explanation was that:

The Pakistani military leadership was on board. In fact, they might have given up Osama as it suits their interests at this time. President Obama can declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan. The Americans will have to rely on Pakistan to ensure that the withdrawal is bloodless during an election year in the United States.

This is plausible. Contrary to popular imagination, it might have been done subtly. A gentle lowering of guard around Osama, a little clue here and there, and the US intelligence would catch up…it would only be a matter of time. The US would even believe that they did it on their own.[Bin Laden’s killing and implications for India]

My May 2011 Pax Indica column discussed this in more detail, linking the event to US domestic politics and the cost-benefit calculations of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. In March 2014, the New York Times magazine published a report by Carlotta Gall, quoting unnamed Pakistani officials as saying that Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI chief in 2011, was in the know.

Now, given his background and connections, Gen Durrani is by no means a Pakistani who is seeking exile in a Western country. His revelations raise an important question: why has the Pakistani military establishment decided to reveal that it (probably) knew about bin Laden all along? There are some indications to the effect that this might be an attempt to pre-empt more explicit revelations about the Pakistani army’s role. Whatever be the case, it is highly unlikely that Gen Durrani’s comments were on-the-fly. There has to be a purpose behind them.

Gen Durrani’s admission raises another question about the Obama administration’s role in the affair. What did the United States know and when?

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Why a Swachch Bharat cess is a bad idea

A tax break will work better

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to clean up the country showed that he was prepared to tackle the most difficult problems India faces—cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation are Mahatma Grade Problems, caused by a simultaneous combination of individual, social, market and government failures. The Swachch Bharat initiative has come about because he used both his popularity and power to try and change mindsets and attitudes. To succeed, it needs the government, business and social leaders to change peoples’ minds and moral incentives. If it becomes yet another government programme, it is bound to fail.

So the Modi government’s proposal to impose a cess on telecom services to finance the Swachch Bharat campaign should cause us disappointment and alarm. It is the wrong approach to the problem, using the wrong method. Here’s why.

Levying a cess dilutes the moral incentive that a borderline conscientious citizen faces. Instead of a gnawing feeling when she sees garbage in public places, the marginal citizen is likely to feel the same-old, “I’ve done my part but the government is not doing its job properly”. There is evidence that compliances rates (for tax payments and other rules) goes up when citizens see the government delivering honestly and effectively. Similarly, the perception that government is inefficient and corrupt reduces compliance. In other words, levying a cess on citizens is not only likely to cause them to outsource their guilt and responsibility, but also try and avoid having to pay the cess. Swachch Bharat should be about emphasising that hygiene and sanitation are about personal honour and dignity, not about pay-tax-and-forget.

That’s not all. A cess is a bad way to raise revenues. A cess on an unrelated activity is a terrible way to implement a bad way to raise revenues. As this blog commented on the previous government’s use of a cess on restaurant bills to finance education, there is no better way to signal that a government has confused public finance priorities than a cess. If a programme is important, it should be financed through the core budgetary revenues. Clearly, one of the prime minister’s most important priorities ought to be enough of a priority to be funded through the conventional budget.

If at all a cess has to levied, it should be on non-essential spending. Furthermore, a specific tax on an unrelated economic activity merely to raise revenues is a very bad idea. Telecommunication services are already subject to heavy price regulation, leading to very bad quality of services across the board. An additional tax on these services will burden consumers, impact telecom service provider revenues (and hence the license fees they pay the government) while doing nothing to improve service quality. Telecommunications services appear to have been chosen for the cess mainly because it is easy to collect from them, and people will have to make calls and access the internet anyway.

Why could the tax not have been levied on entities and industries that dirty public spaces? At least that would have attempted to recover the cost of the negative externalities.

But here’s an even better idea to implement Swachch Bharat: give a Swachch Bharat tax break to all income tax payers. When filing their taxes, let taxpayers tick a box saying “I have done my best to make India clean”. Of course, a lot of people will claim the tax exemption without changing their behaviour, but a some will. It is better to trust the citizens more to do the right thing, than to tax them more on the premise that they will do the wrong thing. That’s the only way Swachch Bharat can work–when the relationship between the citizen and the country changes into one of mutual trust and mutual concern. The campaign is about capturing hearts and minds, not more rupees.

The Modi government would do well to resist the temptation to use age-old sarkari methods to solve a nagging social problem.

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On freedom of religion

The only restrictions to propagation of faith are force and fraud.

The last few months have seen the return of religion-related issues into the public discourse. While many of these issues have existed on the agenda of religious-political organisations for decades, their contemporary emergence might has been triggered by electoral calculations and a new public mood for them. It is understandable that many—including, at times, this blogger—have been exasperated by their acquiring centre-stage at a time when India’s growth priorities lie elsewhere.

However, the emergence of contentious issues relating to the place of religion is also an opportunity for another generation to re-examine the balance the Indian Republic has struck on those very issues, and hopefully, allow us to get past them and onto the more important items on the public agenda.

The rather clear constitutional position—laid out in Article 25 of the Constitution and elsewhere—was muddied by a confused 1977 Supreme Court judgement (Stanislaus v State of Madhya Pradesh) where a bench headed by Chief Justice A N Ray drew a specious distinction between a fundamental right to propagate (that he ruled is constitutional) against a ‘right to convert’ (that he ruled does not exist). He arrived at this conclusion because he reasoned that one’s right to convert violates another’s freedom of conscience, and therefore is untenable.

In his monumental three-volume Constitutional Law of India, H M Seervai argues that the “Supreme Court’s judgement is clearly wrong, is productive of the greatest public mischief and ought to be overruled.” Seervai’s contends that conversion due to force or fraud is clearly unconstitutional because “if A converts B by force or fraud, B is deprived of his freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.” So the only question relates to the constitutionality of conversion by persuasion. Chief Justice Ray, Seervai argues, “mistakenly believed that if A deliberately set out to convert B by propagating A’s religion, that would impinge on B’s “freedom of conscience”. But…the precise opposite is true: A’s propagation of his religion with a view to its being accepted by B, gives an opportunity for B to exercise his free choice of a religion.”

Seervai’s arguments were consistent with the intentions of the Constituent Assembly. He quotes K M Munshi’s speech on the background of Article 25(1) in the Assembly. Munshi states: “So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of the conscience has to be recognised. The word ‘propagate’ in this clause is nothing very much out of the way as some people think, nor is it fraught with dangerous consequences.”

Unfortunately, until a bigger bench of the Supreme Court revisits the 1977 judgement, we have to live with the ‘public mischief’ it has encouraged. There is no doubt that the framers of the Constitution intended to permit conversions as long as there was no force or fraud involved.

That indeed is the liberal position. In The Acorn‘s opinion, inducements and allurements cannot be distinguished from other forms of persuasion. A person ought to be—and is in India—free to convert to any faith for any reason, including financial ones. There is no reason why a citizen cannot sell her soul to the highest bidder, and no reason why she cannot repeat this auction every day. May the highest bidders win, day after day! (As an aside, it is likely that the reservation price for a soul will rise in tandem with per capita GDP.)

In a discussion some weeks ago, a thoughtful colleague noted that while this may be all right in case of individual conversions, large scale conversions change demographics and can be detrimental to national security and the very values in the Constitution that enable such conversions. This is a fair and valid point. Even so, like all other liberties, freedom of religion must be safeguarded without taking it away.

Amid all the heat and noise of partisanship and prejudice, the public discourse does not frame the question properly. The question is what is the proper the role of the state and the government in matters of conversion? The correct answer is that it has—or ought to have—no role, other than to prevent force and fraud, and punish those who engage in them.

Individuals and religious organisations have—and ought to have—the right to persuade people into converting to their faith. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu organisations should be free to organise “ghar wapsis“, “shuddhis“, re-conversions and indeed fresh conversions, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. The Church should be free to convert people, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. Muslims should be free to convert people, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. So too everyone else.

The government must remain agnostic (pun unintended) while people should be free to choose from the options available. As Seervai says, it is the existence and ability to exercise choice, that makes their freedom of conscience a reality.

None of this is the government’s business. To the extent that ghar wapsis and other conversions do not have implicit or explicit support of the state, use or connivance of the government machinery or wilful negligence to prevent force and fraud, there cannot be any objection to them.

Far from getting worked up over the VHP’s ghar wapsi campaign, the focus of the public discourse ought to be to examine the concerned government’s role. There have been cases, as in Y S Rajasekhar Reddy’s administration in Andhra Pradesh, where state government machinery was used to support and abet conversions. This is clearly wrong. If Christian missionaries conduct similar conversions without the government’s support (or opposition) then they are within their rights to do so. Those who think this is a problem can organise themselves and use persuasion to prevent and indeed, re-convert people that the missionaries have converted. They too are within their rights to do so.

Some have proposed a new law to ban all conversions. Such a law is not only deeply illiberal but positively untenable under the Constitution. If today all sorts of laws—from those proscribing conversions to those requiring changes of faith to be approved by government office—are in force, it is in no small measure due to the judiciary’s failure to interpret Article 25 as in its letter and spirit. We will have to await a more enlightened Supreme Court bench to reset the constitutional position to one where the 1977 judgement is overruled.

In the meantime, there is no doubt that persuasion is the only instrument any religious organisation can use to propagate its faith and win converts.

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