Everyone loves a good outrage

The reform agenda must be defended from Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s attackers

As far as op-eds go, this one marks a new low from P Sainath. It is not uncommon for him to frame grave issues in a divisive manner by conflating them with unrelated matters—like, for instance, agrarian crises and beauty pageants. This technique seeks to arbitrage outrage, as if decent people cannot be anguished at a tragedy without having to contrast it with an unrelated celebration. But when Mr Sainath links the poverty line, expenses incurred by the Planning Commission chief while traveling on official business overseas, the lavishness with which some tycoons spend their private funds and dubious dealings of crony capitalism, it can’t merely be his usual, unfortunate and misguided conflation.

Make no mistake: Mr Sainath’s hatchet job on Montek Singh Ahluwalia is part of an internal campaign against reform-minded individuals within the UPA government. This week’s manufactured controversy over renovation expenses of toilets in the Planning Commission’s headquarters is another manifestation of the same campaign.

Let us examine Mr Sainath’s cleverly framed allegations. His case is that at Mr Ahluwalia’s travel expenses are exorbitant, at an average of $4000 per day abroad. You would think he would give you some comparable data to prove Mr Ahluwalia has been unusually proliferate in spending public funds. Say, for instance, the average daily expenditure when cabinet-ranked Indian officials travel abroad on official business. Or for instance, the average daily expenditure incurred by Mr Ahluwalia’s counterparts from other countries. These would be like-for-like comparisons. Mr Sainath, however, does not do that. He compares these to a income of a person on India’s poverty line. All this proves is that $4000 is much higher than Rs 28. It does not even come close to proving that public funds were misspent, nor does it show that Mr Ahluwalia was unusually liberal with his expense budget. The onus of doing this research is on Mr Sainath, the person making the argument.

How Mukesh Ambani spends his personal wealth is irrelevant to the argument—he is free to spend his money as he pleases, even if it does not suit our tastes—, so is a discussion on cronyism and corruption in IPL. You don’t need to read the Planning Commission’s response to conclude that Mr Sainath’s allegations are sensationalistic nonsense.

But why choose Mr Ahluwalia at all? Mr Sainath’s arguments against profligacy would have been worthy of respect if he had compared the travel expenses of the top officials of government—from President Patil to the lowest ranking minister of state. How much, for instance, does Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, spend on her foreign trips? Whatever her political role, she’s an official of equivalent rank. How much do the members of the National Advisory Council spend on their foreign and domestic trips? Unless we have some numbers to compare with, we can’t say anything about Mr Ahluwalia’s trips.

What we do know is that Mr Ahluwalia is among the few people known to be advocating economic reforms in the UPA government. Singling him out with a view to making him the lightning rod for public outrage has all the signs of a political hatchet job. The objective is to discredit the reformist agenda by associating it with imaginary wrongdoing. After running the Indian economy to the ground, the socialists that haunt the UPA government’s policymaking are now trying to bury the narrative of reform, liberalisation and markets through subterfuge and intellectual dishonesty.

It’s no different with the renovation expenses of public toilets in Yojana Bhavan, the Planning Commission’s headquarters. One of the earliest reports on this, in the Times of India, again compared toilet renovation expenses with the the poverty line. Few in the mainstream or social media bothered to ascertain the scope of the renovations and compare it with similar renovations conducted in New Delhi’s public and private buildings. The purpose of the revelations was to insinuate wrongdoing on the part of Mr Ahluwalia, rather than to establish whether there was any wrongdoing at all.

Mr Ahluwalia is guilty: of not throwing his credibility on the line to compel the UPA government to launch the second-generation reforms, and to prevent it from engaging in monumental fiscal irresponsibility that has put India’s future at risk. Like his mentor Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, he becomes complicit in the UPA’s misgovernance. He will have to answer these charges both to the nation and to history. This does not mean he’s lavishing public funds on unnecessary foreign excursions, building gold-plated toilets or taking a cut from the renovation contractor.

It is fair for the Opposition parties to politically exploit the situation to their advantage. However, it is in the national interest not to allow a campaign of unfair personal calumny to discredit the reform agenda—or indeed, to prevent Mr Ahluwalia from a chance to redeem his reformist record—to succeed. The Acorn completely agrees with Mint’s editorial defence of Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Mr Ahluwalia has “done far more for the poor than the busybodies and peddlers of poverty porn who are now attacking him.”

A breach in the defence ministry?

It is too early to point fingers (especially without evidence)

Last year there was an eavesdropping controversy supposedly targeting the finance minister and his aides. It has now been reported—and denied—that the defence minister’s office might have been bugged. If it is indeed true that A K Antony’s conversations were being overhead, this is not a trifling matter. We still do not know what became of Pranab Mukherjee’s case. That obfuscation might have good reasons (in the public interest) and bad ones (in the partisan political interest). So it becomes all the more troubling to know that yet another important cabinet minister might have been targeted for eavesdropping.

While good journalism would investigate the matter, making allegations without evidence is dangerous. Most media reports somehow find it relevant to mention the recent controversy over the army chief’s date of birth in a report of suspected bugs in Mr Antony’s office. They insinuate a connection without any evidence.

India Today’s, Sandeep Unnithan goes a step further. “The needle of suspicion,” he writes using the passive voice, “has been pointed at the army. Sources say it is possible that the MI (military intelligence) team stumbled upon the bug planted by another team”. We do not know who these ‘sources’ are? We do not know why they think the MI team should ‘stumble’ upon a bug instead of ‘finding’ it as part of their professional routine?

He then says “Defence Ministry officials believe that the Army was snooping on phone conversations around South Block.” This is better. We know that it is defence ministry officials who are making these allegations, although we do not know if it is a gossiping clerk or a top official leaking information to the media in the public interest. It could be anyone.

Mr Unnithan then goes on to provide evidence that the Army has equipment that can listen in to phone conversations. But there’s a, well, bug in his story. If the Army has “off-the-air” interceptors and “passive cellular surveillance systems” why would it need to plant a bug in Mr Antony’s office? Intercepting cellphones does not require planting of bugs in the defence minister’s office. If we presume that the Army already has the ability to tap fixed line telephones, then why would they need plant a bug at all? Also it’s not only the Army that has these devices. There were at least 73,000 such passive interception devices in government and private hands last year.

The bug might have been placed to eavesdrop into offline conversations. In which case, the whole story of the Army’s surveillance equipment and ‘shadowy’ military intelligence divisions is as irrelevant or relevant as any other explanation. The needle of suspicion has many directions to point at. At this point we just do not know.

There is no doubt that recent events have increased mutual mistrust and antagonism between the civilian and uniformed defence officials. So suspicions and conspiracy theories are to be expected. Journalists have an important responsibility to ensure that these are not unduly stoked by the manner of their reportage.

The Great Middle Indian Churning of 2011

Where do we go from here?

Here’s a piece that I wrote for The Atlantic online last week:

India’s Great Middle-Class Moment
After decades on the sidelines, the growing ranks of Middle India are starting to find their voice. But can the political system respond?

NEW DELHI, India — What should the world make of the remarkable political churning in India this year? People around the world are braving bullets for the right to vote but here we were, turning out in the streets in large numbers, supporting demands made by such self-appointed leaders of civil society as the hunger-striking Anna Hazare for a draconian anti-corruption law.

Parallels with an “Arab Spring” in India don’t fit, not least because we last did that kind of anti-regime business in August 1942, when Indian nationalists mobilized non-violent protests to get the British to quit India. And when Indira Gandhi dispensed with constitutional niceties and assumed dictatorial powers in the mid-1970s, we threw her regime out in 1977 not by shouting her down in the town square but by voting her out at the polling booth. Her return to power a couple of years later, again through the electoral route, proved the regime changing power of India’s electoral democracy.

India’s political churning this year probably heralds a new phase in Indian politics, with the urban middle-class joining the political process. For a long time, this group has seen politics as a spectator sport, to be watched on television in between cricket and Bollywood. Repulsed by the choices on offer in the political menu, unenthused by the anachronistic agenda of mainstream parties and therefore unwilling to spend the time to go out and vote, the middle class Indian has, in terms of political involvement, practically seceded from the Indian republic. Meanwhile, economic growth has propelled ever-greater numbers of people into the middle class, inflating its numbers and amplifying its expectations from the Indian state.

The mainstream political parties missed the plot entirely. The Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government, which first came to power in 2004, set back the process of economic liberalization, by stalling on economic reforms, ostensibly in the name of the “common man.” This led to cronyism on the top — the last decade saw the expansion of family-held conglomerates rather than the start-up successes of the ’90s. It also led to rampant corruption in sectors of the economy that were untouched by reforms. The Congress and its allies purchased electoral mileage by introducing entitlements for the rural poor, but Middle India was too rich to be bought off and too poor to be sold to. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which demonstrated a reformist outlook when it led a coalition government at the turn of century, has since become loath to challenge the Congress party’s economic idiom, even after this approach failed it in the 2009 elections.

For the Middle Indian, stalled reform, cynical manipulation of constitutional institutions by the UPA government, and the entrenchment of an entitlement economy all meant inflation, corruption, and insecurity. Continue reading The Great Middle Indian Churning of 2011

Garibi Hatao Hatao

The old, failed and corrupt political economy of poverty alleviation fights attempts at reform

Jean Dreze, member of the influential, unaccountable and extra-constitutional National Advisory Council, has launched a pre-emptive attack against conditional cash transfers in the pages of today’s Indian Express. It provides an excellent example of how rank paternalism and contempt for the poor Indian’s right to live a free life guides the UPA government’s mindset. This mindset, of course, is covered in the language of “development economics”. In reality it is bad economics and bad for development in addition to being morally repugnant.

Before we look at Mr Dreze’s arguments, let’s look at this conclusion:

The most common argument for cash transfers is that cash makes it possible to satisfy a variety of needs (not just food), and that people are best judges of their own priorities. Fair enough. But if people are best judges of their own interest, why not ask them whether they prefer food or cash? In my limited experience, poor people tend to prefer food, with a gradual shift from food-preference to cash-preference among better-off households…I am more inclined to listen to them than to the learned champions of cash transfers. [IE]

The arrogance in the last sentence must come from sitting close to the Congress party president (another NAC member recently wanted to impose how many dishes could be served at wedding dinners). Mr Dreze, unsurprisingly, does not believe the people are the best judges of their own interests, for he uses the conditional “if”.

Even so, doesn’t he have a point when he says “why not ask them whether they prefer food or cash?” Not quite, because the question is a bit of sophistry. Basic economics will tell you that because cash is most fungible, if you give them cash, the question itself is redundant. If they prefer food they’ll buy food. If they prefer arrack they’ll buy arrack. Neither Jean Dreze nor the National Advisory Council, nor indeed the Government of India has any business dictating what an Indian ought to do with his or her income. Only ‘development economists’ of the dubious sort can think that development is possible when hundreds of millions of adult citizens have the right to vote and procreate but not to decide what to do with their money.

Just because the government gives this money doesn’t mean it can override the individual’s freedom to choose. Neither the government, nor the taxpayer whose money is transferred can deprive the recipient of her freedom.

Let’s consider Mr Dreze’s policy arguments. He first argues that conditional cash transfers won’t work in India (as they did in Latin America) because public services are “missing to a large extent”. This is bizarre, for giving Indians the money to procure services like healthcare and education from private operators allows them to escape having to depend on the government. Just because conditional cash transfers complement public provision in Latin America doesn’t mean they have to do so in India too. There’s no reason—other than socialist ones—why India shouldn’t go in for privately provided, but publicly financed, services. [See this post on the critics of the UID]

Next, he argues that targeting the scheme properly is a problem in India. And in so doing, he expects us to believe that conditional transfers in kind (for instance, food entitlements) can be better targeted than cash. In reality, targeting will remain a problem, not least because of the ‘political economies of development’ which require poverty to remain a problem. A poverty line, even if arbitrarily drawn, helps show the extent of the challenge. But once you target policies around a poverty line you run into all ‘targeting problems’ (see the case of Karnataka’s BPL cards). The entitlement economy also breeds competitive intolerance and political violence.

On these feeble legs Mr Dreze erects his defence of the Public Distribution System (PDS), independent India’s largest and longest running ‘scam’:

First, (food entitlements under PDS) are inflation-proof, unlike cash transfers that can be eroded by local price increases, even if they are indexed to the general price level.

Food entitlements may be “inflation-proof” for the recipient, but not for the government, which still needs to pay for it. It also creates incentives for government to interfere in the pricing of food: from underpaying farmers, to blocking exports, to entering into non-competitive import arrangements. Moreover, Mr Dreze fails to account for the true economic cost of the PDS—procurement, storage, distribution, wastage, pilferage and the associated shadiness that characterises it from bottom to top. Once you see the PDS as mostly inefficient and usually corrupt, you are unlikely to think throwing more money through it is a clever thing to do.

A government that really cares about inflation hurting the poor will be careful about the consequences of its policies. On the other hand, the UPA government listened to Mr Dreze.

Second, food tends to be consumed more wisely and sparingly; cash, on the other hand, can easily be misused.

The contempt for individual freedom apart, there is a practical reason why Mr Dreze is wrong: you can’t save, lend or invest food. Food entitlements will at best lead to hundreds of millions of well-fed, but poor people. To use Atanu Dey’s phrase food entitlements are a pro-poor scheme. They will keep people poor.

Third, food is shared equitably within the family, while cash can easily be cornered by selfish individuals.

Why, hasn’t Mr Dreze heard of families who treat their boy and girl children differently? Can’t food be bartered for arrack or exchanged for cash? Indeed, food or cash, there is nothing to prevent selfish individuals from hurting their families. It is conceit to believe that a government that lacks the competence to deliver drinking water to its citizens can somehow change human behaviour. Social ills need to be addressed, but unless the government is parsimonious in ambitions, outcomes will suffer.

Then again, the irony of disparaging cash is surely lost on Mr Dreze, champion of a scheme to provide, err, cash for work. NREGA is a conditional cash transfer, isn’t it?

Fourth, the PDS network has a much wider reach than the banking system. In remote areas, where the need for social assistance is the greatest, banking facilities are simply not ready for a system of cash transfers (as it is, they are unable to cope with NREGA wage payments).

This is an argument for getting the banking system pervasively into rural areas. Indeed, implementing conditional cash transfers provides banks with an incentive to set up more outlets in rural areas. Liberalising the financial sector to enable greater financial inclusion is necessary in any case, and implementing cash transfers might provide enough of an anchor tenant effect to get it going.

Last but not least, cash transfers are likely to bring in their trail predatory commercial interests and exploitative elements, eager to sell alcohol, branded products, fake insurance policies or other items that would contribute very little to people’s nutrition or well-being.

There is nothing wrong in buying or selling alcohol and branded products. Selling fake insurance policies is illegal. Conflating the two is a manifestation of an ideological prism that abhors free markets and free people. Indians might be poor but they are aspiring for the comforts, fashions and fallacies of modernity. The government has no mandate to prevent his and condemn to have-nots into shall-not-haves.

Mr Dreze’s pre-emptive salvo seeks to defend against the dismantling of the edifice of India’s old, failed and corrupt political economy of poverty alleviation. Ideologues confuse socialism for development. The vested interests that collect rent from the PDS, government hospitals, schools and suchlike are fighting to retain their spoils. Both have little interest in making Indians prosperous.

Against Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes

Tackling corruption requires economic reforms and a popular re-engagement with electoral politics

The idea of a Jan Lok Pal is flawed and profoundly misunderstands the causes and solutions of corruption in India. It seeks to create another chunk of government, more processes and rules, to solve a problem that, in part, exists because of too many chunks of government, too many processes and rules. [See Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column and this editorial in the Business-Standard]

If the Jan Lok Pal presides over the same system that has corrupted civil servants, politicians, anti-corruption watchdogs, judges, media, civil society groups and ordinary citizens, why should we expect that the ombudsman will be incorruptible? Because the person is handpicked by unelected, unaccountable ‘civil society’ members? Those who propose that Nobel laureates (of Indian origin, not even of Indian citizenship) and Ramon Magsaysay Award winners should be among those who pick the Great Ombudsman of India—who is both policeman and judge—insult the hundreds of millions of ordinary Indian voters who regularly exercise their right to franchise. For they are demanding that the Scandinavian grandees in the Nobel Committee and the Filipino members of the Magsaysay foundation should have an indirect role in selecting an all-powerful Indian official. [See this post at Reality Check India]

The argument that people should be involved in drafting legislation is fine, even if it misses the point that the government is not a foreign entity but a representative of the people. It is entirely other thing to demand that the legislation drafted by an self-appointed, unaccountable and unrepresentative set of people be passed at the threat of blackmail. If we must have representatives of the people involved in lawmaking, we are better off if they are the elected ones, however flawed, as opposed to self-appointed ones, whatever prizes the latter might have won.

The Jan Lok Pal will become another logjammed, politicised and ultimately corrupt institution, for the passionate masses who demand new institutions have a poor record of protecting existing ones. Where were the holders of candles, wearers of Gandhi topis and hunger strikers when the offices of the Chief Election Commissioner, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and even the President of the Republic were handed out to persons with dubious credentials? If you didn’t come out to protest the perversion of these institutions why are you somehow more likely to turn up to protest when a dubious person is sought to be made the Jan Lok Pal?

But this is us. Given this reality, the solution for corruption and malgovernance should be one that does not rely the notoriously apathetic middle classes to come out on the streets. The solution is to take away the powers of discretion, the powers of rent-seeking from the government and restore it back to the people. This is the idea of economic freedom. Societies with greater economic freedom have lower corruption. We have long argued that we are in this mess because we have been denied Reforms 2.0.

How can we have Reforms 2.0 if “those politicians” are unwilling to implement them? The answer is simple: by voting. Economic reforms are not on anyone’s political agenda because those who are most likely to benefit from them do not vote, and do not vote strategically. At this point, it is usual to hear loud protests about how voting doesn’t work, most often by those who do not vote. This flies in the face of empirical evidence—when hundreds of millions of people turn up to vote. If it were not working for them, why would they be voting? They might not be demanding Reform 2.0, but something else, and are getting what they want. Instead of ephemeral displays of outrage—what happened to those post 26/11 candle-light vigils?—it is engagement in the electoral process that is necessary. There are some innovative ideas—like that of voters associations—that can be attempted.

There are no better words than those of B R Ambedkar on the place of satyagraha in India after Constitution came into force on 26th January 1950:

“…we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.” [B R Ambedkar/Constituent Assembly]

In my view civil disobedience in general and hunger strikes in particular must be used in the most exceptional circumstances where constitutional methods are unavailable or denied, and only till the time constitutional methods remain unavailable or denied.

Some contend that the system isn’t working, or has been so perverted by the incumbent government, that it is necessary to resort to public agitation. This is a dubious argument. Constitutional democracy is an enlightened way to make policy by reconciling—to the extent possible—the diverse interests, opinions and levels of political empowerments of a diverse population. Any other way amounts to coercion in one form or the other.

If we are to allow that hunger strikes and street protests do better than constitutional methods, then how would you decide issues where there are sharp differences? If two Gandhians go on hunger strikes asking for polar opposites, do we settle the issue by seeing who gives up first? What if competing groups escalate the agitation to violence against each other? Should we condone civil war?

The working of those constitutional mechanisms can and must be improved. By us. The anti-defection law must go. India doesn’t have a comprehensive law governing political parties. It needs one. Police reforms have been stalled for decades. There is a substantial reform agenda that must be pursued. By us.

However, the inability to implement these reforms is no excuse for resorting to civil disobedience or, as it happens in other countries, calling in a dictatorship of the proletariat, the military or the priesthood.

The Jan Lok Pal bill is not a solution to the problem of corruption. It risks making matters worse. Hunger strikes are not the right means to promote a policy agenda in a constitutional democracy like ours. The promoters and supporters of Jan Lok Pal and the public agitation to achieve it are profoundly misguided. Their popularity stems from having struck a vein of middle class outrage against the UPA government’s misdeeds. That doesn’t mean that the solutions they offer are right.

The Acorn opposes Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes as much as it opposes corruption and misgovernance.

Related Links: Offstumped has a series of posts on the subject. See also Atanu Dey, Satyameva Jayate, Sanjeev Sabhlok and the Filter Coffee here on INI. The March 2011 issue of Pragati covered these themes: see Rohit Pradhan’s take on the importance of constitutional morality.

How the UPA government’s policies caused inflation

Gargantuan spending without addressing underlying supply bottlenecks

Inflation is like fever — it is not the disease itself but a symptom of an underlying disease. The right approach is to treat the underlying disease and not focus on treating the symptoms.

Supply bottlenecks are the underlying problem
Inflation is the direct result of the UPA government’s failure to put in place the necessary policies that could sustain the growth spurt that started during the NDA’s term. When an economy grows at 8% year on year all classes of people — poor, middle-class, rural and urban — will demand more goods & services. Yet, the UPA government has failed to ensure that the economy can produce and efficiently distribute goods & services. This is the core cause of inflation.

The anaemic growth in infrastructure industries is an indicator of the policy failures that have led to inflation. Better infrastructure can moderate price rises by better connecting buyers and sellers. Despite the economy growing at 8%, the infrastructure industries growth has been only 6.7% under the UPA government. In fact this has further fallen to 5% in mid-2010. The shortfall in power supply has worsened from 8.5% in 1992 to 12% in 2008-09. Worse, capacity addition in thermal power is a mere 4.4% of the target.

NREGA has contributed to price rises in many areas because the UPA government has failed to make rural markets competitive. In a village with a few shops, any rise in income of the villagers will cause shopkeepers to increase their prices. If rural areas are better connected to each other with good roads, electricity and cheap transport, villagers can purchase goods in adjacent villages if the goods are cheaper there. Despite the claims by the promoters of NREGA it is unclear if NREGA has benefited the rural poor. The UPA government has shown much less enthusiasm to complete the Golden Quadrilateral programme and extend it to rural areas.

The UPA government has failed to enable farmers to participate in India’s growth. The failure to dismantle barriers to agricultural marketing and failure to integrate India into a single market for agricultural goods not only contribute to food price inflation but undermine the welfare of farmers. (Farmers receive only 50 paisa for a kilo of tomatoes while consumers pay Rs 20).

It is a matter of basic economics that when demand rises faster than supply, prices will rise. By neglecting this basic reality, the UPA government has created the conditions for inflation

Regarding fuel prices
The UPA frittered away the chance to complete the process of fiscal consolidation started by the NDA government, otherwise credit rating agencies like Moody’s would have upgraded India’s sovereign credit rating a long time ago, rather than in 2010.

The removal of fuel price subsidies was done without adequately preparing the nation for the same. The UPA has not revealed that it intends to rectify the fundamental problems in the petroleum sector because of the patchwork of pricing policies. Furthermore, despite it being clear for the last few years that energy prices are rising globally, the UPA government failed to create the framework for a massive improvement in public transportation.

The removal of petrol subsidy and rise in prices does not directly affect the poor — mostly they use buses and trains. Those who use two-wheelers are affected. However, despite presiding over a healthy economy for over 8 years, there is no sign of the UPA government evolving a integrated public transport policy. Instead there is a continuation of the licence-permit raj that leads to the harassment of auto-rickshaws and other private bus operators, and increasing inconvenience for ordinary people.

The fuel pricing policy has damaged our public sector and private sector oil & gas companies. Reliance had to close down 2000 petrol stations because prices are non-remunerative — this is a major waste of capital. While the UPA government is damaging our oil & gas companies in this way, the Chinese government is throwing its weight behind their state-owned companies to corner energy resources around the globe.

UPA’s fascination with pet projects is diverting attention from the necessary ones. For instance, instead of thinking of only building a pipeline to buy natural gas from Iran, and paying money to the Pakistani government to safeguard our lifeline, we should have invested in building LNG terminal & pipelines along our coastline. Investing in ports, refineries and pipelines in India would not only increase the income of Indians but also improve our energy security. We can still buy the gas from Iran without having to depend on Pakistan.

(This note was prepared and privately circulated in July 2010. It is published here as it is still relevant, unfortunately.)

Cultivating authority, evading responsibility

“Those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility,” writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta

You should read his piece in the Indian Express in full. Excerpts:

The prime minister will take you only up to a point. The Centre does not carry any credibility, because there it has no genuine interlocutors. There is no other leader who can carry the imprimatur that they are acting on behalf of the nation, who can provide a healing touch when needed. More and more of our conflicts will require this kind of constant political engagement. Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, in political terms, carry that mantle as much as anyone does; but they steadfastly refuse to risk it on anything other than politically easy welfare schemes. The scandal of Indian politics is not simply that the prime minister is politically weak; it is that those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility.

And it has sent a message: the purpose of politics is not solving problems; it is the evasion of responsibility. [IE]

And he’s doing it before even winning the Booker prize

Chetan Bhagat uses sophisms to advance an argument for surrender

So how many cliched sophisms can you squeeze into one 900-word op-ed piece? Chetan Bhagat manages to do five. More than a defence of the prime minister as it announces itself to be, his op-ed in Hindustan Times (linkthanks Rohit Pradhan) is merely a series of lazy arguments and an intellectual superficiality that is more suited to a discussion of Hindi films, cricket matches and cafeteria-gossip, not the grave issues surrounding geopolitics, foreign policy and national security.

Mr Bhagat begins with a profound misunderstanding of “our attitude”. Instead of reconciling with Pakistan, he says, Indians want to “teach Pakistan a lesson” and put them in their place. Now assuming this is true, does Mr Bhagat pause to examine why? Is it perhaps because Pakistan has devoted itself to damaging India right from the word go? Reconciliation is not a rational response towards Pakistan until the time it unequivocally transforms itself into a country that is at peace with itself and its neighbour. Yet, the story since 1998 at least is one where India has made repeated attempts to reconcile—at political and popular levels—and on each occasion received a dagger in its flesh in return. So yes, bashing Pakistan might be considered patriotic and make good politics, but for good reason. Mr Bhagat doesn’t get into these reasons, of course, because they wouldn’t lend themselves to his conclusions.

The second sophism that Mr Bhagat uses is that ‘every Indian’s future is inextricably linked to Pakistan…because of what India spends on defence.’ This is not the (flawed) “we can’t change our neighbours” argument, it’s not even the (flawed) “guns vs butter” argument. It is a (flawed) “let’s submit to our neighbour’s blackmail” argument. It is disguised as (or confused for, if you want to be charitable) a guns-vs-butter argument by pointing to the opportunity costs of defence expenditure. But it sounds plausible for only as long as it takes you to realise that there are opportunity costs of non-defence too. Ask the Morioris, if there are any left to tell the tale.

A reasonable case can perhaps be made around the concept of a peace dividend—that giving Pakistan something would result in a lower defence expenditure that would in turn allow India to channel the ‘savings’ for development. That depends on what is the “something” that would satisfy Pakistan, and whether the act of giving that something away will actually result in a net positive dividend. Instead, Mr Bhagat asks “how badly do we want Kashmir?” As if giving away Kashmir would automatically lead to the building of colleges, irrigation projects, roads and power plants. This is the third sophism—the plausibility of which lasts only as long as it takes for you to listen to a Hafiz Mohammed Saeed’s speech. Giving in to Kashmir fatigue is a terrible idea. Mr Bhagat doesn’t bother to explain just conceding on Kashmir will lead to lower defence expenditure, less more colleges and roads. It’s a double sophism, actually, because Mr Bhagat presumes that government expenditure is required to build colleges, irrigation projects, roads and power plants. You know, just like it was government expenditure that put phones in almost everyone’s hands.

You should really put up your hands when you see India described as the land of Buddha and Gandhi which has somehow lost its peace goals, the fourth sophism. India’s national symbol is not The Other Cheek. As much as Buddha and Gandhi, this is also the land of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Arthashastra—treatises that reveal a sophisticated approach to statecraft. These books do not advocate peace at any cost. Even Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita.

When you don’t have to support your argument with evidence, you can just about say anything you like. Like, for instance, “we need to have peace…because we can’t afford to fight or stay prepared to fight for the next 20 years.” How does Mr Bhagat arrive at this extraordinary conclusion? If India struggling at economic growth rates of 5% or lower could afford to fight and stay prepared for the last 20 years and yet achieve over 8% growth today, surely, it can more easily afford it now? To use Mr Bhagat’s own analogy, if you could afford a security guard when you were poorer, you certainly can afford him now when you are richer.

The byline identifies Mr Bhagat as the author of The Three Mistakes of My Life. With this op-ed he’s made one more.

The difference between Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh

Statesmanship and not

Much of the public debate over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s bad wager at Sharm-el-Sheikh as been framed wrongly. It is not about the need for India to diplomatically engage Pakistan (although presenting a binary choice between war and talks, and advocating talks suits the UPA government just fine).

It is about how. Shekhar Gupta’s op-ed today inadvertently demonstrates what exactly was wrong with Dr Singh’s approach:

“Everybody wants to go to war. The armed forces are so angry. But ek samasya hai (there is a problem). You can decide over when you start a war. But once started, when it will end, how it will end, nobody knows. That is a call leaders have to take,” (Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee) said (in December 2001, after the jihadi attack on the Indian parliament), focusing entirely on his soup. Once again it was a statesman speaking rather than an angry Indian.

After almost 16 months of stand-off on the borders and coercive diplomacy when, as disclosed by Brajesh Mishra in an interview with me on NDTV’s Walk the Talk, an all-out war nearly broke out on two occasions, Vajpayee again made a dramatic “turnaround”. Addressing a crowd in April 2003 in Srinagar, he made yet another unilateral peace offer, to his own Kashmiris as well as Pakistan, and it yielded the Islamabad Declaration after a summit with Musharraf in January 2004. [IE]

In a situation not unlike the present, Mr Vajpayee moved unilaterally. Doing so meant that he could do it on his own terms. Doing so meant that he didn’t have to agree to the ‘price’ his Pakistani counterpart would ask for in order a joint statement. In Dr Singh’s case, the price paid was not only high, it was paid unnecessarily.

Notwithstanding this blog’s criticism (see a representative post) of the content of the ‘peace process’ that followed the Islamabad summit in 2004, it is undeniable that Mr Vajpayee’s move was real statesmanship. For all its faults, the direction and pace of the 2004-2008 ‘peace process’ was in India’s hands. Dr Singh’s move, in comparison, was a poorly conceived, badly managed and dangerously risky gamble. His own fate is in Pakistan’s hands.

Me too madrassa

The rational school operators of Uttar Pradesh

Just like over nine out of ten families in Karnataka, many school operators in Uttar Pradesh demonstrated that they are rational actors. If the Indian government has announced that it will give Rs 325 crores over the five years to madrassas (which, among others, means "an honorarium of Rs 6,000 per month to graduate teachers and Rs 12,000 per month to post-graduate teachers") then it is perfectly rational for private non-religious schools into madrassas. Perhaps private schools operated by Muslims are taking a lead in this—but it should not surprise anyone if people from all faiths jumped in to get a share of the pie.

Of course, the Ministry of Human Resources Development officially doesn’t get it. It has called upon the Uttar Pradesh state government to conduct an enquiry into why people are behaving rationally, and responding to incentives.

The UPA government has been schizophrenic in its understanding and application of incentives (see this post on Acquired Incentivo Deficiency Syndrome, by The Rational Fool). It seems to understand them at a political level where it has extinguished equality of opportunity for an entitlement economy. But it has repeatedly failed to understand them at a policy level, where it has pretended that nice sounding intentions can replace sound incentive structures.