The Ideal Buyer for Air India

July 4, 2017

Apparently the Indian government has finally decided that selling Air India is an option. I am not super confident that anything will come of it. For starters, right now there is only a cabinet resolution; which gives them a lot of wiggle room to back out of it later on. The working group, not yet constituted, could come up with impossible sale conditions. Parliament might scupper privatisation. Union politics might make the government do a hasty U-turn.

Also, as someone whose cynicism with regards to Arun Jaitley grows every month, the fact that the original announcement was made by him, makes me even more doubtful that anything will ever happen. The man seems to be trotted out every so often on to television to make the BJP palatable to liberals, and then nothing actually happens. Do you remember how:

  • before the Lok Sabha elections, he said that of course Parliament could legislatively repeal Section 377? Then when Shashi Tharoor brought in his private member’s bill, the BJP voted against it.
  • two budgets ago, he said that starting the next year, he would cut corporate tax rates by a percentage point every year? I’m still waiting.
  • he decided to not legislatively bar retrospective taxation, after all that sound and fury, instead just promising that he would never do it?

So when Jaitley says that selling Air India is a desirable objective, I for one suspect that this is just a new round of talk before meeting with funders, and actual action will be short on the ground. Of course, this assumes that anybody actually wants to buy Air India, which is a bit of an ask. So far, we have had the fun spectacle of seeing Anand Mahindra saying he isn’t brave enough to take it on, and its shareholders panicking at the thought that Indigo might be.

Which is the biggest problem, really. Even assuming that Bharat sarkar is sincere in wanting to sell Air India, and not just making suitable noises; and that union opposition is overcome, then what? Nobody who was accountable to shareholders, or had any sense, would buy it.

That doesn’t mean that nobody would buy it. There are people who aren’t accountable to shareholders, or who can defy them, and who don’t have sense. Ratan Tata, the past few years have shown us, comes close to that happy situation. But even he is surpassed by a certain class of dilettante airline operators. I speak, of course, of Arab sheikhs.

In the past few years, the Middle Eastern airlines have recklessly and cheerfully expanded. They run half empty flights to the United States, introduce new and unprofitable sectors just for the prestige of running ‘the longest flight in the world’, and are engaged in an arms race when it comes to just how ridiculously luxurious they can make their first class product. Alas, as oil prices have fallen, some cost cutting has started taking place, and maybe even the Middle East 3 won’t be brave or foolhardy enough to buy Air India. Emirates or Qatar Airways might just buy Air India to replicate the Etihad – Jet model and run shuttle services to Dubai or Doha as applicable, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Though the ideal buyer for Air India, in my opinion, isn’t Emirates or Qatar. It’s Saudia – the national airline of Saudi Arabia.

Why, you ask? This is not because I am a fan of Saudia (I have never even travelled on it) and feel that nothing would improve Air India flights like a no-liquor policy. It is more that I feel that the greatest contribution the government of India could make to world peace is to saddle Saudi Arabia with an airline that haemorrhages money every year, will give its owners severe grief when it comes to human resources issues, and pit the irresistible force of Ravindra Gaikwad against the immovable object that is the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. Every riyal Saudi Arabia spends on keeping Air India aloft, will be a riyal they are not spending on setting up radical mosques or bombing Yemen or doing the dirty on Iran.

Maybe the way to get this to happen is to get Qatar Airways to express interest. And then Saudi Arabia would try to buy Air India instead, out of pure spite for Qatar. After which, we could try to add on persuasion by suggesting that running Air India would be the ideal way for one of the surplus princes to occupy himself.

One can dream.

Demographics and Anti-Incumbency

May 26, 2016

After seeing the results of the May 2016 assembly elections, I have developed a hunch. It is that anti-incumbency will be much less powerful in elections in places where the birth rate is low.

My reasoning is this: suppose in years 0 to 5, party X is in power. In years 6 to 10, party Y is in power. In year 11, elections come around.

In a state or country where the birth rate is high, you have a large cohort of 18-23 year old first time voters, who were 13-18 when party X was last in power. So they know just how rotten party Y is, but have forgotten, or never noticed, how bad party X used to be. This cohort then votes with a great deal of hope and aspiration for party X. And because of the high birth rate, it swamps the votes of such people who remember how bad X had been.

But in a state where the birth rate is low – and possibly close to, or below replacement rate – the people with long memories of how X was in power, and how Y was in power, will outnumber the first-time voters. And so, as long as Y is even slightly better than X; they will vote Y back in.

Of the states that had election results declared in May; Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Kerala all have Total Fertility Rates below the replacement rate. And Tamil Nadu and WB both had incumbent governments returning. According to my hunch, that is because there were enough voters who remembered how bad the CPI(M) and DMK used to be, and even if they didn’t particularly like the TMC or AIADMK very much, still felt that they weren’t the worse alternative.

I realise that this hasn’t panned out in Kerala, which has stuck to regular anti-incumbency – perhaps because there actually isn’t anything to choose between the UDF and LDF; and perhaps also because anybody who votes in hope for change does so for the BJP.

But if my hunch is correct, it means that for any state which has a TFR less than 2.1; as long as a party in power can be just better enough than the principal opposition party, anti-incumbency for at least the first term will be less of a threat. Those states right now are:

  1. West Bengal
  2. Punjab
  3. Himachal Pradesh
  4. Tamil Nadu
  5. Delhi
  6. Kerala
  7. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana
  8. Maharashtra (does that explain why the NCP and INC came back to power in 2008?)
  9. Karnataka (but that is crazily anti-incumbent)
  10. J&K
  11. Probably many of the North Eastern states and Goa

Looking over these, I realise that my hunch will probably work best where the state has two principal parties. In Andhra Pradesh the situation has been complicated by the fecundity of political parties; in J&K by there being four major parties over three regions; and in Punjab and Delhi by the sudden appearance of the AAP.

I have a further hunch that any party that gets a second term will get a little too complacent or greedy, and eventually end up being worse than whoever was voted out; and that a new equilibrium of anti-incumbency after two terms will evolve in places like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and Andhra Pradesh.

So I will stick my head out and make predictions:

  1. AAP will get a second term in Delhi (though I wonder if this mechanism works as well in Delhi, which might be getting a bunch of first time voters through migration rather than birth)
  2. AIADMK will not return to power in 2021, or even get Lok Sabha seats in 2018
  3. Whoever wins Karnataka next year will figure out that they have to be just a little better than the Congress (and how hard can that be, even for the JD(U) and the BJP?), will manage it one way or the other, and come back to power in 2024.
  4. The CPI(M) will also figure this out in Kerala, and break the one-term jinx in 2021.
  5. UP will have one-term governments or unstable coalitions for the next two decades

Two corollaries that emerge from this:

  1. In low-fertility states, because vote swings will be less violent, small caste or religion – based parties will never suddenly lose their core vote, and so we will be stuck with guys like the PMK and the MIM for a long time to come.
  2. The huge cohort of first-time voters that sweeps incumbents out in high-fertility states explains the rise of Narendra Modi. It also explains the Arijitisation of Hindi film music. As long as you have a growing number of teenagers and young people who have never actually been in a romantic relationship, but are looking forward to one, soulful songs about idealised romances that bear no resemblance to real life romances will have a market. Sob.


The Taxman and my Grandfather

June 23, 2015

Two weeks ago, the Hindustan Times had an interview of Arun Jaitley, in which he made this depressing statement:

Shouldn’t the taxmen have some idea about the correlation between your income and expenditure or the correlation between your income and lifestyle?

As far as I’m concerned, no they bloody shouldn’t. Accepting reluctantly that I do have to fork over about a quarter of my income in order to provide for my government’s questionable expenditure choices (an airline? really?), I draw the line at said government also demanding to know the complete details of my lifestyle on threat of financial penalty. Is nothing private? Can I no longer buy web hosting, Cities: Skylines, or The Princess Diaries XI: Royal Wedding without Jaitley poking his greasy nose into the affair? Moreover, if there is already sales tax and service tax, why do the taxmen give a damn about the correlation between income and expenditure? And as long as I pay everything on time and accurately, why is my lifestyle under suspicion from the get go?

This excessive preoccupation with other people’s lifestyles reminds me of the story of how my grandfather disliked Jammu.

My grandfather was a great man who climbed out of poverty thrice. The reason once wasn’t enough is that the first time he did it, Partition pushed him back into destitution, and the second time he did it, his sleazy younger brother pushed him back into poverty. But he kept going, like Chumbawumba.

On his third climb out of poverty, he was living in Jammu and running a small business, which had its office not too far away from his home. So rather than pack a lunch box, he would walk home every day for lunch, and then walk back to work.

One day, on his walk home, he was accosted by a stranger who told him enthusiastically, “Dharam Swarup ji, the matar pulao at your home smells excellent!”

He himself hadn’t know what was being made for lunch, but a stranger did (even if the reason for this was the prominent aroma of Jammu rice). He didn’t have any clue who the stranger was, but the stranger knew who he was. And this complete stranger had no compunctions about accosting him on the road.

Eventually my grandfather moved to Delhi, and as he was a great man, made sure that he brought all his relatives along with him. And for many years to come, he told these relatives (who then told me) this story to explain how rotten Jammu was, and how it was full of busybodies who kept sticking their noses into other people’s business (and kitchen windows).

Presumably this is not merely a Jammu problem, but an Indian small town problem. Which would explain why Arun Jaitley, despite having left his small town forty years ago to study, practice law, and practice politics in Delhi, is still obsessively peering into other people’s lifestyles. Woe.

A Drop of Honey

February 10, 2015

There is a story in the Mahabharata which I am retelling below. I may have added some details, forgotten others, or even grievously changed yet others; but I trust that I will have reproduced the essence of the story.

Once, a man is being chased through the forest by hungry wild beasts who want to eat him. Fleeing in terror, he finds himself at the edge of a high cliff. He slides down, and finds a young tree growing out of the side of the cliff. He grabs at it desperately and arrests his fall.

Unluckily for the man, the tigers, lions, bears and/ or other carnivores who have been pursuing him are also at the edge of the cliff, and waiting for him to climb back up. If he goes up, he will be messily devoured. If he lets go of the young tree, he will plunge to his death.

In fact, letting go is not even a choice, because just his own weight is beginning to pull the tree out by its roots, and so he will have to fall soon.

Looking around desperately for some means to escape his predicament, the man realises that above him, on a higher branch of the tree, there is also a beehive.

At that instant, the man accepts his fate; and stops worrying about whether he will die by tiger or by impact. Instead, he stretches himself, and catches a drop of honey as it falls from the beehive onto his tongue.

The story ends there.

Today, Delhi finds itself in a situation similar to the man hanging from the tree.

The wild animals here are the venality, divisiveness, and the sheer contempt for the electorate prevalent in the Congress and the BJP.

The horrifying fall that awaits him is the inexperience, lack of fiscal rectitude, and Somnath Bharti’s racism and thuggish disrespect for due process that the AAP brings to Delhi.

But in all this, there is a drop of honey and the drop of honey is that Amit Shah is now looking like a complete idiot.

It will not last very long, and at some point we must undergo the fall.

But it is important to enjoy the drop of honey while it is there.

Yes, Messenger

January 17, 2015

The controversy about MSG: Messenger of God is now more delicious than ajinomoto.

In the last four days, unelected bureaucrats have resigned in fury because elected politicians, seeking a marginal political advantage (over politicians from allied political parties!), have interfered in their functioning, and in the process, shattered a major bureaucratic obstacle to freedom of speech.

After six months of political news that seemed like it was out of 1980s Alan Moore comics, we now finally have news that seems like it’s out of Yes, Minister. Of course, the new vacancies in the censor board mean that it’s incredibly likely the next one will be full of RSS-ish fellows, but lets enjoy this turn of events until then.

Rice Must Be Annihilated

November 2, 2014

When I moped last week about the dust and haze in Delhi, I forgot all about the reason it’s so particularly horrific at the beginning of the winter: because farmers all over Punjab and Haryana are burning rice straw to clear the fields; and the smoke from this is drifting over to Delhi. This means that you actually see the air getting darker and more horrifying as you leave the urban parts of Delhi and enter the rural parts towards Haryana (whether towards Gurgaon, where I bicycled yesterday, or towards Sonepat, where I drove on Thursday). The urban parts might be nastier in terms of automobile exhausts pumping the air full of nitrogen and sulphur oxides; but the outskirts just look horrible.

The Times of India had an oped last week about how air quality is not the only ecological disaster that rice cultivation causes. It’s also sucking up groundwater, turning land fallow, and runaway power consumption.

For one, withdrawal of groundwater substantially exceeds annual recharge, with the result that the water table falls continuously each year. As the water table falls, each additional kilolitre of water requires more power for its extraction than the last kilolitre. The subsidy on power thus increases continuously and is met from the state budget.

In many regions the water table, which was initially less than 10 metres, has already fallen below 500 metres, leading to a huge adverse impact on state finances.

(The Times of India)

All things being equal, this would have hit a limit when power tariffs (or diesel prices for gensets) kept rising to respond to the demand. Or, additional power would have been generated.

However, thanks to a combination of subsidised power tariffs for agricultural users, state owned utilities, and agricultural landlords’ grip over politics in Haryana and Punjab, it hasn’t happened. The state owned utilities are too broke to put up new power plants or buy more power for that matter. All that happens is status quo, and less and less power availability, so everyone just starts running their pumps or factories on diesel gensets.

All this limited electricity supply being used to help produce something that isn’t that tasty, and could make me diabetic; when it could instead be used to power my Haryana factories hurts me personally.

The oped also cribs about the part Minimum Support Prices and FCI procurement rules play:

Coupled with attractive minimum support prices (MSPs) and policy directives to FCI to procure the bulk of its rice supplies from these two states, an irresistible economic incentive is created for the farmer to grow rice, rather than the alternatives – maize, other grains, pulses, horticulture, that are more suited to the natural ecology of the region.

The writers suggest moving to average cost pricing for power, hiking MSP for rice, and getting the FCI to purchase rice from eastern India instead of Punjab and Haryana to fix this problem. All well and good, and I hope this happens. But this works either on the supply or the intermediary side, and doesn’t really fix the problem of demand. And the problem of demand is this: Indians are obsessed with eating rice. If nobody was eating rice in the first place, it wouldn’t be getting sold in the private sector, non-FCI market.

How do we get people to stop eating rice? One way is to appeal to their better sentiments and point out that they’re just bringing horrible air pollution upon themselves. But in a society where people refuse to stop bursting firecrackers, even though with firecrackers they suffer the pollution effects of their behaviour directly and immediately, I have my doubts about whether this will work. We will therefore have to resort to guile.

I think the best way to discourage rice eating is with a flanking attack of shame and aspiration. When rice eating is shown to be a matter of shame, people will feel embarrassed about doing so; but also ask ‘What shall we do instead?!’ When an alternative is presented that is actually better and more aspirational than rice eating itself, this objection will also crumble.

Fortunately, this alternative already exists. The keto and other low-carb or no-carb diets preclude rice eating altogether. And they lead to awesome fitness and good looks, as seen in low-carber Hariflute.

Look at that sexy beast. Just look at him. That’s what you become when you cut out rice and switch to ghee and bacon.

So that’s what people have to aspire to when they cut out rice. But how to shame them into considering giving it up in the first place? For that, I think the impetus has to come from another Twitter heartthrob – @majorlyprofound, who has for many years now mounted a campaign of scorn against short, dark, small hearted rice eaters who can’t become fast bowlers.

If Major’s rants are more widely spread across the world (or at any rate in India), people will begin to refrain from eating rice for fear of becoming short and dark. In North India, which is where the devastation caused by rice cultivation is the worst anyway, we could even accelerate this campaign of shame by pointing out that rice is for cowardly monkey-cap wearing Bangaalis and traitorous Madrasis who refuse to speak Hindi. Yes, this is a course of action that plays on lamentable stereotypes, but fuck it, those stereotypes are there anyway, and we might as well put them to good use in cleaning up Delhi and Haryana’s air.

The time has come for a Biryani and Basmati Boycott. Are you with me, comrades?!

Pixar Meets Percy Mistry

August 2, 2012
I saw Brave (the Pixar movie about the red haired Scottish princess) last month along with Anand. (We then ended up also putting wine based lunch and gourmet ice-cream so it turned into a man-date, but that’s another story.) So far, it’s been the best movie I’ve seen this year (admittedly, I’ve only seen five), even better than The Dark Knight Rises. As I tweeted, it managed to mix constitutional law, principle based regulation, feminism, little Gaulish village style punchups, Feegles, and good 3D.
The post that follows is mostly about everything Brave made me think about. Fair warning – there are spoilers ahead for not just Brave, but also a whole bunch of other princess-y movies, books and TV shows – Tangled, Goong, and The Princess Diaries. I’ll start with the feminism (which I’m not an expert in) and the Feegles and the punchups, and move on to the constitutional law and principle based regulation (which I’m also not an expert in, but which I get all obsessive-fanboyish over, so that’ll be far more detailed.)
One of the feminist criticisms of Love Aaj Kal was that the sardarni in the old time love story never spoke at all. (This is in addition to the other feminist criticism of LAK that sardar-Saif is basically a stalker throughout his story, and the more general criticism that LAK was totallly WTF). Things are quite the opposite in Brave: the heroine does all the talking while the princes never say anything (giggling and sign language apart).
And on that note it’s kind of awww to see a Disney princess movie (okay, Pixar, but distributed by Disney) where the happy ending does not involve the princess getting married. To be honest, I had watched Tangled which does end with the princess getting married, and liked it. But as a certain bear told me in the context of The Princess Diaries (princesses again!) “I do like Mia, of course, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.” (Oddly enough, as we’ll see in a bit, Brave the movie is full of bears.)
One of the early scenes reminded me of the all-against-all punch ups from the Little Gaulish Village, except with Scottish people. That particular scene convinced me that I could trust Pixar to do a film adaptation of the Tiffany Aching and Nac Mac Feegle books. Crivens!
And now for the constitutional law and principles based regulation.
These days, I’m unable to read or watch most things with a monarchical setting without rolling my eyes and going “Bitchplz, if you had just adopted a constitution this shit wouldn’t be causing so much drama.” In this, I’ve been spoiled by The Princess Diaries (in which Lilly Moscovitz is anti-monarchical right from the beginning, there is that whole Principles of Government plot track in the early books, and then shit gets *real* in Books Nine and Ten, once Genovia goes from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. Even more than The Princess Diaries (in which I read the last few books only in April this year), my eyerolling at monarchy stories has been driven by Goong.
Goong, also known as Princess Hours, is a Korean drama stories which I was introduced to by Beatzo (who writes about it here). Quick synposis: it’s set in an alternate timeline where the Korean monarchy was never abolished, and so Korea still has a monarchy (no mention on whether it’s a unified Korea or not), but also a constitution. The Crown Prince has to be married off to preserve succession, and his grandfather’s will specifies that he marries one particular girl – who is a commoner, a klutz, and coincidentally, at the same school as the crown prince. So far this is just Cinderella meets Princess Diaries meets teenage love triangle – except things get further complicated with succession intrigues, and – this is the cool bit – constitutional crises, right from the beginning. It sounds kitschy (and it is! it is! when it comes to the costumes and the soundtrack), but it’s also written very cleverly, with lots of playing with the tropes of the Cinderella story, high school cliques, and so forth. My love for Goong is just as sincere as my love for the Princess Diaries (that is, completely fucking sincere). I really ought to blog about it separately, especially to take issue with Beatzo’s claim that all the characters are sympathetic. I dididentify with all the characters, but sympathising is a completely different issue – except for Min Hyo Rin the aspiring ballerina, they’re all kind of assholes. But yeah, different post. Back on track now, or at least to a digression that’s just one fork deep.
So, the fact that there are books and TV series that have monarchical settings but which manage to actually use constitutional law as important plot points instead of just ignoring it and its conflict with absolutism is a major reason why I get fed up with books with the same setting but where the alternative of rule of law (or at least rule by law) isn’t even on the radar screen. This is one of the reasons why I hated A Game of Thrones (the other reasons were that the damn thing meandered for more than four hundred pages without bringing any of the plot threads to a satisfactory conclusion, and that we got hints of a cool zombie plot in the introduction which was then cruelly set aside for almost the entire book).
I have a conspiracy theory, though, that George R R Martin is actually aware of this shortcoming, and has made this known through that bit in AGoT where one dude tells the other dude that all the characters are obsessed with playing the game of thrones, but none of the common people really cares who is on the throne. The whole point of A Game of Thrones, in this conspiracy theory, was to annoy the readers, or possibly the publishers. When they missed this blatant pointer that they shouldn’t really give a shit about any of the characters, GRRM decided to up the ante and screw with them even more by means of the insane delays between books. Basically, the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series is an elaborate troll.
OK, seriously, back on track now. Constitutional monarchies. Brave. Time to focus.
There are lots of issues here, but lets start with political legitimacy and the consent of the governed. We take it for granted today that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the people they govern – and that this consent is periodically refreshed through democratic elections (or, if you’re being cynical about it, by the people’s failure to revolt – but then, kicking out a government you no longer consent to by voting it out is a form of peaceful revolt.)
As with most stories about monarchs, the question of whether these monarchs have the consent of the governed or not is neatly ignored, but the theme is touched upon in another way: by the fact that the monarchs themselves are governed by tradition, custom, and “what a princess should do”. So, when Merida, the princess of the kingdom and the central character in Brave, is told to marry one of the three princes of the other kingdoms against her wishes, because that’s the tradition that binds the kingdoms together in peace, we see the clash play out. Instead of unjust laws for the commoners, we have unjust traditions for the rulers.
(The situation of absolute monarchs being miserable because of unjust traditions, while likely ruling their subjects with wholly unjust laws, does have a lot of eyerolling and “Cry me a river” potential. But if you’re going to address this issue, this is probably an easier and more dramatic way of telling the story.)
So although Brave doesn’t actually have constitutions and laws anywhere in the plot, it does, through allegory, raise issues of constitutional law. In a constitutional state, where you’re governed by laws, do the laws have the consent of the governed? And in a pre-constitutional state, where you’re governed by traditions (which could be purely religious, cultural, or a difficult-to-separate complex of religious and cultural), are the people carrying out those traditions doing so with full consent as well? This, I feel, is a question applicable to India even today – we’re not so much a single nation as a patchwork or network of nations, some of which are governed by law, some by tradition, some by charisma, and some by a combination.
A specific example is the khap panchayats of Haryana and Western UP (Jatistan, in other words), which are the governmental structure of the (virtual?) state that governs by tradition. And when two same-gotra kids decide to marry, they’re no longer consenting to the traditions that have been governing their communities up until then. Boom. Suddenly the consent of the governed has vanished. The trouble is, the people running the government are going to treat it as a rebellion. Which means that your choice is to secede, and run away to a part of India where the government is by law and not tradition (but I doubt that any place in India is completely like this), or to actually rebel and take the tradition-government down. That needn’t mean attacking a panchayat full of Jat geezers with a hand-pump Sunny Deol style, pleasing as the mental image is – you could also do it like Raja Rammohun Roy or Swami Dayanand.
So at one level, Princess Merida’s challenge to traditions is an allegory for the movement from rule of custom to rule of law. At another level, I saw the movie talking about another one of my pet obsessions, that started ever since I read the Percy Mistry report – the difference between rules based regulation and principles based regulation. (Here’s a link to an excerpt of my Pragati article where I talk about this in detail – to read the whole thing, you’ll have to download the entire issue of Pragati as a PDF.)
To elaborate further, I’ll have to provide a synopsis of Brave and leak spoilers. The movie takes place in a Scottish kingdom in which there are four clans (or sub-kingdoms?) which are all entitled to the throne. To prevent civil war from breaking out between the four clans, the ancient laws (or customs which have all the force of law) demand that when the king’s daughter comes of age, she marry the heir of any of the other clans, and the throne passes to him. (This is what I gathered from the movie – I presume that things change if the sitting king has a male heir.) Unfortunately, the princess in Brave doesn’t want to get married, and rebels furiously. The details of how she rebels are also important, so I’m going to have to spoil those too. Next paragraph.
The rules of succession say that the first born heir of any of the four clans is allowed to compete for the princess’s hand, in a contest of her choosing. Princess Merida chooses archery, and then, once the three princes are done shooting (very badly, at that), announces that she too is a first born heir of the clans, and will shoot for her own hand. She then takes her shots, gets bulls eyes, and pwns all the princes.
But all this does is create further problems – Merida’s mother, the queen, is furious, Merida throws a tantrum, and tears apart a tapestry showing the family, and then rides off into the woods, where she finds a with who gives her a potion that will make the mother change. It does – the mother changes into a bear. Now there are two problems – how to change the queen back into human shape, and how to get Merida out of a marriage she doesn’t want.
The first problem is solved through negotiation – Merida tells the assembled clans that she too wants the kingdom to stay united instead of falling into civil war, but that there’s plenty of time for the princes to actually win her heart instead of just her hand, and so she will marry someone… eventually. And the important point is to focus on maintaining the peace by any useful means, not to get bogged down in one particular way of doing so.
The final resolution of how the queen is restored to human form can also be seen as an exploration of the principles v/s rules or letter v/s spirit dichotomy. The witch has given Merida a loophole: the spell will reverse if she mends the bond that was torn. Merida and the queen assume that this means the torn tapestry and set about to mend that – but that doesn’t work. It’s only when Merida and the Queen repair the emotional, not-quite-material bond between themselves – by apologising to each other and accepting the inevitable – that the spell reverses.
In light of this, Brave is a romance with idealism. (As in, idealism is being romanced by the script, not that the script is a romance that has idealism in it). It wants you to be motivated by larger goals instead of being wedded (heh!) to a particular process of implementing them. In fact, it treats strict rules as both problem and ineffective solution – the strict rules are what get Merida into an unhappy situation in the first place, and her attempt to use a loophole, while cheeky and badass, doesn’t solve her problems.
In real life, the focus on principles and the spirit of the law doesn’t always work that well, particularly in India.  (Ravikiran has a blogpost which speculates on why this is so.) Not only does the person or institution judging or enforcing the principle based regulation have to do so fairly, everyone who has to abide by the principles has to be believe that he’s fair. Even if the regulator is fair, but isn’t seen to be so by the regulated, principle based regulation will flop. Moving towards idealistic and goal-driven ways of doing things rather than stick with specific processes is still something we should aspire to, though – just that it’ll be a longer and harder struggle than idealism itself would lead us to believe.

The Moral Hollowness of Auto Fare Outrage

June 13, 2012

A while ago, this petition just popped up on my Twitter recommendations: an efficient system to complain against errant auto drivers in Bangalore. I was already having a gloomy day, and this has increased my bile even further. So now I will say this in clear, forceful, and largely impolite terms to all the 1,434 people who’ve already signed and to everyone who’s going to sign in the future: shame on you. Shame on the whole damned lot of you.

The auto driver is an entrepreneur, and a severely handicapped one at that. He’s too small to qualify for decent financing, he can’t run his business without a license (and the number of licenses is capped by the government), and his fares are regulated by the government. Thanks to fares being regulated by committee, they change far too late to reflect fuel prices increases or cost of living increases.

If you’re salaried, would you accept the government setting the maximum salary you could demand from an employer? If you’re a freelancer – writer, doctor, consultant, whatever – would you accept the government setting your maximum billing rate? If you’re an entrepreneur and selling something, would you accept the government setting the maximum price you could charge your customers? If you would, please let me know in the comments why, because I’d love to hear a credible justification for that. And if you wouldn’t, why are you holding auto drivers to a different standard?

You might point out that the licensing conditions mean that the drivers have to stick to the fare, and that all you’re doing is calling for enforcement. Sure. In that case, you have also lost your right to express outrage any time the Mumbai police busts anybody for drinking without a license, or overcrowding a pub, or attending a party where a couple of guests are carrying drugs. After all, that’s against the law too, and the police is just enforcing that.

But we must do something, you cry out, or auto drivers will keep overcharging us.

Here’s the problem: if the something which your petition proposes actually succeeds, it will lead to the limited resources of the police being diverted from clamping down on say, the arseholes who drive on sidewalks or the wrong side of the road, to harassing auto drivers just because you’re unwilling to pay a market clearing price. Moreover, you’re giving the police the idea that you’re just fine with the idea of them harassing independent entrepreneurs, and the government the idea that you’re just fine with the idea of price caps.

But leave that aside. Do you realise what idiots (and I’m being charitable here, I could easily go all Arundhati Roy and use fascists here) you look like when you’re calling the police to enforce a bad law that gives you, living a comfortable middle-class existence, a few extra rupees at the expense of a small entrepreneur without the social security nets that you have? We are rightly outraged if a Vedanta or a Posco takes tribal land, pays the tribals a sum of money far below what it’s worth, and then calls in state government police if they protest. Do you not realise that this is exactly the fucking same thing that you’re calling for?

So if you must do something, here are a few other somethings you can consider that aren’t as ill-advised or morally abhorrent:

  1. Get a better paying job so that you can afford your own car.
  2. Petition for better mass transit options like round-the-clock bus services, more regular bus-services, or an expanded Metro network instead of for police harassment.
  3. Petition for a change in the licensing regime so that there can be autorickshaw fleets the way there are fleet taxis. Why shouldn’t Meru and Easy run autos as well as taxicabs, and maintain a fixed, corporate rate?
  4. And since I’m on a roll here – petition for privatisation and competition in bus operation, so that we have competing bus or minibus operators running defined routes, open to the public.

These somethings have the benefits that they give you alternatives to being ripped off (and the assumption that you are being ripped off in the first place is a questionable one), they make life better for other people as well, and they don’t call for police harassment. Please do break out of your entitled little bubble and consider them.


How We Think About Cities

October 20, 2011

Back when twitter was outraging over Dalhi boys and the Madrasan, Shefaly asked me how I, as a Dalhi boy living in Madras, felt about the whole thing. I told her that explaining my feelings would need a blogpost, not tweets, and that I was too busy to write a blogpost, but I’d write one as soon as I had free time. Shefaly said she’d hold me to that.

Unfortunately, this is not that blogpost. But it will hopefully make it easier to understand what I’m going on about when I do write the blogpost Shefaly did ask for.

The thing is, when we (and by ‘we’, I am generalising recklessly about people-like-us Indians) think about or talk about our cities, we do so in different ways. I’ve counted four such ways. I’m not suggesting that these four are the only ways to think about cities, or that a person thinks about a particular city in only one of these ways – just that anything any Indian person says about a city is likely to fall in one of these categories. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s go ahead.

The four ways we think about cities are:

  1. Cynical: in general, this involves a dismissal of a city, either by its own residents (whether recent or long-time), or people from other places. When Krish Ashok makes fun of amit_123s, he spoofs the cynical view of Chennai as being hot and muggy (admittedly this is true), possessing no food options other than curd rice (this is false), having practically no decent public spaces to booze (this is true), and lacking all redeeming features (this is false). Chennai is of course not the only city to attract a cynical view. I am frequently cynical about Calcutta, dismissing it as a vast slum. My father looks upon Mumbai as an overpopulated sewer. My brother hates Bangalore for reasons I am unable to fathom, and Delhi of course gets insane amounts of bad press from all corners for being full of road rage (which I cannot contest), people going ‘Tu jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai?’ (Um… yes, but it has been getting better in the past few years as more migrants come in and make Delhi a gentler place) and violence against women (which is true, but it is also possible that it’s not significantly different from other places in India in actual violence – the others don’t report it as much).
    Cynicism about cities doesn’t only have to be about people from one city slagging of another. It can be about all cities being worthless – see this Caravan article about how much disdain the Kannada movie article has for Bangalore, and perhaps urban life in general. I can’t find the links right now, but a few years ago I was reading about how in the United States there’s a distrust for big cities by small-towners and rural dwellers – those effete city-dwellers aren’t real Americans! And of course, the NREGA itself has a philosophical underpinning that it’s a bad idea for villagers to be in the city – they should be given employment in their home villages instead. That’s actually an idea going back to Mohandas Gandhi, and which has quite possibly screwed India over for sixty years.
  2. Romantic: this is right at the other end of the spectrum from the cynical. While the cynic looks at only the terrible parts of the city while ignoring all the good bits, the romantic sees only the good bits, and never mentions the bad. This is fairly prevalent.
    The most romantic view we’ve ever had of a city probably lay in the phrase ‘the Spirit of Mumbai,’ before it became impossible to say that without a sneer, as it got associated with passively accepting whatever shit got dealt out to Mumbai. But other Indian cities have had their romantic propaganda as well – look at the title song of Dilli-6, whose lyrics keep talking about the big hearts of people in Delhi, claim that all the profanity slung about the city is actually filled with love, and that there is nothing in Delhi but love. Chandru gets fairly romantic about Chennai at times. And of course there’s perpetual Delhi romantic Mayank Austen Soofi (who on occasion manages to be cynical about present-day Delhi while remaining romantic about past-Delhi).
  3. Sanctimonious: The evil twin of romanticism. The sanctimonious view doesn’t so much claim that a city is good and has no bad, as that the city is better than everywhere else (often in defiance of actual facts). This includes people from Metrass accusing every other place in India of having no morality or respect from tradition, people from Kolkata of claiming that only they have kalchar, and Mumbai people claiming that nowhere else in India is happening (seriously, Mumbai guys: fuck off). Oh, and about a month ago, Anantha expressing schadenfreude that while Chennai might have to suffer TASMAC-administered virtual prohibition, at least it didn’t have as stupid a name as Kolkatta/ Poschim Bongo (which is undeniable).  I’ve seen Delhi cynicism and Delhi romanticism, but never Delhi sanctimony. But this needn’t necessarily be because Delhi doesn’t possess that vice, just that it’s so self-absorbed that it can’t quite grok the point of comparing itself to other places.
  4. Realist: And finally, there’s the realist view, which is able to acknowledge both the good parts and the bad parts of a city. This, I fear, is tremendously unpopular.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that we as human beings respond far better to stories and narratives than to data, and it’s much easier to make a story out of a romantic or cynical view than out of actual data. Every year sees ‘Best Cities to Live in’ lists being released by somebody or the other, in which newspapers only cover the final rankings, not the break down of scores and parameters.
Another thing which probably makes it difficult for realist views of our cities to spread is that so few people have a stake in our cities, thanks to our wonky system of government which kicks most of city governance up to the state government (link via Supriya from ages ago). When there’s so little chance that demanding a specific change or improvement in a city will ever have a result, there’s even littler reason for a city resident to keep track of specific improvements that could be made. Easier and more convenient to stick to a grand narrative – whether romantic, cynical, or sanctimonious.
This is what makes it difficult to have a proper conversation about cities in India – the ones you were born in (or with), the ones you’ve adopted (or who adopt you), or the ones you like to visit. At some point, you’re going to challenge someone’s worldview – romantic or cynical or sanctimonious – and then the conversation is going to go off into arguing about that worldview, not about real life. This is of course a common problem when talking about many things, but it seems to be particularly bad when we talk about our cities.
That said, since Shefaly is holding me to it, I will try to have that conversation about cities soon. Portions of my cynicism and romanticism will creep into that as well, but I will aim to be as realistic as possible. Unfortunately, you will have to wait for the next time I have a relatively free working day.

Frightfully Well Carried Out

July 30, 2011

This morning, I read the Caravan magazine cover story on the organisational restructuring Rahul Gandhi is carrying out at the Youth Congress. It is very good and you should read it too. What I found particularly interesting was this bit:

The “transformation effort” kicked off in earnest in May 2008, with a workshop conducted by Jayaram for 40 young Congress leaders. It was this seminar and a series of subsequent meetings—about “what the organisation should stand for, its goals and its ideals”, in Jayaram’s words—that set the course for the overhaul of the IYC. What Rahul and the other young Congresspeople envisioned was an open, democratic, clean, technologically advanced party. “We wanted to produce good politicians who are like professionals,” one participant in the meetings told me.

All this is well and good, but openness, democracy, and cleanliness are hardly goals in themselves. Organisational structure and processes are means to an end.

To make things clearer, let me draw an analogy to the corporate world. A company’s goals could be to create great products, to give its customers a cheap deal, or prosaically, to maximise shareholder value. Similarly a political party might want to create a welfare state, or to increase economic freedom, or prosaically, to get into power. These are all valid goals. A company which said that its goal was to have really great internal processes, but mentioned nothing about its products or customers is probably not going to do very well at the market.

The Caravan story does allude to this:

After suggesting that the “professionalisation” of politics, with its recruitment strategies drawn from the world of business management, had produced politicians wary of taking a stand on anything controversial, Mehta drew a contrast with the 1970s. “There was a massive wave of young people into politics,” he said, “but they had clear political identities at a young age. You knew what Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad stood for in 1974. I don’t know what Rahul Gandhi stands for.”

By a happy coincidence, I discovered a bit of Yes, Prime Minister dialogue this evening that sums up this whole issue of really fantastic organisational processes for the sake of really fantastic organisational processes:

Sir Humphrey: My job is to carry out government policy.

Jim Hacker: Even if you think it is wrong?

Sir Humphrey: Well, almost all government policy is wrong, but…frightfully well carried out.

This is actually better than the Youth Congress. At least Sir Humphrey could comment on government policy. With the Youth Congress, we don’t even know what the policies are.