Sunday, November 16, 2008

Indirect Signaling in non-Indian Societies

I was reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat recently. One of the things it says is that during the dot-com boom, companies laid excessive amounts of fiber-optic and other data carrying cable, so that communication became dirt cheap. The surprising thing is that communication is not dirt cheap for the consumer in the USA. In the competitive market, competing companies have somehow accomplished the feat of dividing up turf and avoiding a competitive price war without any explicit negotiations (that would be illegal). They signaled their intentions through indirect communication and were able to arrive at figures that were profitable to them (and, of course, detrimental to the consumer).

This kind of indirect signaling appears common in many societies. Its features are:
  1. Enhancement of the common good
  2. Existence of conditions which make agreements/pacts impossible
  3. Decision making based only on observation of behaviour of other agents
It seems to find less purchase in India. For example, Jihadi terrorism finds a lot of sympathy in India. There are many people who are staunchly opposed to it, but there are also apologists for terrorism who give sympathetic reasons why it exists. This makes it hard to act against terrorism: there is always a section of apologists opposing any anti-terrorist move. On the other hand, in Western society people are somehow able to get together on issues like terrorism: everybody condemns it and no one makes apologies for it. Those who do make apologies for it are excluded nonviolently but very firmly. Society is able to act more coherently against the problem.

Another example comes from the recent India-Australia cricket wars. In Australia, Ricky Ponting set a nasty tone by employing a sledging approach as well as dishonourable calls (claiming catches that bounced) to win matches. Initially, the Australian press seemed annoyed with Ponting for this behaviour. But pretty soon, they almost magically banded together and began vilifying the visiting Indian team to put pressure on them. Harbhajan Singh came in for particularly nasty attacks. The Australian press went so far as to position a camera that exclusively shot footage of Harbhajan throughout one of the matches, and soundly criticized all off-field moves the Indians made. The Australian press rallied around this psychological attack on the Indian team in a way that the Indian press can never do. There is often a "fashionable" section of the Indian press which will support the Australians in such situations. Putting concerted pressure on the Australian team during their visit to India never occurred to the Indian press. Thus, teams like Australia have an extra card up their sleeve that the Indian team is unable to possess.

Perhaps another example of such signaling lies in the way European powers divided up India and avoided conflict with each other to a great extent in the 18th and 19th centuries. They somehow recognized it was better that a European power win control than the alternative of fighting among themselves and letting the Indians repulse them. The Indians, on the other hand, failed to recognize that defeating the European powers should have been higher on their agenda than trying to use the Europeans to defeat other Indian powers. Europe signaled, India didn't. This example may not be valid because I'm not sure the Europeans didn't explicitly discuss this among themselves. Maybe they did.

That Indians fight among themselves is well-known; we are taught this in our history classes from primary school onwards. It is obvious in our politics and our culture, which seem based on primacy. However, the distinguishing feature in indirect signaling is the indirectness. Some societies seem to be able to act in concert even without explicit agreements. India seems to be able to do this to a lesser extent than some other societies.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dog Haters

There have been some recent articles (here and here) about removing stray dogs from public spaces. The suggestion is that all dogs must have designated owners, who are then responsible for the dogs' actions. This may or may not be implementable in Indian cities, but the articles do have some asymmetric blind spots.

First, they start with the hidden assumption that the well-being of those to whom dogs are a nuisance trumps the well-being of those to whom the dogs are a benefit. An analogy given in one of the articles is that of a car:
Would it be just to enjoy the thrill of racing your BMW, yet not pay damages for breaking a 10-year-old kid’s leg in an unfortunate accident? No, it wouldn’t. And this is why parents’ associations don’t demand removal of all cars. Private property ensures costs and benefits are borne by the same person, encouraging citizens to behave with caution and due care.
Suppose we approach this from a different angle. One could equally well start with the assumption that the natural state of affairs is the presence of stray dogs and the happiness that people derive from it, and that if dogs are removed, those who demand their removal should be required to compensate others for the loss of emotional satisfaction. Dog haters (not taxpayers in general) should be exclusively required to pay for all expenses involved in removing dogs. Further, they should be held liable for any thefts deemed preventable with the presence of dogs which might have given due warning.

You shouldn't be able to divert a river or cut down a forest without compensating those who would be affected. In the same way, you shouldn't be allowed to remove the benefits of having dogs -- the natural state of affairs -- without compensating those who want the dogs around.
But, what about “animal rights”? “Animal right” is a contradiction in terms. All rights derive from human beings’ right to own oneself, from which follows an individual’s right to own things non-human. Slavery is unjust, but rearing cattle is business. And dogs are no exception to this.
The author seems to have missed the point completely. The point that animal rights activists make is that all rights should not derive from human beings' right to own animals as property because, for example, a BMW does not feel pain or anguish, while animals do. Moreover, the statement "Human beings have a right to own oneself" does not logically imply "an individual’s right to own things non-human", in spite of the author's blithe claim.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

NYT on the Nuclear Deal

The New York Times has this hack of an opinion piece on the Indian nuclear deal. I felt like expressing my Indian viewpoint on some of the things it said, so here goes:

Article: IN the next day or so, an obscure organization will meet to decide the fate of an Indian nuclear deal that threatens to rapidly accelerate New Delhi’s arms race with Pakistan — a rivalry made all the more precarious by the resignation on Tuesday of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf.

Response: The Pakistan angle is always used as a catch-all to explain why India shouldn't have nukes. This is hypocritical and specious. Hypocritical, because rivalries between the USA and Russia have always been closer to nuclear flashpoint level than those between India and Pakistan. Specious, because India and Pakistan are actively taking steps towards reconciliation and there's no clear reason to believe that nukes will play a role in any future conflict.

Article: If the president gets his way, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — for 50 years, the bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons — would be shredded and India’s yearly nuclear weapons production capability would likely increase from 7 bombs to 40 or 50.

Response: The NPT is no bulwark; all it does is allow for a veil of secrecy for certain nations to secretly proliferate with impunity. China has been giving nuke tech away to Pakistan for decades. The USA gave nuke tech to Israel. And Pakistan proliferated to Iran even as the US mollycoddled it and gave it military funds.

Article: India’s nuclear history is checkered at best

Response: Er, no. Now you're just lying. India has a perfect nonproliferation record.

Article: ... exploits foreign nuclear energy assistance to make a bomb, as India did. [India] misused civilian nuclear technology to produce its first nuclear weapon in 1974

Response: How was it better or more ethical to use Nazi war tech to create nuclear weapons, and then use those weapons to kill hundreds of thousands of people, than to use civilian nuke tech to explode a handful of proof-of-concept weapons? Does the former not count as misuse?

Article: Just last month, the Pakistani government darkly announced that waiving the nuclear rules for India “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.”

Response: Perhaps this is just a pressure tactic from a nation which had also demanded the same concessions that India did but never got them? That ever cross your mind?

Article: India must sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a step already taken by 178 other countries and every member state of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. After all, why should the group’s members grant India a huge exemption from the rules that they themselves are supposed to follow?

Response: Perhaps this can wait until India achieves nuclear parity with the exclusive nuclear club and stockpiles a few thousand nukes. Why not ask why the nuclear weapon states aren't required to reduce their arsenal to the 5 or 6 bombs that India has? After all, the USA has thousands of nukes, enough to destroy the entire world. Why should a treaty designed specifically to protect the USA and other nuke countries' nuclear stockpiles be allowed to stand? Finally, this demand is ridiculously unrealistic in the face of the fact that India has consistently refused it for 5 decades and domestic public opinion is perhaps 90% opposed to it.

Article: India must agree to halt production of nuclear material for weapons.

Response: First, is India continuing to produce nuclear material for weapons? Then why aren't there any more than 5-7 nukes in India? Second, India should halt production when the existing nuke powers reduce their stockpiles to Indian levels, and not before that.

The world will be a better place when 60 year old, old-world, Nixon-era-educated India-haters like the authors of this article are all gone.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Rajiv Gandhi: Enhanced by Publicity and Imagination

Of India's Prime Ministers so far, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi stand out as clear giants in the line-up. In terms of contributions to the Indian nation and popularity no one but Mahatma Gandhi can match Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira Gandhi was a great leader as well, immensely popular and able to take tough decisions that shaped the history of the subcontinent.

After Nehru and Indira, no one stands out quite as much in the line-up of Prime Ministers. Three significant leaders are Rajiv Gandhi, P. V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Lal Bahadur Shastri didn't have enough years in office and Morarji Desai was too stymied by politics. The others are small by comparison.

Among the three, the tallest leader is P. V. Narasimha Rao, who was the real architect of the economic reforms of 1991. The real challenge at that time was political and Rao provided Manmohan Singh with a shield that allowed him to complete the reforms unhindered.

However, Rajiv Gandhi's public image has been raised much higher than that of Rao and Vajpayee. This has been done by his family members and Family sycophants in the Congress party. He has a samadhi. An international airport, national medals and various institutions have been named after him. The Family jealously guards such "naming assets", ensuring that to the extent possible no assets are named after non-family members.

Rajiv Gandhi has a samadhi near that of Mahatma Gandhi. It is interesting to see what other samadhis are in the vicinity. Mahatma Gandhi (Raj Ghat), Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri have samadhis in the same location. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri have obvious claim to samadhis here. Indira Gandhi is borderline: although she was a great prime minister, one wonders whether she should be placed in the same category as these three stalwarts. The others are completely out of place; this area is not the Family's personal space. Sanjay Gandhi was the nation's prime thug; his samadhi has no business there. Rajiv Gandhi did some good but is nowhere near worthy enough to merit a samadhi here.

In Hyderabad, the Family made certain through its extraordinary hold on the central government that N. T. Rama Rao's name was not applied to Begumpet airport. Instead, it was named the Rajiv Gandhi airport.

Now Rajiv Gandhi was a great prime minister and diplomat in his own right. However, the homage the nation paid to him is simply not commensurate with his standing. The Family's tendency to hijack the naming of national institutions for themselves must stop.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Huh? Hindus are Vegetarian: NYT

Here's a "Huh?" quote from this interesting article in the New York Times:
It was a Muslim establishment, serving carnivorous fare. But in deference to its many Hindu patrons, the gruel came in a vegetarian version, too.
The stereotype of the vegetarian Hindu is surprising, considering that it is well-known to be false: most Hindus are not vegetarian. I read on a blog that NRIs encourage this stereotype: if that's true, is it because most Indian emigrants are vegetarian? It is a stereotype that many Indians believe: a non-vegetarian Hindu NRI once insisted that an overwhelming majority of Hindus are vegetarian.

The suprising thing is that, unlike most stereotypes, this stereotype is well-known to be false.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Stereotypes about Caste

I read an article titled "Schedule Conflict: the persistence of caste in India" by a Harvard student recently. It brought home to me how stereotypes that are propagated and reinforced in Western schooling don't go away after a student grows up and begins thinking for himself. Here are some peculiarities:
  1. the perennially disappointing “Hindu rate of growth.” -- Does anybody still use this offensive phrase, even flippantly or in quotes? The author probably picked it out of some newspaper or the other. It's used in the Indian media sometimes, but only to sarcastically point out the way the West perceived India's religion. I'd like to provide an analogy using America's race conflicts, but it would be too crass.
  2. Traditional hierarchies—like caste—are supposed to be getting weaker. Why then was the nation’s capital suddenly in the grip of caste-based protests once again last week? -- This seems vaguely inaccurate. When you say "caste-based protests", one gets the sense that it has something to do with the way society treated them (recently), anger with their place in a hierarchy. These protests had nothing to do with this. It was simply a group with a sense of common identity demanding something. The Gujjars were a caste, but they were acting as any other group with a common interest would. This was not a caste conflict.
  3. This is closely related to what I feel is a difference in perception of caste between Indians and the West. The West tends to think of caste as a "system", a social arrangement created with a particular purpose. If you're a particular caste, other castes must have treated you this way, you're above these castes, below those. Indians tend to view caste as a means of explaining identity, a label that identifies history. If you're a particular caste, you might have been born in this area, your ancestors must have done this kind of work, these are your customs.
  4. what an Indian gets is still as much about who they are as what they have done. Caste members are eligible for certain government programs and jobs, as well as educational opportunities, based almost exclusively on their caste identity. -- This seems to be contrasting the Western work-reward notion (what you get depends on what you do, not who you are) with a hereditary reward notion. But that's not what's going on. The Gujjars are demanding affirmative action based on historical disadvantage. If a Gujjar shows acumen, he can still become a doctor or a businessman or a scientist.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hindutva is no longer a Category

Recent developments show that Hindutva is no longer a uniform ideology. Like in any other large group, there have always been differences in the Hindutva camp. But the Shiv Sena's recent call for Hindu terrorist cells is so far away from most Hindutva ideology that it doesn't deserved to be identified as such. It appears that there are many Hindutva parties that would not even imagine such nonsense. Perhaps this is no more than the rantings of an old man.

But there is no doubt that this will affect the reputation of all Hindutva parties, as well as provide cannon fodder against Hinduism and India.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Twenty20 and ODIs

There has been a lot of apprehension about the Twenty20 format. It is such a short version of the game that people are worried it will result in a sort of hack-and-slash cricket. It is so attractive and popular that there are worries the beauty and the fine technique of longer versions will become obsolete.

But maybe not. The Kitply cup ODI victory may be an indication of how the Twenty20 format can actually help players prepare for ODI matches. The Indian team in the first match between India and Pakistan was fresh from the first IPL Twenty20 tournament, and not only ended the 12-ODI winning streak of the ODI-trained Pakistan squad, but routed them by 141 runs. India gave away 3 extras; Pakistan gave away 38. Pakistan fielded miserably, dropping crucial catches which allowed the Indian top-order batsmen to raise the Indian total to 330. Of course one match is not enough evidence, but maybe the Twenty20 format forces players to play a tighter, more focused game, something that the ODI-trained Pakistan squad simply had no answer to. It's a different, more nimble kind of warfare.

One of the biggest complaints about the Twenty20 format is that it is designed so that batsmen can go after bowlers. 20-run overs are not uncommon, and some think this will discourage bowlers. This is a misconception based on an inability to adjust your measures to a different situation. It needs to be understood that in Twenty20 a 10-run over is not so bad. A 5-run ODI over is the same quality as an 8 to 10-run Twenty20 over; that's all.

If anything, the bowlers' performance becomes even more crucial in Twenty20. The value of a bowler who can pull off some tight overs is very high in the 3-hour format, and the bowlers end up bowling more accurately under more pressure. This hones their skills.

The overall effect of Twenty20 remains to be seen. But initial indications are that it looks like a great thing for Indian cricket.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Gandhi, Churchill and Hitler

It is fashionable among some in Britain to poke fun at Gandhi. If they are to be believed, Gandhi was weak, simple, foolishly idealistic, and it was Churchill who really saved Gandhi's India by successfully leading a defence against Hitler.

It is well known that Churchill looked upon Gandhi with great distaste. Some Brits who love Churchill like to paint Gandhi as naive, repeatedly publishing articles stating that the world needs more Churchills and less Gandhis. The tone of some of these articles is derisive towards Gandhi; the author of one article even refers to him using Churchill's infamous epithet. Many of these articles are linked to the Churchill Center's struggle to have Churchill declared the Man of the Century by Time Magazine. This center goes so far as to hint that Gandhi was an admirer of Hitler, using this quote from Gandhi: "I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed." One question that is asked repeatedly is how Gandhi would have managed against Hitler.

Now, I think this is a ridiculous question to begin with, one that is intended to confuse rather than elucidate. One might as well ask whether one would choose Einstein or Gandhi to delve into the laws of the universe. Different people choose different roles; it is stupid to compare the historical roles of Gandhi and Churchill. What is being compared is their impact and their strength of character. And when it comes to character, Churchill's mean-minded pettiness vis-a-vis Gandhi is well documented. Apart from his public distaste for Gandhi as a person, Churchill has made some truly ugly comments, such as the time when, asked what he wanted to do about the millions of Indians who were dying in the Bengal famine, wished aloud that Gandhi was one of them.

Nevertheless, this entire mess of unlogic does give rise to an interesting question. What would Gandhi do if he was faced with Hitler? Gandhi was non-violent in the British context because he saw this as a good solution to the colonization. Non-violent methods were sufficient to restrain the British, who had based the entire colonization on arguments of inherent moral superiority over Indians and who were worried about this international image. Some think that Gandhi would still have chosen non-violence against the Nazis. But I think that if he realized the Nazis had no interest in being perceived as benign, his methods would have changed too. I think Gandhi would (with heavy heart) have gone to war.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


The arguments for Telangana are quite old, but I still can't exactly understand them. All of the arguments seem to be based on emotional grudges and wishful hopes rather than any understanding of how creating a separate state would help the people of the region. Pointed questions are sidestepped rather than answered.

For example, consider this FAQ from the US-based Telangana Development Forum.

Q: Isn't it economically better to be a bigger state than a smaller state?
A: Bihar is bigger than Goa but poorer, so this argument is false.
>: Citing exceptions doesn't prove anything; the fact is it is much harder for a smaller state to compete economically because its bargaining power is low.

Most of the argument is based on the notion that rich Andhra people habitually come to Telangana to "steal" resources or "divert" them to Andhra. The source of this sentiment is easy to trace: blaming someone else for your problems is always the path of least resistance.

The idea that the Andhra regions are exploiting the Telangana regions may be grounded in truth. But there is no verifiable data on any of these sites to support this. Almost all of the claims are rants rather than arguments.

Off the top of my head, here are some reasons why Telangana would be BAD for everybody involved:
  • Loss of bargaining power for both Andhra and Telangana. The whole is much more powerful than the sum of the parts.
  • Partitions of states with protracted separation movements hate each other (e.g. India-Pak, Pak-Bangladesh, Punjab-Haryana). This has always been true. The governments and people of Andhra and Telangana would spend inordinate amounts of energy quarrelling with each other.
  • Politicians will have finer control of the pie. Instead of having one top dog, we would have two top dogs in the same area. As the number of top dogs increases, things always get worse for the ordinary people.
  • Look at Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fighting. Arguments over various issues are bound to crop up between neighbouring states. The balance of power lies with larger states. If Tamil Nadu or Karnataka have a problem with the much smaller Telangana, they will chew up the small state and spit it out. It is an unrealistic dream to imagine that everything can be worked out between Telangana and its neighbours.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Brain Drain

It seems very dangerous to be a small country with large reserves of a natural resource in today's world. Quite swiftly, a media campaign painting the country's situation as requiring Western intervention is drummed up. Over a few years this builds up to the point where the country can be invaded, and its resources are signed away in order to "pay" for "rebuilding".

But India seems exempt, partially because it is a large country, and partially because there aren't many crucially important natural resources. The one really abundant resource in India is manpower. But India willingly gifts this resource to various rich countries; there is no need to invade.

This doesn't matter to a few Indians. But for many, those living in India and even some who have "gifted" themselves to the West but still care about India, this is a sad thing. India should do things to prevent it, they believe. But there is cause for despair, and little cause for celebration on this front. Rao's reforms of 1992 have brought a modicum of prosperity to India, but some governments don't seem to have learnt the positive lessons from those reforms.

People are important. All efforts should be made to keep the best people, by keeping them happy. Money spent on retaining good talent is repaid many times over. The presence of talent has a ripple effect, stimulating talent in other individuals. The loss of talent has exactly the opposite effect: the loss of talent is exacerbated by the loss of potential mentors for new talent.

Reports such as this one are especially wrenching.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Food Crisis, and the Fingers Pointing at India

In the current global food price crisis, George Bush and Condoleeza Rice deflected attention away from America by pointing fingers at the convenient focal points for all negative changes occurring in the world today: India and China.

The American appetite for fuel already has most of the world irritated; it is already blamed for the half-million Iraqi deaths. Now bio-fuels have made imminent the near-starvation of a billion other humans. The American publicity machine recognized that adding this to the list of transgressions wouldn't do much good. So a simple, plausible deflection was arranged: India and China are eating more, they are to blame.

The pro-American media is quick to try to soothe tempers in India by saying that Indians eating more is a good thing. But this is just meant to blind gullible Indians. After hearing this, who will the starving man in Africa blame? The Indians who are enjoying a "good thing" by eating more while the African starves, obviously. This statement is simply a smart publicity move to kill two birds with one stone: soothe ruffled Indian feathers, and still make everybody blame Indians (who are trying to eat enough to survive) rather than the Americans (who want to drive more SUVs and luxury cars).

Besides, the figures show that these statements are completely false. Indian foodgrain consumption increased by 2% in 2007-2008, while American foodgrain consumption increased by almost 12% in the same year!! (See this report). So even in terms of who's eating more (setting aside the biofuel issue), America is to blame more than India.

The problem I am trying to address here is not the food crisis itself, but attempts to evade responsibility and pin blame on others through a publicity machine. Such attempts are indeed a "cruel joke".

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Free Press: India and USA

Both India and the USA have a "free press". It is a social innovation the USA takes credit for. A free press is not traditionally associated with third-world countries like India. There is some element of truth to that: until about 1990, the press in India was indeed not very effective as a counter to the government. That has changed, and the press in India now seems to have achieved vibrancy. The press in both countries has problems, but they are different.

In the US, the big problem is the effectiveness of the government's public relations machinery. The government apparatus has learned all the tricks and methods for managing public opinion. This includes more effectively putting out the government's point of view than any private newspaper could manage and methods for subverting some of the press's insiders. These include various inducements as well as the threat of denial of sources. The government's efficiency in public relations means than whenever the government needs to, it can neutralize any effects of a "free press".

In India, the press is also stymied by subversion of its insiders. But this subversion is a lot more ad-hoc and less institutionalized than in the US. Individual politicians cultivate individual journalists and editors according to their strategic vision and financial resources. The lack of cohesion is increased by the large number of warring political parties, making it harder for any party or politician to control all the press. The second factor is the general low standards of evidence and article writing in the press. Many leading dailies have errors which would make a class 10 student cringe. The quality of writing can be insipid and there is not effort to make content complete. There are often articles that are 2 or 3 lines long.

Overall, it seems to me that the Indian press is more effective at exposing problems in government than the American press. This is simply because, although the press in the US is a lot better developed and more mature than the Indian press, the Indian political establishment is less well-versed at managing the press than the American political establishment.