Saturday, August 10, 2013


I have become a very big fan of two Americans in recent times. Simply because they hold established pundits in utter contempt. One of them is statistician and number cruncher Nate Silver who is chucking his ‘prestigious’ job with the venerable New York Times to join the ‘oh so downmarket’ ESPN. In 2012, President Barack Obama “lost” the first debate to Republican challenger Mitt Romney so badly that most pundits – and opinion polls – started predicting an Obama loss. So pervasive was this “Obama will lose” aura created by myths that many Obama fans became disconsolate. Nate Silverwho claims no expertise on political matters and issueswas perhaps the only one who kept insisting that Obama will win, and win convincingly. Most pundits laughed at his so called stupidity; many accused him of bias and prejudice. In the end, Obama won, and won convincingly. This is what Silver has to say about political pundits in America: “I would argue that MOST political pundits are completely useless; the outliers are the few who are worth reading. Plus the political pundits take themselves very seriously...”

I couldn’t help recalling these lines when I was forced (by a fractured hip bone) to watch hours of television where pundits were analysing latest opinion polls on the Indian political scene. The glittering cast of pundits adorning the TV channels was so formidable that it would be heresy to question their unquestionable wisdom. But Nate Silver kept coming back at me. And it dawned on me that MOST pundits were talking nonsense. The opinion polls indicate that the Congress is going to get battered in the coming elections because of rising prices, poor governance and corruption. You don’t need opinion polls to arrive at that conclusion; just talk to non-pundits in the form of attendants and nurses in hospitals, taxi drivers, maid servants, dhobis, street hawkers, newspaper vendors...and you can figure out. The opinion polls also seem to indicate that the BJP will not benefit and the elections will result in a fractured mandate and a hung Parliament. India’s best pundits then gave their expert opinions on issues ranging from caste to Muslim votes to either the unsuitability or improbability of Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister.

Ever since this magazine was launched in 2005, there has not been a single electoral verdict in India that has delivered a fractured mandate. And of course, there has not been a single verdict that has not exposed the pundits as no better than astrologers and tarot card readers.

In 2011, venerable media outfits and even more venerable pundits – backed by opinion polls – kept saying that Jayalalithaa Jayaram and AIADMK will win the Tamil Nadu assembly elections but won’t find it easy because of the ‘formidable’ alliance between the DMK and the Congress and the populist schemes announced by them. In the event, Jayalalithaa simply decimated her opponents. Then there were quite a few morons who suggested in early 2012 that no one could form a government in Uttar Pradesh without the support of the Congress. As hysterical reporters marvelled at the crowds gathered to hear the crown prince Rahul Gandhi, opinion polls and pundits pontificated on a fractured mandate, a hung UP assembly and the possible reemergence of the Congress. The UP voter, like Nate Silver, was laughing all along. In Punjab, the pundits were discussing the cabinet formation by Congress leader Amarinder Singh hours before the results were announced. The venerable pundits were discussing how the revolt by Manpreet Badal, the nephew of Akali Dal leader and chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, who formed his own party would badly damage the ruling alliance of BJP and Akali Dal. When the results were announced, some pundits blamed the voters for their lack of wisdom; just as many pundits have branded the whole state of Gujarat as “communal” because the damned voters there keep voting for Narendra Modi!

I simply did not hear one simple thing: that the Indian voter is repeatedly delivering decisive mandates and it will be either the UPA or the NDA in 2014. I am sure pundits on TV channels will have fancy explanations when the electoral verdict of 2014 throws egg on their faces. Just in case you think my words, in the tradition of Digvijaya Singh, reveal that I am a product of an RSS conspiracy, please recall what our pundits were saying before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Almost everyone predicted that the Left parties and the “Third Front” would be the winners. Within hours of the results being announced, when the Congress and the UPA won a clear mandate, the same pundits started discussing how good a Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi could be!

I was forced to watch another “Made for Pundits” carnival on television; this one about Amartya Sen versus Jagdish Bhagwati and the Kerala versus Gujarat models of development. Added to this was the debate about poverty – with some Congress leaders claiming you could eat a full meal for Rs.12 or even Rs.5. The pundits are very clear: it is a ‘global, neo-imperialist, corporate’ conspiracy to claim that poverty has declined in India. Then again, people like Modi who tout the Gujarat model of development are false messiahs and frauds because it is Kerala with its superior human development results that is the true road map for India. (You can add Bihar and the Nitish Kumar model to this now. And don’t forget the Bangladesh model because pundits make Indians like me ashamed by showing better human development results in Bangladesh!!!).

I then recalled the other American who can add me to his list of fans [Not that he will care!] – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of ‘Black Swan’ and the man who became famous because he was one of the rare ones who actually anticipated the great collapse of 2008. He has written another book called the ‘Anti-Fragile’ which you really must read if you have the time and the mental stamina; not to speak of having an open mind. In the book, Taleb systematically trashes the “pundits” of the world and their wisdom with actual evidence. And this is what he writes about globally respected New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman of the “World is Flat” fame and Joseph Stiglitz, one of the most revered pundits of our times and another Economics Nobel Prize Winner like Amartya Sen: “There is something more severe than the problem with Thomas Friedman, which can be generalised to someone causing action without being completely unaccountable for his words....had Stiglitz been a businessman with his own money on the line, he would have been blown up, terminated. Or had he been in nature, his genes would have been made extinct so people with such misunderstanding of probability would eventually disappear from our DNA”.

I really wish India encouraged “contrarian” voices like this! I do not have the expertise of the pundits when it comes to the poverty war being played out in the media. But I have grown up in Chattisgarh and Odisha and I have personally seen the decline of poverty in the places I have lived in and visited again and again. Alone who says poverty has not declined in the towns and villages that I know intimately, or that it has worsened, is a fraud. Anyone who has lived in these areas knows that it is the Congress who encouraged the plunder and exploitation of the natives. There is no serious analysis required here because the Congress has ruled most of India for most of its existence as an independent country. But I can claim no knowledge of India as a whole. Of course, there is one thing that strikes me when I (SMS your views with your name and topic to 0-9818101234) hear about the wonderful stories of development in Kerala, Bangladesh and Bihar. The most practical way to check human behaviour is to look at how they actually behave. So I keep thinking, if the Kerala model is so great, why do so many from that state keep looking for a better life elsewhere? And then I think, what would happen to Kerala if the nurses, electricians, carpenters, doctors, software engineers and many other professionals stopped sending money “back home”? Besides, if as pronounced by the father of all pundits Amartya Sen, if things are so hunky dory in Bangladesh, why do we so many citizens of that ‘humanly developed’ country want to cross over to India? Of course, Indian pundits say that illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a conspiracy hatched by the RSS types! I interact with pundits like this and think: these are the same guys who kept praising Communism and the Soviet Union even as people from the blessed Communist countries displayed a stupid tendency to migrate to ‘Imperialistic’ domains. These are the same guys who became pundits specialising in environment, inclusive growth, secularism and....

Need I say more?


Saturday, July 6, 2013


And so the expected has happened. The Mother of all Mai-Baap sarkars in the world has passed an ordinance clearing the Food Security Bill. At the stroke of a pen, Sonia Gandhi will realize the dream expressed by the grand father-in-law Jawaharlal Nehru at the stroke of midnight in 1947. About 800 million grateful Indians will now marvel at her kind spirit as they get virtually free food from the government (Of course tens of thousands of bureaucrats, contractors and suppliers will soon demand that the Pope declare her a Saint for the untold manna from heaven that she is going to shower on them). After organizing the signature campaign and sending the petition to Rome via Federal Express, this smaller group will carry the Gita or Quran or Bible or the Guru Granth Sahib and flock to temples, mosques, churches and gurudwaras with just a single prayer to their God. “Please guide these 800 million idiots to polling stations and tell them that salvation is guaranteed if they kiss the Hand that feeds them.” And what about the ungrateful who are carping at this once in a millennium gesture of largesse and noblesse oblige? What of their plaintive cries that this will bankrupt an already bankrupt government? What of their warnings that the poor will continue to starve and be malnourished like they have despite more than four decades of similar programs and welfare schemes. Off the record madam’s minions will smile and say they are playing something called Power Games, and not Hunger Games. Acolytes of the crown prince who have an MBA degree will invite applications from employees of the global Pizza chain that coined the slogan: Hungry Kya? Simultaneously, applications will be invited from employees of a species called NGOs (Neo Godly Organisations) who will holler and scream that Modi is culpable of genocide because he doesn’t support the Food Security Bill. Many pundits in TV studios will discuss how cops in Gujarat killed the Bill in a fake encounter. Of since the Bill has divine blessings, it was miraculously resurrected. To cap it all, Pawan Kumar Bansal will be reinstated as the Railway Minister to ensure that all those millions of tons of food grains are transported in the proper “bags”, the Railway Board will create a new post for a senior bureaucrat to oversee this ship of salvation that will be akin to Noah’s Ark. Interested parties will be encouraged to contact certain nephews. The term ‘Gravy Train’ will acquire a new meaning. And of course, the caged parrot will come in handy to fix some potentially ungrateful souls who have the capacity to lure away many of those 800 million souls who might otherwise kiss the Hand that feeds them.

Since India has gone completely batty and crazy, I think even I am entitled to sing a few loonie tunes. But mind you, the tunes might sound loony to you, but they actually provide a glimpse of the future that awaits India. You see, Madam Gandhi not only has the support of sycophants, fixers, hacks and assorted jholawalas, she has the “intellectual” support of a Nobel Prize winning economist cum philosopher. Yes, we are talking about that argumentative Indian Amartya Sen. When the Parliament was repeatedly disrupted by the coal and the railway scam in April, 2013, it looked as if the UPA government would not be able to pass the Food Security Bill. Amartya Sen jumped into the fray with a delicious display of outrage and basically slammed the opposition parties – mainly the BJP – for blocking such an important piece of legislation. He thundered: “The case for passing this Bill is overwhelming...I would prefer this Bill to no bill at all... Those busting parliamentary discussion should be held responsible for not solving the problem of hunger in the country...we need to ask: who will be held responsible for the deaths of millions of malnourished children in the country?” The obvious questions anyone with common sense would ask is: the Congress has ruled India for about 54 out of 65 years since independence in 1947. What has the party done to even minimize hunger, forget eliminating it? The second question is: the UPA under Madam Sonia had nine years to get a Bill like this passed by the Parliament. Why issue an ordinance when a Parliament session is just a few weeks away? The answer is obvious: political gains. And it is an enormous help if the Godfather of jholawallas lends a helping hand by slamming non-Congress parties. But more important than these political hunger games is the mindset of such Left leaning “liberals” who think that the reforms process has made life worse for India’s poor and hence more and more extravagant welfare schemes are required. This idea of India and this vision of India has dominated mainstream discourse for decades.

But there are people who offer an alternative vision. For instance, Jagdish Bhagwati whose ideology is completely at odds with that of Amartya Sen. In a speech delivered to the Indian Parliament in 2010, Bhagwati tore apart the Amartya Sen school of thought by saying: “But then, the naysayers, among them the socialists in the currently ruling Congress Party, have rejected the miracle produced by the (1991) reforms by suggesting darkly that the growth lacks a human face and that it is not inclusive, that the gains have accrued to the rich wile the poor have been immiserized, that inequality has increased and that India stands condemned before the world. Perhaps the most articulate critics are the “progressive” novelists of India, chief among them Pankaj Mishra whom the Op-Ed page editors of The New York Times regularly and almost exclusively incite to write about the Indian economy, a privilege they do not seem to extend symmetrically to American novelists to give us their profound thoughts on the US economy. While Mishra’s analysis is eloquent and captivating, (it) is really fiction masquerading as non-fiction. The fact is that several analyses have sown that enhanced growth rate has been food for reducing poverty while it has not increased inequality measured meaningfully and that large majorities of virtually all underprivileged groups polled say that their financial situation has not worsened and significant numbers say that it has improved”.

The whole of India is talking about the imminent face off and showdown between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. In reality, Modi and Rahul are mere symbols who represent two divergent ideas of India. The two ideas have been best articulated by Amartya Sen and Jagdhish Bhagwati. As students, both were contemporaries at Cambridge University (Manmohan Singh was another contemporary) and Sen moved towards the Left while Bhagwati moved towards the right. It would indeed be a dream cum true for the two to have a public debate about their divergent visions of India’s future. Many economists and analysts have even demanded that the two engage in a verbal duel. Sadly, that has not happened, though Bhagwati seems very keen on it because he told The Economic Times in an interview: “Of course I have been against pro poor policies. From my first job in the Indian Planning Commission in the early 1960s, I have been working on how to reduce poverty. What I have objected to are the specific anti poverty policies that Professor Sen has backed, in one way or another. Those policies have demonstrated actually increased poverty! You must ask Professor Sen, and not me, why he will not engage in a debate with me, even though he has been invited by others. After all, he is the one who used the phrase argumentative Indian...”

Will the Nobel winning philosopher rise to the bait and the occasion? We are all waiting with bated breath. But we know where Sen’s preferences lie when it comes to politics. When asked about dynasties in Indian politics, he said: “Would Rahul someday make a good Prime Minister? It is quite possible. I know him a certain amount. I once actually spent a day with him and I was very impressed...I think he is very talented. It was clear to me that he was committed to India’s development”.

Food for thought, isn’t it?!