Pluralism as a liberal recourse to multiple identities

We inhabit multiple realities, and therefore identities. However, I would like to take it one step further: it is true that religious fundamentalism are as much as a component to a globalised world as anything else, however, there are construction of certain identities whether within oneself or in society which disable us from being plural. In other words: contested identities do exist in a single space (which can be inherently accommodating), which can lead to the undermine of that plural identity. To take a simple example: a masculine/aggressive form of Hinduism exist in opposition to say a more liberal orientation to Hinduism ( or any other identity which is in opposition to aggressive Hinduism such as socialism), such opposition has led attention away from defending core liberal and plural constitutional principles to waging ‘history wars’, where even the judiciary takes upon the task of defining the “core” precepts of Hinduism.

To conclude: there are some constructions of identity which can generate a narrative of its own engulfing the idea of pluralism — which is needed to sustain a rational balance of multiple identities.


T20 cricket is not a batsmen’s game


For a considerable period of time, following the suit of many thoughtful writers and observers of the sport, I dismissed T20 cricket as a much lower, less aesthetic form of the elegant, classy and intelligent game. I understood it to be a pure slogfest; a bastemen’s paradise: like in a 50 over game, bowlers had to dismiss 10 wickets if they wanted to prematurely cut down the opposing team to size, and the bowler, unlike in a 50 over game, had only 4 overs to prove his mettle. Such a structure put tremendous amount of pressure on the bowler and so, for a while, I considered the bowler to be more or less  insignificant. True, the bastmen’s skills did matter, but the bowler was at a tremendous disadvantage. “This is not cticket”, one would constantly hear from a sanctimonious commentator.

This however did not mean I stopped watching T20 cricket. But the way I watched it was very different: I never supported a team, I only cheered for the underdog, the bowler, regardless of the team. I was under the belief that whichever team had the strongest batting unit would do well. This explained why West Indies and India did so well in this format, and why RCB made it to the final.

But if there is anything the IPL final taught me it is not that the heavy hitters, the big stars with the ‘big bats’ win the game; often the best team is one which is balanced, which has good batsmen and good bowlers. A good team needn’t be star studded, it should, however, be balanced and egalitarian, on the above average or good side. Too high a variance in the quality of players can rupture the team from within by putting too much pressure on some players. A team which is calm and balanced usually comes out victorious in cricket as it did in the t20 final. If anything, it’s a victory for the spirit and soul of the game.




The future of the BJP must lie in how it won Assam

Northeast India is a highly heterogeneous region, and therefore for the longest time the only national political party that was able to make headway into the region was the congress party. This was so because of what Rajni Kothari, the great Indian political scientist called the congress party – the congress system. The reason being that the congress party had the ability to form broad based coalitions and allies primarily because it didn’t further any religious or ideological principle. This is very much unlike the BJP. One would expect the BJP to never win in a northeast state primarily because of its Hindutva agenda or its propensity to further a homogenous identity in a highly heterogeneous region – Hindu and Hindi, to put it crudely. Corollarily, one would not expect the congress to so easily lose its hold over the region.

But this is exactly what has happened: the congress, after 15 years no less, has lost Assam to the BJP. Much has to do with the congress’ own doing, such as when Tarun Gogoi decided to put his weight behind his son Gaurav, instead of his righthand man of many years, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who had faithfully served Taun Gogoi and the congress and was a man of experience and political clout. Sarma promptly joined the BJP as a result of this.  But substantially, the primary reason for the victory of the BJP is the way it has conducted itself in the campaigning process.

Firstly, the BJP successfully formed an alliance with unlikely regional partners, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which is comprised of a broad collation of many tribal groups who, as part of their culture and daily livelihood, consume beef. They also deem themselves to be a secular party. And the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), who were historically staunch opponents of Hindi speakers and the BJP. The BJP, unlike in Bihar, where they suffered a defeat, wisely kept beef or any other communal agenda out of their campaign. The BJP throughout emphasised on development and provision of public goods such as roads and infrastructure. And secondly, the role that the central leadership of the BJP, especially Amit Shah, played in the campaign was minimised. Instead, again unlike Bihar, the chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal, a fiery student leader while at university in Gauhati, was announced quite early. Additionally, the brunt of the campaigning was left to regional or local leaders.

These developments are good, both for BJP and India; and it is commendable that voters, over the last few months, first in Bihar while punishing BJP for trying to play the divisive card, and suitable rewarding them in Assam for not only making an effort to form a broad coalition but also for keeping any communal agenda out and focussing primarily on development. The voters have also rejected the dynastic politics of the congress and the DMK. The Assam elections have many political lessons to offer, one can only hope that the central leadership keeps its hands far from Assam where the balance between social cleavages hinges on this broad, unlikely and delicate coalition.


The Nuclear doctrines of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kissinger

A simple framework to understand the nuclear strategy positions of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kissinger in the early cold war.

Immediately after the Second World War there was common perception that the war in Europe was not over, with the division of Germany into American and Soviet spheres of influence, another major war, perhaps a nuclear one, awaited the continent. Indeed, much of economic diplomacy that took place in the West during this period can be read from this lens. The fact that before 1950-1955, considerations of reconstruction was restricted solely to the European continent, even though the war had ravaged distant lands such as present day Myanmar, and China, testifies to that fact. However, such fears of Europe being embroiled in war turned out misplaced, the reasons for which are beyond the scope of this short essay. Indeed, if the cold war was cold it was so only in the European continent. The violence of the cold war was strong in the turbulent and stormy politics of development in newly decolonised nations. One could argue that institutions for reconstruction and development took interest in “peripheral” areas only once this fact was recognised. The fear that a nuclear war could potentially break-out from such an engagement exercised many minds in the American academy, Foreign Service, and politics. That different schools of thought emerged to understand and combat this threat is unsurprising given the nature of the threat and its far reaching implications.

This short piece therefore provides a basic framework to capture the main ideas about nuclear warfare. The framework is restricted to the period up until approximately 1965. When the war in Vietnam was launched and when it was soon understood that the war would prolong for a long time, there was some rethinking by major policymakers, plus new American presidents such as JFK brought in their own ideas and their own nuances to the table.


Nothing hit the Americans like when they were routed in the 38th parallel by the Chinese. Immediately, some sections of American foreign policy making began clamoring for nuclear weapons to be used against the North Korean and Chinese forces which were supported by the Soviets. Truman, in the media did respond positively to the section who demanded use of nuclear weapons, however when it came down to actual military response, he hesitated. He wanted to restrict the engagement only to conventional war and only to very geographically specific regions, in this case, Korea. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the Second World War was still very passionately felt.

Eisenhower became president in 1953. The Korean War, quite embarrassingly for the Americans, ended in a stalemate. Such frustrations were channeled into developing an aggressive nuclear strategy. Eisenhower was wary of regional battles draining the economic wealth of America. He therefore proposed “massive retaliation” and primarily of the nuclear sort, to break the Soviets in a manner which was economically efficient and less costly. The primary objective was deterrence.

Kissinger in his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy responded to these various streams of thought. Kissinger countered Eisenhower’s ‘massive retaliation – total annihilation’ thesis by arguing that since there was great ambiguity about what constituted threat, what actions warranted retaliation, where the “nuclear red-lines” should be drawn, Kissinger hence highlighted a practical consideration: that the cost of the Soviet Union opening another front should be made as expensive as possible. Additionally, the idea of massive retaliation assumed a certain scale of conflict, or rather, converted every type of conflict into the largest possible scale. He added that in the context of survival of both the nations; within the nuclear-red lines, limited nuclear war is the most logical strategic position because it not only guarantees the survival of both the nations, and therefore is mutually beneficial, but it enables the conditions of what Clausewitz considered war to be: politics in another form. Diplomatic maneuverability was important, especially when things weren’t defined properly.

This brief essay has briefly highlighted the strategic thinking of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kissinger, but has left out the deeper question about the relationship between nuclear weapons and foreign policy; of how the cold war dynamics shaped the thinking about the concept of power. The invention (and use) of the nuclear bomb, for instance, reduced the economic constraints to power. Also it leaves out the  interesting history of how public opinion shaped foreign policy in the cold war; and the relationship between the academic world and the world of policy. Indeed, if one wants to study, what my colleague, Pavan Srinath calls the “scholar-warrior”, one must look at American strategic policy making during the cold war.

(This post was first published in Takshashila Institution’s blog)

Expanding the grey area

To move forward on insurgency and secessionist movements, the line between military operations and politics must be defined.

In his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee years, A.S Dulat, the former R&AW chief, evocatively writes that “The problem with Delhi is that it sees everything in Black and White, whereas Kashmir’s favourite colour is grey.” Kashmir is complex, and a “either you are with us, or you’re against us” policy doesn’t bode well for its future. This is a thought he reiterated recently in a talk in Bangalore. In the same event, the political scientist Ashutosh Varhney stated that according to his understanding “Delhi’s policy towards insurgents has always been either you are a separatist, or you join the electoral process, and therefore accept the legitimacy of the Indian constitution, there is nothing in-between.” He also asked how one could expand the “grey” area.

Why has there been a lack of sophistication or nuance while dealing with secessionist movements in India? A lot has to do with the nature of civil-military relations in India. The civilian government, right from the time of independence, believed that the army should be under the control of the government; that the army’s role in politics should be minimised. This belief was indeed, strongly felt even during the national movement. As a result, as Steven Wilkinson has argued in his book Army and Nation, the army was subjected to various “control measures” such as the “commander in chief [of the Army] was taken out of the cabinet [such as it was in the colonial administration] and was made responsible to the Defence Minister, with overall expenditure decisions now to be approved by the Ministry of Defence (and increasingly also by the Ministry of Finance) rather than the army’s own military finance department.” Further, as Wilkinson has laid out in his book, several policies were enacted to weaken the cohesiveness of the army to deter it from undertaking coups. Further, the government made sure to informally reserve the top positions in the army to officers who don’t belong to the ethnic group who otherwise dominate the officer ranks. For instance, as Wilkinson demonstrates, Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular, who were relatively overrepresented in the army, “were less successful than they would otherwise been in getting appointed to the corps commands, and in particular of COAS. From 1947 to 1977 all but one Army COAS was from outside the Punjabi heartland of the Army; the men appointed came from Coorg, Mysore, Rajasthan….and even from the hugely underrepresented state of West Bengal.” These were few among many other policies and conventions which subjected the army to proper governmental control.

However, as Wilkinson argues, the reason why the army seems to have acquiesced to these constraints, is because it has got a “wide degree of control in operational matters”. A tacit agreement seems to have been set between the civil administration and the military that the government will not interfere in operational matters, “especially at the periphery of the country where it has increasingly been used on counterinsurgency duties”. This has not been good for democracy, primarily because the distinction between operational matters and politics has never been clear, nor have they ever been made so. One way to expand the “grey area” is to conduct a serious debate about AFSPA, however in 2011, when Omar Abdullah, the then Chief Minister of J&K called for amendments to the policy, the army publicly criticised this move and thwarted any move in this direction. Therefore, if we are to move forward it is imperative that the line between operational matters and politics be clarified; for this, what military operations are needs to be properly defined and operationalised.

(This post was first published in Takshashila Institution’s blog)

Spatial equilibrium and the economics of agglomeration

The logic of spatial equilibrium drives the process of agglomeration

Agglomeration economies are the benefits that accrue from the elimination of distances, or to put it more objectively, from the elimination of transportation cost, whether in the movement of goods, of labour and people, or more importantly, ideas and skills.

The central paradox between agglomeration and the reduction of transportation cost is this: if indeed, costs for transportation have reduced, what new incentives then drive people to come more closely together? For a long time, the general assumption was that people come together to eliminate transportation cost; to eliminate costs that distance imposes on them. But with the development of better communication technology, why has more agglomeration occurred? Indeed, this is one of the foundation questions in contemporary urban economics.

Secondly, urban economists have also spent considerable energy on trying to develop a methodology to capture the process of agglomeration. Urban economists have broadly boiled down to urban wages, real estate prices, and “growth in the number of people within an area”, to capture this process.

To capture the angle of labour, urban economists have relied on the logic of spatial equilibrium. Assuming the costs of mobility is zero; labourers will be indifferent between different cities. The indifference curve is guided by the logic that high wages in one area will be offset by high costs of living or bad amenities; hence theoretically, spatial equality across all cities will be established in wages and costs of living. However, if people all gather in one area because of the fact that high costs of living are complemented by good amenities, then more people tend to gather in that area multiplying the economics of agglomeration. Public finance economists capture this process by looking at property values or real estate prices, where: high housing prices is a function of high wages, high costs of living, and better amenities.

(This post was first published in Takshashila Institution’s blog)

Why has New York thrived and not Detroit?

Innovating, idea generating firms, drive urban growth.

Glaeser et al in their paper Did the Death of Distance Hurt Detroit and Help New York? advance the hypothesis that due to massive improvements in transportation and communication technology, which has, over a period of time reduced costs associated with transportation and transaction, the comparative advantage associated with distance has fallen – that distance as a primary source of economic advantage since the 1980’s has diminished. On the other hand, the authors argue that the propensity of the generation of ideas, and services, which help in innovating “more varieties of advanced goods”, has become an important source of the growth of cities. That New York, due to its vibrant financial service has not only been able to survive but also grow, and Detroit, which has been a traditional manufacturing centre, has, since 1980, declined, is an example of this theory.

The logic of the hypothesis lies in preferences: the authors assume that manufacturing firms need vast spaces of land more, unlike the innovative, or the idea generation sector, where the amount of real estate needed is relatively less. Additionally, the authors intuit that the gains that efficiency gains for innovative sector from the “innovative” sector is greater than that faced by traditional manufacturing firms. Therefore, since the 1980’s, due to improved communication and transportation technology, and due to increases in real estate prices in cities in the U.S, manufacturing firms left the city, either being replaced by “innovative firms” like New York, or being replaced by little else, like Detroit, causing a rather inert economy. Therefore, the advantage of agglomeration economies; of economic proximity, is more prominent in innovative firms.

Though so far the discussion has been restricted to New York and Detroit, but the authors empirically show that at a statistically significant level, taking 170 cities into consideration, that “successful cities are specialised in idea – producing industries”. It is shown that there is an “18 percent correlation between increases in patenting and increases in income between 1990 and 2000 is also significant, with a regression coefficient of .066 and a standard error of .015.” This means that if patenting increases by 1%, income has increased by 6.6% between 1990 and 2000 in the U.S.

What lessons can one draw from this? For the city of Bangalore, therefore, the policy idea we must draw from this experience of urban economic growth of North American cities is quite straightforward. To reap the benefits of agglomeration economics it is important to reduce the costs associated with transportation and communication, which means less road traffic, no call drops, efficient supply of basic public services like electricity and public transport, and more generally, better infrastructure to reduce transaction costs.

(This post was first published in Takshashila Institution’s blog)