The message from Bihar

Nitish Kumar bet on the wrong horse in 2014; he didn’t want to commit the same mistake in 2019

The carefully orchestrated denouement of the Nitish-Laloo-Modi game may have been sudden and ferocious but the movement had been building up for months. In the last one year, Nitish Kumar had demonstrably moderated his language against Prime Minister Modi; had supported policy gambles like demonetization; and clearly expressed his discomfit with the Laloo Yadav family and its taint of corruption.  In hind sight, it was the UP elections and the huge BJP victory which broke the camel’s back. Narendra Modi is the tallest leader in the Hindi heartland and any regional satrap which challenges him risks total oblivion. Three broad themes.

First, Nitish Kumar has emerged as perhaps the biggest loser from this episode. Even though he had been in alliance with the BJP for nearly two decades, Kumar had always stressed that this was an alliance of convenience orchestrated to slay the greater evil—Laloo Yadav and the jungle raj which has indubitably been his legacy in Bihar. In the ten years the NDA was power in Bihar, Kumar was its unchallenged leader with the BJP playing a second fiddle. The one politician Nitish Kumar viscerally disliked was Narendra Modi.  From his reluctance to share any kind of stage with Modi to the multiple personal humiliations Kumar effected on him, he emerged as perhaps his strongest non-Congress rival. And finally, in 2013, unable to accept Modi’s rise within the BJP, he walked out of the alliance with the halo of a secular martyr. It was a huge political gamble which failed spectacularly as the NDA was virtually guaranteed to retain power in Bihar with Nitish Kumar as its leader. And now he returns to the same alliance headed by his former rival who is the strongest Indian leader in three decades. Not only are Kumar’s national ambitions effectively over, his role within Bihar would be much diminished. The BJP will not be as accommodative as it has been in the past and Kumar would be little more than Bihar’s nominal leader. Modi needed Nitish Kumar once; now Kumar needs him far more. Despite the homilies and courtesies on social media, both Kumar and Modi understand this and its first expression would be in the 2019 elections where the BJP would demand a lion’s share of Lok Sabha seats. With his inability to win elections on his own, capitulation would be Kumar’s only option and in the medium term, BJP would attempt to make him simply irrelevant.

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Kejriwal and the Politics of Revolution

Arvind Kejriwal needs to realize both the enormity of his achievement and the limits of his political ambition

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) appears to be in free fall. It lost an election in Punjab where virtually all observers believe that it held a substantial initial advantage.  It lost to a party which hadn’t savored victory for nearly four years and barely exceeded the performance of the ruling coalition widely panned for an ineffective and corrupt administration.  It only took AAP two years to turn its magnificent victory in Delhi into a humiliating defeat in the recently held municipal elections.  Worryingly for AAP, the Congress voters who had completely abandoned the party in Delhi appear to be coming back home. By all yardsticks, it was a major public rebuke.

What would give further pause to AAP supporters is the clear lack of self-reflection and self-criticism. It has preferred a bizarre tirade against electronic voting machines (EVMs) aligned with its preternatural ability to convert every disagreement into a grand conspiratorial narrative. Though it might appeal to party’s core supporters and help Kejriwal pretend that he was robbed off a victory despite his humongous popularity, it strengthens the argument that AAP is an irresponsible party. After promising a political culture radically different from the rest, it has exceeded the Congress party in its ability to deflect responsibility from the paramount leader.

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On Adityanath

The Nehruvian Republic is dead. Adityanath is the last nail in its coffin. 

The unexpected elevation of Yogi Adityanath as the next chief minister of India’s electorally most crucial state has set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. There has been much impassioned commentary ranging from those declaring Yogi as a defeat for India to those who think it is one of those rare moments in history where a civilization long suppressed finally finds its utterance. There is little doubt that Mr. Modi’s decision to trust the controversial Yogi—and it is his and his decision only—may have as far-reaching an impact of India’s future as the Prime Minister’s comprehensive electoral victory in 2014. Four points. 

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Debating Speech

A free primer on free speech

The connotations of free speech may be obvious to many but there still appears to be much confusion—deliberate or otherwise—on its meaning and ramifications on social media. Ritual platitudes to freedom to expression have sadly become a tool for the intolerant and the masters of false equivalence to question criticism it self. A primer on free speech may be useful to some. Hence.

First, as understood legally, free speech refers to the government’s ability to control expression using the coercive powers vested in it. For instance, the widely admired First amendment of the US constitution prohibits the State thusly,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Despite some initial hiccups, the US Supreme Court has interpreted it liberally widening the gamut of what constitutes free speech. In its landmark judgment in Brandenburg vs Ohio, it ruled that government can’t punish speech unless it is likely to lead to an immediate ‘lawless action.’  In multiple other cases including where popular opinion may have been against a literal application of the first amendment, the Court has sided with an expansive definition of free speech. And despite the sharply divided polity, it is significant how conservatives & liberals have collaborated to safeguard speech from the State.

In India, free speech is much more legally restricted. Militating against the liberal instincts of Ambedkar’s constitution, India’s first amendment described what it claims to be reasonable restrictions on free speech. As many legal scholars have persuasively argued, these restrictions are so vaguely worded that they afford a virtual carte blanche to the State to restrict any speech it deems problematic. The Indian jurisprudence over the last seventy years has been a struggle against the restrictive aspects of the first amendment where a often  conservative Supreme Court has largely sided with the State except for some rare victories.

Nevertheless, what this admittedly limited discussion should emphasize is that free speech discourse refers almost exclusively to restrictions imposed by the State. Speech which is legally permissible without falling foul of constitutional restrictions imposed on multiple latitudes ranging from morality to public order.

Only the State enjoys the coercive power–legally speaking–to limit speech.  And fighting back against that power within the bounds of imposed by Constitution & legal interpretations, is what truly constitutes the fight for speech. This battle is an ongoing one which is unlikely to be resolved in the near future for reasons ranging from international politics to shifting social norms.

But as this argument continues—and one hopes that the jurisprudence will always move towards greater freedom–it affords us an opportunity to define what is NOT a part of the  free speech debate. Few points.

  1. Criticizing speech is not anti-free speech. Questioning Kanhaiya Kumar’s now famous articulation at the JNU campus is perfectly compatible within the norms  of free speech. Indeed, upholding the right to express views one fundamentally disagrees with is the highest expression of free speech.
  2. On similar lines, questioning Jhanvi Behal’s criticism of Kanhaiya Kumar is not a violation of open expression either. Free speech advocates believe in questioning anything & everything; they just don’t want the State to define its limits. Much as it may surprise the Gods of false equivalence, free speech *extremists* retain the right to criticize expression.
  3. As a corollary,  Jhanvi Behal is equally entitled to ignore her critics. They have no more right to control her speech as she has to regulate their criticism.
  4. Free speech is not the equivalent to ideal or nice speech. Offensive speech is what really tests liberal democracies. For instance, criticizing Gods & Prophets—whether Mohammad or Durga—is the very essence of freedom of expression. If everyone agrees with your point—Sachin Tendulkar is one of the greatest ever—there would be no debate on free speech or its supposed limits. Defending the likes of Kamlesh Tiwari—and it is here the Indian liberals fall terribly short—is the fundamental understanding of free speech.  And that equally extends to those who believe  that Durga was a sex worker. If you can’t defend the right to express the first, it is impossible to genuinely defend the latter as well. That is an exceedingly hard task but that is precisely the reason why beyond its few true worshippers, speech remains that highfalutin book which everyone pretends to love but very few have bothered to read.
  5. Blocking someone on social media is a perfectly legitimate expression of free speech. Much as all of us wish otherwise—no one is obliged to listen to our speech. You affirm your right to free expression by articulating what you believe; you equally exercise that right by refusing to participate in its expression.
  6. No one is obliged to provide the space for you to amplify your opinions. For instance, if a news channel refuses to invite contrarian voices to its studios, it is a perfectly legitimate expression of its free speech. Now, one may judge them for refusing to provide a platform for diverse views but they are no more affronting your free speech rights as one is not by refusing to reading this piece.
  7. Bottomline: You are not obliged to listen to me; I am not obliged to listen to you. All we are supposed to follow—if we truly believe in freedom of expression —is to strongly refute the States’ demand to define its limits. Or in other words, defend vigorously speech one fundamentally finds unpalatable because in that revolt lies the secret of our own freedom.

In short, free speech is a battle against the States’ power to control expression. Admittedly that is true only in a fully functional democracies which constitutionally guarantee speech. Much too often,  free speech is curtailed by marauding mobs who challenge the States’ monopolistic expression on violence.  And that is especially true in India which remains a Republic in progress. Nevertheless, those who believe in the Indian Republic & its liberal articulation would continue to demand it do better to protect freedom of expression  without worrying about political discussions and advantages.

And without confusing—for narrow partisan reasons—what this fundamental & the most magnificent of human rights truly means.



Caste, Identity and Modern India

Rohith Vemula’s unfortunate death once again underlines the fault lines in the Indian society 

Navdeep Singh’s sleeper hit NH 10 firmly belongs to the firmament of slasher movies made mainstream by the likes of Texas chainsaw massacre. A yuppie urban couple embark on a road journey through rural India and witness a honor killing. Horrible violence follows with a highly contrived climax with its obvious nod to Bollywood escapism. And yet, there is one scene which perfectly encapsulates the multiple fault lines familiar to any student of modern India.

Meera—played masterfully by Anushka Sharma—has finally been rescued by a police officer somewhere in  rural Haryana. (Or so it appears—the exact details are irrelevant here.) He asks Meera her caste and ways much too familiar to urban India she stumbles. All she knows is her last name—before and after marriage—but her caste is something she has no apparent awareness of. The sniggering cop informs her that in an average village, even a 12-year-old could dutifully recount not only his caste but that of his neighbors as well. He helpfully adds that the conversations about Ambedkar’s constitution end once the borders of Gurgaon’s gaudy malls are breached. The other familiar India continues unencumbered by recent concerns about equality & constitutional rights. And in this dark space, Manu the ancient law giver and Ambedkar the maker of modern India, co-exist peacefully strangely reconciled despite their widely disparate views. Ambedkar may influence the prosaic aspects of life—traffic laws for instance—but it is Manu who still dictates its more far consequential parts including marriage.

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On Delhi’s Odd/Even Formula

Public policy must acknowledge the realities of the  space it operates in 

Let’s start with three arguments which are self-explanatory & relatively non-controversial. First, pollution in Delhi has reached dangerous levels and needs to be tackled on an urgent basis. By some estimates, Delhi’s air is the worst in the world & its catastrophic implications necessitate drastic measures. Second, for a city of Delhi’s size, public transport is far preferable to private vehicles.  Delhi should not only invest in further augmenting public transport but encourage policies which penalize private vehicles. Third, every system must strive to balance personal freedoms with the negative externalities such choices may impose. In the context of urban governance, possible policy measures range from increasing parking charges to imposing congestion charges. Delhi government’s decision to disincentivize personal transportation is ipso facto sound public policy.

Having said that, now let’s examine why Delhi government’s preferred policy tool to achieve its goal–the so-called odd/even formula–is still a bad idea.

First, there is no evidence that this limited measure can significantly reduce pollution in Delhi. According to a recent IIT Kanpur study, road dust is the biggest contributor to the extremely high levels of particulate matter in Delhi’s pollution. Even within the ambit of vehicular pollution, trucks and two-wheelers have a disproportionate impact vis-a-vis cars. One need not take this study at face value and other experts may disagree.  Nevertheless, can such a major decision which impacts a significant proportion of Delhi’s population be justified without sounf scientific? If the argument was to encourage public transport, why weren’t the much more numerous—and allegedly more polluting—two wheelers included? It is hard to escape the conclusion that this measure was restricted to cars because they are an easy target for false prophets of social justice

Second, has the Kejriwal government given such a major policy decision any serious thought? Some of its claims are patently absurd. A poorly edited document circulated by the government–or the AAP, it is still unclear —on social media claimed that the government  was considering every measure from shuttering power plants to introducing vacuum cleaning on Delhi’s streets. But can the Delhi government realistically shut down power plants without making alternate purchase agreements? Or can it unilaterally advance the dates for the implementation of Euro IV (Bharat IV) without extensive consultations with the Centre? So haphazard has been its decision making process that it even claimed that implementing odd/even formula will cut pollution in half ! This is simply a gold-plated example of non-serious policy making.

And that brings us to the third & perhaps the most important argument: implementation. In a huge metropolis famous for its lack of basic social courtesies & where the traffic police is perennially short-staffed, how will this scheme be enforced? Kejriwal government has already promised multiple exemptions from women drivers to CNG vehicles. Surely the list of possible exemptions will not stop: what about the physically challenged or the elderly?  Implementing odd/even formula even in a city with far better traffic enforcement would be vexing; that even the Delhi police was not consulted before such a major policy was announced is telling. The implementation challenges are so insurmountable that  it beggars the belief that anyone except the most ideologically invested would take it seriously.

To put it bluntly, no one actually takes it seriously. Not the Kejriwal government which merely wants to pretend it is doing something. Not its supporters who would have happily scorned a similar measure backed by the Modi government. The argument here is almost wholly ideological. The government must do something & since targeting car owners— the so-called elite—is politically most convenient, let’s adopt it.  As Ankur Bhardwaj correctly points out, this is the revolt of the true elites living in some of Delhi’s toniest colonies—mostly as an inherited benefit –against the less fortunate who finally are able to afford a car & must be vilified for daring to rise above their preordained status.  The modern equivalent of the caste system implemented by those ritually habituated to Khan Market & other such inhabitants of the true elite.

But you ask, surely something must be done about Delhi’s terrible pollution. True enough. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. If the Delhi government was serious, it would have conducted a pilot study restricted to the central business district & other major areas where traffic enforcement may not pose that daunting a challenge. It would have taken the most significant stakeholders into confidence particularly the Police instead of treating them as perpetual adversaries.  And using this pilot study, it would have established with scientific evidence the actual impact of the odd/even formula.  If the evidence was strong enough and the impact significant enough, it would substantially strengthen its argument that it is a policy  worth pursuing. That there has been virtually no preliminary steps—and that fails to bother  even serious policy analysts—is a clear indication of how ideological this debate is.

And finally, the appeal which one hears frequently: even if the idea is a non-starter, it is only a matter of two weeks. Surely for such a massive challenge like pollution, a minor inconvenience is acceptable—and that too for a limited amount of time. But that is a deeply flawed argument. One of the challenges the Indian state faces is attempting to establish its legitimacy especially to people who have the option to *secede from the Republic. * Public policy which is designed to fail reduces the legitimacy of the Indian state. It encourages the false argument that India story is possible without fixing the State. Unfortunately, Kejriwal and his ideological backers are merely strengthening this dangerous argument.

Some Thoughts on Bihar Elections

A magnificent victory for Nitish Kumar but it may be too soon to draw broader conclusions from Bihar 

Bihar has spoken and spoken clearly. Despite exit polls suggesting a race too close to call, the Nitish-Laloo alliance helped by a surprise act by the Congress has won a comprehensive victory. The scale of the victory is beyond what most observers had anticipated and must be dispiriting for the BJP especially after its heavy defeat in Delhi. How does one interpret these results and what do they portend for Indian politics?

First, it needs to be emphasized that Mahagathbandhan (MGB) started out with a distinct advantage in Bihar. Its social coalition was broader, more stable, and represented a greater degree of ideological cohesion. There is no natural animosity between the political bases of Kumar and Yadav—both have been forged from the crucible of Mandal politics. On the other hand, BJP has always been a party of upper castes in Bihar. Cognizant of its weakness, it has  attempted to counter the MGB by forging coalitions with the likes of Paswan and Manjhi. Unfortunately, for the party, that experiment failed quite spectacularly and there is some evidence that the BJP wasn’t able to transfer votes to its Dalit partners. Nitish Kumar is clearly popular and faced no anti-incumbency as even BJP leaders have subsequently acknowledged. Finally, this was a state election in which Narendra Modi was not on ballot though BJP tried desperately to leverage his popularity. The deliberate decision to ignore the party’s Bihari faces may have proved fatal and it is rather surprising that Modi has ignored a lesson he has enormously benefited from: In state elections, local leadership is crucial.

Reflecting the innate advantages are the figures from Lok Sabha elections where even at the height of the Modi wave, the vote share of MGB partners exceeded that of BJP and its allies by some distance. The BJP had swept the elections simply because the opposition vote was divided. The NDA’s hopes in Bihar rested primarily on two factors. First, the votes would not be transferred between MGB partners seamlessly; the sum of the parts would be less than the individual units. On surface, this is a sound assumption. However, as discussed above, it ignored the reality of Bihar politics where the contest between Kumar and Yadav has always been that of personal ambitions; their social base is naturally cohesive. Second, BJP assumed that Modi wave was virtually permanent in nature and would be enough to propel the party to victory after victory. The Modi wave has ebbed—as it inevitably must—and normal politics has been restored. Once these two assumptions were not realized, the BJP defeat was virtually assured. In summary, barring extraordinary circumstances, the MGB should always have won Bihar and its victory should not surprise any careful observer of its politics.

Second, can the Bihar model—a marriage of convenience between regional parties–extended to other states? The increasing dominance of Narendra Modi’s BJP as a central player in Indian politics may leave the regional parties with little choice but to forge coalitions in a desperate bid for survival.  Superficially attractive, this premise has two fundamental issues. First, grand alliances are extremely hard to craft and even harder to sustain as they militate against fundamental political differences ranging from ideology to personal ambitions. Despite its magnificent victory and assurances from all partners, it is unclear how sustainable the MGB would be once the immediate threat has been slayed. Indeed, the Janata parivar merger which appeared inevitable only a few months ago quickly collapsed under its own contradictions. Second, Kumar-Yadav duo are almost unique among regional leaders in their unwillingness to break bread with the Prime Minister. Beyond political compulsions and the jostling for power, there are fundamental ideological differences between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. However, most other regional parties are not ideologically opposed to the Modi government or at least willing to ignore them if the carrot dangled is sufficiently attractive. Exploiting the levers of power, it is not difficult for the BJP to attract regional players like Ajit Singh to its fold. However, it would require a willingness to share power and a certain amount of humility and magnanimity. Only time will tell whether Modi who runs perhaps the most centralized government in modern Indian history is willing to do make that compromise. However, he is too crafty a politician to let the opposition isolate him politically and replicating the Bihar model would be a more vexing challenge than perhaps most observers realize.

Finally, the road to 2019. Some analysts are suggesting that Nitish Kumar is now the core of an anti-BJP formation for the 2019 elections. This grand coalition presumably in alliance with the Congress party may include leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Mulayam Singh Yadav as well other regional players unable to come to an understanding with the BJP. There is little doubt that theoretically at least, such a coalition representing a high index of opposition unity would be a formidable force. However, historically, for such coalitions to offer  a cogent political challenge, they inevitably require at its core a party which has appeal beyond the narrow caste/geographical barriers. There is little evidence yet that Nitish Kumar can influence—let alone win an election—outside his stronghold of Bihar. In other words, such a coalition would only be viable if it is led by the Congress party which remains in political doldrums. Indeed, the Congress party has given up any hopes of emerging as an independent political player in Bihar and circumstances might force it into a similar compromise in UP.

In summary, Bihar is a magnificent victory for the MGB and particularly for Nitish Kumar who accepted enormous political risk in taking on an ascendant Narendra Modi. But the broader national implications of Bihar model remain hazy. Indeed, enormously influential Bihar results would be in shaping the course of Modi governance, they may be less instrumental in driving national politics as it appears currently.