Narendra Modi – Visionary or Demagogue?

The last time I watched a speech by a political leader was 15 years ago – because my parents used to ask me to listen to the Prime Minister’s or President’s addresses to the nation on Independence Day or Republic Day. Presumably they wanted me to take an interest in politics. It would be difficult to imagine a more effective way to ensure the opposite! That, the stench from the sewer that is Indian politics, and my conviction that politics is fundamentally unimportant (I believe that culture drives politics rather than the other way round), has meant that I have never bothered to follow politics. All the hype around Modi’s SRCC speech however interested me enough to watch his speech.

In his speech, Modi talks of enabling development, condemns vote-bank politics and even has the courage to say “the government has no business to do business”. Had this speech been delivered by a man without a history or a well-established image, it would have impressed me enough to register for a voter identity card. As things stand, it has merely succeeded in confusing me.

Some facts:

  • Modi is part of a political party (the BJP) that established itself by creating and exploiting the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue.
  • Modi swept the Gujarat elections after the 2002 violence during which he was the Chief Minister.
  • BJP itself is the political arm of the Sangh Parivar, an organization that is best known for using hooliganism as its primary weapon in a mission to safeguard “Hindutva” and “Indian culture”. Many (if not most) of Modi’s ardent supporters seem to be part of the Sangh Parivar.
  • Modi himself has an image of being a Hindutva hardliner, presumably the same obnoxious conception of Hindutva held by the Sangh Parivar.

In his speech, Modi does not make a single allusion to religion, let alone Hindutva, and focuses solely on development. In fact, he openly mocks India’s reputation for being a land of snake charmers and proudly claims that India is now a land of mouse charmers – whose youth transforms the world by the click of a mouse. This, even as the Maha Kumbh mela – a festival of snake charmers – is being celebrated by the Hindutva-vaadis. If what he claims about Gujarat is true – and anecdotal evidence indicates that it is – he has delivered on his vision in his own state.

In his speech, Modi declares that vote-bank politics has destroyed the nation and development politics is needed instead. But his party has always played the same vote-bank politics and continues to do so (witness FDI and fuel price decontrol).

The question remains: What is Narendra Modi? A visionary and a statesman? Or a demagogue and master orator who can tailor a speech to his audience?

And there is another question too. One that I believe is even more important. What do Modi’s supporters really want? Development or Hindutva?

Autonomous political institutions

In a post about Swaminathan Aiyer’s recent article in The Times of India about “freeing the police”, Aristotle the geek makes a very good point:

All coercive capabilities of the state must always be under civilian political control.

Aiyer’s article reminds me of Fareed Zakaria’s book “The Future of Freedom – Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad” where Zakaria advocates the creation of autonomous regulatory entities not subject to political control. Both Zakaria and Aiyer seem to want to temper the consequences of a run-away democracy. There is a slight difference in context though. Aiyer writes about the police which is a legitimate state activity whereas Zakaria writes about areas where the government should have no role at all.

Regardless of the difference in context, both Zakaria and Aiyer are wrong. Both advocate the creation of an unaccountable bureaucracy. Both seem to forget that there is indeed an independent government entity not directly subject to political control – the judiciary. The judiciary can be independent because it deals with issues that are not political. In a properly limited and functional democracy, the judiciary should be sufficient to address any misuse of power by the agents of the state. The solution to a runaway democracy cannot be an unaccountable bureaucracy. Both need to be abolished. And that leads me to the point I want to make. Abolishing the ability of a democratic government to run out of control can only work in a culture that respects individual rights.

Political change is necessarily preceded by cultural change.

Aiyer’s article shows that despite all his claims to be a liberal, he does not really understand liberty at all. Anyone who thinks liberty can be achieved by political means fundamentally misunderstands it.

Justice

In comments on a previous post on discrimination against Muslims in Mumbai, Krishnamurthy asks

…suppose you have a “weak” government, which does not run schools, provide health care, etc.

What’s to prevent the “majority”– “those in power” — from denying education and other resources to the “minority”?

The concern is that a section of people who possess “power” – political and/or economic – engage in irrational discriminatory behavior to the detriment of certain other sections of people. The Indian caste system is a case in point. The issue is whether this concern should be addressed by political measures such as laws against discrimination, affirmative action, reservations etc.

It is clear that political measures against irrational discrimination necessarily infringe on the freedom of the individual to act according to his own judgement and therefore are unjust. On the other hand, the discrimination is also clearly unjust. This is seemingly a moral dilemma. This dilemma must be resolved before one can evaluate the practicality of political measures.

The first step in resolving the dilemma is to distinguish the concept of justice from the concept of fairness.

Fairness (in its most plausible form) is the idea that people are entitled to benefits that are in line with their capabilities – commonly referred to as equality of opportunity. Consider the question: Is it fair that some people are born rich and some are born poor? If it is unfair, who is responsible for it? Next consider the question: Is it fair that some people are tall and some are short? If it is unfair, who is responsible for it? It should now be clear that whether one is born rich or poor, tall or short is a metaphysical fact. It is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong, neither fair nor unfair. It simply is. Metaphysical facts are not subject to normative judgement. A person’s genetic makeup, his family, his attributes are part of his identity. Different people will necessarily have different identities. To hold that this is unfair is absurd. The concept of fairness has no basis in reality.

What about justice? What facts of reality is the concept of justice based on?

What fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e., must judge and evaluate them.


Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification—that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly,…

                  — Ayn Rand

The concept of justice arises from the individual’s need to judge people. Justice pertains to the mental process by which an individual judges others. A mental process cannot be forced. The injustice in discrimination lies in the fact that the person making judgements includes considerations that are not relevant to the judgement. The only way to correct this injustice is to make him realize the error in his judgement. The appropriate tool for this is arguement and persuasion, not coercion. Judgement cannot be forced. When one attempts to correct the injustice in discrimination by coercive measures, one is severing the concept of justice from the facts that give rise to it. The motivation for making good judgements is to be able to act on them. Forcing a man to act against the judgement of his mind is the worst imaginable way of improving his judgement. One cannot achieve justice by destroying the need for it. Man must be left free to act on his own judgement as long as he allows others to do so.

The potential for injustice is inherent in the fact that man is neither infallible nor omniscient. As such his judgements will not always be right. It is not possible to eliminate injustice. One can try to reduce its consequences when it is in one’s own interest to do so. That is what proper charity should be about. This is the resolution to the dilemma. As long as the injustice in question does not involve coercion, such injustice cannot be criminalized. It should be worked around by charity.

Now that the moral questions are resolved, one can address the practicality of political measures against discrimination. As the history of caste based reservations in India shows, these reservations do not work. 50 years after they were instituted, political parties continue to call for increasing their scope. If there could be a plainer indication that they do not work, I don’t see what it might be. What does work is just plain self-interest and appropriate charity. Those who see the injustice of discrimination stand to benefit. They get to work with a larger pool of deserving people. Those who engage in discrimination lose out. The free market at work. It takes its time – changing people’s ideas always does – but it is the only thing that works.

As with any idea, one of the most effective ways of determining its truth is to examine all of its logical implications. If it can be beneficial to abolish discrimination in education and employment decisions, why stop there? Why not go further and abolish discrimination in friendships? Why not abolish discrimination in marriage? Surely these would have a greater effect? Most people would shudder at this suggestion. Yet this is just one of the implications of the same idea. This absurd suggestion only makes plain what is a little more difficult to see when one is merely looking at economic effects. Economic judgement cannot be forced just as personal judgement cannot be forced. There is no such thing as forced justice.

Independence? day

Another anniversary of India’s independence is approaching. And there are children on the streets, at traffic signals, selling paper flags to anyone who wants to celebrate the occasion. Wonder what they do on other days? They sell a lemon and two (or is it more?) chillies tied with a string to anyone who wants to ward off evil spirits. So what exactly are we supposed to celebrate? Independence? Whose independence? From whom? More than 60 years ago, thousands of people gave their lives to achieve political “independence”. What did they achieve? They replaced British rule with democracy. Some of the British rulers were doubtless oppressing a people willing to be oppressed. But others were rendering a service – the white man’s burden. After “independence”, India’s government was led by men of the second kind – British educated socialists who resented the white man’s burden because they wanted to make it their own. They were men with a “noble” purpose; to teach the uneducated masses how to live – by taking control over their lives. These men had “noble” dreams, but their dreams were not dreams of what they would do with their lives; they were dreams of what they would do with other people’s lives. That meant that no one else would be allowed to dream. This was supposed to be independence. Inevitably, this “independence” has produced the worst kind of dependence imaginable. The politician is dependent on the poor, the uneducated, the superstitious, the irresponsible and the incompetent for their votes. And it is in his interest to let them remain as they are. And these people are dependent on the politician for favors or promises of favors. This dependence is the essential and defining feature of the kind of unchecked democracy that India’s leaders established after independence. The modern intellectuals call this dependence “corruption”. But the manifestation of the essential nature of a system is not corruption. Unchecked democracy is corrupt to begin with.

There is no such thing as political independence. The concept of independence is properly restricted to the realm of a person’s mind. A man’s thoughts, wishes, desires can be independent – of the judgements of other people. Like all virtues independence applies to individuals, not to a collective. And like many other such concepts, this one too has been stolen by collectivists to disguise their true goals. What the Indian political leaders fought for was not independence – of any kind. What they fought for was sovereignty – the state of affairs when a country is governed by people of the same race, religion or culture that have historically occupied it. There is nothing particularly desirable about sovereignty as such. Some of the most oppressive places in the world to live in suffer from sovereignty. It does not matter whether a country is governed by natives or not. What matters is the system of government.

The proper socio-political goal is freedom, not some meaningless independence or a tyrannical sovereignty. Freedom to believe and express one’s ideas – without being censored by the government or by thugs (M.F. Hussain); freedom to marry the person of one’s choice – without being murdered by one’s family or community (honor killings); freedom to develop a technology and market it – without having to buy the rights to do so (3g auction); freedom to buy land and use it for any purpose – without having to rely on the government (Tata Nano); freedom to contract with people on mutually agreeable terms – without being tied by labor laws; freedom to spend one’s money as one chooses – without having it confiscated for subsidies and hand-outs; freedom to run a school – without having to declare it as a non-profit; freedom to start a political party – without having to swear by socialism…

When will India become free? I am not holding my breath (remember the lemon and chillies?). And I am not going to celebrate “independence” day either.

The climate is changing

The climate is changing (via The New Clarion). And the change is certainly induced by humans. (I couldn’t resist the pun but it is not funny at all)

A couple of weeks ago I talked to the director of marketing for a leading private aviation company, which offers fractional jet ownership, pre-paid membership packages of private jet flight, and concierge-organized private jet travel. In her 15+ years in the industry, she said, she’d never encountered as many people who would not buy and travel in this manner because they were afraid of being seen and judged harshly. Many even feared having their companies singled out for reprisal by the government. She said, “I’m doing business in a climate of fear, almost clandestinely, as if engaged in espionage rather than commerce.” She too asked not to be identified.

Normally I would not have linked to an article that mentions no names. But I just read this (also via The New Clarion).

Forced abortions. Mass sterilization. A “Planetary Regime” with the power of life and death over American citizens.

These ideas (among many other equally horrifying recommendations) were put forth by John Holdren, whom Barack Obama has recently appointed Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — informally known as the United States’ Science Czar. In a book Holdren co-authored in 1977, the man now firmly in control of science policy in this country wrote that:
• Women could be forced to abort their pregnancies, whether they wanted to or not;
• The population at large could be sterilized by infertility drugs intentionally put into the nation’s drinking water or in food;
• Single mothers and teen mothers should have their babies seized from them against their will and given away to other couples to raise;
• People who “contribute to social deterioration” (i.e. undesirables) “can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility” — in other words, be compelled to have abortions or be sterilized.
• A transnational “Planetary Regime” should assume control of the global economy and also dictate the most intimate details of Americans’ lives — using an armed international police force.

What is most remarkable about Holdren’s views is that they are totally unencumbered by any sense of morality.

Adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control. Indeed, this would pose some very difficult political, legal, and social questions, to say nothing of the technical problems.
(Emphasis mine. Note that there is no mention of moral questions)

The man is a monster. He is in power and he has merely substituted overpopulation with climate change. Worse, the president who appointed him was elected with a comfortable majority. It has come to this. Can the situation still be reversed peacefully? I doubt it.

Update:

Here is an illuminating comment on the Holdren piece

It is way too late for forced sterilization and abortions! There have been mass dieoffs of our species before we are on the brink of one again. One way or another there will be far fewer of us by the end of this century. It blows my mind that youall mostly seem to think that we have a right to dominate this planet at the expence of all other life forms. Have a nice day.

Democracy and anarchism

Aristotle The Geek has written a partial response to the debate on my previous post. He writes

What is an “unfree” market? Let me ask the question the other way round – what is a “free” market? It is a market in which the State does not interfere (the only “interference” would be of the enforcement of contracts kind). Political/ economic freedom is always defined in terms of the State, not in terms of non-State actors. The latter don’t lay any claim to morality when they engage in fraud, theft, murder, confinement etc. It is the State which does that. So, an “unfree” market would be one with State interference.

At this point I would ask “What is the State?” Ayn Rand defines government (which I will use interchangeably with State) as
A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area. (emphasis in original)

I will modify it to make one aspect of it more explicit
A government is an institution whose exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area is generally accepted.

Compare that to a modern democracy. Modern democracies are characterized by the lack of acceptance of any fundamental rule for social conduct. Any rule or law (no matter how fundamental) passed by a legislature may be repealed, completely modified or contradicted in its next session. Read this very illuminating article about how Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in a famous case has served to create a legal orthodoxy that believes that the American constitution does not contain any fundamental principle. In a modern democracy, there is no inviolate fundamental principle that the state or its members are bound by. This means that the modern state lacks an identity. The state is a collective and the identity of a collective is determined by the identity of its constituents. But the modern democratic state is highly disparate. The only thing that is generally accepted is that there are no fixed rules.

The state in a modern democracy is an ever-changing group of men who enforce certain ever-changing rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.

This is about as close to anarchism as I think (and hope) we will ever get. Anarcho-capitalists such as Rothbard (based on some quotes by ATG) write of competing (while also cooperating with each other) private defence agencies. If these competing-yet-cooperating private agencies bind themselves by fundamental principles and refuse to allow other private agencies that do not accept those principles, then they together form an entity which is remarkably similar to a state. If they do not bind themselves by any fundamental principles but still cooperate among themselves, then they are remarkably similar to a modern democracy – a disparate set of power wielders that manages to avoid open warfare.

The only difference between anarchism and modern democracy is the issue of the size of government. But the size of the government is an inessential characteristic. What is essential is the principles that make up its identity. Modern democracies are constantly increasing the size of government and at the same time destroying its identity. But no entity can last long without an identity, especially large ones. A large government devoid of any fundamental identity is just waiting for some autocratic group to seize it (something that seems to be beginning in the U.S.). Anarchists want to do away with government altogether. But that is something that can never happen. Anarchy must degenerate into smaller states (waiting to be conquered by a more powerful state intent on conquest) or into a democracy for the reasons in the paragraph above.

Anarchism

I was following the comments on this post and wrote a response that turned out to be long enough for a post. So here goes:

Here is my principled (not utilitarian) argument [against anarchism].
To implement the non-aggression principle, people must agree on what constitutes aggression, not just at a philosophical level but at a more detailed level. For example, firing a gun in the air is not aggression but firing it close to someone’s residence is. Even if I am a champion shot and the bullets do not hit anyone. That might not be the best example, but the point is that some of these distinctions are not philosophical but merely a matter of convention or reasonable definition. If such distinctions are not made beforehand, then the non-aggression principle is meaningless. Establishing the process by which people can agree to such distictions is what politics is (should be) all about. Saying that each person must form his own answer and never commit to any answer (committing would mean agreeing to be bound by it) is an abdication of politics. As you mentioned, politics only arises in a social context and therefore must involve social processes. Because these distinctions depend on convention (by necessity, not for any lack of good philosophy), there is a need for legislation – a process by which people can agree to and modify (when necessary) conventions.
So the answer to Rothbard’s question “how does the state get the authority to govern?” is:
By the delegation of those who choose to form a state. Ideally, the state would be formed by those who subscribe (philosophically) to the non-agression principle. If someone does not recognize the authority of the state, he is not harmed by the state. Unless he breaks its institutionalized definitions of aggression. As long as the state does not break its own definitions of aggression and as long as the definitions are not philosophically wrong, the mere existence of a state is not aggression against any individual.

As I wrote above, anarchism is an abdication of politics. It is merely a moral position that states: man should not submit to be bound by legislation. The answer to that position is merely “Don’t submit”. The funny thing is: I dont know of any sane anarchists who follow that moral position. A seemingly political way of framing anarchism would be: “In an ideal society, no organization of people should have a monopoly over the exercise of force.” But that is a thorougly contradictory position. What sort of monopoly is being referred to here? Metaphysical or existential? If it is metaphysical, then we already have anarchy, since no state can have a metaphysical monopoly on force (or on anything else). If it is an existential (or de facto) monopoly that the anarchist wants to abolish (not the right word, the right word would be ‘wish away’), then the anarchist is claiming that other people should not grant their consent to a de-facto monopoly on force. But then, that is a moral position.

Psychologically, an advocate of anarchism is saying:
I refuse to be bound by <i>any</i> institutionalized principles. Even if I agree with those principles today. I do not wish to take responsibility for my beliefs. The desire for anarchism is not a desire for freedom from aggression – it is a desire for freedom from responsibility.

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