A Congress version of Modi will not succeed

Regular leadership transitions are necessary, but even necessary transitions weaken the entity that is being led, as contenders to the gaddi duke it out and governance takes a pause amidst the uncertainty. The transition can be made shorter and smoother by having a well defined and legitimate process.

There are many different ways to decide on the succession – it could be dynastic or democratic. You could have an appointive process where the incumbent or a board makes the choice. You could do a search for the next reincarnation of the bodhisatva, or you could have an elephant with a garland choose the next king. To succeed, the process requires legitimacy. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success.

What is legitimacy? In the words of Thomas Schelling, it is a focal point. In those of Lord Varys, “power resides where men believes it resides”.

If I win a legitimate democratic election, I know that my opponent will not mount a rebellion against me, so I will have no need to conduct a purge and eliminate my opponents. My opponent knows that I know that he will not mount a rebellion, and therefore, I will not attempt a purge, and therefore, he feels safe enough to not mount a rebellion. I also know that once the election is over, norm assures me that barring exceptional circumstances, I am safe from a challenge till the next election, and therefore I do not need to be in a combative posture continually. I can reach out and shake hands with my opponent and strike up a working relationship with him.

The dynastic method of succession also successfully serves as a focal point. It narrows the field of contenders to the throne to a small number within the family. (If you adopt a rule like primogeniture, the field is down to one) While it is disappointing for someone outside the dynasty that he will never gain the top position, the disappointment is somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that others around him are in the same position and he doesn’t have to engage in constant power struggle. Because the dynastic position is for life, the lucky sperm can focus less on power struggles and more on governing, at least till his offspring grow up.

I don’t want to overstate the case for the dynastic system. Historically, most dynasties did not survive for long. They were overthrown by others who established their own dynasties. And the dictum of legitimacy being a necessary but not sufficient condition of success applies particularly with the dynastic system.

Many people are calling for either the democratization of the Indian National Congress or a Modi-style rebellion against Rahul Gandhi, but the problem remains the same with either scenario. The democratic process does not have legitimacy in the current Congress. The dynastic system does. Legitimacy takes a long time to be established. The power struggle that is required to unseat the Gandhis will finish the INC much before legitimacy can be established.

The BJP does not have a legitimate process for succession either. Modi took over a party whose aging leadership was overdue for retirement. There was no formal leadership challenge, no election or any kind of competitive process. Everyone kind of just decided that he was the right man for the job and the entire party reoriented around him. Modi’s task was made easier by his overwhelming popularity within the party. It also helped that the party has organizational and ideological coherence that ensured that it would stay intact even if there were a power struggle.

The Congress does not have any of these advantages. Its organizational coherence is uneven at best, and it has no ideology to motivate it. A BJP leader or worker does not have a future outside the party, as Keshubhai Patel, Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh learnt. For a congressman, the INC is one of the many career options. There is no reason the party will stay together during the period of inevitable uncertainty when a leadership struggle happens.

To make this concrete, we can try to imagine a Congress version of Narendra Modi – a challenger to the leadership. Obviously, such a person is unlikely to exist in the current national “leadership” of the INC, because popular leaders have been systematically eliminated from there. So imagine an ambitious and talented leader at the state level, either within the Congress or outside it. He wants to carve out a career path for himself that will take him to the Premiership of India by adopting any strategy that will work. In any plausible scenario, is staying in (or joining) the Congress, deposing and taking over its leadership the dominant strategy? I claim that the answer is no. I would argue that in almost every case, breaking up the state level party to form a new entity and trying the coalition route, or trying to form a new national party that attracts the disaffected leaders of the Congress and other parties dominates in terms of cost-benefit analysis over the strategy of working within the party.

The one exception I can think of is a strategy that does not directly challenge the legitimacy of the dynastic system. This is the method by which the Peshwai was established, the method by which ambitious and competent ministers have risen to be the power behind the throne when the throne is occupied by weak kings, or indeed the method that resulted in constitutional monarchies in many countries of Europe. But for such a strategy to work, this ambitious minister will have to insinuate himself into the good books of a man who has absolutely no discrimination and whose natural instincts are to trust charlatans like Praveen Chakravarty, fight off political machinations and intrigue by a jealous inner circle whose attacks on him will only increase the more successful he gets and somehow also concentrate on his core job of strengthening the party and helping it win elections. Perhaps in some particular combination of circumstances the stars might align and the right person adopting such a strategy may be the right choice, but no, this is not something one can reasonably hope for as a way to form an alternative to the BJP.

India’s election system won’t work in the US

During my BTech, I took an elective named Appropriate Technology, which was offered by the Centre for Technology Alternatives in Rural Areas, or CTARA, a bastion of the Gandhian faction. The course only made me sceptical about the concept of appropriate technology, because my suspicion was that the term was just a euphemism for romanticizing low tech jugaad solutions in the garb of being appropriate for the particular rural setting in which it is used. Prof. Date, who taught the course, saying that “farmers can sing while using it” as a point in favour of some contraption did nothing to allay my suspicion. My argument was, yes, we should gauge the appropriateness of the technology for a particular setting, but sometimes the most appropriate technology is not low-tech, but hi-tech that leapfrogs over the path other countries have taken.

I’ll admit though that the EVM is a very good example of the appropriate technology that the AppTech course was claiming to favour. It doesn’t fetishize low-tech and does not adopt hi-tech for the sake of it. Adopts just enough technology to solve the specific constraints that the Indian system faces – stop rigging via booth-capturing, be sturdy enough to work in dusty places without a steady supply of electricity, etc. It doesn’t try to solve problems that don’t need to be solved. It didn’t succumb to the temptation of connecting to the network to make it easier to tabulate votes. The higher tech a machine is, the less secure it is, so the the fact that it is low-tech is a feature, not a bug. In fact, I was uncomfortable with the idea of adding a paper trail to the voting machines, not because I was opposed to paper trails, but the general principle is that adding moving parts, features and inputs or outputs to anything increases the chances of failure or compromise. In the event, the VVPAT enhancement seems to have been done well, so there is no longer a need to object to it.

Now, every time the Americans hold an election, or for that matter every time we hold elections, many misguided people point to the way Americans hold their election and hold it up as an example to emulate. This is deeply stupid for two reasons:

  1. The American system for conducting elections is objectively terrible. It has probably the worst system among democracies, and if it were any worse, it would no longer remain a democracy.
  2. The American system works under a different set of constraints and requirements from the Indian one.

This is why, while it is misguided to say that we must emulate the Americans, it is also misguided to say that the Americans should just outsource their elections to the Election Commission. The Indian system won’t work in the US for the same reason we can’t copy the Americans. Our constraints are very different from theirs.

For example, Indians have good reason to envy the fact that Americans have a much greater ability to vote by mail. Postal ballots do exist in India, but only a small fraction of citizens are eligible to cast their franchise by that method. An expansion of postal ballots in India, however, would prove disastrous. There would be widespread vote-buying and intimidation of voters.

Similarly, American systems seem to provide a better ability for a person to figure out whether his vote has been counted or not. He can send his vote by mail, check online to see if it has been received, and if not, go to the polling station and vote. But before we think of adopting a better audit trail, we must realize that there is a trade-off between the secrecy of the ballot and an audit trail. The United States faces a different trade-off from us. Secrecy is a lot more important in India than in the US. In the US, people are quite open about their voting preferences. More importantly, they can rely on rules that require officials who count the vote to maintain secrecy. That choice would be inadvisable here.

So, while we should certainly envy some of the features of the American systems, we should be careful before translating that envy into imitation. Designs involve trade-offs, and we face a different set.

The most important reason, however, for why the Indian Election Commission would face its Waterloo in the United States is cultural. As a rule, I find that Indians design for control while Americans design for convenience. This is true of not just elections. It is the reason why the US is so reluctant to require PINs while making card purchases, and why we had to learn of the benefits of offering easy returns from the Americans. Of course, the reason for the differing cultural choices is partly the differing trade-offs that our nations face – the US can accept a higher risk of fraud because it has a better legal system that is able to catch more of the fraud that occurs. It is equally true that cultural differences take on lives of their own and exist independent of the underlying reasons that gave rise to them. So an American and an Indian, when faced with a similar set of trade-offs, will make differing design choices, the former favouring convenience while the latter, control. An Indian would find it weird that some Americans can register to vote right on election day, for example.

This is of course a generalization, and there are exceptions – for example, Indian voters are registered by EC officials visiting their homes and taking down their names, which is surely more convenient for those who do get registered that way (not so much for those who get left out). But the generalization is valid enough. In case of elections, Americans should probably learn to be a little more rigid, but in general we would do well to learn better how to design for convenience.

Trump is Tamasik

The Bhagavad Gita and many schools of Indian philosophy speak of the three guNas, or categories of human nature – Satvik, Rajasik and Tamasik. My theory of Trump is that he is Tamasik while we expect people in his position to be good or bad in Rajasik ways. This is a mistake that his supporters as well as detractors make.

What are the three guNas? I don’t claim to be an expert, but here is how I would interpret them:

A person with the Satvik guNa will perform his appointed role in life unmoved by the pleasure or pain it gives him. A Satvik president or prime minister, when faced with a difficult political decision, will ask himself only “What will a platonic chief executive do when faced in this situation?” and do it. Whether the outcome of that decision is favourable to him or not does not come into the picture, and the question of what the decision will do to the next elections and to his own political survival are relevant only to the extent that they are good or bad for the country.

Needless to say, a Satvik guNa is an entirely theoretical construct, and no such person exists or has existed in real life. But people may:

  • Rise to the occasion and behave as such when the situation demands
  • Believe, and possibly convince themselves that they are behaving in a Satvik manner
  • At least make an attempt, and struggle with themselves in the process
  • Claim to be be Satvik, and try to convince their constituents that their actions are driven only by Satvik motives

The point to be noted though, is that do any of these things, you need to have the ability to conceive of these higher order motives. To an extent you have to fake it till you make it, but even when you are faking it, you should know what you are faking.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, demonstrated his Satvik nature when he planned his leadership transition – or did he? In his autobiography, he describes, with a high degree of self-awareness, that he realized that his mental acuity was reducing as he got older, and therefore, it was time for him to pass on the mantle to someone else. So he undertook a well-planned search for a successor, found one, and handed over the reins to him.

Except of course, he sincerely believed that his son, Lee Hsein Loong was the right person to succeed him, but he nominated Goh Chok Tong because it would be unseemly to pass on power directly to his son. And oh, having decided to retire, he did not actually retire. He stayed on in the cabinet as Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor till he reached an advanced age and was eventually forced out by his son a few years before his death.

Was Lee demonstrating his Satvik nature and making disinterested decisions for the benefit of Singapore? Given that both Goh and the younger Lee have turned out to be good Prime Ministers, that is certainly a possibility. Or did he convince himself of the Satvik nature of his actions, but in reality, his decisions were tainted by his love for his family and desire to cling to life? Or perhaps he was aware of his imperfections and tried to do the best he could. Or it is possible that this was all a ruse. We will never know and perhaps he never did; such is human nature.

Most functional adults are Rajasik. They are driven by ambition and desire. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We recognize ambition as natural and even desirable. We celebrate romantic love and love for one’s children. When a politician we support displays the killer instinct and acts like he wants to win the elections, we appreciate it, though if he uses corrupt means to do so, we should ideally oppose it.

If Lee’s retirement was actually a long-drawn strategy to install his son in power, it was a perfect demonstration of the Rajasik guNa. The goal was driven by familial love, but in the means employed to reach it, he was able to control his impulses emotional drives and follow a multi-year strategy to achieve it. This is more than someone driven by his Tamasik nature would be capable of .

Trump, as I was saying, is Tamasik. He is driven by his impulses, and in his case, the impulses are all negative ones. Now, to be fair, all of us struggle with our impulses and emotional drives, but becoming a functional adult involves learning to rein them in, and converting them into higher order goals. We all have sexual desires, for example. The Rajasik nature involves sublimating them into a higher order emotion called love, and pursuit of love involves choosing one person and forgoing others; not giving into the impulse of going after every woman you find sexy. Trump has not made that transition at all. A Clinton may give into his impulse; Trump is his impulse.

You can see that in every one of his behaviours. An example of this that I found fascinating was the bleach incident. In the video, Trump is insecurity given human form. Any person who reaches a senior position in an organization will be familiar with the feeling. You find people reporting to you who have much greater expertise than you in their field. When you talk to them, you, who have always prided yourself on your knowledge, feel that bit of insecurity. You are afraid of asking a dumb question and being shown up. But you are an adult and you reach back to the techniques that you have learnt along the way. You display faux humility, you praise people for being very smart and say things like “Forgive me if this is a dumb question” and then ask your question.

Trump is completely unable to do that. He is unable to recognize his own insecurity and therefore unable to maintain a distance from it. He sees scientists talking and what matters to him is not the content of what they are saying, but the fact that they are coming off as smarter than he, so he has to say something to remedy the situation. Whether it is appropriate in that context is irrelevant to him.

A common thing people say about Trump is that he tells it like it is. That is not actually true. He lies quite flagrantly. The reason for the misconception is that people are confusing the transparency of his lies with honesty. He is like my six year old son, who, when woken up at 7:30 AM to be in time for his class at 8, throws a tantrum complaining about not being woken up at 6 AM as he had asked for the previous night (He always asks to be woken up at some ungodly hour, we say yes and wake him up when we want.) Of course, the real reason for the tantrum is that he is sleepy and is annoyed and having been woken up, but he knows that he can’t complain about that, so he makes up some reason, and it’s clear to us what the real reason is.

Now, we are all human beings, and we continue to get groggy when we do not get enough sleep even in adulthood. A person displaying Satvik guNas would have enough self-awareness to put a distance between himself and his grogginess. He will say “I am not the person who is feeling sleepy and irritable. I am the person who has a job to do and needs to rise about the irritableness.” The Rajasik person will have this self-awareness as well, but his lack of sleep will still steep through and he will show his irritation in some other way that seems completely justified to him but probably leave the target of his ire confused about what his fault was. My secondborn’s tantrum seems much purer in comparison to a Rajasik person’s and a lot more comprehensible.

Trump’s lies are like that – they are much more transparent, communicate his feelings much more viscerally than a normal adult’s lies do. When they reach others who share his feelings, they feel real, never mind the factual content.

The other reason for people getting confused about Trump is that it is difficult to imagine that a purely Tamasik person like Trump can get so far in life, so it is understandable that many people substitute him with an imaginary Rajasik person in their heads, and end up behaving as Vidyottama did with Kalidasa

The princess raised her index finger . Kalidasa, quickly replied by showing two fingers. He had thought that Vidyottama was meaning to poke him in one eye. He was obviously thinking of outdoing her. Actually she had indicated that God is one without a second. Kalidasa’s answer was wisely interpreted as the truth has two parts the supreme God and the individual soul. She was surprised by this wisdom. Venturing further, she showed her five fingers to indicate five senses. Kalidasa thought she was about to slap him so he showed his fist. This time Vidyottama thought it to mean that controlling the five senses can lead to ultimate greatness. Thus impressed, she then agreed to marry Kalidasa.

Growing into functional adulthood involves overcoming, sublimating or at least rationalizing your basest Tamasik impulses. Perhaps you overcome your cowardice and sublimate your pride into higher order values like courage, honour and bravery. Or perhaps you are a cynic who see your country as worth fighting for, and you rationalize that feeling into a higher order value called pacifism.

When we deal with a normal Rajasik person, it is sometimes possible to see the underlying Tamasik being powering him, but it is also possible to have a dialogue with the Rajasik person he has constructed. Perhaps he is a bully who has sublimated that emotion into support for strong law enforcement, but it is still possible to have a discussion with him on the merits of his policies around law enforcement. Perhaps he is a transactional person who is cynical about US foreign policy engagements and wants to pull back, but it’s still a valid policy option with pros and cons, the timelines around said disengagement and the extent of it.

With Trump, there is no higher order Rajasik person. Sure, maybe his gut feeling aligns with your policy preferences – perhaps his instinct for minimizing the COVID crisis and push for reopening the economy aligns with your considered policy preference on navigating the tradeoff between deaths due to the pandemic and the economic disaster, but do you want someone as impulsive as he in charge of making that tradeoff? In case of Trump, we need to ignore Eleanor Roosevelt’s dictum that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”. There are no big ideas sitting on top of his personality flaws. He is entirely his flawed personality.

It is not just his supporters who mistake him for a Rajasik person. His opponents do as well. Look at Trump’s COVID response. Yes it is not the response of a decent or competent person. But it’s also not the response you would expect if you model Trump solely as a populist authoritarian either. Dictators are Rajasiks. A Rajasik dictator would have taken advantage of the crisis. He would have blamed China, whipping up xenophobia. He would have rallied his people, made it sound like he was fighting a war and he would have cast the inevitable economic hardships as wartime sacrifices from which the nation would emerge stronger. Which idiot dictator wastes a crisis like this? Trump got the blaming China and the xenophobia part down, but his genius was to make himself sound whiny and weak while doing so. The rest of the tricks from the dictator’s playbook were useless to him as it required him to display Rajasik guNas which he is unable to even play-act at, just like my secondborn.

He is unable to make inspiring speeches because he is a cynical man. To cast the economic hardships as wartime sacrifices from which the nation would emerge stronger would require three things that were out of his capability. First, it would require him to acknowledge setbacks, which he is chronically unable to do, because he is continually looking for wins. Secondly, the notion of making sacrifices for the common good is foreign to someone as self-absorbed as he. Thirdly, he is unable to conceive of the future. He lives in the past and the present.

He and his supporters endlessly whine that the Coronavirus crisis was engineered to make him lose his reelection. That is amusing, because there was nothing about the crisis that made it inevitable that his election would be at risk. In fact, if you had told an unbiased observer in 2019 that a virus from China was on its way and that it would cause hardship to the people of the US, that observer, assuming he did not understand Trump’s personality flaws, would have predicted that it would lock in Trump’s reelection, as my friend Karthik did (though this was in April 2020, not 2019).

To summarize, I believe that people’s misunderstanding of Trump comes about in one of two ways:

  • His Tamasik nature is good at communicating his unadulterated visceral feelings to others who think like him. This communication is mostly one-way. He is unable to understand others, pick up cues from others and adjust his messages accordingly, which is why his playbook is limited and repetitive.
  • People are unable to believe that he is who he is, so they mentally substitute a Rajasik in his place. But his madness does not have a method to it. As Groucho Marx said ““Gentlemen, Chicolini here may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

And that is all there is.

The South Indian Relationship Chart

I mentioned in my last post that you can explain familial relationships in Kannada using a 2×3 matrix that I wanted to draw some day. The truth is that it is actually a 2xn matrix which I have wanted to draw since childhood. Now that I have reached middle age and in any case the end of the world is near, I have decided that it is not a good idea to delay this any further. So here is the matrix and the explanation.

The matrix has 2 columns, and I have depicted 3 rows, but as each row represents a generation, there are an infinite number of rows. I have numbered the rows 1, 2, and 3, but there will be rows before and after as well.

To use this matrix, first, you place yourself on it. Then you follow 2 simple rules to find the co-ordinates of anyone related to you. Which box they fall in will tell you how they are related to you. This relationship is unambiguous as long as certain (impractical) conditions are satisfied.

The two rules are:

  1. If a person is in a block, his or her father will be in the block immediately above, and vice versa. For example if you are in A2, your father will be in A1. Conversely, if you are male, your children will be in A3.
  2. If a person is in column A, his or her spouse will be in column B of the same row. So if you are in A2, your wife or husband is in B2.

By applying the above two rules iteratively, you can locate any of your relatives. Once you find the block they should be in, look at the legend. Depending on whether their gender and relative age (relative to whom, will be explained further) their relationship with you will be clear. There are some special cases which are also explained.

Let’s see how this works using a few examples.

  1. If you are in A2, your father is in A1. Your siblings, being children of the same father, will be in the same block as you, i.e. A2. So they will be called aNNa, tamma, akka or tangi, depending on whether they are your elder or younger brother or sister.
  2. You are in A2, your father in A1. Your mother, being your father’s wife, is in B1. Because she is your mother and it’s a special case, she’ll be called Amma.
  3. Your father’s siblings will all be in the same box as he is. So his brothers will be either doDDappa or chikkappa to you depending on whether they are older or younger than your father Their wives will be in box B1 and will be doDDamma or chikkamma depending on whose wives they are.
  4. Your mother is also in B1, so her sisters are also doDDamma or chikkamma depending on whether they are older or younger than she. Their husbands are also doDDappa or chikkappa depending on whose husband they are. (I think it won’t matter here whether they are older or younger than your father)
  5. The children of all people in #3 and #4 will be in the same box as you, and therefore will have the same relationship to you as your siblings do – aNNa, tamma, akka or tangi, depending on their gender, and age relative to you.
  6. Your father’s sister, being his sibling, will be in the same box as he. In her case, her relative age doesn’t matter. She will always be called atthe. Similarly, your mother’s brother will always be called mAma (or mAva). A mAva’s wife will also be called atthe and an atthe’s husband will be called mAva, by rule #2.
  7. You are in A2, your spouse is in B2. His or her father is therefore in B1, and will be a mAva to you, and his wife will be in A1, atthe to you.
  8. If you are in block A2, your mother’s brother’s children will be in B2, as will your father’s sister’s children. They will all be bhAva or maiduna, attige or nAdini, depending on whether they are older or younger than you. If you end up marrying one of them, special case rules apply and she’s your henDathi or ganDa depending on gender.
  9. Likewise, if you are in A2, your spouse is in B2, and his or her siblings will also be bhAva or maiduna, attige or nAdini. Here, the age is considered relative to your spouse rather than to yourself. So your wife’s elder sister will be attige even if she is younger than you, and your husband’s younger brother will be maiduna even if he’s older than you.
  10. The rules for maga, magaLu, aLiya and sose are self-explanatory. I have created 2 charts, one to refer to if you are male and another if female, but this is only for convenience and in fact, there is no material difference between the two. If you are male, your children will show up in the block immediately below yours while if you are female, your children will show up in the block below your husband’s.
  11. Your grandparents are all ajja or ajji – there are no special relationships such as naana or daada, unlike Hindi. Grandchildren are all mommakkaLu.

Using these rules, you can place anyone who is related to you by blood or marriage in the matrix. I mentioned in my last post that I worked out that my maternal uncle’s wife’s brother would be chikkappa to me. Applying the rules should make it clear how it works. I (A2) → MAva (B1) → Atthe (B2) → her brother (B2). In B2, male and younger than my father, therefore chikkappa.

This works in every case as long as a simple rule is followed – if marriages happen between A and B of the same row only. This means no inter-generational marriages and no marrying someone in the same box as you are. These rules, to be clear, are not enforced beyond a certain point. For one thing, in South India, there is also a tradition of women marrying their maternal uncles. This matrix breaks down in this case. For another, there are unusual ways in which this rule can be broken. For example, person A’s wife’s brother marries B. Person A’s brother C marries B’s sister D. This is a perfectly normal marriage between two people not related by blood, but according to the rules, C and D would fall in the same box. So while there is no prohibition on this marriage, this anomaly would definitely be noted in the “hey this is interesting” sense. That is because Kannadigas have a mental image of the matrix I have depicted when they use language.

1984, your uncle’s daughter and Sapir Whorf

In 1984, Orwell describes how the Party purges words of extraneous meanings leaving only one, thereby ensuring that some concepts are simply unthinkable. For example, someone reading “all men are created equal” would be unable to grasp its meaning because in the ideal world of Newspeak, the usage of the word in the sense of political and legal equality has been disappeared, so someone reading that phrase would only be able to think of equality in physical and mental attributes. A Newspeaker trying to read the American declaration of independence would be unable to understand it in any meaningful sense.

This idea that the structure of the language determines cognition is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I didn’t know the term at that time, but reading about Newspeak*,* I was reminded of the words we use for our uncles, aunts and cousins in Kannada.

Karnataka, like the rest of South India, practices cousin marriage, but strictly among cross-cousins and not among parallel cousins. This norm is reinforced through language. Kannada uses the same word “maternal uncle” and “father-in-law” – mAmA. It is not just this word, every word in Kannada for relationships reinforces this with utmost consistency. Your mama’s wife is atthe, as is your father’s sister and your mother-in-law. Your mama’s daughter, if she is older than you, would be “atthige” and “nAdini” if younger. These are the same words used for your spouse’s elder and younger sisters respectively. Male cross-cousins in Kannada are called “bhAva” and “maiduna” depending on whether they are older or younger than you, and these are the same terms used for your spouse’s older and younger brothers. The word for daughter-in-law, your sister’s daughter (if you are male) and your brother’s daughter (if you are female) is the same – sose. The corresponding male term is aLiya.

We call our father’s brothers “doDDappa” (big-father) or “chikkappa” (little-father) depending on whether they are older or younger than our father. Their wives are “doDDamma” and “chikkamma” respectively, and these are also the words for our mother’s elder and younger sisters. Any children of our doDDa/chikka appas or ammas are our brothers (aNNa/tamma) and sisters (akka/tangi). Like most other Indian languages, Kannada doesn’t have a word for cousin. If you are doDDa or chikka appa or amma to someone, their relation to you is maga (son) or magaLu (daughter).

This norm is maintained for second cousins and beyond as well. The son of my parallel cousin (who is simply aNNa to me) is an aNNa to my son as well. It is also a framework that can extended logically to anyone who is related to you. For example, when my maternal uncle got married, my eight year old self took great pride in working out that his wife’s brother would be a chikkappa to me (you’ll have to work this out, but the idea is that your father’s sister is your atthe, so any brother of anyone who is atthe to you becomes a doDDa/chikka appa to you) When I proudly explained this to my mom, I got a response to the effect of: “Look, you’re right, but just call him mAmA, ok?”

The reason Newspeak reminded me of Kannada cousin-marriage is that it occurred to me that one could argue that the structure of our language reinforces the norm of cousin-marriage in Kannada. So explaining the taboo around cousin marriage by saying “You shouldn’t marry your uncle’s daughter” would translate to “You shouldn’t marry your father-in-law’s daughter”, an absurdity. And if you had to argue for marriage with parallel cousins, you can’t avoid saying that you can marry your brother or sister, because those are the only words available for parallel cousins.

There are different forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the strong form arguing that the words available to you entirely determine thought, while the weaker forms claiming that language influences thought in some way without claiming determinism. These hypotheses are not accepted among linguists. When you think a little more carefully about the uncle’s daughter example, you’ll realize why.

I remember when I had to explain Kannada cousin-marriage and names for relationships to a North Indian. He was flabbergasted with the concept. In Hindi, your cousins are all brothers or sisters to you. How do South Indians distinguish between different categories of cousins, was the question he had. That got me thinking. The answer was culture, and the way we were socialized starting from childhood. If a Kannadiga boy, while playing house-house, decides that his mAmA’s daughter was going to be his wife, everyone around him will smile and say “so cute”, but if he did the same with his chikkappa’s daughter, he’d be immediately corrected with “She’s your sister! You can’t make her your wife!” This message is reinforced in every novel and movie involving love affairs between the hero and his mAmA’s daughter.

The incest taboo is quite strong and innate in human beings. There is something in our brain that tells us “If someone is your sister, then treat her as sisters should be treated” and this is something we are born with, and there is also another part of our brain where we put women we consider our our sisters. Our actual female siblings will be represented there, but who else resides there depends on cultural factors and life circumstances. In our culture there is the category of rakhi sisters, that puts women who aren’t even related to us by blood into that category. There is research that shows that women we’ve grown up with tend to get treated as sisters (for example, in Israeli Kibbutzim, it’s been shown that marriage within the Kibbutz is rare) The idea that your Guru’s daughter (whom you’ve presumably grown up with in a gurukula) is your sister brings together both the cultural and life-circumstances reasons.

So, obviously, the idea that it’s ok to marry your mAmA’s daughter comes from something similar, but is that something language or culture? The reason the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not accepted among linguists is that it is impossible to disentangle language from culture, because after all, language is a part of culture. It is impossible to decide whether Kannadigas are ok with cross-cousin marriage but not parallel-cousin marriage because our language has a certain structure or because our culture reinforces this norm through every instrument available to it, including language.

Another example that is apparently provided in favour of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that apparently the Inuit have many more words for snow than English does, and because of this, they have a richer and more vivid experience of snow. This factual claim has apparently been discredited (I suspect that the factual dispute turns on what “word” means and what “having” a word means.) But even if it were true, so what? It is not surprising that the Inuit experience snow in many different ways – after all, they see much more of it and many different varieties of it. It is also, for the same reason, not surprising if they had many more words for snow in common use than English does. The stronger case for Sapir-Whorf would have been if the reverse were true – if English had many more words for snow, and therefore the English had a richer experience of snow than the Inuit did.

This post started off with 1984, then it explained Sapir-Whorf, then it went on to explain cross-cousin marriage in Kannada, and ended up with Inuit words of snow. If you are wondering what the real point is, I am not quite sure. Thank you for reading anyway.

(And oh, you can explain familial relationships in Kannada using a 2×3 matrix, which I will draw some day.)

The Khumrah treadmill of outrage

How do you combat bigotry? One way is through debate. You let the bigoted person speak and you counter his views. You point out that those views are morally abhorrent or scientifically incorrect, or both.

This approach has advantages. Very often, hearing the bigot speak is sufficient to convince others that those views are repugnant. If that is not sufficient, your counter to those bigoted views should do the job. In addition, by letting him speak, you avoid getting into ancillary debates about whether those bigoted views are covered under freedom of speech. You also do not give his allies the excuse of ambiguity over whether they are supporting his views or supporting his freedom to express those views.

The approach has disadvantages though. There is no winning the debate. It is not like the bigot will fall to your feet, ask for forgiveness, thank you for opening his eyes and change his views permanently. Bigots, not surprisingly, are irrational and illogical people with a lot of time on their hands, so debating them with the view to winning, whatever that means, is futile. It is important to remember that the point is to convince other people that the bigot is wrong, not to convince the bigot himself. We should walk away once the point has been made, which is not something humans find easy. Bigots will always be among us, and they will always express their views, so even countering their views without debating them is exhausting. Finally and most importantly, bigotry is hurtful to those it is targeted at. It may lead to discrimination and actual violence.

Given these disadvantages, it is tempting to shut down bigotry, either by making bigoted expression illegal, or through social pressure. When we do that, it is the beginning of the Khumrah treadmill, which I have tweeted about.

Bigoted people, finding that they are unable to express their views directly, resort to euphemisms, insinuations and pseudo-scientific jargon to hint at their views. Now, we need to build a wall around the Torah to prevent the original bigoted view from being expressed, so we make the euphemisms and holding of those pseudo-scientific views unacceptable. So you ban the use of “negro” because people who used the original n-word slur have started using it as a slur. Of course, this means that the bigots will find euphemisms to refer to those euphemisms, and they will begin to misrepresent legitimate scientific theories to hint at the second-order bigoted views, so you build another wall, and make even those euphemisms and discussion of those scientific views unacceptable.

This process continues, and more and more walls are added around the Torah. This results in a few things happening.

First, the original bigoted view you want to cancel may be so unacceptable that no one other than the bigot can reasonably hold them. But around the views located around the fourth or fifth wall may be ones that reasonable people may hold them – they could be even be correct views. So, the original idea is that biological sex is distinct from your gender identity, and you should be accepting of people who may be biologically female, but identify with the male gender, or vice versa; and that you should refer to people by their preferred gender. It is bigotry not to be accepting of this. After building multiple walls around this concept, it is apparently unacceptable to even believe that biological sex exists, or that there is a high degree of overlap between gender identity and biological sex, because breaching this wall is the first step that will inevitably breach the next one and the one after that.

Second, you have to start sounding like party apparatchiks to be non-bigoted, and because it is easy to “gum together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug” as Orwell famously said, you will attract a lot of humbugs.

Third, because humans are tribal beings, holding the right kind of views become the price of admission to the tribe, and the more absurd the belief, the better it is as an initiation ritual. Condemning anti-Muslim bigotry? That is easy, and lots of people will join in it. Outraging over someone who believes that Aurangzeb was a bad person? That takes commitment, and therefore once supporting Aurangzeb becomes the test of whether you are part of the non-bigoted tribe, you will get only the most committed adherents.

Fourth, when you outlaw reasonable views, only outlaws will have reasonable views. Many reasonable people who hold those cancellable views in private may just step away and do other things rather than express them. The people left to engage in debate will be the unrepentant bigots, and non-bigots who don’t care about political correctness, but who will express reasonable views in the worst possible ways. This will further power the Khumrah treadmill, because if only crazy people express a particular reasonable view, the view in question will sound crazy.

The final stage of the Khumrah treadmill is that someone will realize that if everyone is being cancelled anyway, they might as well express the most bigoted view possible, and outrage at this will be dampened by the fact that everything is outraged at anyway.

Sanskrit Appellations

(Attention North Indians: Do not swallow the schwa when you read the Devanagari in this post. If you do, many examples will not make sense. For example, अर्जुन is Arjuna, not Arjun)

Sanskrit has this system where you can be addressed by a name formed by your father’s name, mother’s name, the name of one of your prominent ancestors, or even the place where you are from. This name can be used along with your given name, or in place of it.  There are some characters from some of the Itihaasas we know only using their appellations, and we don’t know their given names at all.

For example, अर्जुन is a पाण्डव, though the term is more commonly used as a collective term for the five brothers. He is also referred to as पार्थ and कोैन्तेय after his mother’s names, and those two terms seem to be reserved for him, though there were three others who could be called  पार्थ and कोैन्तेय.  Krishna addressed him as भारत when he made the promise to reincarnate himself, acknowledging his descent from the emperor भरत. Of course, he could also have been called कौरव, but that term was reserved for his cousins. There was another अर्जुन before this one. He was the one who made  Parashurama lose his shit and  go off on a Kshatriya killing spree. He was the son of कृतवीर्य and is known to us as कार्तवीर्यार्जुन. Likewise, कृष्ण, the son of वसुदेव, was known both as वासुदेव कृष्ण and just वासुदेव. He was also referred to as यादव, indicating his descent from यदु, though this term was used for the entire clan as well. 

Among women, we know सीता, the daughter of जनक as जानकी. We also know her as मैथिली because she came from मिथिला. Being addressed by the place of their origin seems to have been common for women, and there are many women we know of in no other way. For example, Dashratha’s wives कौशल्या and कैकेयी were from कोशल and केकय respectively. गांधारी and माद्री were from गांधार and मद्र respectively. We do not know of their given names. द्रौपदी was the daughter of द्रुपद who was from पांचाल and therefore also called पांचाली. I am not sure of her real name either (was it कृष्णा?).  Knowing women by their places of origin seems to have been more common than for men, presumably because women moved to their husbands’ place after marriage, and people at their new homes referred to their daughters in law by where they came from. Presumably that is why we know अंबिका and अंबालिका by their real names; काशेयी would have referred to both of them. Interestingly, I cannot think of any woman who was known by her mother’s name.

In referring to people by their father’s, mother’s, ancestor’s or place name, Sanskrit seems to be using a grammatical transformation that is common in other contexts as well. For example सुन्दर (beautiful) is transformed to साैन्दर्य (beauty). सैन्धव लवण is the mineral (लवण) that came from सिन्धु (sea), a term that survives in Hindi as सैन्धा नमक्. The term लावण्या is obviously related to लवण, telling us that the association of beauty with saltiness has carried into Hindi from Sanskrit. गौरव is that which is due to the गुरु (I will refrain from a fascinating digression into gru, gravity etc.)

This grammatical transformation must have held even when Sanskrit transformed into the Prakrits. Chandragupta मौर्य was so known because he sat on the peacock throne, but मौर्य looks like it must have come from मोर, not मयूर.

So, if you have read so far and are now curious about how to call your children after yourself or your spouse (or yourself after your ancestors) , here are the rules. I’ll add a disclaimer – I have worked out these rules myself, so if there are any errors, corrections or clarifications, please feel free to let me know.

To transform your name into your kids’ appellation, you need to take the first and the last vowel. (and remember that in Sanskrit, the name always ends with a vowel. My name, for example, is रविकिरण – Ravikirana, not रविकिरण्) The first vowel gets transformed into its longest form, while the longest form stays as it is.

  • अ -> आ (यदु -> यादव, पाण्डु -> पाण्डव)
  • इ, ई, ए ->ऐ (दिती -> दैत्य, केकय -> कैकेयी)
  • ऋ ->आर् (कृतवीर्य -> कार्तवीर्य)
  • उ ऊ, ओ, -> औ (कुरु -> कौरव)

The rules for the last vowel are not 100% consistent, but these are the rules:

  • अ stays as it is (वसुदेव -> वासुदेव)
  • आ -> एय (कृतिका -> कार्तिकेय) (Sometimes, it stays as is. पृथा ->पार्थ. In Sanskrit, a word ending with आ would be feminine, so you’d use this to name them after their mother)
  • इ, ई -> य or एय (दिती -> दैत्य, कुन्ति -> कौन्तेय)
  • उ, ऊ , ओ, -> अव (कुरु -> कौरव)
  • The above get adjusted for gender. So a daughter of कुन्ति -> कौन्तेयी

These rules cover almost all the cases. There may be some adjustments for euphony or some cases that I have not thought about, but using the above rules, you should be able to address your son or daughter easily, so go ahead and do that right now.

My sons are राविकिरण if I use my full name, or राव्य if I use my short one. As they are sons of my wife सौम्या as well, they are सौमेय too. One thing I am not sure of is what I will call my grandchildren from my first son. His name is संवाद, and I am not sure what the rules for अं are. I guess I have time to figure it out.

(P.S. According to the above rules, an Indian is either भारत or भरती. The term commonly used for us: भारतीय makes sense if we consider ourselves poetically as the children of mother भारती, but I guess even then, according to the rules, it should be भारतेय, so I am not quite sure how to reconcile them.)

Using DLS to fix NRR

The net run rate has a few disadvantages as a method of comparing performance of teams. There are three that I’ve heard or thought of. 

  1. Team 1 gets bowled out in 33 overs having scored 230 runs. Team 2, while chasing, loses 9 wickets and reaches the target in 25 overs. Intuitively, we would think that this match was close. But because Team 1 got bowled out, its run rate calculation has 50 in the denominator, while Team  will have 25, which means that NRR exaggerates the gap between them. (I think I read of this example in the feed of Twitter user ZaltzCricket)
  2. The bind that Pakistan found itself in recently provides another example. A team that bats first, scores 350 and dismisses its opponent for 150 rightly gets a boost to its NRR. A team that fields first, bowls out the batting team for 150 and then reaches the target in 15 overs has arguably done better than the first team, and this shows up in the run rate difference for that match. But when its net run rate is calculated over the whole tournament, the team that wins by batting second gets a disadvantage in the NRR because only 151 and 15 get added to the numerator and denominator respectively, with the result that the impact of this win is smaller than that of the team that scored 350 in 50. 
  3. A team that scores 300 in 50 overs for the loss of 3 wickets and a team that scores 290 in 50 for 9 wickets will have nearly the same NRR, even though we intuitively feel that the number of wickets lost should also matter. 

Can the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method help fix the deficiency in the NRR? Prima Facie, it appears that the DLS method, used in its current form, should help with the problems in examples 1 and 2, but not in example 3. The idea behind DLS is that it considers the overs remaining to play and the wickets in hand as “resources” that are, statistically speaking, proportional to the runs that you can expect to score. To understand this, let’s use this table found in the Wikipedia page for DLS. It says that if your team has lost 9 wickets, unless you have fewer than 7 overs remaining, you have 4.7% of your resources left. This makes intuitive sense, because if you’ve lost 9 wickets at 40 overs, the number of overs left is not much of a constraint on how many runs you are statistically likely to score. If you have scored 200 runs at this point, DLS predicts that you are likely to score 200*100/95.3 = 210 runs.

DLS Table – Standard Edition. Image Credit: Wikipedia User Chintan9, license: cc-by-sa3.0

To take another example, if, when the rain interrupts play, the team batting first has played for 25 overs without loss of wickets, DLS predicts that you still have 66.5%, or 2/3 of your resources left. If the score at this point is 125, DLS predicts that the team is likely to have scored 125*100/33.5 had it been allowed to complete its full fifty overs. If the chasing team is also given only 25 overs, it is assumed to have lost the first 25 overs of its innings, which amounts to 100-66.5, or 33.5% of its resources. So the chasing team’s score must be scaled accordingly, which means that we must compare 125*100/33.5 with S*100/66.5, where S is the chasing team’s score, to determine the winner. This is equivalent to saying that the target to chase is 125*66.5/33.5, which is how the target is given.

Going back to our three examples, it should be clear now why DLS won’t help with the third one. By definition, a team runs out of resources when it has used up 50 overs or has lost all its wickets. In example 3, both teams are at the same position as far as DLS is concerned. In examples 1 and 2, the DLS method holds more promise. Both of the situations involve a team batting second not having to bat for the full 50 overs because it reached its target score. In the first case, because the team has lost 9 wickets, DLS will predict that it will score only 231*100/95.3 =242 runs, and adjust its run rate accordingly. In the second case, assuming that the chasing team loses 5 wickets in the process of scoring 151 in 15 overs, DLS will predict that it has 48.1% of its resources left and add approximately 300 runs and 50 overs to its run rate calculation. Both these results seem fairer than using NRR as it is. Does that mean that a DLS-enriched NRR is the right option. I will give the case against followed by the case for, and let you decide.

The case against: In Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”, there is a brilliant line that goes “I do not know whether there is anything peculiarly exciting in the air of this particular part of Hertfordshire, but the number of engagements that go on seems to me considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance.” The line is funny because statistics are supposed to measure reality, not guide it. It is one thing to use statistical averages as guidance in exceptional situations like rain interruptions. If we start using them for NRR calculations, we will be using them routinely. To use them to predict the score of the chasing team is particularly inappropriate. The canonical team that forms the basis for DLS is a team that is trying to score as many runs as possible within constraints of the number of overs and wickets remaining. But a team that is batting second is not aiming to score as many runs as possible. It is trying to reach its target. A team that needs to reach just 150 runs doesn’t need to bat as if it has 50 overs and 10 wickets. It can adopt a T20 strategy and score them as fast as possible. Going back to our examples, the team in the first example can protest that it is being unfairly penalized for losing wickets, when that was the right strategy in the situation. The team in the second example may benefit from DLS (because more runs and overs are added to the numerator and denominator – I think this depends on how many other matches it has played and how many other runs it has scored) but it can also argue that it is being unfairly penalized for losing 5 wickets. More pertinently, the introduction of DLS for NRR will make chasing teams completely change their strategy, which is not what we should be aiming for.

The case for: Yes, the introduction of DLS for NRR will make teams change their strategy, but that is a good thing, because now this is more of a like for like comparison. To do a perfectly fair comparison between two teams, we must put them in the exact same position. However, in a normal ODI, the team batting first does not know how much it must score; and the situation it is faced with is to score as many runs as possible within the 50 overs it has. The team batting second knows its target,and its strategy must adjust accordingly. For both teams to be in the same starting position, after the first 50 overs are done, we must inject both teams with a drug that induces amnesia and makes them forget the first 50 overs till the next 50 are completed. Unfortunately, anti-doping regulations do not allow that. Therefore, using the DLS to adjust the NRR seems like a good way to level the playing field between the two teams. Hence proved.

The case against, once again: Using DLS for NRR will slow down the batting of the second team. Any innovation that results in slower batting will never be acceptable to the ICC.Quot Erat Demonstrandum.

What went wrong with Game of Thrones

Long back, during Doordarshan’s golden era, I watched an episode of a TV series, one those where every episode was a short story. This particular episode told the story of a novelist who was getting his novel serialized in a magazine. A fan of the novelistcomes to meet him and begins discussions about turning this novel into a TV series (or movie, I don’t remember which). As the discussion progresses, it turns out that she is particularly interested in the fate of one particular character and is distraught to learn from the novelist that she was going to die. She pleads with the novelist, asking for the character’s life to be saved, but the novelist refuses, saying “It is not I who is killing her. It’s the logic of the story that is!” The fan and the novelist have more meetings where she continues to implore him to change the course of his story, till finally the novelist relents. He tells her that he had found a way to save his character’s life, but the story would have to be crafted in a particular way and that the producers of the show would have to promise not to deviate from the script. She gladly accedes to the request. The twist at the end was that it turned out that the TV series was just a ruse. In reality, the fan was so interested in the character arc because the character’s story was magically getting turned into the story of her own life, and she naturally did not want to die.

I remember being fascinated by the idea that the story of a novel is not something that the novelist creates or controls, but something that has a life of its own. I remembered this story in the context of Game of Thrones because it struck me that the essential problem with the series was that there was really no way to end it in a satisfactory way.

Game of Thrones is the Mahabharata of Kali Yuga. It is said that the Mahabharata, unlike the Ramayana, prefers realism to idealism. Characters have grey areas, make and morally ambiguous choices. In the Ramayana, Good triumphs over Evil and the story ends in Rama Rajya. The Mahabharata culminates in a great war and the end of the epic marks the beginning of the Age of Kali. This denouement is logical, because unlike in a simple story where good triumphs over evil, in the real world, it is difficult to tie up all the loose ends and come to a tidy conclusion. There are actually no endings in the real world. A victory in one battle leads to a reaction from someone somewhere. Kill one person and someone from his clan is out there plotting revenge. Get all people in a room and agree on something, and at least one person goes out from the room intending to break the agreement as soon soon as he is in a position to do so.

Game of Thrones exceeds the Mahabharata in its realism, as befits an epic set in Kali Yuga. It is morally ambiguous. Good people die because of their goodness. Ned Stark got killed because he did the honourable thing. Rob Stark got killed because he married for love. These morally ambiguous events added to the complexity of the story, which branched off in many different directions, making it tougher and tougher to bring them all together. But if Game of Thrones is the Mahabharata of our age, the end of the story must also end Kali Yuga. After the cycle of four yugas is complete, Krta (or Satya) Yuga, the first yuga where righteousness prevails must begin again. The complete inability of the showrunners (and I suspect, Martin as well) to direct the arc of the story towards this ending where Kali Yuga ends and Truth and Righteousness prevails at the end leads me to suspect that the end of Kali Yuga is still far away.

While the series had many themes and failed to bring any of them to a satisfactory conclusion, the one theme that was of most interest to me was Danerys’ desire to “break the wheel”. I am not sure how many people noticed the parallel between her desire and Joffrey’s outburst back in season 2 or 3, where, in a conversation with his mother, he expressed frustration that he had to work on the painstaking task of building alliances with all the lords of Westeros if he wanted to assemble an army. It was all so primitive, he exclaimed. Why couldn’t he have an army of his own, answerable only to him?

The answer to Joffrey’s question is that the medieval economy did not allow such a setup. A medieval monarch faced two choices about where to maintain his army. Should he keep it close, in the capital, or should it be distributed throughout the kingdom? If he opted for the former, maintaining control over the periphery would be difficult. If he chose the latter, given the tyranny ofdistance in medieval times, maintaining effective central command over the army was difficult. He would have to distribute command by giving autonomy to local leaders. But the latter option meant that the soldiers would be loyal to the local leaders, not to him.

Modern states maintain large standing armies. A medieval state that tried to maintain a large standing army would face famine because moving young men off farm to the army meant that the fields lay fallow – this would be especially true if it kept this standing army concentrated at some place for purposes of control. A modern state needs a much smaller proportion of its population in agriculture . It can also, because of modern weaponry, maintain a monopoly on use of force with a much smaller and more centralized army.

For a medieval state, maintaining effective monopoly on use of force was pretty much impossible. Other than the limit on size of the army, entry barriers to someone else raising an army were non-existent. Raising a modern army requires sophisticated machine guns, tanks and other artillery. In modern day India, if someone began to acquire such weaponry, the state would notice pretty quickly. In a medieval state, if someone decided to acquire spears, bows and arrows and cannon, there’s a good chance that they’d be able to do it without the state noticing.

If medieval states did not have monopoly on the use of force, how did they maintain political stability? For most part, they did not. There was always palace intrigue, rebellion brewing in the peripheral regions or a foreign invasion going on. To the extent that stability existed, it was built and maintained by the king negotiating coalitions with the various lords and satraps throughout the kingdom. It was the need to do this that so frustrated Joffrey. The need to maintain these coalitions constrained the medieval monarch, preventing him from turning into an absolute ruler.

The more successful states embedded these constraints into customs and traditions that carried on over generations – Game of Thrones was at its best when it depicted this delicate balance in Westeros. The formalization of these customs and traditions, the codification of them in writing (for example, via the Magna Carta), was one of the ways in which democracy began.

But while medieval kings were not absolute rulers, the economic and social conditions of those times did not actually permit an evolution to real democracy. In a parliamentary system, we know the challenges of having to build coalitions and and governing with the support of many small parties. Imagine having to do that, but with the difference that those parties are not accountable to the people and have armies of their own. Your attempt to govern for the benefit of the people will be hampered by the fact that your coalition partners want absolute rule over their own jagirs and may want you to run the government for their benefit rather than their subjects’. Your attempt to bring about the rule of law will be stymied by the fact that the government is constrained, not by laws, but by balance of power, and as the balance changes, your coalition partners will want to renegotiate the rules.

So here is the paradox. The journey towards democracy may begin with the codification of customs and traditions that constrained kings, but to actually achieve a modern democracy, you need a centralized army with the ability to exercise monopoly over power. One way to achieve democracy is to evolve towards it, slowly changing the rules towards greater and greater participation of the people. The other way, which was Danerys’ preferred way, was to break the wheel – to bring about revolutionary change that blows away the existing power structures in the kingdom. It did help that she had access to the three dragons that, through their awesome firepower, would be able to subdue any opposition to their monopoly. But if you seize power by destroying the existing power structures, you have also destroyed the customary constraints on the autocrat’s power, and now what will stop the military monopoly from sliding into tyranny?

It is clear that Game of Thrones wanted to conclude the series by coming out in favour of evolutionary over revolutionary social change, but because of the incompetence of the writers and because the showrunners were in a hurry to end the series, they went about it in the dumbest way possible. The worst scene of the worst episode of the worst season of the series is the one that takes place at the dragon pit after Jon Snow has killed Danerys Targaryen. There, the lords and ladies have gathered to elect the new monarch, and Sam Tarly rather timidly suggests broadening the franchise to include commoners. His suggestion is scoffed at, with the gathered lords arguing that they might as well include dogs in the vote. Quite clearly, this was meant to signal that the socio-techno-economic conditions of the time did not permit a drastic transition to full liberal democracy.

But the point about evolutionary change is that each step in the evolution needs to be sustainable, possibly over many generations till conditions are ripe for the next steps. The finale of Thrones was a masterclass in papering over the obvious cracks. The surviving dragon, has for some reason, flown away to an unknown location, conveniently doing away with the problem of civilian control of dragonry. But how is this new setup supposed to maintain political stability in its absence? The capital has been destroyed, most of the army has been killed, the military force that conquered the kingdom has been pensioned off, and the one person who is a competent military commander has been sent off to guard against a non-existent threat. Worst of all, the kingdom has installed as ruler a philosopher king who is more philosopher than king, and the philosophy in question being more of the mystic variety than of the kind that will provide guidance in this world. At least, if at the end it had been revealed that Bran the broken intended to use his warging abilities to exercise surveillance over the entire kingdom and use his information asymmetry as power, the series would have been slightly salvaged, but this ending is an unmitigated disaster.

It’s quite clear that the producers of the series knew that the ending was stupid and that they were airbrushing visuals of loose ends from the picture – Yara Greyjoy, for example, makes some noises about she being still loyal to her old queen, and before she could set out to lead a rebellion to extract vengeance, she is asked to shut up, presumably because the producers were in a hurry to end the series. This hurry has been visible right from season 6, when they started using their their various dei ex machina to eliminate the complexities in the story. Till that season, all the unexpected twists – the death of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding or the poisoning of Joffrey – had increased the complexity in the story. But when Cersei blew up the Great Sept using wildfire – yes, it led to Olenna Tyrell plotting revenge and joining Danerys, but you have to wonder about the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant. Was there no fallout from eliminating them? Did they not have a following in Kings Landing? Did killing them all not cause any kind of unrest? In the same season, Dany uses her dragons to burn the slavers’ ships and destroys their fleet. No fallout from that? No one left to plot revenge?

Evidently, the showrunners were incompetent at plotting the course of the series when unmoored from George R R Martin’s guidance. But Martin himself has been unable to finish writing his books, and while he is good at fleshing out the complexity of the real world, I don’t see any evidence that he has the ability to resolve the complexity and bring the series to a satisfactory conclusion. Which is just as well. A satisfactory conclusion to the series will bring about the end of the cycle of the four yugas, result in Pralaya, and the start of a new cycle. I don’t think we are ready for that yet.

Should you vote for your PM or your MP?

Many people are arguing that because India is a parliamentary democracy, voters should be voting to elect members of the Lok Sabha, and that it is an error to vote on the basis of whom they want to see as Prime Minister. Such fidelity to the original tenets of parliamentary democracy is touching in a country that has amended its constitution over a hundred times in seventy years and is currently run according to the whims of its judges. This argument also reminds me of one of the two dumbest features of the United States Constitution. 

I am referring to the Electoral College. The US Constitution, as it was originally written (actually, even in its current form) does not provide for direct election of the president by its citizens.  The president was supposed to be elected by an electoral college. Each state would be able to send a certain number of members to the EC, the number being equal to the sum of the numbers of the representative and senators from that state. The method of choosing the electors was left to each individual state. The electors could be chosen by the state legislature, and I believe this was the method adopted by most states during the first few decades of the republic’s history. The electoral college was expected to gather, debate and then vote for their choice of candidate for the president. 

The existence of the electoral college is the reason why the vote of the citizen of a smaller state carries a larger weight than that of a larger state. Every state gets 2 senators regardless of its size and it gets to send at least one representative even if its population may be smaller than the average congressional district, which means that a state that has a population 1/20th of that of a state that sends 20 representatives gets to send 3 electors as against the 22 that the larger state can send. 

But this is not the reason why I believe that the electoral college a dumb idea. To understand why it was unworkable, take a look at how it evolved to its current form. It changed in 3 ways, 2 of which should have been entirely predictable to a political scientist

  1. States began to bind the electors – i.e. they started making laws saying that the electors should vote for particular candidates of their choice.
  2. They started to mandate that all  electors from their state vote for a particular candidate
  3. One by one, all states devolved the “choice” of  electors to the voters of the state. 

The first 2 of these should have been completely predictable. Firstly, why spend time and energy on electing a bunch of people whose only job is to confer among themselves and then elect another person, when you could spend that time and energy in deciding on the person you ultimately want to see elected? Perhaps the founders of the United States believed that discussion and debate among the electors would lead to decisions of better quality, but electing a president is not like writing a constitution, making laws or negotiating some kind of agreement. If you have to do any of those things, by all means delegate the task to your representatives, because there is much scope for discussion debate, give and take, and compromises – all good reasons why it was a bad idea to hold a referendum on Brexit. There is very little scope for compromise on the question of who should be the President – you can’t mix the head of one person and the heart of another and construct a compromise president. Perhaps you can bargain over who should be the vice president, over cabinet positions and over what policies the president should follow, but given that cabinet members can be dismissed at will and policies can be changed at will,  and given that the Electoral College disbands itself after the election, there would be very little scope for the Electoral College to hold the president to any compromises he agrees to. It should have been completely predictable that the election of electors would become an election of the elected. 

The second outcome was also predictable, given the first. In theory, states could have adopted systems where the ticket was split – perhaps in proportion to the votes in the state legislature. In fact, in the early decades of the republic, many states did so. But a state that chooses to split its ticket is much less valuable to a presidential candidate than a state that gives all its votes to one candidate. Once a few states started adopting the general ticket model, everyone else was compelled to follow suit. 

The devolution of the vote to the ordinary citizens wasn’t a predictable consequence of the design of the Electoral College, but seems to have followed from the cultural DNA of the United States. At least in the 19th and till the early 20th century,  that nation seems to have had a strong bias for direct elections.

 I recount the story of the Electoral College of the United States for a couple of reasons. The first is that questions about what constitutes the essence, the basic structure of a republic, is difficult to pin down. You still hear many Americans defend the Electoral College, but when they do, they do not refer to its actual design. Instead, they argue, in rather vague terms, that the College is the reason why the United States is a republic rather than a democracy. It is not quite clear what they mean by that. These days, the design of the EC affects democracy in the US in two ways – first by overweighting the smaller states and second by giving all votes from one state to one candidate or the other depending on who got the majority in that state. There may be some justification for the first. I am not sure why the second is a good thing, but can think of many reasons why it is bad. It must surely contribute to the polarization of politics on geographic lines.  It is rare for anyone to argue that the electors should vote like actual thinking people rather than dummies. Recently, the Americans elected a mentally unstable person as their president, and there were some murmurs that this was exactly the kind of situation for which the Electoral College was designed – that the electors should vote as responsible people and not as bound agents, and override the choice the Americans seem to have made. It should be immediately obvious why that would have been a terrible idea. No matter what the constitution says, the legitimacy of democracy depends on everyone following the rules that everyone agrees are the rules. The voters did not vote for the electors. They voted for the man or woman they wanted as president. A set of essentially random people overriding this choice would destroy the legitimacy of the republic, no matter what the original design of the Electoral College was. 

The second reason is that the experience of the Electoral College has some relevance to our parliamentary system.  Our chief executive is elected by the Lok Sabha. You could say that it essentially functions as a permanent electoral college.  Now, many of you will protest my characterization of the Lok Sabha as a permanent electoral college, and will argue that our Sansad is a legislature, though I am sure you will agree that the lower house also functions as an electoral college. A textbook answer to the question: “What are the functions of our Sansad?” would be: 

  1. Makes laws
  2. Exercises oversight over the executive
  3. Members of Parliament act as a bridge between their constituents and the government
  4. Elects the Prime Minster (Lok Sabha only)

But how is it in practice? Our parliament doesn’t actually make laws in the sense that the Congress of the United States does. That body actually has primary responsibility for making laws. Senators or representatives draft legislation, the Senate and the House form committees to consider them, amendments are proposed, there are negotiations among the legislators, and this back and forth determines the final shape of the law. The executive has a significant say in this process – but it has to exercise its say mostly informally – through its influence over the legislators and by the power of the President to appeal to his popularity. The formal power the President has is the threat of the veto, but the veto power is, by definition, not an agenda setting power.  I think that it is fair to say that no other legislative body in the world, and in particular no legislative body among parliamentary democracies, exercises that kind of power. In most other countries, the government sets the agenda and writes the acts of legislation, the legislature debates them, amends them as needed and passes them into law, or not. In India, a bill not drafted by the government being turned into law is so unlikely that I believe it has happened only once in its history. The parliament has next to no input to drafting or amending legislation, and while members of parliament have a vote, that vote is entirely on party lines. Members of the ruling party support all bills introduced by the government, and members of the opposition oppose it if their party decides to oppose or support if it does. 

The oversight function fares better, if only slightly. Members of parliament do have some freedom to question ministers of their party, especially when it happens behind closed doors in parliamentary committees. 

The only thing that really differentiates our members of the Lok Sabha from electors of an electoral college is the third function – which is to stay in contact with the people, listen to their grievances and communicate these to the government. In fact, India has introduced a weird innovation in the form of the MP Local Area Development Scheme that allocates funds to members of parliament to carry out what are essentially municipal schemes. Many people who believe that we should vote for MPs rather than the PM also believe that the function of a member of parliament is to carry out local development work in the constituency.  Going by the original constitutional design, the latter is just as out of scope of an MP’s remit as is the former.  The only reason MPs are tasked with these things is that our municipal governance is non-existent. 

It is quite clear that the most important task of the legislatures in India is to elect the chief executive, overshadowing their ostensible purpose, which is to legislate. For a voter whose concern is to see certain laws passed and policies executed, the rational thing to do is not to pretend that you are electing legislators, but to model the problem as electing a prime minister, and the members of parliament as members of an electoral college. The alternative model is that of the MP as a feudal patron with the power to dispense government largess and who acts as a conduit for your grievances. The model of an MP as a legislator doesn’t really make sense. For one thing, MPs do not legislate in practice. Secondly, even if by chance one constituency decides to elect an MP who believes that his main task is to legislate, it is pointless unless he is able to coordinate this with a couple of hundred other MPs. 

If you think through this, it should not be surprising – indeed, it should have been completely predictable, as predictable as the evolution of the electoral college was. Some people will argue that the law-making powers of our legislatures began to atrophy due to the anti-defection amendment. I agree that the amendment is a bad idea and did contribute to the worsening of the independence of our legislatures, but the root cause lies with our system of government. If you were designing a system, and you went: “We will have elected legislatures. Their main function is to make laws for the executive to implement. And oh, they will also elect a committee that will actually run the government.” a perceptive political scientist should have been able to point out that this system would inevitably lead to the latter function overshadowing the former, especially in an era where the development of mass communication makes presidential politics possible. The parliamentary system did not come about because someone thoughtfully designed it. In countries where the parliamentary system originally evolved, the monarch held executive power, the legislature slowly wrested law-making powers from him, and eventually evolved to take on executive power as well. There was a path dependency to this. Because the traditions of the legislature had time to evolve before there was a prime minister to exercise executive functions, the legislature in places like Britain does have some independence. India’s Sansad never got time to evolve that kind of independence. It came bundled with a popular prime minister. It is therefore inevitable that it grew to be a kind of glorified electoral college.  If you need that to change, give the voters separate votes – one for a chief executive and one for their representative. If you insist on giving only one vote, don’t be surprised if they decide to use it to choose their chief executive. 

Cash for Votes

It is true that corruption, as Indira Gandhi once famously said, is a global phenomenon. That said, the nature and quantum of corruption varies across space and time. We believe that the first world has less corruption than India, but a citizen of a western country will ruefully point out the prevalence of lobbying and bribery through campaign contributions in his country. We would both be right in our views. Outright bribery in cash seems a lot uglier than corruption through lobbying. In practical terms, it is also less transparent because it is unaccounted for.

Of course, the first world wasn’t always wealthy and wasn’t always so sophisticated in its modes of corruption. The United States, during its gilded age, was famous for corruption among its legislatures. Businesses bought favourable laws by bribing lawmakers outright. William A Clark, the Copper Baron, bought his way into the US Senate by bribing members of the Montana state legislature. This was back when senators were elected by state legislatures. This scandal led to the passage of the 17th amendment, providing for direct elections to the Senate.
There is one curious incident of the dog in the night time that failed to bark. Why do we not have examples of an Aya Ram Gaya Ram culture having developed in the United Kingdom? The party system seems to have developed early and grown strong roots there. There has never been the equivalent of an Anti-Defection law in Britain. Why was there no phase when MPs routinely switched parties, leading to unstable governments? Legislators in the US decide legislation while in the UK, they choose governments. There should be much greater scope for inducements in the latter system. Why did it not happen?

One explanation is that at the time the party system formed in the UK, members of parliament were independently wealthy, making them less susceptible to inducements. I think that this explanation is partly true. But I think a stronger explanation exists. Back when the British party system formed, the two parties were the Whigs and the Tories. (The Labour party did not yet exist, which is not surprising given that franchise was limited to holders of property and land.) The two parties represented two classes of British society. The Whigs were the party of the aristocratic land owners while the Tories were that of the industrial and business classes. Given the rigidity of British society of the time, your class was your identity. Imagine an MP of the time trying to change his party affiliation. Given how closely the affiliation was tied to class and identity, such a thing would have been impossible to imagine, let alone put into effect. I think that this close linkage between party affiliation and identity explains why the party system got so strong in the UK.

How does this relate to India? Indian politics is identity politics. People vote according to their caste or religious affiliations. The are parties that are closely linked to particular castes or religions. You’d expect the same party dynamic to develop in India too? But it hasn’t, and the reason is perhaps that politics developed to be a lot more transactional in India. For example, BSP is closely associated with the Dalits, but if a Dalit leader switches over from the BSP to the SP, or a Brahmin leader joins the BSP, it isn’t considered a big deal. The supporters of the leaders in question may migrate with them or they may not, and if they do not, switching parties was a bad career move for the politician in question, but it is not an unthinkable or a career-ending move.

The exception to this would be things like someone switching from the MIM to the BJP, from the communist parties to the BJP, or vice versa. Politicians freely switch from the BJP to the Congress or vice versa, but the BJP has a core drawn from the RSS that doesn’t easily switch.

Also, the BJP is more likely to have a base of supporters who are fiercely loyal to the party and its ideology, are unlikely to follow a leader to another party and are willing to punish someone who switches out of the party.

Overall, it appears to me that the incentives that face the BJP are different from those that confront other parties on the question of party discipline. The BJP is likely to benefit more and more quickly from a culture of strong party loyalty developing than will other parties, which should mean that they face a different trade-off when they have a choice between buying legislators and staying out of power.

The voice in your head

The Guardian reports that MIT Media Labs have developed a devicethatcan read people’s minds and translate their thoughts into words. While this is a remarkable development, the piece makes it clear that the device cannot read your raw thoughts. You have to actually verbalize your thoughts, i.e. think out the exact words in your mind for the device to pick them up and translate them into sounds.

When you think of it, the process of forming a thought and converting them into words is fascinatingly complex. I am not a neuroscientist, but introspection tells me that the process has at least four stages. First, there is the raw thought that forms in your mind. This thought just exists, albeit at a high level of abstraction. For example, at this point in time, even though I am struggling through the process of structuring and picking the right words for this piece, the thought I want to convey exists fully formed in my mind. The device should pick up these raw thoughts when I think them, and in theory, a sufficiently advanced AI would be able to write this piece for me. But in the absence of such an AI, the thoughts would be just a jumble of electrical signals as far as this device is concerned.

Second, this thought needs to be structured into a sequence of ideas best suited for communication. Third, the ideas need to be converted into sentences and words that best describe the thought, and finally in verbal communication, at the point of speaking these words, the brain will send electrical impulses to the mouth that will set off the mechanical process of converting them into sounds. When we speak, at least the last three, perhaps all four, steps occur within a split second. Those who are good speakers make this seem so easy, and we make fun of the inarticulate. But it is only when we think of what is involved in human speech that we realise what an extraordinary thing speech is.

The device that the MIT labs have developed is unlikely to intercept your thoughts at the first or second stages, so it’s unlikely that it will be useful as an interrogation tool. I wonder whether it picks them up at the third stage or the fourth.

I once got introduced to someone and at the beginning of the conversation I gave him my name. At the end of the conversation, as we were saying our good byes, to his great embarrassment, he found that he had forgotten my name. He fumbled and he addressed me as “Bhaskar”. I found this mistake fascinating because both my name (“Ravi”) and “Bhaskar” mean “sun” in Sanskrit. Quite clearly, my interlocutor had saved my name with a reference to its meaning in his head, though when it came to translating the meaning back to the actual word this system had failed.

Now, I don’t think that everyone who knows my name thinks of it with reference to the sun every time they have occasion to think of my name. Once the name is familiar, it is just a name. But I think that the way the guy did the translation of meaning to word happens everytime we choose the appropriate word in either speech or writing. Does the technology MIT labs have developed detect the human brain during this process? My initial guess was that that is how the technology worked. If true, then an obvious extension of the technology would be translation. You can think in one language but the device senses the meaning of what you wanted to convey and translates to another language. Another application would be to have a speaking device for the deaf.

But when I thought to the implications of this, I realised that it was very unlikely that that is how the machine works. It is more likely that the device intercepts the brain in the process of sending neural instructions to the mouth to create a particular sound, i.e. at the fourth step of the verbalizing process. If that is the case, the device can potentially transcribe your thoughts to any language, but it cannot translate. It cannot help the deaf, because the sign language is completely different from the verbal language. The mistakes the device would make would be more on the lines of confusing tree with three, the same kind voice recognition systems make.

It is said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Well that is true, the opposite is also true. Advanced technology that seems magical will cease to be so when one understands it. So it will be with this technology.

One last thought. I wonder how this device will handle a person’s second language. I hate to describe Kannada as a second language for me given that it is my mother tongue. I read it very well, I can write it with some effort and I speak it fluently. But it is not the language I think my complex thoughts in. When I attempted to think in Kannada while writing this post, I had to imagine myself speaking to someone. I don’t need to do that when thinking in English. I fear that if I attempt to think in Kannada for the device, it will actually detect the original English I am translating from!