#118 All Counting is Political

The Indic critique, Census 2021, and two policyWTFs playing out like bad poetry in motion

This newsletter is really a public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

India Policy Watch #1: The Truth Is Not Out There

Insights on burning policy issues in India


The feedback from readers and a few questions lead me in this edition to ‘the final vocabulary’, ‘the world is out there; the truth cannot be out there’, ‘ironic disruption’ and, therefore, Richard Rorty.

First the questions.

These are the usual ones for the times we live in: in a political argument, why is it so difficult to make others see our “truth” or why do people love to live in their chosen echo chambers? Yes, those tiresome, eternal questions of our social media-dominated times.

Now to the feedback.

We usually receive good feedback from our readers (heh, kidding). The critical ones tend to be of two types. The more common type is when a reader accuses us of leaning liberal or conservative depending on who they are. This isn’t a surprise. These terms don’t have equivalents in any Indian language. The meanings of these terms have been appropriated by various political formations depending on their convenience. Defend the liberty of the makers of ‘Tandav’ and you are a liberal (or worse) who is undermining Hinduism one OTT episode at a time. Make a case for economic growth as a moral imperative for India now over other social objectives, you become a blood-sucking conservative with no conscience. Since we do both we aren’t surprised by the contrasting feedback.

The Indic Feedback

It is the other feedback that is of interest to me. This is the lament that we don’t bring Indic philosophical perspectives to the issues we raise here. That we are too Euro-centric in our approach.

This is largely true. Relatively speaking, I have limited exposure to the great Indian ancient texts. My intermediate knowledge of Sanskrit is a disadvantage. I have read the translations of some of the ‘usual’ texts. Also, the Murty Classical Library has been of help over the last decade. I will recommend the Epic of Ram, Peddanna’s The Story of Manu (on the culture of Vijayanagara kingdom), Yajnavalkya’s A Treatise on Dharma and The History of Akbar from the library that will improve your understanding of India. Yet, I have found it difficult to distil the wisdom of these texts to interpret what we see in India today. This is my failing.

I also suspect there could be reasons for this beyond my lack of ability. There aren’t enough interpretive efforts done by scholars to either update these texts or to make them more accessible. Translation isn’t interpretation. Also, there’s a discontinuity in scholarship during India’s medieval history and no equivalent of enlightenment to carry its ancient intellectual traditions forward. Either way, the upshot of it is I don’t find adequate social or political insights in them that would then inform my worldview. Therefore, they don’t make an appearance in my writing. Though I must admit it does more often in Pranay’s.

So, the question is how should I approach the feedback about the absence of Indic perspectives in my thinking? Should I dismiss it based on what I have read? Or, should I engage with it at the cost of learning something else that I might find more useful?

Rorty And Pragmatism

This is where Richard Rorty comes in. I was introduced to his works through Sam Harris who studied under him at Stanford. Rorty followed in the footsteps of Isaiah Berlin in recognising the inevitability of plurality of ideas in a society. More importantly, he was the intellectual heir of John Dewey. We have written about Lippman-Dewy debates here and taken the side of Dewey. For Rorty, society is diverse and plural with conflicting ideas, beliefs and biases. It is futile to expect that a universal truth of any kind (even the most liberal kind) can be imposed on it by ivory tower intellectuals top-down.

Rorty questioned the dogma of liberalism that prevailed in Europe in the centuries after enlightenment. To him, enlightenment was a movement against dogma. The prevailing dogma in 17th century Europe was religion. In the 20th century, liberalism had turned into a dogma, according to him. To impose it anywhere without a context is wrong for any society. For Rorty, the social policy that we seek for a nation must be compatible with its history, culture and language. It has to emerge from within. Once it does so, a strong sense of community and solidarity will shape the society. There’s no universal truth except what the society agrees on within the traditions of its culture, history and language. In fact, Rorty contested the idea of truth itself.

Three Arguments

There are three philosophical constructs Rorty advanced (written at the start of this note) that I believe is useful to consider while thinking about political or ideological arguments.

First, Rorty questioned the correspondence theory of truth:

“the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world.”

Rorty debunked this. When we say it is warm in the month of April, we are using language to express multiple ideas - the feeling of the weather being warm, the notion of April as a month and our ability to connect the two. And we believe it is true because the sentence in its construction corresponds to the reality we perceive. But in reality, there’s no truth about the world being warm in April. Only our description of it based on the language of what we feel.

Rorty summed up it as:

“Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own unaided by the describing activities of humans cannot."

This was an important premise for him. If there’s only a descriptive notion of truth, why should we give primacy to any universal notion of truth or rationality? After all, it is only our language (or in his words, vocabulary) that gives structure to the truth. It is therefore futile to debate if reality has an intrinsic nature. Say, you may believe living in harmony and justice for all are universal truths. But are they? Go back three of four centuries and prejudices were rampant and people were hung, drawn and quartered for the pettiest of crimes. Truth is malleable. It depends on what we seek to achieve. Focus on justifications for your argument than seeking universal truths.

Second, everything we read, listen to, watch or discuss helps build what Rorty called our ‘final vocabulary’. In his book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, he defined it as:

“All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes.

I shall call these words a person's “final vocabulary”. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.

It is ‘final’ in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no non-circular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with the language.”

I find the ‘final vocabulary’ a beautiful construct to make sense of a lot of arguments on social media. When someone says ‘India first, always’ or ‘Don’t you trust your own army’, I understand I have reached the final vocabulary of that person. You will hit a circular argument if you further debate him on these points. It is ‘India first’ because it is India first. There’s nothing beyond it.

Lastly, Rorty suggests a way to find a common ground among people who have different final vocabularies. This is important. This is the way we can find common ground among people. He suggests an ‘ironist’ perspective for an individual to participate in political debates while fashioning the self through continuous improvement. He cited three conditions that form the ironist perspective that will allow us to keep an open mind on all belief systems. An individual is an ironist if:

  1. She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered;

  2. She realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts;

  3. Insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.

This, to me, is the best way to engage and debate others in the current world. Show humility, have radical doubts about your own final vocabulary and engage with others in good faith believing their vocabulary might be as close to the reality as yours. If more of us did so, we might improve our final vocabulary while nudging others to see beyond theirs. We might then arrive at what Durkheim called collective effervescence which is what most political projects seek to achieve for nation-building.

Well, that’s what I learned from Rorty. Now if someone can point me to an Indic perspective that improves upon this understanding, I will be a willing learner.

PS: I’m looking for something more than the usual vaad-vivaad and tarka sastra tradition.

India Policy Watch #2: Census 2021

Insights on burning policy issues in India

- Pranay Kotasthane

The 16th Indian population census will be conducted later this year. The 2021 Census of India will be the country’s first digital census. Expect another Aarogya Setu-type mobile phone app and “server not reachable” complaints. That apart, this census will be the first India-wide demographic exercise in a new era of radically networked societies. Be prepared for fresh narratives, misinformation campaigns, and misleading claims.

The stakes are quite high as well — Census 2021 data will be the basis of the next delimitation of electoral constituencies. This will be an interstate delimitation meaning that the number of parliamentarians each state sends to the Lok Sabha will change for the first time since 1973.

Though it seems like a boring counting exercise, the census reveals a lot about a State and Society, both. Here’s how.

Census as a Measure of State Capacity

Many political theorists have obsessed over this one question — what are the leading indicators for state capacity? Some common answers are the ability of a state to raise taxes as an indicator of its economic power; and the ability to remain entrenched as an indicator of its political power.

My submission is that census-taking is as fundamental an indicator of state capacity as raising taxes and can be used to measure the effectiveness of states. A count of the populace is quintessentially a political exercise. It is an extension of the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force. The state counts residents and classifies them based on the criteria of its own choosing with the intent that such a categorisation will aid in governance delivery. A corollary is that a state that is unable to convince its residents about a process as fundamental as counting and categorising them, can be considered as a weak state.

The Indian state has done reasonably well on this count. A census has been held every ten years without fail. In fact, census taking precedes the Republic of India and has been held continuously every ten years since 1872.

While we take this feat for granted, we only have to look at our western neighbour to understand why this is non-trivial. Pakistan has only had 6 nationwide censuses — 1961, 1972, 1981, 1998 and 2017. Moreover, the results of the 2017 census have still not been made publicly available.

Census as a Measure of Social Capital

Deborah Stone in her book Policy Paradox writes that every number is a political claim — a judgment about categorisation and an assertion about similarities and differences. By that logic, the inability to conduct a census indicates a lack of consensus in a society on the relative significance of different categories used to classify the population.

Stone goes on to list eight reasons why a counting exercise such as census taking is explicitly political.

“1. Counting requires decisions about categorizing, about what or whom to include and exclude.

2. Measuring any phenomenon implicitly creates norms about how much is too little, too much, or just right.

3. Numbers can be ambiguous, and so leave room for political struggles to control their interpretation.

4. Numbers are used to tell stories, such as stories of decline ("we are approaching a crisis").

5. Numbers can create the illusion that a very complex and ambiguous phenomenon is simple, countable, and precisely defined.

6. Numbers can create political communities out of people who share some trait that has been counted.

7. Counting can aid negotiation and compromise, by making intangible qualities seem divisible.

8. Numbers, by seeming to be so precise, help bolster authority of those who count.”

The creation of new political communities through a mere counting exercise is ordinarily a welcome development. It can create new demands, new negotiations, and new compromises. However, in a society stricken by deep divisions and mutual hatred, the same counting exercise becomes a fomenter of new troubles. This is another reason why census exercises have been troublesome for Pakistan.

For example, Baloch nationalist parties wanted the 2017 census to be postponed until refugees from Afghanistan were repatriated and Balochis in exile were brought back. This illustrates Deborah Stone’s first reason for why counting is political — it is a conscious decision about who should be included and who shouldn’t be.

Second, the entrenched Punjabi elite’s opposition to the 2017 census was that a population count might lead other states to question its primus inter pares status. Being the centre of Pakistan’s economic growth story, Punjab’s population growth slowed down faster than the other provinces. If census numbers confirmed this, it was bound to raise questions about the disproportional political influence (in terms of the share of seats in the National Assembly) and economic influence (in terms of the share of monies in the Federal Divisible Pool) that Punjab enjoys. This illustrates Stone’s second and third reasons.

Census data could also reflect the decline in women’s marriage rates, an upward shift in the age at which women marry, an increase in literacy rates, an increase in higher educational attainment and an increase in divorce rates between the census periods of 1981 and 1998 at the national level, as Mansoor Raza’s excellent article in Dawn contends. The fundamentalists could use divorce rates data to narrate a story of decline [reason 4] and ascribe a complex phenomenon like demographic change to a simplistic reason of deviation from the tenets of their version of Islam [reason 5].

Numbers can create political communities out of people who share some trait that has been counted [reason 6]. This is precisely why the Sindh government wanted Urdu-speaking and other migrant communities to describe themselves as “Sindhi” in the census so that a single Sindhi bloc could bargain from a position of strength with the federal administration.

Reason 7 is that counting can aid negotiation and compromise. This played out in the census story as follows: Karachi is no longer a predominantly Mohajir city; steady migration from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has caused this demographic change. Thus, census results would have forced Karachi’s traditional “Mohajir’ leadership to accommodate concerns of the Pashtuns and Sindhis in Karachi.

Finally, reason 8 is why the Pakistani government wanted to complete this nationwide exercise — to provide much-needed credibility to the civilian government.

Pakistan’s census troubles aren’t unique; they serve as a cautionary tale for India. Particularly because social tensions — religious, regional, and caste—have all risen in India. With the economy slowing down, many states are contemplating domicile based employment quotas. Whether OBCs should be counted as a separate category in the 2021 census is another issue that is gathering steam. In such a scenario, we expect that the 2021 census will be a politically fraught exercise.

By the end of the counting exercise, we hope, and we can only hope, that the new political communities formed will question the Indian State for better services rather than take up cudgels against each other.

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PolicyWTF: Revisiting Some Old Goof-Ups

This section looks at egregious public policies. Policies that make you go: WTF, Did that really happen?

— Pranay Kotasthane

Looking back at some policyWTFs play out in the real world makes us tear our hair out. This week, we revisit two policyWTFs that are bad poetry in motion.

#1 Production-linked Incentives

In edition #86, we had parsed the Union government’s glorified subsidies a.k.a. production-linked incentives (PLIs) through the Anticipating the Unintended framework. The aim was to highlight the unintended consequences of such subsidies.

Warning about rent-seeking as one of the unintended effects, we had written:

Companies that benefit will seek to modify the eligibility criteria to suppress competition thus leading to more market concentration. They might even try to extend the sunset clause of this scheme in order to keep benefiting from the discount.

Now see this Business Standard report from last week:

Mobile device manufacturers eligible for the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme have petitioned the government to invoke the clause of ‘force majeure’ to declare FY2020-21, the first year under the policy, a zero year. They have cited disruptions due to Covid-19 and the fallout of India-China tensions as reasons for the request.

In short, goalposts have started shifting. More excuses will follow. We have decades of experience proving the futility of such industrial policy measures. Glorified subsidies for a few sectors won’t transform manufacturing in India. Simpler tax, policy, business, and trade environments would.

#2 Haryana’s Job Reservation Law

In edition#49, RSJ had this to say about the Haryana government’s move to reserve for locals 75 per cent of all jobs in the private sector earning monthly incomes below Rs 50000:

“In the long-run, employment in Haryana will be dead: Does Haryana have skilled unemployed youth to fill up 75 per cent of all new jobs created in the state? If Amazon were to open a large development centre in Gurgaon with an intention of hiring 10,000 high-quality engineers, will Haryana be able to serve 7500 of them? The answer is no. Besides, why will Amazon constrain itself with this talent pool when it wants to tap the best engineering talent in India. Why will any company want to add capacity in Haryana? They will take their business to another state.

Now, see this News18 report from March 26:

"After the passage of the New Haryana State Employment of Local Candidates Act, 2020, the NASSCOM carried out a survey which covered 73 of the 500 odd companies in Haryana. According to the survey, 80 per cent of these companies which employ over 1.5 lakh employees have stated that this will negatively impact their future business operations and investment plans. Majority of them have threatened to shift their operations to other states since the new law will make it difficult for them to make their businesses viable, the study stated.

With Gurugram-Faridabad developing as a hub for IT and start-up companies, industrialists feel that such legislations will make it difficult to adopt and follow diversity and equal opportunity policies. The companies also feel that it could impact the recruitment strategies as the law will significantly increase the compliance burden and will limit the industry ability to hire people at will.”

So that’s that. Apparently, the implementation of this law has been pushed back for at least a month. Hope the other states are watching. Local job reservations won’t help. The only way to help ‘local’ labour is to attract more companies to the state.

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Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Video] Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and James Conant discuss Pragmatism in a wonderful discussion with Gretchen Helfrich in an episode of "Odyssey", WBEZ Chicago Public Radio 2002.

  2. [Article] A sharp Business Standard editorial on PLIs creating rent-seeking opportunities.

  3. [Podcast] Pranay was on the Taking It Slow Podcast differentiating anti-state, anti-nation, and anti-government acts.

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