#62 Speaking for the Dead

The Indian 'Nation', Opportunity Cost in Foreign Policy, Cognitive Maps in Political Economy, and more

This newsletter is really a weekly 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: Re-imagination Of India?

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley

A nation is built upon its memory. What we choose to forget, the myths we imagine as truths and the markers of our past we memorialise and celebrate shape our imagination of the nation. Nation-building is myth-making at its finest. There is invention and adoption of new traditions that advance the construct of the nation while maintaining a narrative integrity that establishes a linear progression from the past.

Benedict Anderson defined the nation as a social community that’s imagined by people who believe they belong to it while being different from other such communities. Every newly formed nation has to define this imagination. And at that stage, it faces a choice. Or, as Anderson puts it, a paradox:

“The objective modernity of nations to the historians' eyes vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.”

This is a tough ask especially for nations that are formed after a period of struggle. There’s a strong desire to start from a clean constitutional slate while paying homage to ‘subjective antiquity’ in areas outside the bounds of law and statecraft. Anderson refers to this in his book Imagined Communities while writing about the Declaration of American Independence, 1776:

It is difficult today to recreate in the imagination a condition of life in which the nation was felt to be something utterly new. But so it was in that epoch. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 makes absolutely no reference to Christopher Columbus, Roanoke, or the Pilgrim Fathers, nor are the grounds put forward to justify independence in any way 'historical,' (emphasis ours) in the sense of highlighting the antiquity of the American people. Indeed, marvellously, the American nation is not even mentioned. A profound feeling that a radical break with the past was occurring — a 'blasting open of the continuum of history'? — spread rapidly.

This departure from the past or ‘blasting open of the continuum of history’ became a norm thereafter for a new nation in defining its imagination. For states that had a longer and often hallowed history (like those in Europe), this was positioned differently. Instead of a departure from past, this was seen as a reawakening. To quote Anderson:

In Europe, the new nationalisms almost immediately began to imagine themselves as 'awakening from sleep,' a trope wholly foreign to the Americas. (contd.)

Read as late awakening, even if an awakening stimulated from afar, it opened up an immense antiquity behind the epochal sleep.

But like I mentioned earlier, there is still a need to show this break from the posterity as a linear descent to make it palatable for the society. To simultaneously be a rupture and a continuity from the past agitated the minds of the founding fathers of every newly independent state. The answer to this conundrum was found in history. Rather, in rewriting of it.

Anderson writes of Michelet, the French historian during the time of revolution:

Of the five, it is perhaps natural that Michelet, self-appointed historian of the Revolution, most clearly exemplifies the national imagining being born, for he was the first self-consciously to write on behalf of the dead. (contd.)

… Michelet made it clear that those whom he was exhuming were by no means a random assemblage of forgotten, anonymous dead. They were those whose sacrifices, throughout History, made possible the rupture of 1789 and the self-conscious appearance of the French nation, even when these sacrifices were not understood as such by the victims.

This formulation is probably unprecedented. Michelet not only claimed to speak on behalf of large numbers of anonymous dead people, but insisted, with poignant authority, that he could say what they 'really' meant and 'really' wanted, since they themselves 'did not understand.' From then on, the silence of the dead was no obstacle to the exhumation of their deepest desires.

Let’s pause here for a moment to reflect on the three arguments Anderson makes:

  1. Newly independent nations like to make a new start that represents a break from the continuum of their history.

  2. Nations or communities that have a long history which can’t be wished away so easily use the trope of slumber and reawakening to represent the departure from the past.

  3. Historians are pressed into service to reframe history that shows the past events to be serving the nation-building or myth-making objectives of the present.

The Imagination Of India

Now let’s come to our founding moment and see the choices we made using this lens. India had to present independence as a break from its long history. This was necessary to build a new ‘imagination’ of India in the minds of its people. Why was this necessary?

  • India was the very definition of diversity – over 600 princely states, 14 provinces, dozens of major languages, scores of castes and six large religious groups. It was impossible for such diverse people to have an imagination of its past that’s common and uncontested. It made sense to start afresh with a new narrative.

  • There was also the question of what phase of our history should be considered an aberration that this founding moment needed to correct. Should it be restricted only to the period of British rule or should we go back to the founding of the Sultanate in Delhi in the 11th century? We made a choice (British rule) that we felt would have the broadest consensus in the society.

  • The partition as a human tragedy was unfolding at that moment and any contentious definition of the imagination of our past would have made things worse.

Two other coincidences helped. One, in Ambedkar and Nehru, we had two towering personalities involved in the drafting of our constitution who viewed our society with suspicion while privileging the state as an agent of change. Two, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of right-wing Hindu zealot obliterated any opportunity for an alternative imagination to emerge from the society in the immediate term.

Once this break from the past was agreed upon, it was a question of making it palatable to a traditional society. Nehru who had a deep understanding of Indian history took it upon himself to position this not as a departure from the past but as a waking up from slumber. It is remarkable how closely Nehru follows the Anderson template. His Tryst With Destiny speech is a delicate balancing act between setting aside our history for a fresh start while playing up the continuity of the current moment with the past:

At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. (contd)

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries which are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again.

This project of a new imagination and the waking up from the slumber was then passed on to historians. The historians went about ‘speaking for the dead’ since ‘the silence of the dead was no obstacle to the exhumation of their deepest desires.’ In India this meant a disproportionate attribution of our woes to the British rule, labelling provincial wars against British armies as freedom struggle, airbrushing contentious parts of our history that would muddy this imagination and amplifying elements that further the chosen narrative.

The specific positioning of events that are familiar to us today followed from here – the Anglo-Mysore wars led by Tipu Sultan, the papering over of the destruction of our cultural heritage by a few invaders in the name of Islam, the playing down of the Hindu kingdoms and the deification of Sufism and Gunga-Jamuni Tehzeeb are all part of this.        

I pass no judgment on this project by those who were at the helm then. As Anderson argued, once you have chosen, in good faith, your narrative that’s a break from the past, you will need to rework history. This was neither a unique attempt nor in any way insidious. This what every nation-state did. In our case, it was logical, constructive and forward-looking.

What Now?

The critical question though is this – how deep did this imagination seep into the consciousness of the society? 73 years later the evidence suggests not a lot. The alternative imagination of India as a nation that was suppressed by foreign invaders for over a millennium didn’t transmute itself into the official narrative. Neither did it die out. It remained subdued, biding its time.

The imagination that we adopted for ourselves at independence weakened in the decades of 70s and 80s. The undermining of institutions by Indira Gandhi, the political rehabilitation of Jan Sangh during the emergency, the stifled economy, and the naked pandering to vote banks led to rapid disillusionment with it. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement strengthened the alternative and the last six years have made it mainstream. The alternative imagination has the political mandate now to unseat the original. It believes the lack of real reckoning with our past, the choice of an imagination that wasn’t true to the belief of our society and the constant peddling of this fake narrative has not allowed us to move ahead with conviction. Once free of this burden, we will flower to our real potential. This is a deeply held belief among the proponents of the alternative. The question now is of the political will to make a change and the extent of opposition to such a move by the adherents of the old imagination.

A concerted effort to formalise the change in the imagination will see a repeat of the series of steps that played out during our independence. There will be constitutional amendments that will signal a departure from the original imagination. The last 73 years will be seen a period of slumber from which we must awake. And there will be a reworking of the history to fit past events into this imagination. This is already in progress. That it will gather pace shouldn’t surprise anyone.

There’s only one question that remains. What price will this change in imagination extract from us as a society? We don’t know yet.

It won’t be small.    


— Pranay Kotasthane

Narratives are important. They have the power to make the unreal real. One such powerful narrative is the story that defines the largest body of “us”— the nation. A corollary is that since its a mental construct, nations can be and are reimagined. This is an illustration I use to teach the concept of a nation:

At the time of independence struggle, the modern Indian nation was imagined in the backdrop of a shared historical experience — the British colonial rule. That reimagination conceptualised all Indians traumatised by the colonial rule as one people, one nation. That narrative seems to be changing over the last few years. Whether it’s due to a generational shift, changing state vs society dynamics or global influences, we don’t know for sure.

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Matsyanyaaya: Opportunity Costs of India’s Foreign Policy Actions

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

— Pranay Kotasthane

Kuch paane ke liye kuch khona bhi padta hai. When there’s scarcity, trade-offs are inevitable. That’s why the concept of opportunity cost is indispensable in public policy. When resources are chosen in pursuit of one particular policy direction, the same resources are not available for other use. This forgone alternative use of any resource due to a policy choice is referred to as the opportunity cost. This concept forces us to think beyond just the benefits of any policy and ask a tougher question: is this policy the best use of the limited resources available with the government?

While this powerful concept makes cameo appearances in domestic policy analyses, I find that India’s foreign policy analyses mostly give it a miss. Look at the questions below and some common reasons cited to answer them in the affirmative:

Should India invest more money and effort in its relationship with Nepal? Yes, because Nepal’s India tilt prevents Chinese and Indian armies from eye-to-eye confrontation for nearly a thousand kilometres.

Should India invest in physical connectivity projects in its neighbourhood? Yes, because that will benefit India’s economy by $XYZ billion.

Should India continue to have two strike corps focused on Pakistan? Yes, because the threat of a limited territorial land grab deters Pakistan from fomenting more trouble in India (particularly Kashmir).

You get the gist. Each policy question is answered by citing explicit benefits in favour of that policy option. Few analyses consider the opportunity costs of these policy options. For instance, what are the opportunities forgone when India decides to deploy its resources for preventing a larger PRC presence in Nepal? Could the tools of statecraft used — economic power, intelligence, diplomacy — have been put to better use elsewhere? Or what is the opportunity cost of having two strike corps dedicated on the Western border when clearly the structural threat to India is on its Northern and Eastern borders? Such questions are rarely asked.

This is a pervasive flaw in our foreign policy analyses. Even scholars from the hard-nosed realist school of international relations overlook this point. While they focus on relative power of states (an approach I too lean towards), they miss out on the other important aspect of realism — taking into account India’s resource trade-offs as they are now and not as they should be in an ideal world.

My intuition is that the area studies approach in foreign policy incentivises ignoring the opportunity costs. Which analyst, after all, is going to write that India should not invest time and energy in the region she is an expert on? So we end up in a situation where foreign policy write-ups often become a litany of asks from the government for more resources followed by ruminations of dejection when those asks don’t fructify.

Given that resources of all kinds will be even more scarce because of COVID-19, it is all the more imperative that India’s global outlook confront tough trade-offs. Probably, India needs to let go of some of its foreign policy goals or radically alter the means used for achieving the goals.

I wrote in an earlier edition that an appreciation of the foreign policy practice would require inputs from several other disciplines — psychology, economic reasoning, public policy, and behavioural economics being some of them. Assigning opportunity costs to policy alternatives is a good place to start.

A Framework a Week: Understanding Cognitive Maps

Tools for thinking public policy

— Pranay Kotasthane

Today’s framework section comes from a lecture by Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the Politics of Public Policies.

Stakeholder analysis is an important tool for project execution. The equivalent of stakeholder mapping at the level of policy and politics is cognitive mapping.

Cognitive maps are interpretations that individuals or a group of individuals hold about how the world works. Three factors are implicit in a cognitive map:

  1. conception of a goal. For example, in the cognitive map of the authors of this newsletter, the implicit goal is that more and more Indians should become prosperous in the least amount of time.

  2. conception of causality. For example, we believe that focus on economic growth is the best option for India to reduce poverty.

  3. conception of what others are thinking. For example, we anticipate economic growth arguments to be vehemently opposed by other cognitive maps that prioritise environmental sustainability, emotional rather than material prosperity, and outcome equality.

As a public policy practitioner, cognitive mapping is important for negotiations in the political economy as follows:

  1. recognise that different people have different cognition maps. Maps might differ in terms of the implied goal, causality, and/or perceived thinking of other groups.

  2. align cognitive maps by thinking about the distributional consequences of a policy. It is important to tell people who think they are going to lose out that their concerns have been taken into account.

The National Pension System Reform by excluding the people who were already employed in government before 2004 and the GST reform by giving compensation to states for the loss of revenue were two examples where aligning cognitive maps was crucial for policy change.

India Policy Watch #2: If All You Have is a Hammer…

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley

I mentioned in the last edition about Pankaj Mishra’s new collection of old essays titled Bland Fanatics. Over the last decade, Mishra has been a vocal critic of what he now terms Anglo-American exceptionalism and the worship of liberalism. In essay after essay that is high on rhetoric and astonishingly low on internal logical consistency, Mishra paints liberalism and its fanatics as self-serving elites who have fetishised free markets, dismantled state capacity, deepened social inequity and thrust this ideology over their colonies with tragic consequences.

“Mishra Is Ambitious And It’s A Serious Fault”

Now, there’s enough there to mount a credible attack on liberalism and in a few essays, Mishra does find a locus to lay bare its flaws. But Mishra is ambitious. He is in search of a sweeping narrative arc and a grand theory that might bring a philosophical coherence to the selection of essays. That there’s none doesn’t deter him. He labours to create this continuum of western liberal thinking from the age of enlightenment to the current moment and attributes everything, from colonial plunder to rise of Islamic fundamentalism to it. This grasp for greatness with its pretensions of a unified, meta-thesis of thought does disservice to some insightful pieces about free-market failures, the problem with the defence of colonialism, Islamophobia and the lure of fascism.

The reasons for Mishra’s failures are many. There’s more than a whiff of conceit and smugness that has always run through his writing. When you read them together, you realise how strong that is. But that’s a matter of personal taste. The real issue is elsewhere. His rhetoric is smooth and engaging but the alternative to the western and liberal exceptionalism that he wants to tear down isn’t clear. Some kind of leftist utopia is suggested but our memories of harms inflicted in its name are fresh. So he merely hints at it. Mishra isn’t a clear thinker. When you combine this flaw with his soaring ambition of being an original political thinker, you end up with a muddled mess of a book.

I will highlight a few extracts from his various essays in this book and elsewhere to explain this. I can say I was spoilt for choices here.

Mishra, like many others, has found the current pandemic a useful ally:

Covid-19 shattered what John Stuart Mill called ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion’, forcing many to realise that they live in a broken society, with a carefully dismantled state. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung put it in May, unequal and unhealthy societies are ‘a good breeding ground for the pandemic’. Profit-maximising individuals and businesses, it turns out, can’t be trusted to create a just and efficient healthcare system, or to extend social security to those who need it most.

East Asian states have displayed far superior decision-making and policy implementation. Some (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) have elected leaders; two (China, Vietnam) are single-party dictatorships that call themselves communist. They share the assumption that genuine public interest is different from the mere aggregation of private interests, and is best realised through long-term government planning and policy. They also believe that only an educated and socially responsible elite can maintain social, economic and political order. The legitimacy of this ruling class derives not so much from routine elections as from its ability to ensure social cohesion and collective well-being. Its success in alleviating suffering during the pandemic suggests that the idealised view of democracy and free markets prized since the Cold War will not survive much longer. (emphasis ours)

The Faults In His Argument

This is a typical Mishra argument that’s riddled with flaws of reasoning and oversimplified analyses. It is a bit early to say who had the best response to Covid-19 yet. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have had better responses because there’s path dependence of having experiences of epidemic in the past. These three countries have followed the Washington consensus of free trade, liberal economic policies and democracy in their road to prosperity which Mishra finds problematic in many of his essays. Their success of any kind can’t be divorced from this reality.

The argument that the state capacity in these countries is stronger that Anglo-America is debatable. Anglo-America has used state capacity at times of crises over the last century quite well. The institutional and monetary response during the current crisis has been proportionate with income support to individuals and credit backstops to the industry that’s unprecedented in history. Also, liberalism doesn’t exclude state intervention as a dogma. There are clear definitions of market failures that call for state intervention. This is lost on Mishra. Lastly, the political response from the US and Britain has been terrible. But it will take remarkable ingenuity to call the current dispensations in these countries as liberal in the classical sense.

The other problem with this argument is about taking a still evolving crisis to arrive at grand conclusion like ‘idealised view of democracy and free markets prized since the Cold War will not survive much longer’. There’s over a century of data (read Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for the data) that this ‘idealised view’ has led to prosperity across the globe and the greatest reduction of poverty anytime in history. This convenient binning of long-term evidence and use of inconclusive recent events to further his case is repeated across many of Mishra’s essays.

Mishra likes to cite China often as an example for the state being in control of things and making the right ethical decisions that are in ‘genuine public interest’.

Yeah, right.

Ask the Uighurs and pro-democracy activists of Hong Kong about that. Also, the simple question for Mishra is this. China had a strong state from 1949. What changed in the last three decades that it could lift over half a billion of its people out of poverty? Did the state just grow stronger and do this heavy lifting? Or, did China embrace free trade, globalisation and market economy? The lack of intellectual integrity in positing China’s recent success to a strong state which it always had is transparent and typical of Mishra.

The India Muddle

Mishra writes:

For decades, India benefited from a Cold War-era conception of ‘democracy’, which reduced it to a morally glamorous label for the way rulers are elected, rather than for the kinds of power they hold, or the ways they exercise it. As a non-communist country that held routine elections, India possessed a matchless international prestige despite consistently failing – worse than many Asian, African and Latin American countries – to provide its citizens with even the basic components of a dignified existence. The halo of virtue around India shone brighter as its governments embraced free markets and communist-run China abruptly emerged as a challenger to the West.

When it comes to India, Mishra has a problem in applying his thesis. It is difficult to say India embraced classical liberalism and dismantled the state. You could say a lot of things about the three decades that followed Indian independence. But it would be impossible to label them as anything but statist. So, Mishra conveniently switches the blame to ‘democracy’ and how the liberal elites who mimicked the west abused it.

This is infuriating.

The least Mishra could do was to lay out how state control and central planning failed in India while acknowledging his own railway ‘colony’ upbringing in an impoverished, state-controlled economy in the pre-1991 India. To go on and blame democracy is an intellectual deceit to serve his argument. Nothing more. Democracy isn’t the reason we have failed in providing our citizens dignified existence. The mindless notion that a state can divine the needs of individuals and plan for them is what did us in. The limited course correction we did after 1991 freed over 300 million out of the poverty trap. We would do well to remember that.

Mishra Finds Truth

That brings me to the two extracts where Mishra inadvertently hits upon the truth. It is no surprise he uses them to launch another tirade against liberalism. This is proof Mishra won’t recognise the truth if it were served to him on a silver platter with a side of masala peanuts.

Modernisation along American lines now became the creed that glorified the sovereign liberty of the autonomous rights-bearing man and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. A century and a half after Stendhal denounced the materialism of the French bourgeoisie, economic growth in general was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide. Unlike in the 1820s, those who claimed that a culture of money-making advanced the freedom of man could now depend on a useful enemy. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom.

Indeed, recent scholars have argued that liberalism acquired inner coherence and intellectual ancestry only as the default ‘other’ of the twentieth century’s ‘totalitarian’ ideologies of the left and right. By the time the Cold War began, it could even seem synonymous with ‘democracy’, ‘capitalism’ and ‘the West’ in general, its moral prestige underwriting such coinages as ‘liberal capitalism’ and ‘liberal democracy’.

This is true.

Mishra writes this to establish the absence of intellectual history or tradition to the notion of liberalism. Like that’s some kind of a flaw. Far from it.

Liberalism is the recognition of a natural state of being of the humankind. It isn’t the product of imagination. Those who wrote on liberty and moral sentiments of man weren’t inventing a philosophy. They were helping us appreciate the truth that underpinned our actions. It didn’t need a name. It stood apart as the ‘natural’ other to any manufactured construct like communism or religion by being itself.

Mishra views it as a flaw. All evidence point to it being a feature.   

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Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Paper] An insightful review of Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society by Patrick Deneen. Things decay. It’s natural. We can delay it by sustaining what’s good in us. Of course, there’s more than just this.

  2. [Article] Prof Steven Pinker reflects on the attacks from far-right and far-left he received for writing Enlightenment Now and what it says about the current moment.

  3. [Article] Paul Graham’s old essay on two kinds of moderates that is a useful companion piece to our first essay in this edition. Of course, we like to think of ourselves as accidental moderates.

  4. [Paper] Opportunity cost neglect is rampant in policy thinking. The young are more likely to commit this error than the old.

That’s all for this weekend. Read and share.

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If you like the kind of things this newsletter talks about, consider taking up the Takshashila Institution’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP) course. It’s fully online and meant for working professionals. Applications for the August 2020 cohort are now open. For more details, check here.