This week, Amit Varma joins Milan to talk about his continuously evolving career, his libertarian ideology, and his views on nationalism.
If you’re listening to this podcast, chances are you are a fan of the podcast, “The Seen and the Unseen.” For 186 episodes and counting, the journalist Amit Varma has been putting together some of the most thoughtful, insightful and eclectic conversations with the best and brightest in India.
This week, Amit joins Milan on the show to reflect on his career as a journalist, author, entrepreneur, podcast host, and--yes--professional poker player. Milan talks to Amit about his libertarian leanings, his views on nationalism, and why exactly India has so few economic reformers.
1. Amit’s podcasts: “The Seen and the Unseen” and “Econ Central”
2. Previous episodes of “The Seen and the Unseen” with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Karthik Muralidharan, and J.P. Narayan.
3. The archives of “Range Rover,” Amit’s poker column for the Economic Times
4. A previous episode of “The Seen and the Unseen” in which Amit speaks at length about libertarianism
5. Amit’s newsletter, “India Uncut”
6. Amit’s Times of India column on nationalism
Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now, if you're listening to this podcast, chances are you are a fan of the podcast The Seen and the Unseen. It's what I like to think of as the granddaddy of all Indian podcasts. For 186 episodes and still counting, the journalist Amit Varma has been putting together some of the most thoughtful, insightful, and eclectic conversations with the best and the brightest in India. And ever since we began airing our little podcast here at Carnegie, I've been inundated with requests to have Amit on the show. So, it is my absolute pleasure to welcome him to Grand Tamasha for the very first time. Amit, thanks for coming on the show.
Thanks for inviting me. You know, I've been listening to all your episodes over the months, and I've been thinking that all your guests are people who put the Grand in "Grand Tamasha." It's about time to put the Tamasha.
There you go. I am excited for a little Tamasha in our little Tamasha. You know, Amit, you and I have met at least on two occasions in person, once in Bombay when you invited me to be on your show, and then another time at a conference in Hyderabad, but on those two occasions I don't think I've ever had the chance to ask you about your background, where you're from, how you became the sort of Amit Varma of today. And so, since this is the first question you always put to your guests, let me throw it back at you. Tell us a little bit about your kind of upbringing, your evolution, how you came to be, you know, the columnist, podcast host, and journalist that you are today.
Well, you know, there's this old John Lennon quote, "life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." I kind of epitomise that in the sense that I must be your only guest who's not a PhD. So, your first non-PhD? Yes. From the time I was single digit years old, I wanted to be a writer, but a storyteller, a sort of writer of fiction, which is pretty much what I've always wanted to be, and then I kind of meandered my way across life. I started off in advertising in the mid-90s. I spent a few years in television, I worked in MTV and Channel V. Then I tried to be an entrepreneur for a while and failed at it in the early 2000s. And then I got into cricket journalism, started a blog, started writing about all kinds of things on the blog, became a columnist, and wrote for a bunch of people. I've written columns for pretty much all the main Indian newspapers and everything, for people like the Wall Street Journal, and so on. And then I wrote a novel, which was a pretty shitty novel. And then I decided that I wanted to play professional poker. So, I did that for five years. I was a professional poker player for five years, and then I kind of got back to writing as it were, and the podcast was just a happy accident. A friend suggested, "Why don't you try this," and he'd had a podcasting company—they were my erstwhile partners till last year. So, I gave it a shot and didn't take it very seriously. I wasn't someone who listened to podcasts. And then as I started doing it, I kind of started discovering that, "Wait a minute, this thing is big"—not in the sense of is becoming popular, not in that sense of bigness, but that I can do things with this that I cannot do in any other medium, and it's actually uniquely suited and uniquely important for our times where otherwise discourse can be so shallow and momentary. And the journey took on its own momentum and here I am on the Grand Tamasha, finally.
So, two things I want to ask you about before we talk about the podcast. The first is about blogging. I am experiencing a bit of blog nostalgia right now in that I actually am yearning to read more blogs. And I'm sort of wondering, and maybe because you probably thought about this more than I have—blogs were a huge thing, like, ten years ago, then they kind of disappeared. And now I feel like people are coming back to them. And I'm not really quite sure I understand. Do you get how the pendulum is moving and why?
I think what happened with blogs was that when I started, I started because it freed me, it liberated me from a lot of the constraints of traditional media. For example, there is a constraint of length, where, you know, if you're writing an article for a newspaper, it's got to be between 800 to 1000 words. Here, it can be 80 words or 8000 words, or 80,000 words, it doesn't matter, and freed from the constraints of following the news cycle, freed from the constraints of specialty, freed from the constraints of house style, you can discover your voice. So, I would blog five times a day for about five years. I had about 1000 posts, and obviously it was very popular. That incentivizes you to keep going, so it was great writing practice, but I think the age of blogs died and I don't think it's come back. And the reason it died was a lot of the functions of blogs were disaggregated by social media. So, for example, Twitter took over the microblog-blogging function, the filter function, and your personal posts aspect of it got taken over by Facebook and Instagram and all of that. So, I think it kind of died, where you have a few great destination blogs still going—like, the only blog I still read regularly is Marginal Revolution, which is incredible. I think what is coming back, though, is that… Look, blogs died because the functions got disaggregated, so they died because people stopped going to destination websites. A lot of people will not actually type in a URL and go to a particular destination website, they'll instead just follow links that come up on social media and so forth. Which is why I think the blog of today, as it were, if one can use that term glibly, is really newsletters. Because you don't have to go to newsletters. They're coming to your inbox. And I think a lot of the most vibrant lively writing is happening on newsletters today. In fact, I started one a couple of weeks back myself.
I know, and I'm a subscriber! But let's come back to this later. The kind of evolution in your career made sense to me up until a point, and the point where I lost the thread was the professional poker player. Tell us about how that came in, why you jumped into that—and then, presumably, after a couple of years, you left it again.
See, let's not debate the teleological fallacy and assume that there is your master plan, because even in hindsight, there cannot be a master plan for that particular shift. But what really happened was that I did a lot of blogging around that time, 2009-2010, and you know, I just lost interest in blogging, I just ran out of steam. My book had just come out, I was going to start working on another one. And I went to the offshore casinos of Goa, went out there, played a bit, had a lucky first weekend and figured out I would do it. And the thing is, what works for me in everything I do is that I'm an outsider in all of these fields. I'm not a natural insider in anything, even in television where I spent time or in cricket journalism, where, you know, I came into cricket journalism excited more by the writing part of it than the cricket part of it, though I was obviously as much into cricket as any other Indian is. And so, I always, in whatever I did, even journalism, I had lenses which came from outside, whether it's an economic lens when you look at cricket, or whatever. And those lenses really helped in poker because I could see the game from a vantage point which was slightly different from what others would. And poker, of course, as you know, is a kind of a game of skill, which is what drew me to it—I was like, "Okay, here is a great intellectual challenge. And unlike the other intellectual challenges I have taken on through my life, I might actually make some money at this. So, let's do it.” So, I did that for five years. I wrote a column on poker for the Economic Times, which I think was the only column on poker for a mainstream newspaper in the world. But then it had a harsh impact on my lifestyle. I put on tons of weight and I realized that poker requires a sort of an obsessive emotion, which doesn't allow you to grow in other ways. I literally felt that during these five years, I was just getting stupider in other ways, though I might be getting much better at poker. And I figured, "I've done this enough, and you know that there's a limit to how far it takes you, so let's get back to the real world."
Were are you getting richer? I guess that's the question.
I was making more money than I would have doing anything else. But I wasn't making F.U. money, as it were. So, I was kind of stuck in between that zone where, fine, I won't make this much money writing, but nor am I buying my yacht and my private plane anytime soon. And therefore, it's something that could just consume a few more years. And I just felt that no, it's about time I get back to, you know, thinking about the world and writing and all of those things.
I want to ask you about podcasting because I for one have learned a lot from listening to your show, obviously from the guests, but also in how you curate the conversation. And you've spoken a little bit about how the medium of podcasting drew you in. But one of the things I think is really unique about your show, The Seen and the Unseen, is that you're kind of creating an audio library that can stand the test of time, right? One of its real value-adds is that it has a sense of timelessness. So, you know, we were discussing before we started recording your recent three-hour episode with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, you had a similar lengthy episode with Karthik Muralidharan, the education economist. You could revisit those conversations years from now and glean a hell of a lot of value from them. So, what is your theory of the case? Because, you know, to some people, the idea of a two-hour or three-hour podcast is nuts. But clearly, it's not nuts, right. Something's going on. What's going on?
Yeah, I've thought pretty deeply about this. Let me give it some context by taking you through my podcasting journey and what I learned about it. When I got in, I was not someone who listened to podcasts regularly. And I assumed that people have short attention spans, and a podcast should not be more than 20 minutes, or 20 minutes was my optimal length. I even had one episode with my friend Mohit Satyanand that was an eleven-minute miniature, or a nine-minute miniature or whatever. And then what happened is—
By the way, I should mention, Mohit has perhaps the best radio voice of all time.
He has a mind-blowing voice. I mean, you know, if he came on a show with the two of us, no one would be listening to us. So, then I kind of figured out that, if you look at the medium, when are people listening to podcasts? There are really three use cases, which are when they're commuting, when they're working out, or when they're doing errands. And in each of those, they are a captive audience, they have chosen to be a captive audience. They're not really going to get distracted. Like, if you're watching a YouTube video, you can click on another tab, you can just close the window, you can turn your head, you can pick up a book, you can speak to someone, you can get distracted in so many ways. Someone listening to a podcast has chosen to be a captive listener. And beyond that, what they also do is, people always listen at double speeds. Now this is also interesting, the optimal speaking length for anybody other than our mutual friend Karthik Muralidharan is about 200 words a minute max, right? I speak at about 150, but about 150, 160, 200 a minute is how we naturally speak, but the brain when it is listening can process at about 500 words a minute. So it becomes really easy to process if you're listening at double speed—like, initially it is squeaky, but the trick is you take it up to 1.2, that normalizes, you take it up to 1.5, that normalizes, and so on. So, I can listen to some shows at up to 2.5. But therefore, what happens is you have a captive audience. And your listener, she might be commuting, she might be working out, maybe she'll take an hour, but in that hour, she can consume two hours or more of content. Now, that's how the use case kind of comes together, where the rules that apply to other media like YouTube—like, grab them in the first five seconds—don't apply to podcasting. The other interesting thing that I realized is that everything that they say that people want—you know, people have a shallow attention span, a short attention span, give them shallow content, give them sound bites—that's bullshit. People have great hunger for deep content. As you know, as I realized when my audience grew, like the last two episodes I did with Karthik and Pratap were both more than three hours, and they are my two most popular episodes this year, just in terms of the first week, how they've gone. And I realized that there is a correlation actually between length and popularity, which is not to say that you just make it longer, more people will download it, but you know, I calibrate the length of an episode as I go along, and if it's really great, I just keep going, so the longer ones tend to be the ones which I also am finding more fascinating. But to get back to your question, my approach to podcasts has evolved in the sense that I thought, look, the world is full of shallow content, the world is full of sound bites and brief interviews and all of that. Now, I know there's an audience out there that wants something deep. I know that's the kind of thing I enjoy doing. Because all of my podcast, if you actually look at it, I'm very naked and vulnerable through all these 186 episodes because I am sharing my intellectual journey. You know, I'm literally thinking aloud in every episode, if you look at the lines of questioning that I take, there is an evolution in my thinking where I've realized I was wrong about something in the past and it's just growing all the time. So, I'm following my intellectual journey. But the other thing I decided, I said, "I am not going to follow the news cycle." I am going to make episodes for a listener of 30 years later. So, when one of my friends, a frequent guest on my show, Shruti Rajagopalan, when she was starting her own podcast, Ideas of India—which is an excellent podcast, by the way—and we were chatting about that, and she asked me how I approached mine, my advice was, "Don't think of what your listener is going to think on Episode One. Think of what your listener can binge on at Episode 100." So, let's say someone comes onto your show at Episode 100, Episode 150. You want them to go nuts with happiness because there is so much great content to binge on. You want to build that. So, my approach really is that, whenever I write to someone, or I contact them, I always ask them for at least three hours of their time. And many of them are surprised, because you're not used to that, but I don't do it for less than that. You know, I've literally turned down Nobel Prize winners who were offered to me by their publishers because they could only give me one hour and my gig is that, no, I'm not trying to get a sort of a casting coup here, like, "Hey, look who I got on the show," or "Hey, this is topical, we must do something now." I want to do stuff which is definitive. If you listen to it 30 years later, obviously knowledge would have progressed by that time. But you can listen to my episode with Pratap 30 years later and it'll still be wonderous. Because you know, listening to a man like him talking for three hours was just a remarkable experience for me as well.
So, one of the things you alluded to was your own intellectual evolution, and on your show in your writing and your columns, you make no bones about your embrace of libertarian thinking. And, you know, there's sort of a joke amongst your listeners, particularly the hardcore ones, that there's kind of a drinking game—every time Amit says “incentives,” you take a shot of whatever you have on hand. I'm curious, what was the Eureka moment for you when the light bulb went off, when a libertarian worldview started to resonate and make sense for you, and you said, "Aha, I found this filter, this lens now, which helps me understand the world”?
I think, you know, one thing to notice—I'm in my mid-40s, and one thing to note is that I don't have the academic background where I went through college and I did a PhD and I did all of those things. I just didn't, you know, go through those phases. So, I wasn't a deep intellectual thinker in my teens and all of that. I was a voracious reader of fiction and so on, right from the time I was very young. But these were not things I thought about too much—political philosophy and economics. So all my instincts when I was a teenager, and perhaps a young man, were broadly left-liberal, because you want to be compassionate, you feel sympathy for the poor and all of that, and you're broadly left-liberal because at the time you're not thinking too deeply about policy and so on. So there's no Eureka moment as such, but over a period of time, just living in India and seeing the changes that liberalization did and also realizing that, once you start looking at policy a little deeper, and once you start looking at the state a little deeper—because everything is so normalized, right—and once you start looking a little deeper, you realize that what you thought of as compassion was anything but that. You were judging public policies by the intentions and not the outcomes. And that actually, after decades of what was well-meaning, well-intentioned Garibi Hatao socialistic policies, we were still a desperately poor country. And to me, this was a moral problem. And it was, which is why I often say that bad economic policies—such as some of the things that Indira Gandhi did—can be a crime on humanity. And then of course, I read a lot—like, you know, when I was a teenager, I sometimes went to college with Marx in my handbag and so on. But, you know, eventually I read a lot, contextualized everything to the India that I was experiencing, and change my mind. But I think there wasn't a Eureka moment. But for me, the big intellectual journey that has happened over the last couple of decades, which I'm writing a book on, as well, to make my case for it, is that, look—I think all of us ask ourselves two questions, two core fundamental questions, which we consider as very different from each other. One of them is, what is the best way for me to live my life? And it's a question of personal morality, what is the right thing to do? And the other question is, what should be the relationship between the state and its citizens? And that's political philosophy, and that's a completely separate thing. And most people don't connect these two. And I have come to the conclusion over a long period of time that my answer to these two is actually exactly the same, which is that both in my personal life and in, you know, the relationship between the state and the citizens, I want to privilege consent, I want to say consent is good, coercion is bad. And that is not just a case that I want to make at a moral level, but also, when it comes to the second larger question of the state and its citizens, at a consequentialist level, that individual liberty, respecting the dignity and autonomy of individuals, is also good for society. Except that this is very unintuitive, it seems unobvious, and it bothers me that there is this dichotomy in so much of our thinking, that in our personal lives, all of us, all people that we regard as relatively decent human beings, all of us are libertarian, right. In the sense that—as a case I made in my episode with Pratap as well—you know, if you and I go out for dinner, we won't force each other to eat what the other person chooses. We won't force each other to pay, we'll respect consent, we'll frown on coercion. In our personal lives, we are like that, but the moment we abstract it, we sort of lose these principles completely. And we think of the state as some benevolent entity, which doesn't have a cost. But the point is, you know, I once wrote a column called "Every Act of Government is an Act of Violence." And we don't realize that the existence of the state is predicated upon the infringement of some individual rights. And I'm not an anarchist. I'm not saying that there should be no state and whatever. But I just think that all political ideology eventually comes down to the question of, where do you draw that line? How much coercion is justified? If you agree the state exists, you agree that some violence is justified, how much violence is justified? And I have given up on trying to make the case that we should draw the line at this point or that point or whatever. All I am asking is that every time we recommend state action, for any particular thing, whether it is building a statue or building more roads, or having a space mission, or building more colleges, whatever it is that we ask the state to do, we should acknowledge that there is violence behind that act. And we should take that cost into account. You know, the opportunity costs, as economists would say, and also the moral cost of that violence. And then at the end of that, you know, you might decide that something's justified and some things are not, and you can figure out where to draw the line. And my argument is not over where to draw the line. My argument is to say that, let's take the violence into account and not pretend that state action doesn't have a cost.
Let me try to ground this conversation a bit in what's happening in India, particularly on the economic side of the equation. You know, many people, including the journalist author James Crabtree, have argued that India is experiencing something akin to the Gilded Age that America went through in the second half of the 19th century, where you had excessive corruption, you had inequality, you had political capture—it was a really sordid period in our history in many ways, which, of course, was then followed by something known as the Progressive Era, where you saw civil service reform and a cleanup of government and so on and so forth. And when you start reading about that period, which I have done just a tiny bit, not nearly as much as James and others, you start to realize that there was this coalition of strange bedfellows—you had social justice warriors, you had social reformers, people who fought for things like prohibition, you had good government types. And then you had the economic reformers. Now, in the American case, the nature of economic reform was somewhat different because the diagnosis was that laissez-faire capitalism has kind of run amok, we have to think about regulation, we have to think about breaking up the trusts and so on and so forth. Now in India, you could say it's the opposite. It's really about, how do you free entrepreneurship and capitalism from the shackles that exist? But when you look at the coalition of strange bedfellows, what's interesting to me is that you see that three out of four groups are quite active and prominent. You see the good government types, you see the social reformers, you see the social justice folks. But yet the economic reformers, those who want to not get rid of the state, as you said, but right-size it so that it focuses on its basic elements of law and order, justice, taxes, or public goods, and leave the rest. What is your diagnosis for why this group is as anemic as it appears to be on the surface?
A couple of points. I mean, I haven't heard James on this, so I'm not I'm not sure. I think that it's a danger to look at a very complex situation and a very complex society through a frame of what happened somewhere else long ago. I'm not sure that there's a correlation here because I think America in the 19th century was very different from what India has been over the last few decades, like you pointed out. The sort of statism that we have wasn't there back then—if anything, people argue it was the opposite problem. But when I talk about statism, it has two kinds of consequences. One kind of consequence is, obviously, the consequence in the economy, that you're restraining our animal spirits, you're not letting private entrepreneurship thrive, you know, and so on and so forth, which is what held India back for so many decades. But there are also consequences in the culture. And there are a couple of consequences in the culture. One consequence is, right, because your whole society has decided, designed around these institutions, which are so powerful, that the only way to really make money and to get rich is to use the power of these institutions to either become a part of the state or, you know, ally with the state in some way or the other, and they'll do rent-seeking and all of that. And the thing is that that then becomes a pervasive mindset of people, where they are not thinking in terms of positive-sum interactions – “What product can I create that is of value to other people, and therefore, I will make a profit?” – but instead, “How can I get myself a piece of state power so I can control somebody else's life and extract rent from that?” And this consequence of changing the culture so that people think in this way, so that the oppressive nature of the state is normalized, is that we stop protesting it, we take it for granted. And I think that's a far greater problem. And at its heart, that's one of the reasons for the question that you asked of why there are no economic reformers. Number one, I'd like to sort of point to why our politics is the way it is. So, if you look at our political parties, for example, all our political parties are fundamentally the same in the sense that in their economics, they are statist. And, you know, culturally, they cater to different kinds of identitarian sentiments or nationalisms or whatever to differing degrees. Now, why is this the case, if you think of politics as a game of supply and demand? Politics is the supply, right, what is the demand, the demand is coming from the people, the demand is coming from the culture and within the culture, the role of the state is normalized. So, even though we don't trust the state to achieve anything successfully, you know, anytime there is a problem, we will still demand that the state legislature takes action or solves it, and we look to the state for answers. And apart from this, there is the other issue of—look, the core economic truths, as you and I know, the fact that some interactions are a positive sum game, or the way spontaneous order works, that you don't need central planning—all of these are deeply unintuitive. We have evolved in prehistoric times when we were in small tribes where games were mostly zero-sum, there was scarcity, and one strong man could actually run the entire tribe and do top-down central planning, as it were. Our instincts have evolved to take all of that as natural. So, all of these deep truths of how markets work- and so on are unintuitive. And our intuitions are then often confirmed by the culture around us, where we've normalized all the excesses of the state. So, the big game in town is not how do we get more freedom from the state, but how do we get some kind of hold over the state? I once wrote a piece sort of comparing—and this is of course, now cliché, everyone compares Modi with Indira Gandhi—but I once wrote a piece comparing them and pointing out that, at the time of the Emergency, there is this famous story about how George Fernandes dressed up as a sadhu. And he was running from the government because they were trying to arrest him. And he goes to Ahmedabad and the RSS Karyakarta who receives him at the railway station is Narendra Modi. And this is a moment where there are these two guys who are dissenters from a deeply oppressive government. And you would imagine that the lesson in this for them is that they must fight this oppression. But instead the lesson in this seems to have been that we must be on the other side, you know, we must be the oppressors.
So, some people attribute part of the blame, as it were, to the so-called "democracy tax." Unlike how political systems evolved in the United States and Western Europe and other places where you had the luxury of first building a foundational state and then gradually expanding political rights over time—obviously, India didn't have that luxury in 1947, you kind of went from zero to sixty overnight, and you had to do both at the same time. Do you think that India's troubled economics has some kind of root cause in that sequencing dilemma?
I mean, that's a profound insight. But the point is, there's not much we could have done about it—like, I don't see a counterfactual that necessarily works out better. You know, to not have had the kind of democracy that we did could possibly have led to worse outcomes. One of my biggest bugbears is the way the constitution was designed, where it is more liberal than our society, but not nearly as liberal in the classical liberal sense as I would like it to be. It doesn't do nearly enough to protect individual rights. Now, forget what utopian constitution I want. The point is, could we have gotten a constitution better than this, given the leaders that we had at that time? Did we perhaps get the best of the possible bad deals? I really don't know. But I can't visualize a counterfactual that really ends up better. So it's hard to say. The thing is that societies are so complicated, and we have such a small sample size of, you know, nation states turning democratic and all of that, that I feel hesitant to pass any kind of judgment upon this and talk about the democracy. But I would say that I think the one great failure of whoever feels that the nation isn't sufficiently like they would like it to be—I think the one great failure of liberals, for example, to use that term very loosely—is that we couldn't get our ideas into the society. And it turns out that society, in some ways, is fairly conservative, it has regressive notions. There are these tribalistic strains, which in our modern times, seem to be really strong. And to me, that's a failure. It's a failure to imagine that we've got independence, we've got democracy, we've got a constitution, now it's over, there is nothing to fight for. I think the fight should have begun in 1947, or 1950, and not ended then.
In your many, many columns for ToI and other places, you have been a critic, I think, of the Modi government. I'm wondering if you take us back to 2014—was there a particular moment when this government lost you as a supporter or as somebody who was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, or were you kind of skeptical from the outset? Because 2014, I think, was an inflection point for many people. And where you ended up depends on your kind of ideological priors.
I was skeptical of Modi from the start. I mean, I remember writing in 2009 about this, that I abhorred the Congress and the UPA, and especially the Gandhi family and the damage that the Gandhi family has done the country, so I constantly wrote against them. But it is obviously my fate to write against anyone who is in power because power corrupts. In fact, power attracts the already corrupt as it were, in moral terms. But no, I was never a Modi supporter. I think I had some sympathies towards the Vajpayee government, and looking back to that time, I think it's easy to see that he did a lot of things right. And of course, they also did a lot of things that one can criticize, especially on the social front and so on. But people contain multitudes, as you know, people like Vajpayee, Nehru, and Ambedkar, and Gandhi, and so on. It's easy to paint them in binary terms and see them as black or white. But I think when you have decades of political life, you have both. You do contain those sorts of multitudes. Now, as far as 2014 is concerned, I did not vote because I don't believe in voting for a lesser evil per se. I just feel that every nonvote is a signal to potential entrepreneurs in the political marketplace that there is a gap in the market. So, unless I'm convinced about a party, I prefer not to vote. So I didn't vote in 2014. But having said that, I had no idea that the Modi government would be disastrous. When he came to power, I was like, "Oh, great, I'm so happy that the previous guys have gone, let's see how these guys turn out," and all of that. And we pretty much had the worst-case scenario. So, I think I realized in 2014 itself. And obviously, when someone comes to power, you think in probabilistic terms. You're like, "Okay, there is a nonzero probability that things would be better, that there would be a centralizing impulse, a moderating impulse, that some reforms would happen," because after all, he had said many of the right things—and it's not just me saying that. He said many of the right things. I had the Congress politician Salman Soz on The Seen and the Unseen and he said the same thing. He said that when Modi came to power in 2014, even though Salman was on the losing side, because he agreed with a lot of the rhetoric on economics of Modi, that he was actually hoping that in some ways they'll succeed. And of course, it didn't. So, I think that was obvious in 2014 itself. And I started writing against him from right that time because it was fairly obvious they were not going to do anything. You just had to see the composition of the cabinet to realize they were not serious. I mean, to have an intellectual like Arun Shourie in your party and not give him any responsibility and to thrust him aside, I thought it was kind of ludicrous. But for me, the great litmus test is demonetization. I thought demonetization was a crime on humanity. It's the biggest assault on property rights in human history. If you look at the number of people who were affected by that—I was kind of horrified, and I still am, that many people who might have supported Modi in 2014, for understandable reasons, did not change their mind even now. And of course, we know that all the sort of "house intellectuals" were told to write columns in support, and many of them did, even though they privately disagreed with it. And I find that contemptuous. You know, somebody once asked me, "Why don't you invite XYZ on your show?" And I said, no, I will never do that, because for me demonetization is a litmus test. It is not an issue of a disagreement on economic policy. It is a moral issue that Modi committed a crime on humanity, in fact, hurting India's poor the most. And the people who actively supported that... You know, I mean, I don't even know what to say. They kind of leave me speechless.
One of the things that you've been quite vocal about is this issue of nationalism, in addition to the economic policies—demonetization, trade, imports, there's a whole range of things. But just asking about the nationalism—I want to just quote from something you wrote last April, right before the 2019 election. You said, "This inclusiveness, this joyous khichdi that we are, is what makes our nation a model for the rest of the world. No nation embraces all other nations as ours does. My India celebrates differences, and I do as well. I wear my kurta with jeans, I listened to ghazals, I eat dhansak and kababs, and I dream in the Indian language called English. This is my nationalism." Which is quite a powerful statement. It's been about a year and a half, give or take, since you wrote this piece. As you look ahead, are you optimistic that this nationalism of Amit Varma, which you so eloquently described, can be reclaimed?
This is a bit of a paradox, you know. I'll take you back to a conversation I had with a great politician, J.P. Narayana, one of the few politicians I still admire, though he's no longer in politics. And I at one point spoke about our society being illiberal, and J.P. corrected me and said, "No, we're actually quite liberal. Look at the way we assimilate influences from everywhere," and so on and so forth, which is actually true. Now, my case for our illiberal society is of course from the things like caste and gender, the way we treat our women, and all of that. But paradoxically, it is also true that we are liberal. And there is this other kind of nationalism, which is an assimilative nationalism. None of our food has, you know—all the staple things that we eat every day, they have all come from outside. I mean, for God's sake, stitch clothing has come from outside, the elegant churidars of a prime minister have Islamic origin, an origin from the Middle East. The language that we speak every day has so many influences from all over. And I think it's a joyous, beautiful thing. But the point is that this liberalism, this nationalism, so to say, isn't lived liberalism, it is not one that is necessarily expressed. And unfortunately, it is one that is today absent from the popular rhetoric. And the left does this also. You'll have people from the left ranting about capitalism, while you know, typing on their iPads and using Twitter. And there's that disconnect there. And similarly on the right you have this disconnect—there'll be people ranting about outsiders, while everything that they are has come from outside, not just everything that they wear or read, but everything that they are has come from outside. So I think there is a lived, good nationalism, a lived liberalism, but in our rhetoric and in our politics, there is a very dirty, ugly kind of nationalism, which speaks the language of exclusion and tries to, you know, "other" certain people among us, which I find completely bizarre and at odds with reality. One day, hopefully, we can resolve this paradox, but until then, I mean, it all exists, right? It's not one or the other.
I want to bring this conversation to a close by putting you on the spot, by asking you the question that you often end your conversations with, which is: tell us one thing about India that gives you hope and one thing that gives you despair. What would be on your list?
I'll speak about the despair first, because why don't we end on a note of hope? I think what gives me despair is that look, things are getting worse and I do not see how they will... before they get better, they will get even more worse. And that kind of worries me, the divisions in our society—there are things that are happening that are not reversible. What has happened to Kashmir over the last year, it is not reversible. Earlier, you could have looked back at policy mistakes you've made and said, "Okay, the next government will come in and we'll repair this and all of that." But what we have done in Kashmir and the kind of "other"-ing that we are doing, especially of the Muslims in this country, I don't see how that will turn back. Equally in terms of statism—I hear very few voices which are fighting for individual freedom and dignity or whatever. Everybody just wants to be the guy using the oppressive power of the state. You see all our political parties catering to the worst instincts in our society, both in terms of culture and religion, and identity politics, and all of that. So all of that gives me despair. But what gives me hope is technology, because I think where political movements have failed to empower individuals, I think technology can do that, technology can disrupt the oppressive power of the state. I mean, the fact of the matter is that you and I, across so many thousands of miles, are sitting and exchanging ideas. My podcast can exist where I can create a repository of exchanges around ideas and policies and so on, which, you know, the future generations can access and learn from and get inspired by. I think that gives me hope in all kinds of little ways. I mean, you know, even evil corporations like Uber and Twitter are empowering individuals in different ways, which we normalize immediately and take for granted. So, my hope is really on the unknown unknowns of the future that will arise from technology and allow us to disrupt what is happening in the political sphere and let loose the better angels of our nature.
That is a fine note to end on. I'll just add to that that we didn't get to discuss your abiding love of Tik Tok, the now banned Tik Tok—you said you're not a PhD, you're not a scholar, but you have perhaps the most scholarly thoughts on Tik Tok and its application in India that I've ever seen. But it's been a real pleasure to have you on the show. For our listeners, Amit is the host of the podcast The Seen and the Unseen, which is a must-listen-to weekly digest of some of the best conversations on what's happening in India. But you're also the host of a brand-new show called Econ Central which you co-host with the economic journalist Vivek Kaul—we'll link to both of those in the show notes. I think our listeners are going to be very happy that we managed to get you on the show. Keep doing what you do, and I look forward to being in touch and having you back.
Thank you for having me. I had a lot of fun.