New Perspectives for Independence Day

Last week, India celebrated more than seventy years of being independent. This is a fact that Indians should be proud of and we are, judging by the articles and news segments that are common during this time of the year. At the same time, it is useful to not look at the country’s independence and its progress in isolation. Taking a step back and looking at the experiences of other countries can provide an interesting perspective on our own journey and offer some lessons for the future. I thought of this as I came across some literature about Kenya over the past few weeks.

First was the novel A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, set during the time Kenya became independent in the sixties as well as the long period of emergency that preceded it. While the book illuminates much about how Kenya gained independence and how ordinary Kenyans approached it, what took me by surprise were the multiple references to India. India, by then, had already been an independent nation for the better part of two decades and was a model of resistance for people still struggling against colonialism elsewhere. One of the characters in the book makes repeated references to Gandhi and the spirit of non-violence that contributed to India’s liberation. There are also less charitable references to Indians vying with the Europeans to seize local markets at the cost of the indigenous population.

The second was about the prosecution service in Kenya which is, on paper, an excellent and well thought out mechanism. It provides for the Director of Public Prosecutions to be a Constitutional position answerable to the Parliament with adequate safeguards against executive interference. It is also a relatively recent system, with the current version of the Kenyan Constitution having been in force for less than ten years. It shows the advantage of learning from the mistakes of other countries. For instance, as was pointed out to me, it would be difficult for India, without a Presidential form of government and with the anti-defection rule in place, to adopt a similar model even if it guarantees to be an upgrade on our existing system.

So, to recap the lessons learnt: one, we should be mindful of our influence and our power in being role models for other countries. And two, wherever possible, we should take advantage of being late to the party by adopting systems and institutions that do not carry the heavy burden of legacy while being best-suited for our unique needs.

Public Transport and Nudges

The messages in the Bangalore metro urging people to give up their seats to those who need them more are an excellent example of a nudge adopted to mould the behaviour of commuters. They are also a cautionary tale on the need for nudges to have the right messaging.

This is what the infographic says:

Please give up these seats for persons with disabilities, the elderly, women with children or pregnant women.

There does not seem to be much wrong with this at first glance. But a closer look reveals something disquieting:

Please give up these seats for persons with disabilities, the elderly, women with children or pregnant women. [emphasis supplied]

Why did it have to say women with children? Does this not act as a subtle propagation of existing gender roles for child rearing? This unfortunate state of things could have been easily avoided by the use of a gender-neutral expression, say, persons with children. What is infuriating is that a similar expression is, in fact, used earlier when a reference is made to individuals with disabilities. That this was not done for the other part of the message shows just how entrenched societal norms are when it comes to child rearing and the scale of the task before us to effect a change in them.

Hard and Soft Data Localisation

Last year, when conversations were taking place on the kind of data protection framework India should adopt following the landmark privacy judgement, one issue kept turning up over and over. It seemed strange that the Justice Srikrishna Committee was seriously considering data localisation when most evidence suggested it did not protect citizens from foreign governments or agents and was harmful to the economy. It was little surprise then that the draft Personal Data Protection Bill released last week revealed a strong data localisation mandate.

Looking at the provisions around this in the proposed law, I see a distinction between two types of data localisation: a hard data localisation and a soft one.

Hard data localisation can be seen in Sec. 40(2):

40(2) The Central Government shall notify categories of personal data as critical personal data that shall only be processed in a server or data centre located in India.

This is the stereotypical notion of data localisation, one that completely restricts the ability of an entity to transfer data outside a set territory.

Soft data localisation, on the other hand, can be seen in Sec. 40(1) of the Bill:

40(1) Every data fiduciary shall ensure the storage, on a server or data centre located in India, of at least one serving copy of personal data to which this Act applies.

While this is not a complete restriction on cross-border data transfers like the previous one, it does impose costs on a data fiduciary. These costs, which might take the form of setting up local servers or procuring the services of an entity that provides local storage, is a real and tangible one. When the inevitable criticisms of the data localisation mandate in the Bill make it to the headlines, I hope this softer variant also attracts equal attention.

Quotable Quotes from Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is an intellectual tour de force. While there are enough ideas in the book to write a full-blown thesis, I will restrict this post to highlighting two quotes that are reflective of the state of the country today, in the light of the recent spate of mob lynching.

The first quote goes thus:

Coercion is the least efficient means of obtaining order.

And the second one:

You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them.

What do these passages tell us about tackling mob lynching?

First, is a new law, as the Supreme Court recommended in its order last week, the best way forward? A law is a blunt instrument and is coercive more often than not. Amit Varma has already written about this in a recent post, where he mentions the lack of a rule of law as being of more concern than the absence of a legal provision.

Second, are there more subtle solutions for addressing the rumours that spark a lynching than restrictions on services like WhatsApp or a blanket shutdown of internet in a region? The second passage might hold the key here. However, I would argue that the ignoring that is mentioned there cannot be passive. This is a case where there might be merit in fighting fire with fire, instead of being a firefighter.

Politics as Persuasive Performance

In this post, I juxtapose two notions about politics that I came across in the past couple of weeks.

One, in Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast on Julius Caesar (which I referenced in my two earlier posts, available here and here), Mark Antony’s famous speech is seen as an appeal to emotion and is in stark contrast with Brutus’ appeal to reason. It is a performance, a façade that Antony puts up to get what he desires.

Two, in an episode of the Waking Up Podcast on the current fate of liberalism in the USA, Mark Lilla argues against the pull of identity politics. He says that politics should not succumb to self-expression. Instead, it should be a tool for persuasion.

So, there you have the reason for the annoying alliteration in this post’s title. Politics as a combination of performance and persuasion. A persuasive performance, if you will. Of course, this begs the larger question: would it be good politics, and I use good in a value-neutral sense here, if one of these features is absent? This is something to mull over in the future.

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-II

Note: This is the second of a two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. You can read the first part here. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play.  

Julius Caesar is a tragedy. Characters exhibit flaws and make choices that lead to terrible consequences. It is easy to feel sorry for Caesar, who gets stabbed by his good friend, or Brutus, whose misplaced idealism comes back to haunt him (quite literally at that). But the individual I felt sorry for the most was one who had a bit part role, the poet Cinna.

In the aftermath of Mark Antony’s incendiary speech, the Romans go berserk, searching for the men who murdered Caesar. They come upon Cinna on the street and kill him because his namesake was one of the conspirators. The scene is short but shocking, but with a tinge of black humour when the crowd realises they have the wrong man but kill him regardless, justifying their action on the basis of his supposedly bad verses.

I have two thoughts on this little episode.

One, it best showcases Shakespeare’s cynicism about human reason that I touched upon in my previous post. If it was not clear already, this scene shows just how vacuous a crowd can be. The broader implications this has on a democracy and a republic cannot be ignored.

Two, it asks questions about Antony’s role in Cinna’s death. Yes, he could claim he had no intention and that Cinna’s death was an unfortunate case of collateral damage. But he was aware of the crowd’s nature and knew exactly what buttons to push to get them riled up. Shouldn’t he then bear some responsibility for his words? Or does the blame lie solely on the crowd even though their capacity to reason is stunted? These questions act as a precursor to a conversation about hate speech and how best one can prevent it while still preserving a right to free speech. That we are still having this conversation centuries after Shakespeare wrote the play shows just how vexing a problem it is.

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-I

Note: This is the first of a planned two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play. 

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an intriguing blend of high drama, sudden bursts of violence, and impressive speeches. It is also a realistic and sombre meditation on the fragility of a republic. This fragility stems from the play’s take on human nature, which it would not be a stretch to say is a touch cynical.

Brutus, the idealistic senator and Caesar’s friend, sets great store by reason to disastrous effect. He believes that his fellow conspirators are as idealistically motivated as he is. He believes that the citizens of Rome will understand his reasons for assassinating Caesar. He is mistaken on both counts. The self-interest that propels these groups is a trait that very few individuals, like Brutus, can disavow. Left to their own devices, they will wreak havoc on society, which they do in the play to varying degrees of success.

This points towards the quality that a republic must have in order to endure, namely, that of being more than the sum of its parts. It needs to rise above the individuals who form it. And the way it can achieve this is by having institutions that channel the best of such individuals while avoiding the unsavoury bits. A republic thus lives and dies on the strength of the institutions that undergird it. This is a lesson worth revisiting every time the functioning of a republic is questioned.

A Police Officer in an Assistant Public Prosecutor’s Clothing

I came across a strange provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. Part of Section 25, which concerns the appointment of Assistant Public Prosecutors (APPs), reads as follows:

…(2) Save as otherwise provided in sub-section (3), no police officer shall be eligible to be appointed as an Assistant Public Prosecutor.

(3) Where no Assistant Public Prosecutor is available for the purposes of any particular case, the District Magistrate may appoint any other person to be the Assistant Public Prosecutor in charge of that case: Provided that a police officer shall not be so appointed—

(a) if he has taken any part in the investigation into the offence with respect to which the accused is being prosecuted; or

(b) if he is below the rank of Inspector.

Yes, the appointment of a police official as an APP is an exception rather than the rule and yes, an officer involved in a case is not eligible to be a prosecutor as well. Even then, it seems stretching the bounds of propriety to have a provision such as this.

So many questions come to mind about this provision. How is it consistent with the principle of separation of powers? Can it be said with a high degree of certainty that an individual will not be conflicted between her loyalty to the police force to which she belongs and the responsibility she has been entrusted with as an APP? Is there such a lack of qualified advocates who can be appointed as APPs that this provision needs to exist? How often has this been utilised over the years?

On the last question, it would be a relief to know if, like several legal provisions, this one is seldom applied in practice. But even if it is never used, we need to take a long hard look at the continued existence of such language in the statute.

A Case for Unpredictability

Researchers in Germany have created a machine learning tool that has predicted the winner of the ongoing FIFA World Cup. This tool says that Spain has a higher chance at the outset but if the Germans make it to the quarter-finals, the odds tilt in their favour.

The creation of this tool does not come as a surprise. Machine learning tools thrive at making predictions and this is just another example of a technology that has become adept at doing a task far better than humans.

However, impressive as a technology might be, there is always room to ask if it should be applied in a particular field. These were my thoughts as I read the article. It goes without saying that better predictions would be beneficial in a lot of fields, including ones like medicine and weather. But would they add value to a sport like football?

I must admit I pose this question from a philosophical bent of mind. Isn’t part of the thrill of a sport its inherent unpredictability, of the unexpected happening? Bookmakers and gamblers might beg to disagree but there is a reason why seeing an unfancied team win against all odds is deeply satisfying. Is it possible then that the invention of a machine learning tool that accurately predicts the result of every match might lessen the enjoyment of the game itself? Worse, can it contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy where players contrive to fit the results of the prediction (of course, this means having a particularly low opinion of the free will of the human beings involved)? I do not have any concrete answers at present but this is a line of questioning worth pursuing, both for this particular application and for machine learning in general.

Hope for the Future

The NFL (the National Football League) in the US has approved a policy that requires players to stand while the national anthem is played before matches. This effectively prevents the act of kneeling that some players, beginning with Colin Kaepernick, used to draw attention to racial tensions within the country. I found a fantastic headline in the Politico on this:

The Arc of History Bends a Knee Toward Kaepernick

This is, of course, a tribute to the iconic lines uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the march to Montgomery. Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends towards justice. These lines, borrowed from a nineteenth century preacher named Theodore Parker, are a cause for optimism. They emphasise that if you are on the path of righteousness, the world will eventually come around to your way of thinking, even if the odds seem stacked against you in the present.

Ta-Nehisi Coates highlighted this in a piece last year when he drew a parallel between the anthem protests and the civil rights movement. He said that the point of such protests and movements is not so much to convince your contemporaries, who are likely to have set opinions, but to reach out to future generations and make them understand what is right.

This is an idea worth holding close in the field of public policy. When a lot of what you advocate for goes against the grain of conventional thinking, it is reassuring to believe that things will take a turn for the better in the future.

The Omnipotence of Advertising

Warning: Mild spoilers for the second season of Westworld to follow.

Westworld is a TV series that is synonymous with heavy conversations around artificial intelligence and what it means to be human in a world where the distinction between man and machine is blurry. It captures the zeitgeist well, tapping into the elemental fear of robots taking over and juxtaposing it with the ethical dilemma of treating the same robots as equals if they were to attain consciousness. But in the second episode of the ongoing season, a conversation between two characters, one old and one young, shows something else at the core of the fictional theme park: advertising.

The older character is deliberating on whether to invest in Westworld. According to him, the technology is great and it is all very well to create an immersive world that is fantastical, but these are not sufficient reasons to spend his money. The younger man interjects and says that what the theme park offers to the people who run it is far more valuable than what it offers to its guests. And this, he says, is the ability to peek into the lives of people, see what they desire, and use it for advertising and marketing. His argument is accepted.

This is a clever nod to the real world that already exists today, a world in which advertising is all pervasive and is made possible by the proliferation of data and the ways in which it can be processed. It is sobering to reflect on the impact this might have on the development of new technologies.

I’m looking forward now to see if the upcoming instalment of Jurassic World, set in another theme park, also manages to throw in a reference to advertising!

The Politics of Last Resort

The recent assembly elections in Karnataka presented yet another display of resort politics, of elected politicians being herded off to swanky resorts to isolate them from the attention of opposing parties and prevent them from defecting. This charade, though common, never fails to make for a viewing that is both amusing and cringe-inducing. It also struck me as a uniquely Indian phenomenon. Until, that is, I came across this incident that happened in the US a few years ago.

The facts are reminiscent of a Hollywood caper. In 2003, after Republicans in Texas tried to take gerrymandering too far, more than fifty Democrats decided to abscond to ensure that a quorum would not be formed in the House. A hunt for the missing legislators soon followed, with a toll-free number set up and the Texas Rangers roped in. Finally, in a hilarious passage sprinkled with mundane details and deadpan in its delivery, the report says:

On Monday night, the delinquent Democrats were found at a Denny’s restaurant in Ardmore, Okla., 30 miles north of the Texas border. They were holed up at a nearby Holiday Inn, where they said they were discussing strategy.

It is fascinating to see political actors displaying such similar behaviour, of bunching together and jumping ship, in two very different jurisdictions. The US case also shows that this may even be necessary at times, if it is done for a just cause and where no other alternatives are available. Finding a case like that in India would go some way towards tempering the disappointment brought by the current version of resort politics in the country.