How Many Governments Does it Take to Fix a Light Bulb?

In a series of surveys conducted over the last five years, the Lok Foundation and the Centre for Monitoring the Indian economy have been attempting to understand the attitudes that the Indian people hold from everything from jeans to caste and privatisation. Some interesting and counterintuitive attitudes have come up, pointing to a need for policymakers to re-prioritise the problems they aim to tackle, and re-evaluate possible solutions.

(This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I will aim to unpack some of these attitudes).

Privatisation, especially for key utilities, seems to be catching on – with three cities in Maharashtra announcing earlier this year that they will privatise power supplies. Consumers, though, are likely to be less than overjoyed. Here are results from a January 2016 survey on a nationwide sample of 158,624 households:

 

Two interesting takeaways: on average, a whopping 65% of Indians prefer that the Government provide electricity – and the richer they are, the more likely they are to say so. I suspected that this may be due to the fact that richer Indians tend to be urban and are thus used to larger amounts of affordable electricity with relatively few interruptions. It turned out that this was indeed the case. Here are responses for urban Indians:

And electricity is hardly an exception: the exact same pattern appears in responses to the question of who should provide piped water. But note that poor and middle-class respondents are around 3% less optimistic about the government in this question:

Why is there such a high degree of trust for the government? Here’s my theory: perhaps the State is perceived as a paternalistic and essentially benevolent (if not exactly efficient) institution, thanks to its decent track record in expanding the provision of basic services. And if a government isn’t able to provide affordable utilities, it can always be replaced by one that will (long-term effects be damned!) On the other hand, Indians who are more exposed to government inefficiencies – especially rural Indians – prefer that the private sector take over instead. This may not necessarily reflect an actual awareness of how the private sector operates, but rather a case of “if A couldn’t provide it, and we voted them out in favour of B, and they couldn’t do it either, maybe C will.”

Not convinced? Check out this article that I wrote a while back. Next week, I’ll look at attitudes towards government jobs to support the case that the “government” is seen as a magic wand which will solve India’s knottiest problems despite its patchy record at actually doing so.

BBC on Fake News in India: Nothing New

The BBC recently released a report on fake news in India as part of a larger project aiming to investigate the effects that fake news is having on societies across the globe.

The key finding of the report is that the majority of sharing in India is driven by two factors. The first is “sender primacy” – there is an implicit assumption that news shared by someone known to an individual is more trustworthy, given the low levels of trust which traditional media houses enjoy. The second is the validation of identity – both in broadcast platforms (Facebook) and narrowcast platforms (WhatsApp), individuals tend to share information that supports their identity and reject other information as being fake or otherwise part of a conspiracy.

Neither of these conclusions is particularly earth-shattering: in fact, I wrote about exactly this behaviour in a series for Pragati last year, and it is not a problem that is confined to India alone. The biggest innovation that the report makes, in my view, is shifting the onus of the spread of fake news from platforms to individuals. Understanding the particular social context within which a technology is adopted and used is critical to understanding its use, and that’s a conversation that has been long been overdue in India.

Here’s an example. Social media and smartphone use flood users with a deluge of information and notifications. In Western societies, this has been identified as a cause of anxiety as users struggle to stay up to date. In India, it’s a cause of irritation at worst – Indians seem to be more attuned to constantly wanting to stay up to date for a variety of reasons ranging from the fear of appearing uninformed to wanting high general knowledge scores in exams. Social norms may also explain why Indians tend to forward so many messages – sending “Good morning” messages or forwards about health and policy updates, for example, are considered civic duties. It helps that for such messages are seen as imposing a low cost on recipients even if they turn out to be fake. One is expected to be engaged in a social group – whether this is because Indians see identity in different ways from Western societies may be a question worth exploring – but it is clear that behavioural norms like these lead to a somewhat different sort of online behaviour, and a different way of consuming and sharing information.

As a result, the conclusion that “nation-building” is behind the spread of fake news isn’t really that surprising. What is surprising is that India still lacks public discourse on the social norms that contribute to this sort of behaviour – a lack of self-introspection that will prove extremely damaging to our democracy in the long run.

Behold Turkeynomics

Turkey’s election is certainly one to watch. It’s got a host of colourful characters with dark pasts and interesting nicknames, from Gollum to She-Wolf. Especially interesting, though, are the fascinating new economic theories being bandied about.

Now, inflation is a problem that is usually left to central banks to deal with independently. Central banks raise interest rates to reduce money supply and rein in inflation, and lower interest rates to increase money supply. But apparently, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, incumbent President, has different ideas. Erdogan’s masterstroke to deal with money flow problems isn’t demonetization (phew) but it’s something equaly counterintuitive.

How do you reduce inflation? Reduce interest rates, says Erdogan. And give me more control over the central bank.

Concerned investors reacted with a truly heartening show of support, immediately panic-selling the Turkish lira and sending it into a spiral. Perhaps Erdogan thought that this would help him gain some political capital – after all, blaming foreign entities has proven to be a great tool to keep dictators in power. Unfortunately, Meral Aksener, one of the frontrunners for the upcoming June election, has a solution: comedy.

Here’s one of her zingers, paraphrased: “Everything Erdogan touches turns to dust. He once called (Syrian President) Bashar Al-Assad ‘Brother Assad’. Well, I hope he never calls me ‘Brother Meral’.”

Her reaction to Erdogan’s brilliant plans for the economy? “Our country’s situation is like a bus on the edge of a cliff. And unfortunately, in the driver’s seat of this bus, there is a tired driver. It is irresponsible for this driver to insist on sitting in that seat.”

Oh, snap!

That said, Aksener isn’t nearly the frontrunner for the race, despite all the attention she’s received from Western media outlets amazed by the fact that a woman is running for office in increasingly conservative Turkey. Aksener’s history of overseeing deep state atrocities has led to a split in opposition unity, with the Pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, the second-largest party in the current Parliament, refusing to vote for her. The nationalist, anti-Erdogan alliance still has many obstacles to clear before it can get into the driver’s seat.

Another Iron Lady Rises

It seems that every other day, some or the other elderly authoritarian strongman strengthens his grip on power. A particularly egregious example is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or as some sections of the Internet might call him, Gollum.

Gollum Erdogan has come a long way – from footballer to moderate democrat to neo-Ottoman and world-famous misogynist. He has overseen an increasingly hardline and nationalist foreign policy, shifting from pro-EU and pro-Kurdish peace to notably combative stances with both. He has also turned from Bashar Al-Assad’s “brother” to a deadly rival, supporting rebel forces in the Syrian Civil War. Finally, under his watch, Turkey has adopted a much more belligerent attitude towards Greece, with vessels clashing in the Aegean Sea and no peace deal in sight for Cyprus.

Domestically, Erdogan has crushed dissent and the free press, shifted Turkey from a parliamentary to a Presidential style of government, and adopted rather conservative social policies. He’s also made a name for himself internationally with a string of misogynistic statements, claiming that working women are “deficient” and insisting (on International Women’s Day, no less) that a woman is “above all else a mother“.

It’s quite interesting, therefore, that one of his rivals in the June 24 snap election is Meral Aksener, a veteran politician whose supporters describe her as a “she-wolf” and “iron lady”. Aksener has pulled no punches in her campaign, lampooning Erdogan for his misadventures in Syria, and has sworn to restore Turkey’s “malfunctioning democracy”.

Aksener, however, also has somewhat of a dark past. In the late 90s, as Interior Minister, she presided over a string of deep-state atrocities. She also comes from an unabashedly hard-right background, but is expected to attract secularist votes from parties disgruntled with the relatively Islamist Erdogan.

In order for Aksener to win, Erdogan will need to fail to capture an absolute majority in the first round of elections, in which six candidates are in the fray. If she gets through to the runoff, a consolidation of opposition voters could push her over the top and end his 15-year grip on power.

Whether that will result in Turkey becoming more liberal or democratic, however, remains to be seen.