Heavy: An American Memoir

2018 was a great year for memoirs.

Tara Westover’s shocking, bizarre, tender and truly original memoir, Educated, rightly finds a mention in most year end lists. Lisa Brenan-Jobs wrote Small Fry and achieved the difficult task of telling the story of her own life, and telling it well, without letting it become one about her famous father, Steve Jobs. Kiese Laymon, with his Heavy: An American Memoir, has straddled his complicated individual life circumstance with the tragic experience of growing up poor and black in deeply racist society.

Laymon begins by telling his mother why he decided to write this memoir and not another book she’d have wanted him to write. He characterizes his mother’s wish in his own voice thus,

I wanted to do that old black work of pandering and lying to folk who pay us to pander and lie to them every day. I wanted to write about our families’ relationships to simple carbohydrates, deep-fried meats, and high-fructose corn syrup .

Laymon’s mother was a Political Scientist and worked for Jackson State University in Mississippi. One’d assume that landed her solidly in the middle class; except we find out young Kiese grew up in abject deprivation. They barely had enough to eat and they often did not have enough money to keep the lights on; his absent father did not keep his child support payments either. Worse, pre-teen Kiese is frequently left in the company of slightly older teens, who in ways that are typical of juveniles without adult supervision, are cruel towards younger kids. The crude and sad reality of the situation is captured quite poignantly,

Part of it was Layla was a black girl and I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be okay no matter what we did to them.

The book is addressed to the author’s mother. It’s a literary device that allows the narrator the luxury of deference, honesty and an unstable vantage point. When the author is describing childhood incidents to his mother, he infuses the narrative voice with childlike innocence. Yet, he swiftly moves to social commentary that takes an adult perspective when the sentences aren’t immediate declarations to his mother; it’s novel and Laymon, who teaches writing for a living, is very good at his craft.

The central character of the memoir, in some ways, isn’t the author himself but his mother. She is often abusive to her child. She raises him to not merely be good but be perfect; and in if he’s anything short of perfect she beats him severely. She makes him read and write and revise what he wrote and generally present his perfect self to the world because she believes her black son has to be perfect to merely not be shot to death by the white order. It’s extraordinary how much the simple act of speaking meant to black lives in terms of their status; she corrects her son’s patterns of speech and contractions by beating him. Even when she’s in the middle of beating him for something else, she corrects his contractions and starts beating him for that! She wants her son to never to speak in improper English that may make white folk construe he is somehow inferior to them.

Kiese Laymon, from the time he was a child, struggled with his weight. He stress eats and uses food as his only real crutch. His relationship with food, during the first few years in college in what was probably the most heartbreaking phase of his life, is terrifying.

In class, I only spoke when I could be an articulate defender of black people. I didn’t use the classroom to ask questions. I didn’t use the classroom to make ungrounded claims. There was too much at stake to ask questions, to be dumb, to be a curious student, in front of a room of white folk who assumed all black folk were intellectually less than. For the first time in my life, the classroom scared me. And when I was scared, I ran to cakes, because cakes felt safe, private, and celebratory. Cakes never fought back.

The deep sense of hatred that the author harbors against white people often discomfits the reader. Laymon doesn’t take the high road to see the white order as something distinct from individual white people. He sees them as one oppressive lump. When he becomes a teacher at Vassar College, he realizes that the benefit of doubt and second chances that white students get is at the expense of black and brown students. He doesn’t forgive and isn’t ashamed to admit to that. The moral courage and a grievous sense of hurt that takes defines Laymon. He’s a complicated man whose life is complicated further by the fact that his mistakes are seen as excuses for the white order to shoot him off the sky.

Laymon, however, is far less engaging in chronicling his adult life. His older self, we realize, is pedestrian in ways his younger self would have hated. He seems to get more self indulgent with both his writing and his life over time. The conversation between the author and his estranged mother, as they struggle to snap out of their respective addictions, towards the end of the book, for example, sounds contrived. Perhaps that really happened and real life events don’t lend themselves to great writing. Whatever the case, the author seems to slowly forget the great lesson that his mother imbibed in him as a child: revise and rewrite.

The burden of writing a memoir of an ordinary life that’s also symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with status quo is extraordinary. Kiese Laymon has shouldered that with some grace. This memoir can and probably should be read as a chronicle of the cost that the oppressed have to pay to live an ordinary life. If the cost of living this anyway wretched life becomes so enormous, who can blame some of them for throwing it all away. The only miracle is, not all of them do.

Are we conditioned to label the marginalized as mediocre?

A paper titled Family Descent as a Signal of Managerial Quality: Evidence from Mutual Funds makes for interesting reading. Its authors Oleg Chuprinin and Denis Sosyura have bench-marked the success of Mutual Fund managers with the circumstances in which they grew up. What they find is: Fund managers who grew up poor do better than those who grew up rich. In this case, success is easily available as a metric and thus they’ve made a rather simple study. But their subsequent argument and our own lived experience makes one think.

As the authors point out, what this really means is that poor people from less privileged circumstances have a higher threshold to clear to achieve the same amount of success. Or, conversely, privileged people use their privilege in ways that are opaque to get themselves to levels of success they are otherwise too mediocre to achieve.

This isn’t news to any of us who’ve been subject to a performance review in a large organisation. It’s rarely fair to those who who don’t “fit in” and no one who is reviewing thinks they are being unfair. The biases are cooked in; no manager makes an explicit decision to not promote the worker from less privileged background. Instead they convince themselves said worker maybe a poor fit for leadership given their personality traits. And the traits managers approve of are likely products of privilege. It’s a depressing truth about human kind that we are very good at explaining ourselves to ourselves.

A natural reaction of several well-meaning people in such a context is to have affirmative action of some sort so that the biases are corrected for. But such corrections are usually for a just a few variables; it’s but natural to correct the most egregious of historic wrongs first. In most progressive places it’s race and gender, usually. Have we come to a place where the costs of using those two variables blindly aren’t negligible? At least two recent books make one wonder about that: the widely well reviewed Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance and Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild.

JD Vance’s part memoir and part sociological analysis is an inside out story. He is, as he calls himself, a hillbilly. His central thesis is that his Scotch-Irish Appalachian kin are culturally condemned into oblivion both by the elite and by themselves; that exacerbates their economic condition which in turn feeds the stereotype. Arlie Hochschild’s looks at a similar but distinct demography in Louisiana. Their leanings are towards the Tea Party and Hochschild tries to understand why with a lot of empathy and using something she calls their “deep story.” Hochschild though is a Sociologist from Berkley and her exploration is from the outside in, unlike that of Vance. But both these groups of people, it’s clear, hate the elites. White men in these places, both authors show, earnestly believe Blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, women, the disabled and every other group is advancing at their cost.  They seem to long for an ally who’ll stand up to elites; regardless of what the ally’s own flaws maybe. In the current context, that ally is Donald Trump.

A significant section of white men in the narratives of both JD Vance and Arlie Hochschild hold problematic and often racist constructs to be true. But is that a reason to then condemn them socially and economically as contemporary culture seems to have? That’s a larger question on which most reactionary politics is built on. One that has serious costs for the whole society.

An unlikely biography that obliquely addresses this difficult questions is that of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. She was an ‘aristocrat’ in the early Republic and a monarchist at that when Americans where at best ambivalent about the idea of aristocracy. She’d divorced Jerome Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon, and supposedly attired herself in ways that scandalized the Americans. Charlene Boyer Lewis chronicles her ambition at a time when American women weren’t supposed to be ambitious. Elizabeth Bonaparte, in one of her letters to her father when she was living in Paris, writes how it was silly to not have a King. The reason she says that, as Lewis implies, may be that she wanted to belong to an aristocracy. But she then goes on to make an observation in that letter that seems pertinent; she mentions that women had better rights in an aristocracy where order was established and the aristocrats weren’t threatened by women. But that in the republic where everyone had a vote, the prudishness and insecurity of the common people was forced on women.

One is reminded of Elizabeth Bonaparte’s astute observation when reading about the anger of white men that Arlie Hochschild in particular captures. The hypothesis that one could come up with is, as the previously marginalised sections of society get empowered, illiberalism is a counter-intuitive cost to pay. This illiberalism seems to take multiple forms and have multiple sources. In the American South and Appalachia, we see the source as hillbilly white men. In India, it could be uneducated and poor upper caste men who want to do away with reservation policies.

Politicians exist to win elections. To blame either Trump or Modi when they take advantage of these sections of society and their anxieties is a liberal pastime that is trivial and misses the point entirely. But what could the liberal do that is non-trivial doesn’t have answers either, or so it seems.

The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes said something in an interview recently: that he was glad he won the Booker in his 60s and not when he was in his 30s. His work since the big prize seems to bear testimony. In 2013 he wrote an absolute gem, a memoir that was a meditation on grief: Levels of Life. In 2016 he’s written ‘The Noise of Time’ a meditation on integrity this time. Almost all of his recent works seem to happen entirely inside the head of someone. In an inversion of what they teach in creative writing programs, he exclusively seems to tell; not show. And still take the literary art form to its farthest in terms of exploring the human condition.

The Noise of Time chronicles the internal turmoil of one of 20th Century’s  greatest and most persecuted composers: Dimitri Shostakovich. It’s a slender book of under 200 pages in three parts. We meet Shostakovich in the first part standing near the lift of his building, waiting for the secret police to get him. He doesn’t want his child or wife to see him being dragged away. Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Soviet Union, had called his masterpiece Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District muddle instead of music. We realize, even literary and art criticism can be literal death sentences during the Great Purge.

Shostakovich’s mischance is that he doesn’t get a bullet on the back of his head for writing music. Instead, something worse happens. Power decides to  use his talent and direct it in the proper Soviet way. That is the fundamental tension Barnes explores: being brave is easy and requires merely one act of defiance with little thought while being a coward is a lifetime effort. The composer is sent to New York to showcase Soviet music. There he reads out speeches that are handed to him; to his dismay he finds that in those speeches he’s denouncing his own music and that of his hero Stravinsky. Julian Barnes writes,

Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and away with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage.

The ways that Shostakovich’s mind explains his own deep shame at his cowardice is a brilliant device. We are let into his world where everyone else’s cowardice blinds them from appreciating the necessity of his own. Much the same way he seems to not recognize theirs. This includes Communists and Capitalists alike; and some erstwhile Russians with famous last names under the pay of the CIA who come to humiliate him in New York.

In his later years as ‘Power turns vegetarian’, there are no longer any purges or labor camps. But Power still dictates what can and cannot be done. It co-opts those who can to do the things it wants done; thereby precluding what it doesn’t wish for. Shostakovich is coerced into becoming  General Secretary of the Composers’ Union; a position where he’s compelled to read out ever more speeches that aren’t his own. Not just that, articles condemning formalism or other bourgeois tendencies in music appear under his name on the Pravda. The depressed last years of his life where he seems obsessed with his own mortality make us agree with his assessment: the central trouble with modern life is that we live too long.

There are sections of ‘The Noise of Time’ that eerily reminded one of India in 2016. And how the farce of nationalism that India seems to be reeling under is a familiar chapter in the history of the world. Every time there is a taunt of ‘anti-national’ that’s thrown at an artist or any other person, we’d do well to remember this,

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. 

This is a beautifully written novel that calms a noisy head. It gives hope that there is after all only despair to look forward to. And we might as well learn the ironic sensibility that seems the only recourse. Until the time we don’t have to worry we’ve lived too long, that is.

A version of this appeared here.

More Referendums, not Fewer

India, as a nation state, does not care much for philosophical rectitude of the source of its sovereignty. After all, it promised Kashmir a plebiscite in 1948 and has since reneged on it. The consent of the governed has rarely ever been discussed; not even in the Constituent Assembly Debates. To live in such a country and look at the two recent referendums that Britain has conducted leaves one wondering about the moral legitimacy of a lot of things that modern societies have come to accept.

Consider the state of our democracy now: we elect a person who then goes on to vote on our behalf in the Parliament. That’s not a great system by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. It is a vestige that can be traced to the Magna Carta: elected MPs have replaced Barons but the concept of electing a person as opposed what we actually want is still a feudal idea that is beholden to the ‘great man theory.’ The moment we have individuals, their decisions are incentivized by their career prospects.

The alternative, direct democracy or the Athenian model as opposed to the Magna Carta version, has its own flaws. Quite often, indirect democracy saves us from ugly bigotry of the electorate. It’s quite likely that if direct democracy were practiced we’d not have outlawed untouchability or sati or child marriage. But human societies have evolved enough to deal with this complexity and not fall victim to such a binary solution space.

A common refrain of those who want to refuse the Kashmiris a plebiscite is to cite the voter turnout of Kashmir in elections that India conducts. The argument is: participation in elections that India conducts is proof of the voter’s affiliation to India. That’s absurd. It then follows that wherever participation falls below a certain threshold, the population there automatically rejects its affiliation to India. But more importantly, such reasoning conflates the detail of governance with source of sovereignty. A Kashmiri may well dislike being part of India but may also want a say in local administration because it affects him/her.

The consent of the governed as we now understand in the context of electoral democracy derives mainly from the English Civil war, French Revolution and the American War of Independence. None of them resolve the question completely. But they all uniformly drive at the unit of governance being distinct from source of moral legitimacy for sovereignty.

An elected representative in 2016 is not even a logistical compromise. Technology can circumvent that. It’s not necessary for an elected individual to go to an Assembly to cast a vote on a piece of legislation. People can do that from the comfort of their homes. It’s possible to imagine a system that strikes a balance between efficiency of delivering administration and philosophical rectitude while still managing to side step extreme bigotry. To start with, people could be given N votes in their lifetime where N is significantly less than the number of elections they are likely to cast their votes on in their lifetime. That makes people really value the vote they are casting. Such a system will perhaps result in a reasonably stable body politic in a few iterations and can eliminate the need for elected representatives.

Will such a system result in a referendum seeking independence for Jammu & Kashmir? Likely. For Tamil Nadu? Possibly. But at least it will be more just and less feudal; there won’t be a Boris Johnson for instance. It will also likely treat minorities better: after all those who’re really oppressed will be more willing to use their limited votes to address that than larger population.

Buying Elections vs Winning Elections

The Election Commission is India’s second most respected public institution, right behind the Supreme Court. The reputation is well earned; all one needs to do is compare our elections with those of other lower-middle income countries. Electoral results are rarely disputed in India which isn’t the case with most peers. Just in case we forgot, our lower-middle income peers include countries like Sudan, Congo, Honduras, Nicaragua and Pakistan. Not exactly models of Democracy. India’s elections, whatever else the country’s flaws may be, are considered free and fair. Quite remarkable for a nation with such a fractured polity, low income and poor levels of education.

Does the success justify the Election Commission’s methods, though? Consider what elections have become in the last decade and a half. There’s very little campaigning on the street. Political graffiti on the street vanish during elections. It’s now possible to live in a middle class neighborhood in an Indian city and not encounter any campaigning in the campaign period. Whom does this affect? Surely, the small sub-regional political party or the independent candidate. They depend on support on the street to get their message across. But the Election Commission by banning graffiti on walls, even on private walls, has disadvantaged the smaller players. And, the opposition. After all, conventional wisdom is that the incumbent needs less of political discourse while the opposition needs more of it to win an election.

The other most discussed aspect of the recent elections in Tamil Nadu was distribution of cash to voters. The Election Commission has even stopped the elections in two of the 234 constituencies, citing distribution of cash. It’s obviously illegal for a candidate to buy votes. But does that translate to the warrant-less searches that the Election Commission conducts? The irony of suspending the very rights the process aims to guarantee for the purpose of the said process takes some restating.

The Election Commission, at least its Tamil Nadu arm, also said something to the effect of selling one’s vote makes one liable to criminal prosecution. One is tempted to auction off one’s vote on eBay just to annoy the Election Commission’s authoritarianism.

Let’s consider the practice voters being given cash to vote. Firstly, this phenomenon is of recent vintage. There may have been instances of some voters being given some money earlier, but the organized and targeted ways in which Tamil voters are given cash is only 15 or so years old. Incidentally, this is also the period in which the Election Commission has capped constituency level expenditure by the candidate and enforced it with maniacal self-righteousness. The official expenditure limit for candidates contesting an Assembly Election is 16 Lakhs. That’s atrociously low. Most weddings in middle class households cost more. That being the case, and given most candidates who contest elections are generally wealthy, is it any surprise that expenditure above the prescribed paltry limit goes as cash bribes to voters? The overzealous monitoring of the expenditure and making sure official limits aren’t exceeded is a direct contributor for cash distribution. That being the case, the Election Commission then spending ever more resources in violating the rights of ever more people by subjecting them to search without warrant is truly absurd.

A reasonable hypothesis for why cash distribution happens in Tamil Nadu far more than other states is that the state is relatively prosperous and each voter in a given constituency has a much higher impact on the election owing to falling TFR compared to other states. When measured as a probability of impact, the Tamil voter is worth some 1.4 times the median Indian voter. If 20-30% of these voters are targeted for cash distribution, that’s an easy Rs 1,000 per vote for a contestant with a budget of 3-4 crores.

Then there’s the issue of the ethics of accepting such cash. To argue, as the Election Commission has, that voters accepting cash is the reason corrupt politicians exist is to mix cause with effect. Political corruption exists because opportunities for it exist owing to a flawed system. Fixing cash distribution to voters to fix systemic corruption sounds a lot like solving the Kashmir problem by insisting on how maps are to be printed in foreign publications. In a deeply unequal society with a serious structural problem in allocating resources, the one place where the poor get to be treated equal is the ballot box. It therefore also ends up being a place where there’s a trade. The politician’s corruption, in some senses, can be understood as one of seeking rent on behalf of the masses and using that to win their support come elections. To blame the poor in this for seeking their share of resources in a system stacked against them is something only middle class bureaucrats are capable of.

Three former CECs from Madras all live within a 2 Km radius in the City after retiring. They all belong to the same caste, incidentally. Maybe that tells us something.

Scotland’s Past and Tamil Nadu’s Future

Why do countries exist? Why should they? And what is their definition? Are they subject to change? Why do countries not hold referendums to decide the future of disputed regions around the world? Did not India promise a plebiscite at the time Kashmir was acceded to India in 1948? Why can’t Kashmiris vote like the Scots did in 2014? What about Tamil Nadu? Why is it part of India? It wasn’t ever part of India until the British came in, was it? Aren’t many of the states in India similar to Scotland? These are some of the questions that keep popping in one’s head as one reads through TM Devine’s Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present.

Sir Tom Devine, yes he was knighted, is a professor of History at the University of Edinburgh. So he does give us a much needed lesson in Scotland’s history. The Union of Scotland with England, we are made to understand, was complex, complicated and a result of multiple competing interests in the late 17th and early 18th Century. The English wanted a buffer in the north against the scheming French. Presbyterian Scots feared the return of Stuart Kings and their Catholicism more than they hated the English. The Staurt Kings were preparing to take over Scotland with French help. The result of all this was that in 1707, the ancient Kingdom of Scotland merged with England to form Britain.

At the time of Union, Scotland was impoverished by successive droughts in the 1690s and owing to disastrous wars. It was, Devine argues, the poorest country in Europe at the time. But the Union made it possible for Scotland to find a market for its produce, primarily linen and agricultural produce, in England. With the last of the Jacobite rising being crushed in 1745, Scotland became truly prosperous shortly thereafter. Devine again points to how Scotland moved from being the poorest to being one of the richest in Europe in the 18th Century, culminating in the Scottish Enlightenment. Scots, with their long and storied martial lineage, formed the backbone of British military forces in the 19th Century, strengthening bonds with England. Devine presents data to point to how the Scots were overrepresented compared to their population in the military and as staff of East India Company. The small country also built most of the world’s ships in this period.

But questions of Scottish identity, Edinburgh’s friction with Westminster and a long declining economy in the second half of 20th Century seem to have found a perfect target in Margret Thatcher. She was the embodiment of everything the Scots hated about the English. It’s at this point one wonders if commentators aligned with the BJP who now compare Narendra Modi with Margret Thatcher may be more right than they wish to be. Aggressively Hindu Delhi functionaries of the BJP sound eerily similar (and far worse) than the Tories in Westmister that Devine describes.

Kashmir, however, did not benefit from its union with India the way Scotland did in the first 250 years. So perhaps that’s a bad comparison. But a state that did is Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu was comparable to rest of India in most aspects at the time of independence. However, it now ranks alongside Kerala as one of India’s best governed states in terms of various indicators in health, education and economic growth. It also happens to be a region that always stood distinct from India both in terms of a territory and in terms of cultural identity.

That brings us to the question of: why should unions of regions into a nation state be treated as inviolable? Shouldn’t they be a question that the populace gets to  vote on at least once every generation? At this point, it’s clear Tamil Nadu has little to gain from India. It generates more revenue than it gets back from Delhi, it has much better health and education indices than India and the Lok Sabha is likely to end Tamil Nadu’s honeymoon of higher per capita representation through frozen delimitation in the next decade. The last factor will be an ugly flashpoint when it happens; it is an irreversible demographic trend that’s going to put Tamil Nadu at significant odds with north India. Shouldn’t political parties in the state therefore have an SNP equivalent? Even the Tamil Nationalist parties in the fray for 2016 Assembly Elections, Naam Tamilar or MDMK for instance, don’t seem to be approaching this question at all. The DMK, which was the SNP in India before the SNP got to be itself in the UK, has now walked a long way back from its Dravida Nadu demand.

The solution, one thinks, is that people should be allowed to hold a referendum if enough of them agree to hold a referendum in the first place. And that should include options of everything including independence. Maybe this could result in a problem when it’s used frequently; simple safeguards like limiting the number of votes per person in a lifetime for such referendums could be added to it. A simple rule of a modern Democracy ought to be that it doesn’t rule over a people who don’t wish to be ruled over. It’s about time mankind moved there. Be it Kashmir today or Tamil Nadu 10 years from now.

Writing vs Thinking vs Writing

If one were to read/re-read JA Baker’s beautifully written 1967 classic, The Peregrine, one is reminded how distinct it is from most of contemporary writing. Baker’s writing so carefully and completely excludes the writer. His prose, in fact, does the opposite; the author seeks to become one with the birds he watches, never once corrupting that world with anthropocentrism.

It’s a useful lesson and helps one stay honest. The standard template of modern writing in non-fiction, one that The New Yorker seems to fancy, is the opposite. Where the use of first person singular and thrusting oneself into what one is writing about are virtues. The obvious problem with this is obvious: it’s more susceptible to error and conflict of interest. But what is even more worrying is the problem this technique engenders when it succeeds. It tends to reduce thought to the proponents of it. Or, at least, associate the two closely.

Twitter, at least the Indian instance of it, is the extreme example of this going wrong even when done right. The need and the comfort of belonging to a group – be it feminist, liberal, conservative, funny, cool or whatever else – seems to triumph devotion to thought from first principles. And that, one could reasonably hypothesize, is an effect of thrusting the person ahead of thought.

The atrocious examples of it, when the bigotry is obvious, are hardly interesting. What is though is when well meaning groups use this shorthand; such as dismissing the human condition of the rich/privileged because they are rich/privileged. Or, academics justifying themselves to justify their work’s conclusion or possible bias. Or, politicians being expected to embody the virtues they espouse on behalf of their electorate.

DMDK: Why is it sought after?

Alliances in Tamil Nadu, conventional wisdom dictates, often decide electoral outcomes. In the 80s and 90s, an alliance with the INC was considered crucial. In the late 90s and early aughts, the PMK sought to portray itself as the deciding factor. In the past decade, the DMDK has tried to capture that space. Three of the possible four major formations have publicly sought the DMDK as an alliance partner for 2016 Assembly Elections. But how effective are these allies? In particular, how useful an ally is the DMDK?

Let’s consider the DMDK. It was part of the victorious ADMK combine in 2011 and was the second biggest party in the legislative assembly. But that is not a full measure of how good an ally the DMDK was. In constituencies that the DMDK contested, it got 44.84% of the votes polled. While its dominant partner, the ADMK, got 53.93%. That is, the DMDK underperformed its dominant partner by 9 percentage points. But that doesn’t give a full picture either. The four other junior partners in that alliance were: CPI, CPIM, PT and MMK. They only contested in 27 seats, put together, as opposed to the DMDK having contested in 41. But three of those four parties polled much better in the constituencies they contested in compared to the DMDK. The DMDK underperformed every party in the electoral alliance except the MMK in 2011.

Now, consider the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. DMDK had moved away from the ADMK alliance to the NDA; it was the dominant partner in that alliance contesting in 14 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats. In those 14 seats, the party got an average of 15.94% of the votes. The other NDA allies, in the seats they contested, got an average of 26.06% of the votes polled. That is, the DMDK underperformed its allies in an alliance in which it was the dominant party by over 10 percentage points!

It’s not even the DMDK’s case that it’s stronger in 2016 than it was in past elections. For a party that’s been a drag on all the alliances it has been part of, it’s a bit confusing as to why it’s sought after so much. If the DMDK were in a direct contest with ADMK, and it continues the trend of underperforming its own alliance by 10 percentage points, it needs a wave to win. Under regular circumstances, the ADMK will win comfortably in a direct contest with just its core vote.

The other complication that the DMDK presents to its alliance partners is: it seeks too many seats. The DMDK, unlike say the PMK, does not have a caste base as its core vote. This means its votes are diffused; that partly explains why it underperforms compared to more sub-regional parties. If the DMK were to ally with the DMDK and allotted 60 seats for the latter to contest(as it’s being speculated), that’s too much of a risk given the ADMK may well win most of them. Further, the DMDK voter by not being a caste bloc is more likely to not be additive to the dominant partner. The two Dalit parties (VCK and PT) and PMK, claim with some evidence, that their vote is transferable. That is their dominant ally can count on them. The DMDK, at least on the basis of past results, can make no such claims.

A good example of the complicated caste dynamic making PMK a good ally is the 2014 Chidambaram Lok Sabha result. The ADMK won that seat; but what is interesting is that its vote share for the constituency is one of the lowest among the seats it won at 42.5%. The DMK alliance did particularly well as Thol Thirmavalavan contested here as an ally and got 30.26% of the votes. But what is of importance is that the PMK did much better than its average performance elsewhere; it got 27% of the votes at over 5 percentage points higher than the alliance’s mean vote share. The only explanation that people who’ve studied Chidambaram will give is: the Vanniyars rallied behind PMK because they did not want Dalits to win. That kind of effect, had the elections been close, would have been crucial. The DMDK simply does not have a story like that to sell.

There are only 5 parties in Tamil Nadu that bring with them a transferable vote: PMK, VCK, PT, CPI and CPM. Of these, the VCK and PMK are incompatible as allies owing to caste factors; the PMK has also announced it won’t ally with either Dravidian party. So, if the DMK wants to win, allying with the Left and two Dalit parties appears a much better option compared to the DMDK. But those smaller parties have announced a new alliance among themselves called PWF with the VCK wanting a Dalit Chief Minister; which, one agrees, has to happen.

Unless there’s some secret sauce that the DMDK hasn’t made public yet, the only reason well informed politicians have to talk the DMDK’s stock up is to make it seem dearer to the opposition.

PS: Here’s the Data Source.

Young vs Old Voters: Cleavages in Impact

In the aftermath of Lok Sabha elections in 2014, youth and first time voters were thought to be crucial to winning elections in India. The BJP built its campaign around that idea and its success lent much credence to the young voter theory; exit poll data supported this assertion as well. It was easy to claim a generational shift in Indian polity.

But is this true across India? Does the youth vote make even a marginal difference in states that have had fertility rates below replacement levels? In states that still have above replacement fertility rates, what’s the extent of their impact?

Let’s consider India’s ‘big states’ and their electoral rolls from 2008 and 2015. It is quite stunning what the data reveals: there was actually a decline in the number of voters for Kerala and Tamil Nadu, two states that have had below replacement fertility rates for a generation or more, in this period. No other large state recorded this phenomenon.

It is likely the Election Commission cleaned up electoral rolls sometime in-between. Perhaps that partly explains the decline. The natural rate of growth of population, while low compared to other states, is still positive in both these southern states. They don’t have a declining population; at least not yet. But such a clean up, one can assume, was normally distributed. There’s no reason to think voter fraud skewed towards the states where fertility is low. So what’s of significance is the relative distance between the two southern states and others in terms of growth in electoral roll.

If we were to calculate the annual percentage growth rate of the electoral roll, both Kerala and Tamil Nadu have negative growth rates as one’d expect from declining number of voters. While that may overstate the phenomenon, what remains indisputable is that northern states that elected the BJP to power are all experiencing a surge in youth vote. And the two southern states in question – where the BJP hardly made a dent – are not. If we extrapolate this and calculate the growth for a 5 years, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will expand their electoral rolls every election cycle by 10.56% and 14.74% respectively, while Tamil Nadu and Kerala would have shrunk theirs. 

Almost all of the expansion in rolls in the northern states, is likely to have come from new voters. Their skew towards the youth vote accelerates thus. However, these young voters join a pool of electorate that’s already lost representation in relative terms to the two southern states owing to freezing of delimitation in 1976. Therefore, while the skew of UP and Bihar maybe towards youth, the value of each additional vote and those of existing votes, is set to decline.

Youth joining the electoral rolls in Tamil Nadu and Kerala though, will be joining an electoral roll that appears to be shrinking. Their parents’ generation enjoyed the merits of freezing delimitation by becoming more important in terms of representation ratio in Lok Sabha compared to the northern voter. Though their worth within their constituency was declining every cycle a generation ago because the electoral roll was still expanding in these two states. Now, however, the youth joining the shrinking rolls will get more important even within their constituency; over and above becoming ever more important than the northern voter in terms of representation ratio. Unlike the skew in north India towards the youth vote, the skew in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is towards every existing voter becoming as powerful as the new entrant every election. Thus, if anything, there’s a skew towards older voters in terms of importance, since there are more of them.

If we calculated the probability of each vote impacting the result in UP’s median Lok Sabha Constituency in the next elections, assuming the growth rates above, it worsens by a factor of e^(-32)[2]. Just the worsening factor alone will make the individual’s vote almost meaningless. This is of course on top of an absurdly low original impact probability of e^(-463). The youth in UP might as well not vote, whether or not the trend of the youth vote is a political phenomenon. And this worsening factor is likely to get applied for successive elections for the foreseeable future.

For Kerala, the impact probability will increase by a factor of e^(2.1) in the next election, over an already slightly larger but still absurdly low impact probability of e^(-389). And given fertility has been less than replacement for long, this factor of improvement in impact is likely to get higher each cycle.

In other words, in north India there are more number of increasingly less powerful young people joining the system to elect fewer representatives per person. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there are less number of relatively more powerful young people joining the system to elect more representatives per person. These two polities are so vastly different from each other that they simply cannot exist in the same electoral system for long. Either this’d mean mass migration to normalize the impact probability or secession. The former carries with it the risk of nativist surge in destination constituencies which will only result in the demand for latter.

[1] – Data sources: 1, 2 and 3.

[2] – Method of Calculation for impact probability of each vote here.

Prohibition, TASMAC & Floods in Tamil Nadu

There was minor kerfuffle in an irrelevant and petty corner of the internet, betraying a general inability to parse sentences. That in itself is irrelevant to progress of thought. But its underlying assumptions and motivations are interesting.

Groups that are generally associated with progressivism, such as women’s rights groups, are often at the forefront of demanding prohibition. This was true in India a generation ago, it’s true to some extent now and it was true in bringing the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Suffragists and abolitionists were the core groups that demanded prohibition in America.

In Tamil Nadu, the distribution of alcohol is a state monopoly. It’s also the highest revenue earner for the state. This complicates the political climate in many ways. The state has seen several phases of total prohibition in the last century; it was lifted after a large number of deaths owing to consumption of illicit, unsafe liquor each time. The repeated lesson learnt was that illicit and unsafe liquor will replace the legitimate one when there’s a ban. This was sadly re-learnt over and over again in the 70s, 80s and 90s at the cost of many lives. The formula was depressing: a complete prohibition followed by deaths in hooch tragedies which resulted in relaxing the prohibition. And a subsequent election where prohibition became a campaign issue.

Almost to the word, the tropes used by those bemoaning TASMAC in Tamil Nadu follow the script of  of those in America a century ago: the illiterate poor don’t know better; they drink to their own ruin and are a threat to women and society. That alcoholism was considered a threat to the white race and clan members were recruited to enforce prohibition is startling in its similarity to the caste dynamic at play in Tamil Nadu. Kalefah Sanneh, citing Lisa McGirr, writes,

Lisa McGirr believes that this is a mistake. She is a historian who studies grassroots political movements in twentieth-century America, and she has concluded that our fascination with the boozy, semi-clandestine world that Prohibition created has led us to ignore its more lasting effects. In her view, Prohibition was not a farce but a tragedy, and one that has made a substantial contribution to our current miseries. In “The War on Alcohol” (Norton), she urges us to put aside our interest in the many ways involuntarily temperate citizens sought relief, so that we can consider the federal government’s strenuous attempts to stop them. Her book’s subtitle is “Prohibition and the Rise of the American State,” and by “state” she means in particular what she calls the “penal state”: the Prohibition Bureau and its many enforcers, some of them drawn from the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan; the laws and prisons required by a federal government newly alarmed about crime; the reality of a country in which addicts were treated not as victims but as perpetrators. Prohibition was patchily enforced, and certain groups were more likely to find themselves tossed into the rough patches: “Mexicans, poor European immigrants, African-Americans, poor whites in the South.” Nearly a century later, she argues, the legacy of Prohibition can be seen in our prisons, teeming with people convicted of violating neo-Prohibitionary drug laws. Many at the time viewed Prohibition as an outrage, and, in McGirr’s view, we are missing its true meaning if we are not outraged, too—and ready to resist its equally oppressive descendants.

There are many arguments against alcohol. Research elsewhere points to about 10% of all people who ever tasted alcohol becoming dependent on it at some level. Addiction to and abuse of substances or alcohol is as old as civilization. But so is the basic knowledge of making a fermented drink; almost anyone who knows how to boil rice will know how to ferment a sugary beverage into an intoxicant. No ban can be effective. And alcohol probably results in fewer deaths and chronic ailments than refined sugar.

In 1981 when MGR went back on his campaign promise to lift prohibition, the following years were the state’s longest spell without mass causalities from hooch tragedies in a long time. The ban not only affects the poor in terms of making them more susceptible to poisonous and unsafe alcohol, it also taxes Dalits/others by enforcing a certain version of ritual brahminism. The assumption that others don’t know better gets even worse when its couched in caste hegemony.

Though TASMAC has been a creation of the state, it still carries out a business. It’s not a utility. To demand that this particular business be subject to sudden and temporary requests for shut down, especially by the elite, is what it is: an imposition of social order. When floods cause disruption in essential services, that’s understandable. Soup kitchens and hospitals need hygienic places, power and a large workforce. Storing bottled alcohol needs nothing. It functions even when there’s flooding inside the store. To construe this as somehow a reflection of government priority is to miss the point entirely. Worse, to attribute sexual violence in flood times to alcohol because the elite go there on relief work is the kind of prism that’s its own parody.

The one criticism of TASMAC and prohibition that’s indisputable is that it has shifted the burden of taxation, as a relative measure, from the rich to the poor. MSS Pandian’s Marxist critique thus of MGR’s policy is perhaps the most well argued case for prohibition in Tamil Nadu. Absent a strong state with an ability to implement progressive taxation, an excise duty on consumption that’s skewed toward the lower end of the economic spectrum is unfair. That critique has now become a reality, however much it pays for other services of the state.

The Sixteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was a necessary condition for the Eighteenth to even happen when it did. The opposite, that is an ability to raise local and state level taxes, is a pre-condition for arguing towards prohibition in Tamil Nadu. That still is merely addressing economic viability.