"Exploring 'Caged Tiger': Author Subhashish Bhadra on Economics and Society"
In the realm where economics meets storytelling, there's an author who stands out for his insightful and eloquent blend of ideas. Meet Subhashish Bhadra, an economist and acclaimed author, who has explored the world of governance, economics, and society in his thought-provoking book, "Caged Tiger."
Bhadra's journey is pretty impressive. He studied economics at the University of Oxford and St. Stephen's College, New Delhi. He has worked in different fields, from public policy to corporate sectors, gathering valuable experience along the way.
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For more than five years, Bhadra has been involved in shaping discussions about technology policy, regulatory governance, and digital rights. He's been part of funding think tanks and has been a key player in management consulting, venture capital, and the tech startup scene. His articles have appeared in newspapers like Times of India and Hindustan Times, sparking important conversations.
But it's his book, "Caged Tiger," that has truly made a mark. The book dives deep into democracy, economic growth, citizenship, and rules that keep things in check.
Bhadra asks some big questions. He wonders why governments have so much control over social media, and why we can't easily see where our money goes. He connects seemingly unrelated things, like movie censorship and crop prices, and finds a common issue: faulty systems. These systems weaken the core of Indian society, affecting things like the economy, media, and the police.
Through careful research, Bhadra explains complex ideas in a way that anyone can understand. He takes us through time, tracing how Indian systems have evolved. He points out the policies that slow progress and reminds us that we all have a role to play in making things better.
"Caged Tiger" bridges the gap between deep analysis and everyday perspectives. Bhadra's work encourages us to think smartly about the important things happening around us. His words not only inform but also inspire, guiding us to a brighter future.
As we chat with this remarkable author, we'll uncover the layers of "Caged Tiger." We'll learn about Bhadra's journey, what drives him, and his vision for a better India. Through his experiences and words, we're in for a journey that challenges how we see the world, sparks conversations, and helps us become more aware citizens.
Excerpts from the interview :-
Q1) What inspired you to write "Caged Tiger," and what were your motivations behind delving into the topic of institutional design in India's context?
Subhashish : When I returned to India in 2016, I started working at a philanthropic organization through which I funded some of India’s leading think-tanks on governance. The research papers they produced and conferences they organized helped me think of India very differently. It helped me go beyond the binaries in which we often view our country, and instead grapple with the complexities and nuances of public policy. During this time, the lens that resonated most with me was that of institutional design.
I would go as far as to say that once I started applying that lens, there was no looking away! Institutions - either formal or informal - are all around us. They shape our interaction with our family through laws on marriage, sexuality, and inheritance, among others. They influence our interaction with our employers through laws on employment and labor. They determine the pace at which our economy grows and the kind of jobs we have. They influence the movies we watch, the food we can eat, and the books our children read at school. Yet, we are often not even aware of these institutions.
In fact, when we look at India’s institutions, we see many common design features, often shaped by our colonial history. By understanding these features, we gain a deeper understanding of India itself. Looking at India through the lens of public institutions was so transformative for my worldview that I wanted to share it with those around me.
Q2) Could you tell us about your research process for "Caged Tiger" and how you managed to convert complex frameworks into relatable language for millennials and Gen Z?
Subhashish : I spoke to about two dozen experts, including people who had been in government - Chief Election Commissioners, Supreme Court judges, Members of Parliament, etc. I read every book that I could find on the topic, including those whose views I disagreed with. In particular, two compendiums of essays on India’s public institutions published by Oxford University Press were incredibly useful. I read many academic research papers, especially those that used large datasets for cross-country comparisons.
Making all this content lucid and relatable was the more challenging part. I read many news articles, old and new, to link the research with what the readers experience in their daily lives. To ensure that my writing was conversational, I created a pen-picture of a reader - my brother. I asked how I would explain all this content to him. How can I get him interested in learning about a hitherto dry topic such as institutions? Why should he care? This process helped me make the narrative tighter and lucid.
Q3) In "Caged Tiger," you explore the origins of modern Indian institutions, going back to the British Raj. What were some of the most surprising or enlightening discoveries you made during your research?
Subhashish : While I had some idea about the colonial origins of our law and order institutions, I was surprised by the extent to which police laws in modern India, across different states and political parties, are still largely based on an 1860 law that the British had introduced. Only by understanding it better did I start making sense of how the police operate today. For example, the colonial police consisted of a few Englishmen who lorded over Indian constables by keeping them bound in highly hierarchical structures and excessive documentation of daily activities. Because we largely retained policing laws and norms, we today have the issue of overworked and under-paid police men on the frontlines, who face operational interference from their political masters and need to maintain a number of different diaries.
The strongest voices for reforming this have come from within the police system. Parkash Singh, who headed the police force in Assam and Uttar Pradesh, took the issue to the Supreme Court, which in 2006 delivered a landmark judgment. But the Court’s directions have largely remained unimplemented. It would not be inaccurate to say that the police is the most visible and powerful manifestation of government that we see in our everyday lives. To imagine that this crucial institution has not deviated much from its colonial origins surprised me as a citizen.
Q4) How do you believe faulty institutional design is hindering India's economic growth and political development, and what are some key examples of its impact?
Subhashish : Because I have worked in venture capital, I am able to see the economic impact of faulty institutional design up close. For example, the Delhi Government recently prohibited bike-taxi start-ups from operating in the city and threatened fines of up to Rs. 1 lakh. These bike-taxis serve an important economic function. The largest player, for example, claims to deliver 1 million rides in the country daily. In the absence of predictable and efficient public transportation, many young Indians in our cities rely on bike-taxis for an affordable daily commute.
A better institutional approach would be for the government to propose a new law that regulates bike-taxis, invite comments from both the public and bike-taxi aggregators, and then create a robust law. Unfortunately, our legal apparatus allows governments to take coercive economic steps such as outright bans. We see this in other sectors as well. For example, the GST Council’s decision to impose a 28% tax on online gambling risks eliminating the industry. We may decide as a country that it is the right thing to do, but to do it suddenly, without enough consultation, and after billions of dollars of investor money has been poured into the industry reflects poorly on our institutional predictability.
Q5) The book touches on various issues, including censorship, surveillance, citizen freedoms, and internal security. Can you share your insights on how these factors impact individuals and society as a whole?
Subhashish : Societies need to walk a tight balance between individual liberties and public order. Too much liberty can lead to degradation of public order, as we see in the case of gun violence in the US. Censorship and surveillance both serve important societal functions. Without censorship, for example, our public spaces could be filled with hate speech that exacerbates marginalization of historically oppressed groups. Without surveillance, our law enforcement’s ability to maintain public order may be severely compromised.
However, evaluating where to draw the line cannot be left to governments alone. If surveillance becomes prevalent, it will impinge on our ability to criticize the government of the day. Surveillance also has an economic impact by enabling greater control of entrepreneurs and businesses. For example, parts of Germany that had greater spy density under Communist rule have worse socio-economic indicators even today. Which is why we need better institutional design that will facilitate legitimate censorship and surveillance needs of the government and block any overreach.
Q6) The Election Commission's challenges in ensuring free and fair elections within political parties are discussed in your book. What are some of the root causes of this issue, and do you propose any potential solutions?
Subhashish : While researching for the book, I was surprised to discover that the concept of political parties is not mentioned in our original constitution at all! Yet, political parties have gained so much power over the decades that even the Election Commission struggles to introduce some good practices in how they function. The most problematic way in which they gained power is through the anti-defection law. Under this law, an MP can be forced by his or her political party to vote in a particular way. Which means that voting decisions are no longer made in Parliament, but in the offices of political parties.
Once political parties became so powerful, they could simply bring in laws that reduce other institutions’ ability to interfere in their functioning. For example, the Finance Bill in 2017 introduced the concept of electoral bonds. This system has removed transparency in political donations, which means that citizens can no longer see who is funding political parties. Despite reservations from both the Election Commission and Reserve Bank of India, politicians pressed forward with the proposal. The only way to reverse such institutional flaws is to free our MPs and MLAs from the dominance of political parties. We should restore their ability to think independently and vote according to their conscience.
Q7) As an economist with experience in both policy and corporate sectors, how do you believe the private sector can contribute to improving India's institutions and fostering economic growth?
Subhashish : In Caged Tiger, I speak about four pathways in which institutions can improve. One of them is the pressure that the pursuit of economic growth exerts on the quality of institutions. The private sector demands predictability and ease of doing business. In fact, one of the most-cited reasons for foreign investors to deploy capital in India is because of the expectation of political and regulatory stability. Quantitative research shows that stock markets react negatively to adverse political events, terrorist activities and natural disasters. Just by consistently demanding a consultative and predictable policy regime, I believe that the private sector can help improve India’s institutions.
Q8) "Caged Tiger" discusses the concept of cultural nationalism and its influence on India's cultural life. What implications does cultural nationalism have on societal values and norms?
Subhashish : I view culture and societal values as synergistic concepts. Our values, both individually and collectively, are derived from our cultural ethos. As societal norms evolve, they sometimes fall outside the popular view of culture, thus necessitating a cultural revision. Therefore, this is a two-way street between culture and values. Cultural nationalism arises when an entity, usually a government, takes proactive measures to define culture and associate it with the idea of the Indian nation. Ever since independence, multiple governments have attempted to do so. However, in a country as diverse and heterogeneous as India, a government-induced promotion of some cultural attributes will invariably lead to friction and disagreements. Therefore, my suggestion in the book is that governments stay away from cultural interventions, except when it is absolutely necessary to protect either individual liberties or social cohesiveness.
Q9) Considering the rapidly changing global landscape and the challenges ahead, what steps do you believe India needs to take to strengthen its institutions for the long term?
Subhashish : In Caged Tiger, I propose a sector-agnostic troika of principles that I believe can lead to better institutions. These are - a tightly-written law, transparent adherence to that law, and independent oversight. Let me illustrate this through an example. The rise of business models that rely on extraction of our personal data is one of the most complex challenges facing the world today. As we saw in the Cambridge Analytica episode, this is not just a question of data privacy, but of democracy itself.
India’s Parliament has recently passed a data protection law. However, the law does not fully meet the three principles of good institutions that I have proposed in the book. For example, the Data Protection Board that the law envisages will have members who can be unilaterally appointed or dismissed by the Central Government. In a world where the government is actually among the largest collectors of our personal data, how do we expect such a Board to hold it accountable for any lapses in its handling of our data? Therefore, India needs to re-look at all major laws and bring them closer to the three principles of good institutions.
Q10) Your book emphasizes the importance of incremental, home-grown solutions tailored to India's unique context. Could you provide some examples of such solutions and how they could address specific institutional challenges?
Subhashish : I wrote in Caged Tiger that we should not aim for blind transplantation of institutions from the West. Our context - history, culture, and politics - is unique, and therefore requires customized approaches. For example, the massive backlog in our judicial system is a well-known fact. Therefore, when India set up regulatory institutions, it also gave them quasi-judicial powers. This is a peculiarity in our institutional design, not seen in western countries where the judiciary itself works faster.
However, we also cannot blindly buy into Indian exceptionalism either, because that runs the risk of overlooking institutional flaws. For example, giving regulators quasi-judicial powers may be an appropriate design choice, but we also need to ensure that these additional powers are wielded by those with sufficient training in the law. Today, regulatory institutions are populated primarily by retired bureaucrats. Therefore, the judicial functions should be separated from the administrative functions, with the former being run by a retired judge.
Q11) How do you navigate presenting alternative viewpoints in "Caged Tiger" while maintaining a clear and coherent message?
Subhashish : The very objective of writing Caged Tiger was to give the reader a new lens to look at India, not to be perspective about the perspectives they should have after reading it. Therefore, it was important to me that I present alternative viewpoints, even - and especially - ones that I do not agree with. For example, I speak a bit about a new form of elections called sortition. Under this system, our administrators are chosen through a lottery of willing and eligible citizens. Do I believe India can adopt this system blindly? Definitely not. But I still included it because I want the reader to develop an openness to transformative new ideas.
As you noted, this can be challenging while maintaining a clear and coherent message. That is where good editing comes in. As a writer, you want to provide just enough detail and examples to make the point. Sortition, for example, gets just two paragraphs in my book. I do not debate its nuances or evaluate how it performed in places it has been tried in. If the reader is interested, they can read about it in other books. My only objective is to seed many different ideas in the reader’s mind. The shape these ideas eventually take is completely up to them.
Q12) The book has been praised for its balanced narrative and extensive referencing. Could you share your approach to presenting diverse perspectives while supporting your arguments with ample evidence?
Subhashish : I followed two rules of thumb that I had learnt while working in public policy. The first is that people don’t usually get offended by what you say, but how you say it. Therefore, I ensured that my writing did not attack a person or an ideology, and adopted a tone that is respectful and constructive. The second is that extensive referencing, especially from credible sources, helps control the biases that you might have. In fact, a reviewer recently pointed out that Caged Tiger has three references per page! The references at the back are over fifty pages.
However, no approaches or rules can help you create a balanced narrative unless you truly believe in it. Which is why my research process also involved reading authors whose ideology doesn't match mine. Not just that, but I ensured that the pages of Caged Tiger gave space to issues raised by both the political right and left. While doing so, I found myself agreeing to many points raised by both sides, which made the balanced narrative flow effortlessly.
Q13) While "Caged Tiger" touches on the judiciary, it seems to focus more on other aspects of the political landscape. Could you share your thoughts on the role of the judiciary in addressing institutional challenges and ensuring the rule of law in India?
Subhashish : It was my well-considered decision to not focus on the judiciary in Caged Tiger. The book is about the excessive control that the political executive has over our lives. However, the judiciary is a recurring theme in the book because it is one of the primary vehicles through which the political executive can be held accountable. This is especially true in India, where the accountability of the government to the legislature has greatly reduced, and where we have never had the processes for public consultations before all major legislation.
I would even go as far as to say that the judiciary has been the primary vehicle of institutional improvement in India. Thanks to litigation initiated by public-spirited lawyers, courts have often stepped in to either stem or reverse institutional erosion in India. For example, the Supreme Court in 1996 put some institutional guardrails before our phones can be tapped. Similarly, the Court has stepped in to ensure that appointments to important administrative posts happen through a bi-partisan selection panel.
Q14) What message do you hope readers take away from "Caged Tiger," and how do you envision your work contributing to the ongoing conversation on India's institutions?
Subhashish : The conversation on India’s institutions began long before I conceptualized this book and is being led by thinkers who are far more capable than I could aspire to be. I only hope that Caged Tiger has been able to bring more young people into the conversation. I was particularly excited by the traction that the book received on Instagram, where many book bloggers spoke about it to their audiences. It gave me tremendous joy whenever a young person texted me, saying that they learnt something new in the book or that it inspired them to look at India differently.
I hope that my book will help the reader form an opinion, even if it is one that disagrees with what I believe. As long as more people enter the marketplace of ideas, I would consider my book to be a success. If there is one message I hope that readers will take away from this book, it is the famous quote that is frequently misattributed to Voltaire - ‘I will disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.
Q15) After completing "Caged Tiger," what new projects or areas of research are you planning to explore, and how do you see yourself contributing to the discourse on India's social and economic development in the future?
Subhashish : I see myself as a commentator on the unseen aspects of the grand narratives shaping contemporary India. Popular discourse today is inundated with click-baits and extreme opinions, which I believe does a disservice to the richness and complexity of our collective lived experiences. For example, opinions on how technology is impacting India is split between those who see it in the emancipation of our still-impoverished millions and those who fear that it may lead to a dystopian and authoritarian future. The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle. In fact, there may not be a single truth but a multiplicity of paths that we could find ourselves on. I want to grapple with these conceptually tricky questions about modern India, and bring it to the world when I have some differentiated answers.
Thank you all for reading and a big thanks to Subhashish Bhadra for collaborating in today’s post!
It’s a pleasure!
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