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The Best Leaders Are Those Their People Hardly Know Exist

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“The best leaders are those their people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst one is the leader that is despised

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.
When they have accomplished their task,
the people say, “Amazing!
We did it, all by ourselves!”

This is what Tao De Jing, an ancient Chinese book has to say about leadership.

While the lines 2,3,4, are fairly clear, I have often wondered what does the first line mean. The second part builds on the first line and takes it even forward.

Why would the best quality leaders be not recognized at all? Let alone be recognized for their leadership, the poem suggest they might not even get acknowledgment for their existence.


Then one day it struck me.

Consider a scenario where a leader is leading a bunch of people through a jungle.

Now Leader A might notice the predator from 100 meters distance and try to steer the course away. By that time the followers also noticed the predator and realize that the leader has noticed the predator and is leading them to safety.

Leader B might notice the predator from 1000 meters distance and will try to steer the course away from the predator. The followers might not notice the predator or the course correction.

In second case, the leader B excels in his or her foresight compared to leader A. Yet his or her followers actually are less likely to notice the qualities of their leader. Those followers will never know that there was any danger at all and thus will never appreciate the steering away as an act of great foresight.

This opens up a classic paradox. Sometimes on face an less-than-ordinary person might look same as extraordinary person. Sometimes signs of great success are same as signs of great failure.

All around us, the world is ripe with potential to give us this cognitive dissonance – situations where we come to wrong conclusion because we lack contextual knowledge, not because we lack analytical ability.

So many times the cognitive impact on our life is drastically different from material impact. We may not even be aware of those who changed or saved our life. On the other hand, we obsess about those who could vanish in thin air and our life will continue with a barely noticeable hiccup.

Nothing write or wrong. Such is human mind.


Why We Fail To Understand Each Other?


On two corners of this world, I am watching two divides. India Pakistan divide in Southeast Asia and another Democrat Republican divide in USA. Of course the first divide has lot more sinister dimension of possibility of nuclear war. And that has historical context too. But more on that in next post.

The Democrat Republican divide is interesting because it’s happening even when there is no reason for this divide to be that strong. After all, both parties support capitalism, human rights and more or less agree on constitution.

What makes the public opinion about each other diverge? Why people completely fail to understand each other’s viewpoints.

And then one of my walks, I made a discovery. I am sure people have made this discovery before. But here it is in my words.

When thinking about someone else, people expect them to behave in a rational and ethical way. But when thinking about themselves, people make decisions based on emotions.

It reminds me of an psychological experiment described to me by a friend of mine. Forgive me for not providing a link, but it was just part of a conversation.

People were divided into two groups and asked to make a choice.

A. Select an airplane ticket at certain price for flying on the route where bad weather and heavy turbulence was expected.

B. Or select a ticket on the route for double the price where good weather was expected.

Everything else was supposed to be same about planes. There was no known technical difficulties and both airplanes were statistically supposed to have the same probability of safe journey.

One group had to pick this ticket for an unknown person. They mostly picked the cheap but turbulent route, because that was rational choice, scary but still statistically safe and cheap. The other group had to pick for their own, they mostly picked the calm route with double the price.

After this, both groups were shown a movie narrating horrible turbulence experience. Then they were asked to make a choice again.

Again if they had to pick the ticket for other person, they picked the scary but cheap route with almost the same probability.

But here is the real kick. When they had to pick for themselves, they picked the safe but costly route even in significantly higher numbers. That means they were more inclined to avoid the fearful experience for themselves after watching the movie. But still they thought it’s OK for the other person to face the fear, as long as it was in their rational interest.

It’s not that people hated the unknown passenger. They  underestimated the importance of emotions to the other person.

When thinking about others, people underestimate the erosion to the quality of life by negative emotions like fear  and enhancement to the quality of life by positive emotions like self esteem boost.

But when it comes to them, they overestimate those exact things things. They want to avoid negative emotions and go for positive emotions, even if it means making a choice that seems not rational.

Two primal emotions  – desire to increase self esteem and desire to reduce fear play a huge role. If you leave room for these two emotions, you would understand the response much better.

Take an example. Think of a recent incident when white cop shot black person.

When white person is thinking about the incident of black person being shot by white cop, their first thought is whether the black person followed cop’s instructions? If yes and still shooting happened, then white people are willing to investigate further. If not, then the case closed. The black person should have followed the instructions.

When black  person thinks about the same incident, their first thought is whether the police followed the procedure. No matter the victim followed the instructions or not, the black person would conclude that if the victim did not pose danger to the officer, the shooting was not justified. The situation when cop arrests you is stressful to both ends and may be the victim was too stressed or confused ?

The white people are more likely to identify with police and allow them some emotional slack, like fear and anxiety. The black person is more likely to identify with the victim and allow them emotional slack, like fear and anxiety.

Who is right? I am afraid both are.

(I am generalizing too much. I know. There are plenty of white people that see black angle and vice versa.)

Next time if you don’t understand the choice made by other person, think of two things. Self esteem and fear. Or rather Self-Love and Fear. If the person has to not only make a rational choice, but also make sure it helps them to do self-love and reduce fear, what choice would they make? And you will surely have a lightbulb moment.




Open Letter To Rahul Gandhi: No Such Thing As Absolute Freedom Of Expression


Dear Mr. Rahul Gandhi,

Some JNU students chanted slogans wishing destruction of India and when action was taken against them, you and your party took their side citing the cause of freedom of expression.

I would like to point out two things about Freedom of Expression.

First, freedom of expression is not a wild card or a blank check the way you are imagining it. It does not give you right to yell “Fire” in the middle of a packed theater or “Bomb” in the middle of a flying airplane, neither does it give you right to shout “I will kill you” at a fellow human being without repercussions. The chants of “Death to India” are exactly that, a threat.

Second, freedom of expression indeed gives you right to express freely provided you use this for betterment of community that bestows such right. It comes with an implied responsibility to earn trust of the said people. With chants of ‘Death to India’, those who chanted those slogans have directly threatened the country and lost the country’s trust and henceforth as a country, we are not willing to tolerate their actions and if we choose to retaliate within the premises of law, it is within our right of self defense.

You are more than welcome to use freedom of expression to cast doubt, provide constructive criticism or share a different perspective and thereby add value to the discussion. But what happened at JNU is abuse of such freedom and must be dealt with in strictest possible terms.

You see Mr. Gandhi, India does not exist so that freedom of expression can be practiced. Freedom of expression is permitted in India because that creates necessary environment for progress of Indian society. And if at times the expression turns and threatens the very country and community that nurtured it, it has to be curtailed. We are not alone in curtailing it. In Europe you can be jailed for denying Jewish holocaust. In USA, you can be denied entry to board a plane if you write articles in support of Islamic State. In Saudi Arabia, you an be jailed for praising any God other than Allah.

Not just freedom of expression but advocating practice of any noble value like non-violence or compassion or forgiveness IN ABSOLUTE is dangerously delusional. These values have to be practiced in a balanced manner in order to ensure survival. If you decided to practice absolute non-violence, it dictates you kill no plant or animal, thus pretty much sealing starvation and death as your only fate. That might be OK for some saints, but that’s not OK for me or my family or my friends or my community. Same goes for freedom of expression. If freedom of expression thrives but India dies, it is of no value to me.

It has indeed happened in the past.  Blindly followed good values have caused destruction of the very people who followed them. The American Indians welcomed the Immigrant Europeans with open arms as guests, only to lose their land and people in the end. Persian kings fought with Chengiz Khan following “the noble code of warriors”, only to have the entire nation of Persia looted and the people massacred by Khan and his armies. I have no desire to add India to that list.

Moral of the story. There is no absolute freedom of anything anywhere. And India does not need to be an exception.

Yours Sincerely,


P.S: You are deeply traumatized by your massive loss to BJP and you are behaving like a headless chicken. All of your actions are coming out of that traumatized feeling and they make no sense for our country. Please gather yourself.

When Guns Are In Law, Gun Are The Law

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There is one famous phrase in America, “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns”.

Churchill once said that “Lie gets halfway around the world before truth manages to put its pants on.” He was absolutely right. Lie can indeed get around the world if it can ride a catchy phrase, like “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns”. I have seen too many arguments hijacked by this catchy phrase and turned a very important subject, which makes life and death difference to some, into a reality show. Just to bring back the rationality of the argument in such cases, I am going to throw a new one in here.

When guns are in law, guns are the law.

Let me be clear at the beginning. I am not against guns. I do think guns have a place in society. In fact I think my home country, India has too tight laws that need to be relaxed and make guns access more easy. However, like all other things, guns are best used in moderation and it makes sense to have some common sense gun control laws. Importantly,we need to be able to carry on a rational debate about it using statistics and critical thinking and not just resort to catchy phrases.

About the phrase “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns.” What you call guns is a wide range, from small hand guns and itty bitty pistols to fully automatic guns, armor piercing guns and anti aircraft guns. What you call the action of outlawing is a wide range again, from regulations and restricted access to complete ban. And what you call outlaw – the people – is wide range again. From small pickpockets or shop lifters to major drug cartels.

While the statement is true for a small range of guns, small range of actions of outlawing and small range of types of outlaws, the statement is false for majority of the range of guns and majority of the ways of outlawing them and majority of types of outlaws. And even when it’s true, (case in point – fully automatic weapons are banned but you can sure find drug cartels toting them), it’s rarely used for the purpose we are all afraid of – a random person committing mass shooting in a public place. For the most part, the drug cartels use those weapons to fight among themselves or to take on major law enforcement agencies, which are equally or better equipped than the cartels.

In colclusion, when-guns-are-outlawed phrase is wrong more times than right and even when it’s right, it’s irrelevant to the main argument. There is a legitimate argument on both sides of gun control. But it’s not the when-guns-are-outlawed… phrase.

It’s truly fascinating to watch an argument on gun control or any other hot political topic. There are rarely “independents” here. The people have already formed their stance. The debate revolves around very familiar points. Constitution, gun accidents, mass murders, mental illness, self-defense.

However when it gets into catchy phrases, the debate degenerates from thereon.

So if someone says to you “When guns are outlawed, only when outlaws have guns”, feel free to say “When guns are in law, guns are the law.”

Representation Without Taxation?

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I am watching an interview. Some leader insists that the huge financial debt is a problem. That picks up my interest. Because I indeed think it is. I think there is a dose of conservatism needed in financial policies.

But then the leader turns around and argues for reduction of taxes.

Something about that line or argument always makes me uncomfortable. Let me see if I can put it into words.

You can’t always get out of the things you don’t like by doing the things you like.

It’s like telling an alcoholic that there exists a way to get out of addiction where they get to drink more, just that you have to drink at the different bar. No such bar exists. And if you want to kick addiction, it’s going to cause you some pain. It’s worth in the long run, but going to suck in short run.

I understand tax is not a simple thing. I understand there is a good argument to be made about what type of taxes to charge in order to incentivize the right behaviors and discourage the wrong ones. However at this point in time in American financial history, any argument for reduction in taxes is hard to swollow. If anyone wants to make a serious dent in ballooning national debt, the spending needs to be managed well, and the taxes must at least need to remain at current level if not increase.

To be perfectly honest, I think there is serious lack of financial education among common Americans. I don’t mean to single out Americans as financially illiterate. Common people from other countries are equally financially illiterate, but when you are not a citizen of a superpower, your country is not the most influential economy, your army not the world’s most powerful army, you maintain a healthy fear that makes you hedge your bets. That risk perception imparts certain default wisdom to you. Americans don’t have that gift of insecurity or fear. Also Americans have lot more borrowing ability than rest of the world that imparts additional dose of false all-is-well feeling.

And I understand I am grossly generalizing when I am talking about Americans. Obviously there is a large number of financially wise Americans that are exception to this. They were raised by parents who imparted good financial discipline in them. Or they have struggled, failed and developed a healthy risk perception. They save and live within their means. But the number of people who don’t have financial maturity is disturbingly large, large enough to influence the policies.

At the same time American government is one of the least corrupt government I have seen, and it employs many qualified and competent individuals. If I were to decide in whose hands tax money should be left, I would vote for government.

There is an excellent book called “Prophecy” by Robert Kiyosaki, the same author who penned “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, which raises similar concern. The financially wise person in that books made an observation in late 70s when a large switch from pension funds to 401 k plans occurred. That person warned that such a switch is going to put control of retirement savings in peoples’ hands without providing them adequate education about handling them. We will know if his prophecy about retirement funds comes true in coming decade.

I am often surprised to find this argument for tax reduction or outright elimination coming from people who make very little money and pay very little taxes in the first place. Don’t they realize how much they are getting in return? Roads, School, Police, Strong Army? They are getting the best return for their tax dollars.

For some reason unknown to me, it is this segment in society that gets seduced by the idea of less taxes. “No taxation without representation” was a rallying cry for American revolution. Running a democratic government without any taxation, or in short “representation without taxation” seems to be the idea for this new political battleground.

Democrats and Republicans- Americans and Indian Versions

Recently a Russian friend of mine exclaimed “When I came to USA, I didn’t understand what the Democrats and Republicans are fighting about. Both want free market capitalism, both want democracy, so what is the argument.

It took some years for me too, to understand why they call themselves separate parties. But when I got it, I could not help wonder that no matter where you go, it’s the same two currents in society. Like yin and yang, they manifest themselves in different persona.

Democrats are more committed to principles. Republicans are more committed to practicality. Democrats worry about what is fair. Republicans worry about what works. Democrats prefer the type of government that works for poor and desolate. Republicans prefer less interfering government and have more of dog-eat-dog approach.

Democrats are about equality, about challenging the established class, pro-change, diversified party. Republicans are more interested in keeping local culture intact. They are against migration to some extent and take pride in being a patriotic, pro-establishment party. A good old boys club.

Welfare programs , taxation and wealth dissipation are usually characteristic of democratic policy. Focus on national security and overall conservative attitude is usually the main selling points of republican policy.

If I have to find the equivalents in Indian politics, I would say Congress is version of US Democrats whereas several regional parties like Shiv-sena and only one national party , BJP, is version of US Republicans. Congress claims itself to be the sole voice of poor people. It takes pride in being the truly secular party. For the last 50 or so years, Congress has indeed delivered several promises to poor class. In their reign, green revolutions occurred, slum dwellers got their huts registered and reservation quotas were introduced and expanded continuously. Sometimes by going overboard and snubbing middle class, congress has more or less managed to keep its image and keep its voting base. While BJP, in their brief ruling period, expanded India’s nuclear arsenal, built strong relations with USA and decisively won Kargil war.

The roots of USA Republican party lies in the political vision of revolutionaries who fought against British occupation. The same thing could have happened in India in early 20th century and Indian National Congress could have emerged as the voice of established Indian social class, the Republican equivalent.

However, the class struggle in India was far widespread and complicated compared to British occupied USA. The Republican equivalents in Indian Congress failed to address this class struggle issue effectively. They made political independence higher priority over social reforms. B.G. Tilak and Subhashchandra Bose were main proponents of this idea. Whereas the Democrat equivalents gave equal, if not higher priority to social reforms compared to political independence. Gandhi was the main voice of this stream. Thus, as explained in my other post on Gandhi’s strategy, the Democrat equivalent voice prevailed and Republicans went into sort of oblivion.

The leadership of congress changed from idealistic generation (sometimes overly so as in case of Nehru) to highly opportunistic, divided individuals. In the same time the leadership of so-called-Republicans went from freedom-struggle hardened, ideological generation to opportunistic and sometimes clueless individuals.

This Republican current remained splinter, fringe groups and pretty much failed to make a coherent comeback till the last decade of 20th century. But the concern of Islamic fundamentalism suddenly brought some sort of synergy between them.

Many people blame BJP, the most visible equivalent of Republicans, for Babri Masjid demolition and using religion for political purpose. However half the country voted for them and the notion that they converted half the country from seculars to fundamentalists is ridiculous. The single reason for their success was genocide of Kashmiri Hindus. Even though the politicians and media refused to categorize Kashmir violence as ethnic cleansing, the common people saw a vicious pattern of religious fundamentalism against Hinduism. When BJP came out with Ram Mandir yatra and projected themselves as the saviors of Hindu religion, all these folks, who were now suspicious of politicians who proclaimed to be secular, threw their weight behind BJP. It had little to do with Ram Mandir and more to do with this suspicion about secularism.

BJP completely failed to understand these concerns and kept on drumming the same issue. Result? The Ram Mandir strategy failed in next election.

As the danger of Islamic fundamentalism continues to grow, it is likely that the US Republican equivalents in India would gain prominence again.

I have read a lot about the great patriot and freedom fighter Veer Savarkar. I have tremendous respect for him. His literary skills were marvelous. His leadership qualities were exceptional. His courage was monumental.

I have heard a lot of people speculating about what India would be if he had power in his hand. I am sure if he were in the driving seat, India would be a superpower.

And there lies the biggest success of Indian democracy. India in 1960-1970 did not need to be a superpower. India needed to work on poor farmers first. Thus the party that worked with poor farmers got elected. Savarkar was a great leader, but not the right person at that time and place to lead, so he was not elected.

As we lift our masses out of poverty and take stride into 21st century as a confident nation well on it’s way to prosperity, there will be a time to switch. Indian people will need a leader who will assert India’s power, give higher priority to national security and enforce discipline on unruly elements. We will need a Savarkar again.

I hope we will be able to produce one.

Corruption – Cause or Symptom?

Typically every argument about India’s progress starts with poverty and ends with corruption. If you ask people to define corruption, most of them they give you a blank stare or run to get a dictionary. Then if you ask people to identify the exact corruption incidents and the rough estimate of monetary costs in their life, most of the time you get that blank stare.

Yet everybody seems to be very sure that corruption is the problem.

Let me tell you one story here. Around 1985, the performance of Bombay Telephone, only telephone company in Bombay, operated by government, was very poor. You had to register to get telephone and it could easily take 4-5 years (from the date you registered) to actually get a telephone connection in your home. It was a well known secret that you could bribe somebody inside to get your name ahead in the queue and get you telephone earlier.

In 1990 the privatization began and several new schemes were introduced. One of the schemes was “Immediate connection”, wherein you could pay a large amount as a deposit and you would get connection immediately. The scheme was nicely packaged as new era customer friendly deal.

What is the difference? In both cases the “deal” so to speak served customers who could afford to pay more for a connection (like traders, businessmen, etc.) and who needed connection a lot sooner. In first case the money went to the individual employee, in second case it went to the organization. So does the first case qualifies as corruption, as second as service?

The reality is tiered service is the need of the time. Demand – Supply is the basis of any economic theory. And if the demand is not being met by system, then it will be met by bypassing the system.

Corruption is not the main problem in most of the cases. The main problem is poorly designed systems.

Indeed there are some cases where corruption is the problem. There was a case before some days when in UP, some people found the medicine bottles in the pharmacy were filled with water. This is not a corruption, this is crime. This is not system bypass, this is atrocity. There is no justification for this.

But for a large range of other cases, we must stop expecting something else. We must stop expecting people to behave differently.

I remember before a few days, we were waiting outside a railway station. It was raining heavily. We were looking for a taxi. A taxi driver stopped next to us and asked for double the fair. My friend got irritated and refused. The taxi driver left.

Since both of us have visited USA, the argument obviously turned to taxi drivers in USA. We talked about how impolite and how corrupt the taxi driver was.

Some time later I was reading in newspaper about the Bandh, and how it stopped the Rikshaw and taxi business that day. I wondered, would anyone go and give some money to the taxi driver to cover him up for this type of days? If not, then what is the option for him other than taxing more money from me when I am in need? That is his way of providing “insurance” for the days he will lose business because of Bandh and Rail Roko and Riots and worst case, auto accidents.

In several countries, there is a system of tip. To all people whose income depends on the time they work everyday, people add about 10-15% extra on the charge for the service. This is precisely to cover them on rainy days.

So if we do not have any voluntarily provided cover for rainy days, it makes sense that the Taxi driver would solicit more fair when he is in stronger position.

The more I think, the more I see basic human dynamics at work. What we need is redesigning “systems”, not redesigning “human nature” to reduce corruption.