Prashnam Survey on Covid Deaths quoted in The Economist

On June 2, I had written a column in ThePrint based on a Prashnam survey about the number of deaths due to Covid. The latest Economist (June 12 edition) has written about it as part of their story on estimating the Covid deaths in India. The story is headlined “More evidence emerges of India’s true death toll from covid-19” with the stub “New surveys corroborate earlier estimates that the number is some six times higher.”

Evidence from another source, opinion surveys, corroborates the higher numbers. One, conducted in May by Prashnam, a new polling group, asked 15,000 people, across mostly rural areas in Hindi-speaking states in the north, whether anyone in their family or neighbourhood had died of covid-19. One in every six, or 17%, said yes.

Rajesh Jain, Prashnam’s founder, then compared this result with surveys in America that had asked a similar question, including one conducted in March by the University of Chicago, which found that 19% of respondents had a close friend or relative who had died in the pandemic. Given the closeness of those results, Mr Jain says that India’s overall covid-19 mortality rate is likely to be closer to America’s, at 1,800 deaths per million people, than to its official figure of 230 per million. If India’s rate does match America’s, the number of deaths in India so far would be about 2.5m, he says.

PS: The same survey was also linked from an article in The New York Times.

Additional resources on Prashnam:

 

The Alternative India Needs (Part 3)

The Choice

While everyone is looking at the leadership question and seeking that single magical mythical being to take on Modi, the question we should be really asking is: what does India really need? A continuation of the 250-year-old odyssey that has kept us away from liberty and wealth creation or a new direction that transforms our nation by giving people civic, economic and political freedoms and dismantling the anti-prosperity machine that has been fine-tuned by every leader to maximise power and control over the people? There is no leader in India who would free us and let Lakshmi into our homes.

Once they ascend the throne of Delhi, all leaders in colonial and Independent India have done their bit to increase controls on our personal and business lives, deny us our rightful share in the wealth of the nation, interfere with education and agriculture, discover new ways to tax us to increase the size and scope of the government, divide us even more along new fault lines, and put ever greater constraints on our freedom of speech – in other words, exercise the power to rule, not change the rules.

We need to reframe the question. The alternative India seeks is not to Narendra Modi, and the alternative is not Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav, or one of that ilk. Each of the others would continue what Modi did once in power just as Modi continued the lineage that had begun with Robert Clive and continued with the Governor Generals of the British Crown, Nehru and Indira Gandhi – deny the people of India the freedom to live their lives the way they want.

The alternative we should be seeking in India is freedom from our politicians and political parties. The alternative we should be wanting is liberty and prosperity. Unfortunately, there is no leader who will do that – they are all the same. So, if it’s a choice amongst one of them, it really doesn’t matter whom we choose. But if we really want to craft a new future for ourselves and our children, we need to create a new alternative which draws its power from the people – a national movement to free every Lok Sabha seat from the politicians and their parties to form a new government of prosperity which breaks the 250-year-old curse of poverty, which turns ‘caged and poor India’ to ‘free and rich India.’ This is the Nayi Disha Indians need. This is the real alternative India needs.

The Alternative India Needs (Part 2)

Talking 2024 – 2

Shankkar Aiyar: “The buzz about a meaningful challenge to the BJP and Modi is ambition in the quest of affiliation, a plot in search of screenplay, or charitably speaking a narrative in search of evidence. There isn’t an individual or a party close to be being characterised as a real challenger… The failures of a flailing opposition though are not a cause for celebration for the BJP. It is instructive to remember that the absence of a challenger or political entity did not detain the defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government… Modi arrived in 2014 with the promise of transformative change. The motto of minimum government, maximum governance awaits reclamation.”

Swapan Dasgupta offers a pro-Modi counterpoint: “By empowering culturally rooted Indians, reducing corruption, and redefining the nationalist consensus, the PM has changed India… On the face of it, the country displays outward continuity. Yet, it is striking that most of Modi’s critics — particularly those located in the Left-liberal bubble overseas —invariably preface their indictment of India’s public life or governance with the label “Modi’s India”. This gratuitous tag indicates a belief that India has changed unrecognisably and for the worse…[The change] is still work in progress. To endure, Modi’s India will have to define the new heights to scale in 2024.

Jagannathan adds: “BJP Will Win If It Chooses The Right Battlefield: The Fight Is For Dharma, Not Secular Bunkum…In its first tenure, the major Modi government initiatives were streamlining of the subsidy system (through Aadhaar), demonetisation, the drive against black money, goods and services tax, Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, and the Uri and Balakot strikes against Pakistan-based terror groups… For far too long, Modi has chosen to fight on battlefields chosen by his enemies, who include the Left-liberal caucus, the Western deep states, and assorted evangelical and jihadi groups. The conversion mafia must be confronted and defeated, especially by choking their fund sources. The battlefield on which Modi is fighting them is called “secularism” or “liberalism”. The battlefield he must shift the fight to is dharma and pluralism. And he should not be apologetic about it. And dharma is not about targeting the so-called minorities, nor it is about religion. It is about levelling the playing field for the forces that fight for dharma. This means ending the discrimination against Hindus baked into the Constitution through articles 25-30, freedom to temples, and autonomy for all Hindu institutions.”

The chorus continues. Some fulminating against Modi, some rooting for him, and a few ambivalent; each wrestling with the 2024 question. In the BJP camp, there is no alternative needed for Modi. In the non-BJP camp, there is no visible alternative to Modi but hope springs eternal. What’s common to both camps, despite evidence to the contrary, is that India’s leaders will transform the nation with their decisions. [I have written about this in the past: Nations, Leaders and their Decisions.]

The Alternative India Needs (Part 1)

Talking 2024 – 1

The 2024 Election Games have begun. Who will be India’s next Prime Minister? Who will challenge Modi? Will the Opposition unite? Will the Congress replace the Gandhis? As the English Editorial Elite sense a weakened Modi, the WITA game is now firmly under way – Who Is The Alternative? It was also played a few years ago – just prior to the 2019 elections. While it is a fun game, it is the wrong game. The alternative to Modi is Nota (None of the Above) in the single individual sense. But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s first look at the commentary from recent times as the BJP and Modi complete seven years in power.

Shekhar Gupta: “Can 2024 become more challenging for Modi? Yes, but it’s all up to Congress… Modi and Shah know Congress is the only likely challenger to them nationally, and the Gandhis are key to keeping it together. That’s why they need to be targeted ruthlessly… The Congress and the other opposition parties, in what we might loosely describe as the Modi-peedit samaj, have another option. Think what a company with great legacy brands and strong customer loyalties, but losing out to niftier challengers, does. It gets a CEO from someplace else. It won’t happen in the Congress. But, can it happen with a larger opposition coalition with the Congress at its core? What it brings to the table won’t be the charisma of its leaders, but that loyal 20 per cent customer base. If such a thought emerges, Mamata Banerjee and others like her can be back in the reckoning.”

Yogendra Yadav: “Modi is not Manmohan Singh. He won’t fade away without fighting to the finish. In the 7 years since he took oath, Narendra Modi’s government has never looked as shaky as it does today. But there is still no alternative… Despite all his blunders, mere Modi-bashing won’t lead to his defeat; the people look for an alternative before they can discard what they have. And let us face it: Such an alternative does not exist, at least not on the menu that an ordinary person gets to see. This is not to discount the existing opposition parties, nor to dismiss the need for their unity. Opposition unity is necessary but not sufficient. The opposition needs a glue that holds it together and a glow to radiate hope among the people. As of now, it doesn’t seem to have either. This is why we need an alternative to supplement the existing opposition… Such an alternative to Modi would need, first of all, a positive and believable message about India’s future… Once we have a positive and believable message, we need credible messengers… Finally, we need a powerful machine to carry this message across the country. This machine needs two parts: Organisation and communication.”

Rajdeep Sardesai: “Seven years into their terms as PM, Nehru, Indira and Manmohan Singh faced political setbacks…Modi too now faces his moment of truth. His initial appeal was drawn from his claim to be an anti-establishment folk hero, a man from humble origins who combined religio-nationalist zeal with the image of an anti-corruption crusader and a development icon. For seven years, this image has been artfully managed, a teflon-like coating ensuring that no blame ever stuck to it. The Covid-19 surge is the first time that the glossy protective veil around the PM’s persona is being lifted and a governance deficit lies exposed: the optics of a tika utsav for example cannot compensate for a floundering vaccine policy… The headline-grabbing dream merchant of 2014 must now transform himself into a nuts and bolts crisis manager to ensure that his government too, like those led by other PMs in their seventh year, is not pushed into ventilator mode.”

United Voters of India: Constructing the Collective (Part 8)

Contract, Constitution, Code

The idea of UVI needs to be embedded into software – just like Bitcoin. Essentially, UVI is a set of rules wrapped into code. Just like miners and traders gave Bitcoin its initial value, it will be the members and candidates who will provide the impetus to UVI.

Contract: This is the promise to the UVI members. Its twin pillars are freedom and prosperity. The contract comprises the agenda and the Bills that need to be passed when the Swatantra Lok Sabha becomes a reality. The core premise is anchored in the ideas embedded in Nayi Disha’s five Prosperity Principles and 5 Starting Solutions. The idea of Dhan Vapasi can be the big attractor for people.

Constitution: These are the rules that govern UVI. Some examples: members are guaranteed total anonymity, primaries need 10% support base, no politician can contest, winning candidate needs 50%+1 (implying a run-off if needed). Simple rules for a complex world. The rules should be such that everyone can understand them and which can be enforced without needing the discretion of a central authority.

Code: This is the UVI app. It brings to life the ideas we have discussed. It should be open-source so everyone knows there is total transparency. Membership data can be encrypted to ensure the complete confidentiality of all members. Bitcoin with its underlying base of blockchain has accomplished this to create a cryptocurrency. A similar framework needs to do it for a voting bloc.

**

These are the starting ideas for UVI. Much more work needs to be done but hopefully this can get a few people excited enough to want to start work on the project. If it works, the idea can spread rapidly to people – each of us is capable of being a super spreader. If it fails, maybe a new and better idea can take its place.

The larger point is what I had begun with. We need to rid India of its politicians and their parties. They are the single largest roadblock for Indians to create wealth. While they are in power, there is little real hope for mass prosperity and realisation of the true potential of the Indian people. Politicians and their accomplices in the form of bureaucrats have kept Indians away from Lakshmi. UVI is the way to bring Lakshmi into the home of every Indian.

United Voters of India: Constructing the Collective (Part 7)

The Basics – 2

So far, we have UVI constructed as a digital platform for interested members. If the support in an electoral unit crosses 10%, the primaries module is unlocked allowing for members to select a candidate who can contest the coming elections. Contestants will need to be non-politicians who have not contested previously on behalf of any of the political parties. A digital vote with a run-off if needed can ensure selection of the eventual candidate. If half of the NANVs can be persuaded to join UVI and vote for this candidate in the election, the odds of victory are better than even. Repeat in enough constituencies and one has the makings of a Lok Sabha of Independents – a Swatantra Lok Sabha (SLS).

This SLS will of course need to elect a Prime Minister who will then choose his or her Cabinet from amongst the elected MPs. Given the agenda of the SLS, it doesn’t really matter who the team is because all of the MPs will be aligned towards the pre-decided agenda – to free and enrich Indians. Drafts of the Bills would have been readied by a separate team and made public well in advance of the election. All the Bills need to be crafted as Money Bills, and thus will not need assent of the Rajya Sabha. The first 100 days of the SLS are what will be needed to pass the Bills and start putting India on a new track.

Of course, there are a myriad ifs and buts at every stage. This is like a fiction thriller with one twist after another coming together to make an amazing story. I am not looking at the reasons this will not work; what we have to think is how to make such a scenario work. Given the current rules of the political game, this is perhaps the only way to seize power from the political parties and transform India. No existing or future politician and party has the necessary interest or incentive to create the conditions for prosperity; their self-interest transcends that of the nation.

I know the questions. Why will such a Lok Sabha of Independents even work? Won’t they fall prey to the same lure and lust of power? Even if a few holdouts are there, legislation will not pass. And of course the big one: has such a system been tried anywhere? The answer to the last one is actually a resounding Yes! Members of the US Congress, once voted to power, function not as rubber stamps of the political parties, but as Independents – each member can decide how to vote on every legislation. There is no whip that threatens them with disqualification should they exercise their freedom to choose. The voting record of every member is public and they are answerable to their constituents.

I agree this is wishful thinking. But only out of human imagination are new inventions and innovations created. UVI is one such starting point. It is upto some of us to think more about it and make it better. The future of a billion Indians depends on our ideas.

United Voters of India: Constructing the Collective (Part 6)

The Basics – 1

The idea behind United Voters of India (UVI) is straightforward: it is a voting bloc. The core support base of the existing political parties is about a third of all registered voters. Another third are non-voters and the final third are what can be considered as non-aligned (floaters and wasters). Floaters are those who will swing towards the party likely to win, while wasters are those who will vote for one of the smaller parties or independents who have no hope of winning. So, if the non-aligned and the non voters (NANVs) are aggregated, they account for two-thirds of the electorate. If a majority of these voters can unite, vote and vote as one, then it becomes possible for them to get almost any candidate elected – irrespective of what the other political parties do.

Of course, there are many questions. Why will people vote as one? Why will erstwhile non-voters suddenly start voting? Who will they vote for? What if the NANVs commit and then don’t vote as one? Is there any way to monitor the actions of the bloc? In my earlier series on UVI, I have attempted to answer many of these questions. UVI is entirely voluntary. There is no coercion for anyone to join or to vote for a specific candidate. My point is that it is mathematically possible for a third of the electorate who are not committed to a political party to come together and decide the outcome of every election in a first-past-the-post system that India has. A united 33 from the NANV’s 67 has a very good chance of trumping a divided 33 that supports the existing political parties.

Technology in the form of a smartphone app can make the coordination between NANVs much easier than was earlier possible. All someone has to do is to sign-up on the app. The identification will need to be via that person’s VoterID which can be digitally mapped to the individual. Care can be taken to anonymise the identity once it is verified. What matters is the aggregate rather than the specific individual. Once a threshold is reached (let’s say 10% of the electorate in a constituency), then primaries can be held prior to an election for the selection of a people’s candidate. Only those who have never contested an election on behalf of another political party will be allowed to contest. (IndiaVotes has a record of all candidates who have ever contested a Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha election.)

The winner of the primary gets to contest as an Independent. All the members in that constituency are asked to vote for this particular candidate. It is an honour system and there is no point joining if one doesn’t plan to abide by the rules. Of course, political parties can try and rig the internal vote by asking their core base to sign-up. My belief is that most political parties do not really know who their supporters are so such a drive will not be as effective. Another way around this problem could be to have a new UVI member get a referral from an existing UVI member but this could slow the adoption.

United Voters of India: Constructing the Collective (Part 5)

Ideas for New India

Indians need freedom at all levels. The challenge arises because most of us think we are already free. But the freedom we have today is an illusion. In reality, the government controls almost every aspect of our life. We have never experienced real freedom and we only hear horror stories about the licence-permit-quota-raj of pre-1991 India, so we are thankful for the small mercies of semi-free markets of today. While we can argue about the extent of our freedom, what is indisputable is the outcome – a per capita income that is a fraction of the richest nations or even some of our Asian neighbours. We try and console ourselves that our journey is only now beginning – not realising that it is just a false start. If only we read our own history, we will realise that this is how our parents and grandparents would have thought in the 1960s and 1970s. Poverty programs, import tariffs, discretionary and retrospective policies, high taxes on the rich, increasing deficits, single leader worshipped as God, price controls, loan melas, political interference in the judiciary, sectoral interventions, random export bans – they are all back with a vengeance.

A few of us need to genuinely put our minds together to create an India that at least for a short time is freed from its politicians and parties so a new Republic based on the principles of liberty, non-discrimination, non-interference, limited government and decentralisation can be created. This Nayi Disha can forever constrain the growth of government via Dhan Vapasi. The agenda itself is not complicated – legislation to be passed in the Lok Sabha to dismantle the anti-prosperity machine and at the same time taking care that no Indian is left behind. All it needs is for a one-term Lok Sabha of Independents to birth this New India. That is what UVI aims to do – not as yet another power-hungry political party, but as a people’s platform with a clear agenda, rules and a software layer that enables P2P collaboration. Think of UVI as a construct of contract, constitution and code for the collective.

Many tell me that in present day India, it is better to mute oneself than take on the high and mighty. That has also guided my thinking about the solution. If there is one person who tries to rise, that person can be pressurised, silenced, indicted, incarcerated or eliminated. But what if there is no single person? What if it is a platform with tens of millions as participants? Exactly like Bitcoin. With anonymity guaranteed. No one needs to reveal themselves except the candidates who wish to contest. If that stage is indeed reached where candidates are encouraged to stand, then the power of the platform will ensure they cannot be subdued. A few can be individually targeted one by one, but that is impossible when there are hundreds supported by tens of millions.

I know the odds of this happening are infinitesimally small. And yet, hope springs eternal. I have had hundreds of ideas in my life as an entrepreneur. Some die in the mind, some fail when they meet the reality of customers and the market, but a few pass all the tests and succeed big. Failure has never been a barrier for me either in thought or action. I do not start wanting to fail but I recognise that only through experimentation can ideas be made better. If UVI fails, maybe it can encourage others to create better versions in future. The important thing is to get started, and that is what this intellectual exercise is about.

United Voters of India: Constructing the Collective (Part 4)

Freedom First

What I will outline next is a vision of what can be done. It is one possible future for India. It is definitely not an extension of the default path we are on as a nation. As such, I want to state a few things which will help provide the wider context of my ideas.

What I propose is at this time just an intellectual exercise. The fundamental question I have tried to address is: how can Indians become prosperous? There is nothing deficient in our genetic makeup that condemns hundreds of millions of Indians to a life barely better than subsistence. Wealth in the world is not a zero-sum game that we need to impoverish others to enrich ourselves. There is a proven path to prosperity and it is simple: freedom. People need to be free before they get prosperous. If the government indulges in predation, there is no incentive for wealth creation. In the ideal situation, economic freedom needs to come with political and social freedom. But as we have seen in countries like Singapore and China, economic freedom by itself can go a long way to create prosperity. The American ideals of individual, social and economic freedom laid out in its Constitution is what we must strive for in India.

I am not a politician and have no desire to be one. I am a successful technology entrepreneur who was luckily exposed (albeit a bit late in life) to the world of economics and works of Adam Smith, F. A. Hayek, James Buchanan and Milton Friedman. I had the luxury of time and a curious mind. Over the past decade, I learnt from mentors, books, conversations and conferences.

Having understood that countries are rich or poor because of the political choices that they make, I decided that I must do something to try and transform India’s future. My first hope was that a wise leader would do the needful – as we saw in Asian countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, China, South Korea. That hope has been proven false, and therefore there is a need for a different solution. Instead of relying on a leader who will do the right things, we need to construct a collective which will get into power and do the transformations India needs. What I will outline is one possible path for making this change happen; there can be many others. While I did try a few independent initiatives and failed, I am not dissuaded. The prize is far greater – unleashing the potential of a billion free who can accelerate human progress even as they simply search for betterment of their own lives. If more of us start thinking about the problem and possible solutions, we can indeed make it happen.

United Voters of India: Constructing the Collective (Part 3)

Exponential Change

As a generation, we have seen a lot of technological disruption and innovation. In 1995, we connected to the Internet on 14.4 Kbps dial-up modems from a computer. We now routinely get speeds 100-1000 times faster with the smartphones in our hands. We can summon goods, foods and cabs with the click of a button. We have the world’s information available with a click. We are no longer just passive consumers; we are also content producers – our wit, tweet, photo or video can be spread to our tribes or across the country with the same ease. We have harnessed the power of solar and the promise of AI. We went from virus to vaccine in less than a year. In the midst of a pandemic, many of us can do our work and manage our businesses from the safety of our home – something unimaginable just a few years ago.

We are on the cusp on even more exponential change. A chart from Balance Point Ventures tell the story of our immediate past and near future:

One very interesting innovation (predictably banned by India’s politicians) has been Bitcoin. Look at its astonishing rise over the past 8 years:

Bitcoin’s rise has in part been driven as a safe haven against the debasement of fiat currencies by central banks which keep printing more and more money, especially after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and then on steroids in 2020 during the pandemic. Bitcoin’s idea was first proposed as a set of rules laid out in a white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008. The first bitcoin trade happened in 2010. The current market cap of bitcoins is $600 billion. All of this has happened with no single person or entity in charge – in a single decade.

Can something similar happen in politics? Can the combination of a contract (agenda), constitution (rules) and code (software) create a disruption in India’s politics? I believe so. The triad of United Voters of India (UVI), Nayi Disha and Dhan Vapasi can, in a thousand days, build on the power of P2P to launch an irreversible virtuous cycle of freedom and prosperity (Lakshmi) for 1.3 billion Indians.