Published April 8-15, 2021
Politician-police nexus. Money paid to politicians for appointments to official positions; money that is then connected via ‘subscriptions’ from hapless businesses who are tortured by rules and regulations they can never fully comply with. Money then spent by politicians to buy votes. Politicians who switch parties just before elections. Elected representatives who resign to bring down the government and then defect to another party to contest by-elections to undermine the mandate. MPs and MLAs who are toothless – rubber stamps for the whims of the party bosses. Ministers who are in power to not serve but get served – money and other favours. Sedition and jailing used by the rulers to scare and silence. Politicians in partnership with some business people to hurt competition – Indian or otherwise.
It is not necessary to be in power; even being in Opposition can be profitable – money can be extracted for silence, favourable contracts can still be cleared, cases can be suppressed. After all, today’s Opposition can be tomorrow’s Ruling Party – and vice versa. So, best to milk the system together and continuously. In fact, which party is in Opposition is itself in doubt as former competitors at the time of elections can combine forces for power after the election. Confusion for the voters who also don’t care as long as some goodies and freebies are thrown their way. This is the way it has been and this is how it will be.
At the centre of all this is the political party system and the politicians who control these parties. Thanks to the Indian Constitution which mandates deep government intervention in the economy, their power and ability to extract wealth has risen enormously – not very different from how the British Viceroys and their associates did it when they ruled over India. Everyone else gets the crumbs that the party leaders decide. Nominations for elections are handed out not based on competence and citizen choice but on caste calculus and connections. Discrimination based on religion and every other attribute possible is the norm. Speeches name and shame the opponent – no holds barred. The bigger the slander, the greater is the glory amongst one’s core base. Social media armies, the equivalent of Hitler’s SA (brownshirts), defame at will.
Once in power, hitherto independent institutions have to be tamed and subverted. Power has to be exercised for fear or favour. Money, media and muscle are combined together into a toxic cocktail to divide-and-rule in the exercise of absolute power that would make the British envious.
None of this is of course new. This has been happening in almost every nation since there have been politicians. We are shocked and surprised only because we do not read history or understand human behaviour, and therefore have a romantic view of politicians. Only in the rarest of cases when a country gets its rules right or a noble leader emerges does the grip of corruption, poverty and despair get broken and the nation rises.
For the average person, there is little or no time to think about all this as one goes through the daily motions of life. For the few intellectuals who can pontificate on social media or through op-ed columns, their followers do the customary ‘like’ and move on to others in the echo chamber. The masses are unmoved. Even being forced to walk hundreds of kilometres in the aftermath of lockdowns does not shake their belief in the rulers – because the alternatives are worse and so it simply doesn’t matter; life has been ‘nasty, short and brutish’ anyways.
So, is there any hope for a new dawn? For most of us, the answer would be either a don’t care or a No; what was will continue to be.
I don’t want to yet give up. As an entrepreneur, I constantly think of new ideas with a vivid imagination that constructs new futures. This is what I will do in this series – lay out a vision and roadmap to rid India’s democracy of political parties and their leaders, create a new government of Independents who can in a single-term free Indians who don’t even know they are serfs, and dismantle the anti-prosperity mission so future generations can experience wealth levels that people in developed countries like the US and Singapore have seen. A few of us can indeed change our nation and the world.
United, We Can
We can of course blame the politicians for our current state of affairs, but few of us do. For most of us, politicians are the do-gooders. They give us the freebies – never mind that they extract many times more from us to dole out those goodies. We turn to them when we have a problem – which is exactly what they want; a favour given now is a rent to be extracted over and over again. We cannot easily measure their performance and hold them accountable; instead we are swayed by words they say days before we vote. Elections are about deciding between the lesser of the evils. Our limited attention span for anything political is less than that of goldfish, which of course they know so well.
Just around the time when the US got its Constitution, Indians became colonised – first by the whites and then by their very own. The British were allowed to rule over us for 150 years; after that under the mirage of Independence, we have let India’s politicians continue that legacy for the past 75 years. A rule that exploits and extracts, a rule by kakistocrats. But we don’t care. The bar of the acceptable behaviour of politicians keeps lowering and our tolerance of that keeps getting raised to the extent that we simply tune off and focus on the next video on our app. And then as dutiful citizens delighted with being able to exercise our democratic right, we go out and vote them (or their variants) back into power every few years.
There is no point blaming a single political party or politician. Each one of them in the course of their tenure in power has shifted the Overton Window of what is now seen as acceptable. The definition of tyranny is revised and redefined by every action of the powerful; it is the voluntary servitude of we the people which lets it happen. But what can we do? Individuals, busy with our daily lives, in a constant battle of survival, in perpetual crisis mode, singletons in an ocean of humanity. We were as helpless when the British took over; 100,000 of them commanded 300 million Indians into submission. We are as helpless now when an even smaller number commands 1300 million Indians into obedience. We just feel free now because we have our own flag, and the skin colour of the rulers and their accent matches our own.
We are our biggest problem – and also the best solution. The greatest and most powerful force in modern times is not that of a politician in power, but P2P – peer-to-peer. Each of us is connected to hundreds of others. Technology has linked us into a network where words and videos can spread at the speed of light. We don’t need a director or designer; each of us can become a decision-maker and emergence can do the rest. But we don’t know the superpower that we have – individually and as a collective. Unlike Superman’s ‘S’, it is not immediately apparent. But if someone or something can harness this, the change that is seemingly impossible today can become inevitable tomorrow.
We. United. Our support, made visible by technology. Spread P2P via our smartphone. Identity hidden because no one else needs to know. Finally, the vote, in secret. Put it all together and we can rid India of the biggest cancer that has destroyed our past, is eating away our present, and limiting our children’s future – the politicians and their parties. It took 5 years to go from ‘Quit India’ to ‘Independent India’. It can take even less to go from ‘They, the Powerful’ to ‘We, the Free and Rich.’ This is the revolution India needs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.