Sanjeev Sabhlok's blog

Thoughts on economics and liberty

Democratic distress in Australia and India

Just a few days ago I was boasting to someone I know in Australia about how much Australia had to learn from India on the conduct of elections. Australia's electoral machinery is incompetent seemingly beyond compare! They are STILL struggling to declare results in its TINY parliamentary constituencies. Elections were held on 21 August Saturday. It is Thursday evening 26 August. Six full days gone and no results yet!  And I couldn't help laughing when the Australian Electoral  Commission confused everyone in Australia about the meaning of "seats won" (here). 

In this mess, I was proud of the fact that India has some of the most effective and efficient voting systems in the world, proud to have been part of these systems from January 1983 to 2000 – during which period I held roles as diverse as Presiding Officer, Assistant Returning Officer, Returning Officer, Additional Chief Electoral Officer, State Observer, and Central Observer. I was also involved in the testing of the first few Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in India in 1991. I held some doubts about their reliability but I believe that most issues I had raised (and others had raised) were later resolved. The mass use of EVMs was not undertaken till after 2000, though. 

How easy is it to tamper with India's EVMs?

But now comes bad news that has seriously punctured my pride in India's fabled election capabilities. It appears that India's EVMs may not only NOT be a suitable role model for the world, but these gadgets might actually endanger India's democracy – unless they are immediately, and possibly radically, improved.

[Addendum!!: Sorry, looks like I took Sandeep's well written article (below) at face value. The machines are most likely fine. See Supratim's detailed comment below. Key elements:

  • These machines have hard-coded chips and need machine language for programming, each being individually coded.
  • These machines are not connected to the internet at any point in time – so you need physical access to hack them

In brief, I thank Supratim Basu, a senior FTI member, for reminding me not to rush to conclusions. In the same vein, there are serious issues with way the ECI has handled this matter. It should issue a public challenge (and reward to ANYONE in the world to prove that the machine can be tampered, GIVEN the strict processes that accompany its use.) See the first two comments on this post (by Supratim and me) before rushing to conclusion about Sandeep's article that you'll shortly read, below.

I apologise for the flurry I might have caused and accidentally giving air to potential innuendo re: the machines. However, I do think that repeated exposure and verification of the truth is vital. So let the ECI set up a process to ensure that such questions do not arise in the minds of Indians in the future. The credibility of EVMs is absolutely crucial to the integrity of India's democracy. Once that is done I can continue being proud of India's election machinery.]


Thanks to Shantanu Bhagwat (a senior FTI member) for pointing me to a number of relevant facts which I should list first, for your information:

1. Shantanu's note on Facebook.

2. His two articles: On EVMs and some unanswered questions |  EVMs and some unanswered questions – Part II

3. These slides.

4. And finally this article, Democracy imperilled by Sandeep B in The Pioneer, 26 August 2010. I've copied it entirely below for your convenience. Read this article, and be VERY, VERY concerned. Also read it on Sandeep's blog. (Sandeep, if you chance by this blog, I trust I have your permission to post your very important article here. – I'll also write to Sandeep separately on this and see if he objects to this being posted in full). 

Democracy Imperilled – by Sandeep B.

The arrest of Hari Prasad, a technologist whose research helped prove beyond doubt that Indian EVMs are vulnerable to fraud, sends out a dangerous signal: That anybody who challenges the Central Election Commission runs the danger of persecution and prosecution in our democracy 

Voting and freedom in a democracy are inseparable. Voting stands right at the top as one of the important ways people exercise their freedom to choose who they want to entrust with running their lives. Voting is what gives a Government the authority to govern and this authority must ideally be based on virtuous principles. Those who vote perform their duty in the fullest sense when they thoroughly understand exactly what the person they’re voting for truly represents. While this is not true of an average voter anywhere in the world today, there are thousands of such well-aware voters.

Which is why the election process is sacrosanct in strong democracies. Which is also why the Election Commission of India is a quasi-judicial constitutional body with sweeping powers that are binding even on the President. Which is also why it is insulated from the executive. But in practice, it has been infected with the same decay of political meddling that plagues most institutions in this country. 

A recent instance of this malaise is the arrest of Mr Hari Prasad, technical coordinator and a key resource person of an independent citizens’ forum, VeTA. The organisation describes its purpose as “promoting Verifiability, Transparency and Accountability in Indian elections”.

Mr Prasad is a technologist with expertise in electronic voting machines, now the de facto method of voting in Indian elections. He collaborated with a team headed by Mr Alex Halderman, a Computer Science professor at Michigan University and Mr Rop Gonggrijp, a security researcher from the Netherlands, on a project that involved detailed technical analysis of Indian EVMs. Their studies yielded conclusive, scientific proof that EVMs could easily be tampered with. They conducted several demonstrations across major Indian cities showing how EVMs could be rigged.

On August 17, 2009, the EC invited them for a similar demonstration and laid illogical conditions under which the demonstration was to be done. What followed is detailed in the lucid Democracy at Risk (GVL Narasimha Rao, VeTa), also available as a downloadable book in pdf format ( 

Mr Halderman captures the sequence of events that followed after February 2010 “when an anonymous source approached Hari and offered a (EVM) machine for him to study. This source requested anonymity and we have honoured this request. We have every reason to believe that the source had lawful access to the machine and made it available for scientific study as a matter of conscience, out of concern over potential security problems.” The team used this EVM to demonstrate on a TV channel how it could easily be tampered with. In the first week of August, the police visited Mr Prasad and recorded a statement about this EVM he had used. 

And then, suddenly on August 21, he was arrested on a bizarre charge — that of stealing an EVM from Maharashtra. In his text message, Mr Prasad says, “I am not worried or scared at all by these tricks from the EC. I came to know that because of tremendous pressure, police had no other option than to arrest me. Our new CEC is positive in resolving EVM vulnerabilities but it seems even he came under pressure to change his stance from what he promised us on August 10.” 

The episode clearly reeks of intimidation by the EC or whoever directed the arrest. As Mr Rao’s book shows, the EC has been obstinate in its stand that EVMs are “foolproof”, “perfect” and “tamper-free” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary across the world. Mr Halderman, Mr Prasad, et al have shown that by embedding a Bluetooth (wireless technology) device, it’s possible to manipulate the EVM using remote devices like a mobile phone.

The book painstakingly explains this and other methods of manipulation. Ideally, India should’ve followed suit — or ordered deeper inquiry — when the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Ireland banned EVMs because they were “easy to falsify,” risked eavesdropping” and “lacked transparency”. What’s worse is that Indian EVMs leave no trail — there is no mechanism to track suspected election fraud. 

The EC’s obstinacy thus defies reason. On one hand, the EC insists that EVMs are impregnable. So there should really be no reason to not let the researchers examine the machine. What or who is it scared of? Indeed, if it were transparent, it should’ve actually facilitated Mr Prasad and team to expose any vulnerability in the EVMs. That would’ve restored our faith in the health of our democratic institutions. Instead, Mr PV Indiresan issued an outlandish analogy equating a call for a scientific inquiry into EVMs with testing the chastity of Sita. This only helps deepen suspicions about foul play in the issue.

[DIGRESSION by Sanjeev: Btw, on 4 February 2008, Indiresan wrote to me "I will try [to review the book]" and gave his address for being sent the book, Breaking Free of Nehru. The publisher Anthem Press sent it to him by courier. He not only did not bother to review it, he did not respond to numerous subsequent email reminders. See thisWhat credibility does such a man have? Not with me, anyway. Small things like this show the true character of a man. Was he scared of publicly discussing my extremely adverse comments on Nehru's socialism? I trust he will one day tell me why he promised to so something but then backed out. And he didn't return the book either. 

Second, NO SCIENTIST WORTH HIS SALT WILL EVER MAKE THE STATEMENT THAT INDIRESAN HAS MADE. A scientist is sworn to the truth, and to experiment. Why should he bring religious symbolism into a factual matter?

The UPA reached a new low in 2009 when it bulldozed the appointment of Mr Navin Chawla as Chief Election Commissioner who the Shah Commission report “declared as unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others.” And now the arrest of Mr Prasad has again sent an ugly signal. Is it safe to conclude that ordinary citizens will be persecuted for seeking the truth? Ironically, on August 9, the Cabinet passed the Whistleblower Bill, but who should people turn to when the state’s institutions themselves begin to look like agents of intimidation? The current CEC, Mr SY Quraishi, must come clean immediately on this shameful affair. The country has a right to know whether the EC is a body of the Constitution or just an arm of a political party. 

Tampering of EVMs is a serious issue with potential to shatter the foundations of democracy. The logical end of this will mean that only one party gets to wield power forever. If the voting process is subverted, it won’t be long before national interest will be equated with a particular political party’s interest — it harks back to a black era when “India was Indira”. 

Mr Prasad’s arrest also shows how many of our fundamental freedoms are slowly being taken away without our knowledge. Equally, it’s ironical that the state is virtually powerless against a dangerous man like Abdul Nasser Madani but swoops down on an individual who asked uncomfortable questions concerning national interest. 

However, it’s heartening to see the groundswell of support that has emerged across the country for Mr Prasad. Petitions, Internet groups, blogs and articles have strongly condemned the strong-arm tactics of the EC. VeTA has also indicated approaching the Supreme Court for a “renewed legal battle”. This news has already attracted international attention with people comparing this with the Florida EVM fiasco. It’s a huge blot on India’s image in the world, which regards our elections as reasonably “fair and free”. The EC needs to urgently show complete transparency with regard to this episode — admitting that the EVMs are flawed is not a personal insult to the EC. 

This issue is in many ways a good test of the saying about eternal vigilance and is an opportunity to prove Ambrose Pierce wrong when he said that voting is “the instrument and symbol of a free man’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.” 


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Gandhi, a liberal during illiberal times

Here are some thoughts on Gandhi and his inclination towards liberalism – despite Nehru's persistent insistence that India must have socialism. This blog post is a direct cut and paste from BFN. This post does not evaluate his enormous contributions to India and the world which I talk about at length in DOF in a number of places.

       Gandhi’s philosophy was the most compatible with the ideas of freedom among Indian thinkers of his period. He placed great importance on individual freedom and independent action. In his mind, the individual remained the maker of his own destiny, with the state having only a very limited role in an individual’s affairs. His views were based on a combination of his interpretation of Hindu ideas mixed largely with the ideas of the liberal American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–62). Thoreau had said, ‘That government is best which governs least’. Gandhi repeated that like a mantra on many occasions. In fact, Gandhi merged the concepts of accountability from classical liberalism with those of the karma theory of Hinduism. His can be said to have been an eclectic synthesis of Hinduism and liberalism. Despite its indifferent contribution to liberty in the past, once an effort is made, it appears that just as Christianity can get along with liberalism, Hinduism can also get along with liberalism quite well, arguably even more so. I have little doubt that Islam can also be interpreted likewise given a broader understanding of its message. Turkey shows us that it is possible to do so. 

      Gandhi opposed the collectivist and centralized approaches of communism not on intellectual grounds but because of his ‘intuitive’ grasp over the concepts of accountability and justice. Quotations from Gandhi in the table below tell us about his liberal credentials. The page numbers at the end of these quotations are from Fisher.[i] My comments on Gandhi’s views are in the second column.

[i] Fisher, Louis, op. cit.

Government that is ideal governs the least. It is no self-government that leaves nothing for the people to do’ (p.196).

The government has a minimal role in a free society – a key message of classical liberalism.

‘I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear because, although while apparently doing good by minimising exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the root of all progress’ (p.304).

Here Gandhi is reiterating the most fundamental principles of a free society. The individual is the hub of the society; the individual must be allowed to develop self-knowledge, self-respect and become responsible and accountable.

 ‘Submission […] to a state wholly or largely unjust is an immoral barter for liberty […] Civil resistance is a most powerful expression of a soul’s anguish and an eloquent protest against the continuance of an evil state’ (p.165).

Liberalism resists tyranny, and nothing is generally more tyrannical than a state that barters liberty for immorality, as socialist governments have, in India. Gandhi’s chosen method of protest was supremely ethical and persuasive. There was no secrecy involved, no deception. Attacking people, as terrorists do, never changes the beliefs that people hold.

‘[The] means to me are just as important as the goal, and in a sense more important in that we have some control over them, whereas we have none over the goal if we lose control over the means’ (p.305).

Liberalism focuses almost entirely on the process, or the means. The ends are seen as a natural consequence of the means. There is no coercion, only persuasion.

‘I hope to demonstrate that real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority’ (p.202).

Liberalism requires the active participation of each citizen in the regulation and control of their government. In a free society the best of its citizens come forward as representatives. There is no better way to prevent the abuse of authority than for freedom loving people to form the government.

     Let me add that Gandhi was not a ‘full-fledged’ liberal given his lack of intellectual rigour about why he advocated what he did. He had strong liberal inclinations and intuition but no vision for human freedom as a whole (at least not one in which the proper mechanisms of freedom were fully defined). He was clearly not a Hayek and did not even understand the great moral character of capitalism. This is evident from his theory of trusteeship through which he sought (in his mind) a ‘compromise’ between freedom and economic equality. Gandhi did not grasp that these objectives are mutually contradictory. And so he needlessly hit out against capitalism. He wrote, ‘I desire to end capitalism, almost, if not quite, as much as the most advanced Socialist or even Communist. But our methods differ, our languages differ’,[i] his difference being that he did not like using coercion. He also diluted his concept of equality somewhat by saying, ‘Economic equality of my conception does not mean that everyone would literally have the same amount. It simply means that everybody should have enough for his or her needs’.[ii] He then proposed a via-media of sorts – the theory of trusteeship, whereby the rich (‘capitalists’) would use their ‘wealth […] for the welfare of the community’.[iii]

   Unfortunately, this view seriously misrepresents the foundations of liberty and capitalism. For Gandhi to even imply tangentially that capitalists were not using their wealth for the welfare of the community was wrong. Businesses contribute to the welfare of society in many ways:
  • First, they do so through the services they provide. By applying their mental energy to combine natural and human resources with capital, they generate products and services that would not have existed without their efforts. These products and services increase our knowledge and improve our health and longevity. That is their most important contribution.
  • Second, businesses generate employment for thousands, if not millions, of families, taking each such person employed out of the quagmire poverty. This is their second most important contribution.
In this manner, those who achieve wealth through their own initiative have already contributed so disproportionately in comparison to ordinary people that we should be ashamed of asking them to further look after the ‘welfare’ of society. Are we beggars that we can’t stand on our own feet? In the second chapter I will show how a free society readily delivers on things like the removal of poverty without requiring charity from anyone. Anyway, whether or not trusteeship was a good concept, it did not go anywhere. Nehru ignored it and no one else cared to pick it up. 
Also, Gandhi was not a ‘systems’ thinker and was unable to elaborate the design of institutions by which governments of free India would be held accountable. It is not enough to say that a ‘government is best which governs the least’. It is important to specify how this will happen. This inability to think at the systems level, i.e. by building from the level of individual incentives right up to the social level, is perhaps a cultural trait of most Indians. We prefer to tinker with things at the margin or to appeal to the good intentions of people, rather than think about systemic incentives which will give us the results we want. On the other hand, the West has been very competent in this area. And so, given Gandhi’s rather limited understanding of systemic processes, we still need to look to the advances of Western economic theory such as the theory of public choice for a more complete picture of governance.

[i] From the Harijan, 3 June 1939, p.145 (or Harijan, 4 May 1947, p.134).
See [].

[ii] Harijan, 31 March 1946, cited in Swarup, Devendra, ed, Deendayal Upadhyaya’s Integral Humanism, Deendayal Research Institute, New Dehi, 1992, p.126.

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Unlocking massive wealth: from our universities

The Time Has Come, The Time Is Now. Too long has the higher education sector remained bound and gagged by governments everywhere. 

The idea that higher education is different from other services (like telecom, air travel, or retail) is false. Its product is discrete and can be readily valued in the marketplace. There is therefore no reason to shelter it from the market. If anything, this sector is affected by intense government failure. True, a few areas like philosophy or ancient languages might make a case for taxpayer support but these are an exception and should be dealt with separately; in the main, universities provide a valuable service that can be readily valued by the market. 

There is also no logical reason why universities should be confined by governments to a single geographical location, particularly in this age of satellites and fibre optics. They supply a service, and like any other service-provider, they should be let loose and allowed to compete. Let the demand from students determine where they establish branches, not faceless bureaucrats in education departments. There is no reason why a university like Harvard can't replicate its quality (particularly with innovative use of IT) all over the world. And so parents would prefer to send their children to a Harvard branch in Goalpara or Barpeta, not to some incompetent government university established by the Assam Government. 

Obviously, all restraints on universities would have to be eliminated. Universities would then be regulated like other business, under Company Law – only to prevent fraud. They would be allowed to register themselves as corporations and compete freely in the global market for higher education. Wages would be freely determined, and fees as well. (How poor students should be funded has already been dealt with in BFN, and here.)

Enormous value unlocked by liberalising higher education

Governments that liberalise their university sector will unlock unprecedented wealth for the world and for themselves, by creating  world's first Multi-National Universities (MNUs), the stocks of which would be traded in the stock market. 

The best universities in the world, like Harvard, could easily find themselves valued at $100 billion or more by the market, and outcompete incompetent universities both on quality and quantity. I suspect that American wealth will increase by at least $1 trillion if it fully privatises all its universities. India could increase its wealth dramatically, likewise.  I would expect India's IITs, for instance, to be worth in the billions of dollars and to quickly branch out all over the world, including into USA (provided the IITs are fully deregulated and allowed to compete globally).

Since the West is in a deeply confused state of mind (half-socialist), therefore its citizens are  leashed by their government and prevented from performing at their potential. Therefore the possibility that the USA will seriously compete in this space can be ruled out. So the question before us is: Will India finally become free, and take on this great opportunity to increase its wealth? 


(On a slightly separate topic, I'm thinking of re-starting work on establishing an International Indian Economists Association that I had conceptualised in 1998 – work that died out because I suffered severe RSI. If you are an Indian economist, please write to me. I think Indian economists could potentially launch out on their own as a major global economics university – this ideas is pretty far out today, but time will tell. If we can make India implement the best possible policies, we could generate huge returns for the world – and ourselves).


Some relevant articles: 

Putting a case for fee deregulation by Andrew Norton.

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Look after yourself FIRST

The most basic distinction between liberalism and collectivist views is this: that these tribal or collectivist views ask people to look after others first, and then after yourself. Apparently you should take care of your nation first, or society, or the world, or the environment. But the order needs to be this: YOURSELF FIRST, then family, then society and environment, then nation, and finally, the world.

I've explained this at length in BFN and DOF. Such collectivist views have destroyed India and won't go away as long as politicians who benefit from such views exist.

Here are extracts from two comments on this blog received today, and my response to them.


Re: We all need to think of country first our “Bharat Mata” ..our egos , our self respect are secondary ..

My response

On egos, I agree, but I assert one basic principle: our self-respect MUST be above the nation. The nation is created FOR US, not we for the nation.

I trust Baba Ramdev’s “Swabhiman” doesn’t mean slavery for the nation, but self-respect for each of us. 


Re: “Unlike you, Swami Ramdev considers HIS NATION has his FIRST priority.”

My response

I don’t think you anyone does their nation a favour by giving it first priority. It must always be: yourself, your family, then your nation, and finally the world.

The mystery of enlightened self-interest is at the heart of the modern society. Let me quote quickly from DOF (draft):

“At each instant, the karma yogi considers options for action for their long term consequences. Freedom of thought leads like an arrow towards moral action. The free man acts with deliberation, aware of the potential consequences of his actions, always committed to being held to account. In advancing his self-interests though responsible action, he contributes to the welfare of mankind and of all life on earth. Note that this self-interest is broad, not narrow. It is competitive self-interest, at times, but is never unethical and does not harm others nor decimate them. It creates, preserves and fosters.”

As they say in an aeroplane: put your oxygen mask FIRST before worrying about others. If someone is so ill-educated that he/she can’t get a job anywhere or contribute to society, then HOW can that person take care of others? 

When I fall seriously sick I don’t want to be taken care of by Baba Ramdev but by an experienced and qualified doctor. So also I want the best policy experts to govern India, not illiterates or semi-illiterates who, by mere virtue of chanting the greatness of India, seem to get voted to power! 


I can't do my best for India by becoming poor but by becoming rich (ethically, of course). I can't be a hypocrite like others and fool you by asking you to take care of your country first. I know that will make me more popular, but I speak what I know is good for India. I will never distort the truth for the sake of political power. You want to worship the nation, please do so.  As for me, the nation is a creature of our convenience, our creation. It must serve our needs, else it has no intrinsic value. I would much rather make India rich than further advance India's many delusions.

In addition, I ask everyone to be a citizen, and contribute as an EQUAL with others. If others aren’t bothered (as is the case in India), then leave. 


A question I asked Vijay and Harsh (later!)

Do you know what it would mean to treat the nation first? You would have to give your earnings AWAY to everyone else, and only after FEEDING everyone else you could then feed yourself. That would effectively mean you starve, since you could never finish feeding others (1 billion people!) with your earnings.

Second, if you care for the nation first, then you'd not be earning anything, anyway, since everything you do would belong to others. Therefore you would be giving away your labour and expertise to others for free. In both cases you would starve.

This, by the way, is precisely what socialism requires. Hence all socialist nations starve. Your ideology is socialist. It will fail to benefit either you or India. I do not preach such bad ideologies whereby Indians must starve. I preach the TRUTH. I preach competition. I preach success. I preach greatness!! 

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