In Praise of Missing in Action, by Pranay Kotasthane and Raghu S. Jaitley

Some books are entertaining, and some books are erudite. Rarely do we get to read a book that is both.

Why do I write this blog? There are many reasons, but one of the most important one is that this is my attempt at making learning fun for everybody. And the most important factor behind me liking this book is just this – they make learning about public policy fun.

The subtitle of the book is “Why You Should Care About Public Policy”, but something that us academicians often forget is that supply does not, in the case of learning, create its own demand. You can write the most impressive (not to mention comprehensive) tome on public policy, but that’s no guarantee that people will read it. But with this book, the two authors have pulled off an amazing feat: not only will you most likely finish this book if you pick it up, but you will learn a lot from it. And more, you will be entertained for having done so.

Pranay and Raghu’s book is a delightful romp, but not through the subject of public policy, and the distinction matters. It is, instead, a romp through different aspects of life, to which the tools of public policy are applied. My biggest complaint with textbooks is that they teach you the subject, and include “boxes” in which you are allowed to think of the world outside the textbook. This book belongs to that all too rare (and therefore even more delightful) category of books that does the opposite. You are asked to only think of the world, and they attempt to make the world a more understandable place by supplying ways of thinking about it.

In order to do this, they divide the world into three different aspects: the state, the market and society. Or, to use their terminlogy: sarkaar, bazaar and samaaj. Think of the individual, and the individual’s life, as being impacted by her interactions with these three ‘pillars’ of society. How do these pillars impact her? How do these pillars interact with each other? What happens when the interactions between the individual and these pillars do not go along expected or ‘ideal’ lines? What are the potential remedies for these problems, and what are the costs of implementing these solutions? That is the focus of this book, and the answer to the subtitle of the book is, well, the book itself.

These three aspects – the state, the market and society – make up the three sections of this book. Each section is divided into bite-sized chapters, each dealing with a separate, specific issue. Three things bring each of these chapters to chirpy life – the breezy tone that they adopt, their obvious mastery over the concepts that they are explaining, and their obvious love of Bollywood. One chapter may be titled on the basis of a famous line from a Bollywood movie (Aap party hai ya broker, for example), while another may explain how to think about atmanirbharta by talking about Manoj Kumar and his movies.

But my favorite usage of this lovely party trick is when you encounter a line like this one: “The foundational premise of modern India is that the state is ontologically prior to society.” This is just the kind of line that is likely to make your eyes glaze over, no? Those of us who have struggled with weighty tomes on dreary afternoons in musty college libraries have learnt to resign ourselves to hours of tedium while tackling with what follows prose such as this. But this is what I meant when I wrote that first sentence of this post – they choose to explain what this sentence really means by asking you to think about Shakti, a movie starring Dlip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan.

Even better, they first speak about Shakti, and then foist that sentence upon you. A little bit like putting healthy veggies in a chicken pizza one might make for the young ‘un at home, if you see what I mean.

The authors mention in the book that it isn’t ‘an economic reasoning textbook’, but I’d beg to disagree. It absolutely is an economic reasoning textbook, and of the very best kind. It tells you how to get the most out of life, and better, tells you how and why one is unlikely to succeed in getting the most out of life if one gets basic tenets of public policy wrong.

Think of this book as the public policy companion to a book like The Economic Naturalist, by Robert Frank. Look at the world, and ask how the world becomes a more understandable place for having learnt public policy.

As an economist, I particularly enjoyed the sections on sarkaar and samaaj. Not, I hasten to add, because the section on the bazaar is in any way inferior, of course. It is simply because I am somewhat more familiar with the material in that section. But that’s all the more reason to buy the book, especially as a student of economics – becaue this book makes you more familiar with how the state and society also influence economic outcomes. Within the economic sections, the sandalwood story and the airline pricing story are my personal favorites. But practically every chapter brings along a delightful little nugget of information that is surprising, or a delicious twist of phrase that will likely make you chuckle, or sly titles to some of the chapters that will elicit both raised eyebrows and raised tempers.

The one complaint I have with the book is that I find myself wishing for an index and a bibliography at the end of the book, both of which are missing. It is understandable, for more than one reason, but as a fundamentally lazy person who also hopes to use this book as a teaching aid, both of these things would have gone a very long way. An online resource, perhaps, if one is permitted to be a little greedy?

But that minor quibble apart, there is nothing that prevents me from heartily recommending this book to you. Younger people might miss some of the references (“Vinod Kambli? Who he?” I can hear ’em go already), and they may also not have seen more than half the movies that have been referenced in the book – but that actually brings me to my final point.

A great way to read this book together would be to start a film club, and watch the movie in question in each chapter, before reading that chapter. Before the next movie screening, have a discussion about both the movie and the chapter, and all of the many “that reminds me” that might emerge from said discussions. Rinse and repeat for twenty-eight glorious chapters, give or take. I hope students in colleges and universities take up this suggestion, and spend some time in learning about movies, life in India, the role of the state, the market and society in the our own day-to-day lives, and a whole host of books, reports and papers as well. A positive externality that will result as a consequence of this will be the fact that you will have acquired a degree of expertise in public policy.

But as the authors themselves (and that wise old sage Crime Master Gogo) tell you, aa hi gaye ho, to kuchh lekar jao.

In all seriousness though, please do make sure that you read this book, if you are in any way interested in India. Recommended wholeheartedly.