Many decades from now, my fondest memories of elections in my youth will be that of the indelible ink mark on the fingers of conscientious people littering my Facebook newsfeed. According to the Election Commission, the polling rate in the2014 elections is the greatest in the history of independent India. Before you sing loud hosannas to the voter who carries a part of the Indian society on his shoulders, remember: voters are like adolescent boys. It is dangerous to give them what they crave.
There is nothing more dangerous than asking an adolescent boy whether he loves his girlfriend. He might swear he will go to the ends of the world for his love, because deep down, he knows his plan will never get off the ground. The adolescent girl is far more reticent because she will ditch him and marry someone else when she grows up, which will be soon. The adolescent boy votes with his heart. For him, love is “near”, marriage is “far”. He is a visionary, but he is also a deluded hypocrite. But the adolescent girl votes with her feet because her vote is, after all, decisive. For her, love is “far”, marriage is “near”.
But then, it is impossible to give voters what they profess to like without aggressing against them, as it is impossible to give the teenage boy what he “craves” without aggressing against the girl. The aggression might as well be worth it if that is what they genuinely want. But, what if it is not? Of course, the difference is that unlike the teenage boys, the sanest among us learn to live with what the average voter chose when he was knocked out of his wits.
When I was in school, during the school elections, the candidates distributed notebook labels and similar “gifts” among younger children. When the catholic nuns found out, we were asked to fork over those goodies. But, they could have bought us only if we were up for sale. Democratic politics is not any different.
It is perhaps true that politicians can buy voters with a 10 Rupee or 100 Rupee coupons. But, no one compels voters to vote for the politicians who distribute cash and liquor. It is not hard for a man to accept liquor from the local politician and still have a healthy contempt toward him, and punish him. When I once tried to shirk during college elections, a candidate’s supporters chauffeured me to college. To punish these hooligans, I voted for his opponent. I did not tell anyone because I feared that they might retaliate. The point is that for the voter, political virtue is almost free. No one knows what he does inside the polling booth. But, even that he evades. He finds it hard to do the right thing even when it does not cost him a single paisa.
If the voters have such “soft hearts” and “soft heads”, virtue in democratic politics is forbiddingly expensive. Asking politicians to change is a lot like nagging a brick wall. Indian politicians—or politicians anywhere for that matter—are not known for their decency. It is worse than a waste of time to ask them to act against their own self interest.
Babies are deeply idealistic about love, because their prospects of mating are quite low on the probability scale. The voters who mock Manmohan Singh for being a wimp are in the position of the babies who hold others to such highly scrupulous standards in romantic love. Many Indians would want to replace him with a strong, decisive leader, but at best, this means that they are spoilt babies.
The average Indian feels no compulsion to yield to the whims of Sonia Gandhi because she does not order them around. He feels no compulsion to not hold strong opinions, because it is virtually free. Not bound by such constraints, he longs to be a Rajah who would smash everything that would stand in the way of creating paradise on earth. But, the truth is that he is not a Rajah and is not likely to be a Rajah anytime soon. He does not have self-knowledge.
But, it is hard for the Prime Minister to have such fantasies. It is hard for him to “man up”, because he derives his power from Sonia Gandhi, and not from public opinion. There are obstacles to overcome, and these obstacles are real. He has to overcome the inertia of his allies and masters. This is especially true, because Manmohan Singh is an economist, and probably has more sensible views. The more sensible your views are, the less you can afford to be a chutzpahnick.
“When a Nigerian gifts us his estate over email, we tell him: “Thanks, but no thanks!” We know that there are no such easy solutions to our personal woes. But, when an ex-army truck driver claims that he has found the solution to a nation’s woes, even otherwise sane men think that they have found their Messiah. It feels so good because in politics and religion, people refuse to use their mind.”
“Feel-good policies fail partly because people often forget that politicians, bureaucrats and activists are people too. And people are wolves. Our representatives are also driven by self interest and power lust—at least as much as a businessman is, at least as much as the man on the street is. It is not “common good” or some such noble virtue that motivates them. This is the central theme of Buchanan’s work, and that of public choice literature. Buchanan was a realist.”
“One interesting conclusion of public choice research is that people are willing to be roasted in hell if their betters are to join them. Even when facts lie flatly against them, people hold on to their delusions. But, this is fine. As it is evident by now, Buchanan was a realist. But, even he wanted to believe that at least to an extent, a science exists for providing psychologically satisfying explanations for what happens around us.”