Herding the Electorate
Herding the Electorate Fri, 10 Aug 2018

Herding the Electorate

The Blackfoot people of North America have a word called “pishkun”. Otherwise known as the “Buffalo jump”, the word refers to an ancient hunting technique that involved tricking a large herd of bison into running over a cliff. It must have been a sight to behold, seeing hundreds of those hugely muscled, majestic beasts hurtling enmass to their doom. There is no real equivalent of “Pishkun” that exists in the English language but I find the loose translation of “deep blood kettle” to be apt enough.

Such is the danger of herd mentality. But what makes the idea of pishkun seem even more incongruous is how easily it could have failed. All it would have taken is for one lone member of the herd to run in a different direction. That is it. It is a lesson worth bearing in mind in a world where diversity and independent thought are increasingly being seen as “problems”. As India and indeed, the world moves increasingly towards the political right, there seems to be an atmosphere of exclusion and anger that come with it. Whether real or imagined, there is no denying that it provides succor to authoritarians everywhere. That alone should prove as sufficient grounds for suspicion and indeed, caution. When political parties insist on treating the electorate as a herd, the danger becomes very real.

There is in fact, strength in diversity. Despite what the BJP would like one to believe, the problem with India is not that there are too many voices, or too much appeasement of minorities (historical missteps notwithstanding) but rather the conditions are unfavorable for such strength to manifest. Their vision for India may seem to look attractive, even to those who might not be entirely comfortable with their by now obvious support of militant Hindu organizations. This only highlights the misunderstanding or ignorance of the concept. “Sure they have some silly ideas, but identifying as Indians before anything does make sense. Just look at how reservation and endless bickering has ruined things. This way we at least get things done.”

Set aside the idea that this “getting things done” argument is eerily akin to “at least the trains run on time” statement that Mussolini’s supporters made during Europe’s darkest era, the fact remains that this line of thinking is both factually wrong and from a democratic standpoint, self defeatist. For starters, the “trains on time” idea was a lie. Just like most of the current governments claims about its supposed progress are lies. Modi claims his exemplary leadership has created 2 crore jobs a year while the reality is that unemployment if anything, went up from 3.39% in July 2017 to 6.23% in March 2018. Far from being the “savior” of the economy, key indicators such as fuel prices, indirect taxes, inflation etc are at record highs not to say anything about the phenomenal failure that was demonitization. His much vaunted “strong” stance on Kashmir has set the state aflame, effectively setting back the peace process back decades. Much like Mussolinis’ achievements, most of the BJP’s lofty claims crumble under any close scrutiny. This is no accident.

This illusion of efficiency was nothing more that a distraction from the greatest strength of a diverse community, something James Surowiecki describes as the “The Wisdom of Crowds” in his book by the same name.  Lets look at the some of the big social movements that have happened globally over the last century: The abolishment of slavery, the end of apartheid (actually, racial segregation as a whole), universal suffrage and more recently the acceptance of gay marriage. All of those societal changes began as small local movements. Each of those ideas went against what was considered “normal” or indeed “natural”. Unsurprisingly, the push back was enormous. In the case of apartheid for instance, many were convinced it would tear South Africa apart. But eventually the diversity of thought, coupled with an atmosphere that encouraged independent ideas and free speech (even if the government didn't), changed the world for the better. Even from a biological standpoint, this is how we have improved as a species. Evolution itself hinges on diversity.

Diversity is a good thing, it is a strength and not a weakness. Yes, it is messy in the short term. But long term this is a rising tide that raises us all. In other words, the bigger and more diverse the group, the wiser its decisions tend to be. That being said, diversity can backfire if the prerequisites are not met. It is here that we run into a serious problem. As mentioned before, for a crowd to be wise, it needs to be big enough and its members need to be capable of free and independent thought. With 1.3 billion souls and counting, India’s group size is not exactly lacking numbers. But big groups are assets ONLY if they are diverse. Without independent thinking or free speech, the group will regress to a herd. And as ancient hunters well understood, nothing kills collective intelligence like a herd. Yet, all it would take is one member running in a different direction.

The challenge of course is that like minded groups feel safe and provide much needed validation. There is a reason we tend to gravitate towards people who think and behave like “us”. Social media magnifies this instinct to absurdity. If one grows up in a world where Instagram tells them that their life and everything in it is a failure by virtue of being “average”, anyone saying “hey you are right about this though” makes one praise the heavens in gratitude. “Think climate change is a hoax? Hey, you are one of us!” “The world look flat to you? Wow! Me too!” “Convinced that you lost your job to illegal immigrants? Well join the club!#MAGA”

This is akin to dangling a juicy validation carrot in front of a spiritually starving man. Propagandists thought time have wielded this power. Whether it be Stalin’s NKVD, Bannon’s Breitbart or the BJP’s IT Cell, they all promote the right sort of “comforting” messages while the real bosses keep clamping down on free speech and independent thought. “It’s not you. It’s that group over there that's keeping us all behind”. Try to run in a different direction and you are “anti-national”. Voice concern for minorities and you are a “snowflake”. Point at the cliff and you are a member of the “Tukde tukde gang”. Not too hard to see where this is headed. The wise crowd dies and the stupid herd thrives in its stead. Welcome to your very own bubble. Facts not allowed. Please pay no attention to the looming cliff.

Over time this becomes powerful enough to distort reality itself. You know that 1 plus 1 is 2. But if, for some inexplicable reason, everyone around you tells you that 1 plus 1 is actually 5, you begin to doubt your own understanding. Even if you try to work it out and show people what the truth is, if all you get in response is laughter or derision, you will likely join the herd. Put another way: “Everyone says Muslims are traitors, I guess they must be.” “Thinking” is no longer a part of the equation anymore. As for independent thought, that is all but a crime at this point.

It is very telling that independent thinking or intellectualism is something the current government simply cannot allow. It has shown this time and again by openly attacking liberal voices, shutting down civil discourse and strong arming the press into submission. Their idea of “unity” lies in telling us exactly what to wear, how to behave, who to love, what to eat and above all what to THINK. Hindi will be the official language, Hindutva the only ideology worth adhering to, Hindus the “true” people and so on. Multiple points of view are not to be tolerated.

As for diversity, they show their true intentions in that department by their imposition of “hindu” standards throughout the land, all the while spitting in the face of everything the faith actually stands for. Their support of the RSS/Sangh is a matter of historical record. If that doesn't suffice, their attempts of embedding the upper ranks of the UPSC with sympathetic ideologues should be proof enough. As for the kind of acts they empower by tacit means, the sorry state of India’s current social landscape littered with the bodies of the lynched speaks volumes. Cows are safer on our roads than minorities are. Seems to me that to the BJP even citizens are but cattle. Beasts of patriotic burden destined to follow the herders over the cliff. Run away from the herd and you will be culled.

The BJP would have us believe that we are not all one. That some of us are “invaders” or “a problem”. We are only “Indian” if, when they tell us to jump, we respond with “How high?”. That might seem like a good idea to anyone that is comfortable thinking like a slave. I’d like to think that most of us realize that we kicked the British out for a reason. Freedom did not come cheap. Keeping it won't be either. Either we are all Indians or none of us are. Go back in time far enough and everyone becomes an “invader”. We are in this together because we choose to be. Everyone has a voice but once we decide where to go, we move as one. Not as a herd, but as a nation. The alternative would be a “deep blood kettle”.

We won't always agree. And that is a good thing.

Written by: Bharat Joshi