This is the 25th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
We live in strange times. A few days ago, my friend and fellow libertarian, the writer Shikha Sood Dalmia, posted on Facebook: ‘Am I going mad or is the world? In America, I’m rooting for a Democrat and in India I’m defending a bloody communist!’
I was doing the same. In America, the bigoted, nativist, protectionist Donald Trump was dominating the Republican primaries, unleashing invective of the sort that usually only anonymous online trolls dare to express. In India, Narendra Modi’s government carried out a venal persecution of a few university students, based on doctored videos and a fake tweet. They arrested one of them for sedition, who was then beaten up by lawyers in the courthouse as the police looked on passively. My support, instinctively, went to the Democrats in the US; and to the beleaguered communist students in India.
What is going on here? How can a man like Trump be on the verge of leading the party of Abraham Lincoln? Why is Indian politics slipping back into crude tribalism just when India should finally be marching towards modernity? Could there be one answer to both these questions?
A few days ago, the American columnist Glenn Reynolds wrote a piece titled ‘A Trump wave is on the way.’ To explain the Trump phenomenon, Reynolds cited a book by sociologist Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.
Say you are at a dinner party at your boss’s place. The food is terrible: the dal makhni has no salt, the butter chicken has too much tomato puree. Your boss asks how you like the food. You murmur your appreciation, as you’ve seen others on the table do. You are hiding your actual preference in order to fit in or avoid social awkwardness. This is ‘preference falsification’. Everyone at the table may have hated the food—but everyone may think that everyone else loved it.
Preference falsification can have grave consequences. Kuran cites the Soviet Union as an example. The Soviets used the strong arm of the state to clamp down on free speech, which made it hard for people to express their preferences. Even if 99% of the people hated Communism and wanted the government to fall, it would not do so because of preference falsification: these people would not know that so many others thought just as they did. Until suddenly, one day, the public expression of that preference reached a critical mass, and a phenomenon that Kuran called a ‘preference cascade’ took place. From the outside, it might seem that a regime toppled suddenly, overnight, without warning—as we saw throughout the former Soviet Bloc. But while the preference cascade may have been sudden, the preferences themselves were not new.
Reynolds invokes Kuran in the American context, and speculates that Trump’s surge could be the result of a preference cascade. Maybe Trump is articulating views that other would never do themselves in public. (‘I hate foreigners.’ ‘Mexicans are rapists.’ ‘All Muslims should be deported.’ Whatever.) Once they see a prominent man like him say these things, and others rush out in support, they are emboldened to vote for him. Now that they know there are others like them, they join the Trump wave.
Now, shift your attention to India. My view of the last elections until recently was basically this: the BJP got its highest voteshare ever because not only did it mobilize its traditional base – the Hindutva voters – they also attracted other voters who were sick of the UPA’s corruption, who wanted economic reforms, and so on. And now that the BJP was bound to disappoint some of them, it would lose voteshare, compunded by the opposition consolidating against it (as in Bihar). So a desperate party would double down on Hindutva to mobilise its core Hindutva vote.
But what if this is all wrong?
What if the rise of Modi is a result of sudden preference cascades following decades of preference falsification. In Gujarat, for example, what if the majority Hindus bear an unspoken antipathy towards the minority community? They may not express it openly because it’s awkward to do so. Then the 2002 riots happen, and Muslims are ‘put in their place.’ Modi, then chief minister, never openly takes credit for it, but he doesn’t deny his culpability either, and you can read between the lines. Boom, Modi wins the next elections in a landslide—and every state election after that.
Similarly, what if many Indians silently share notions of cultural or religious superiority that are not polite or politically correct to express publicly? (I am attempting dispassionate political analysis here, and this is not meant to be judgmental.) The rise of Modi at a national level could have led to a preference cascade, and though these voters might have come up with many policy reasons for voting for him—‘He will make GST happen’ etc—those may have been rationalisations more than reasons. (Note: I am not implying that all BJP supporters are like this.)
But why now? What suddenly enabled this preference cascade? I have an answer : social media.
Social media exploded in India over the last six years, just as Modi’s national ascent began. Social media lets you express your preferences far more freely than in real life, because you’re either anonymous, or you’re at a physical remove from whoever you’re talking to. So more true preferences get expressed—and more and more people see more and more opinions validating their own preferences. Cascade!
If this is true, then in both America and India, beneath the veneer of sophisticated political discourse, there lies a primal core that cares about more basic things, like race and identity and so on. In fact, maybe the exact same impulse explains both Trump and Modi: the instinctive attraction for a strong leader who will lead our tribe well and shit on all others.
But these are just theories, and they could be wrong, or merely partly right. And there could be other silent preferences out there waiting for their cascade. What could those be? Who will make it happen?