This is the 19th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
A friend of mine was very impressed by the interview Narendra Modi granted last week to Akshay Kumar. ‘Such a charming man, such great work ethic,’ he gushed. ‘He is the kind of uncle I would want my kids to have.’ And then, in the same breath, he asked, ‘How can such a good man be such a bad prime minister?”
I don’t want to be uncharitable and suggest that Modi’s image is entirely manufactured, so let’s take the interview at face value. Let’s also grant Modi his claims about the purity of his neeyat (intentions), and reframe the question this way: when it comes to public policy, why do good intentions often lead to bad outcomes? To attempt an answer, I’ll refer to a story a friend of mine, who knows Modi well, once told me about him.
Modi was chilling with his friends at home more than a decade ago, and told them an incident from his childhood. His mother was ill once, and the young Narendra was tending to her. The heat was enervating, so the boy went to the switchboard to switch on the fan. But there was no electricity. My friend said that as he told this story, Modi’s eyes filled with tears. Even after all these years, he was moved by the memory.
My friend used this story to make the point that Modi’s vision of the world is experiential. If he experiences something, he understands it. When he became chief minister of Gujarat, he made it his stated mission to get reliable electricity to every part of Gujarat. No doubt this was shaped by the time he flicked a switch as a young boy and the fan did not budge. Similarly, he has given importance to things like roads and cleanliness, since he would have experienced the impact of those as a young man.
My term for him, inspired by Rajat Kapoor’s 2014 film, is ‘the ankhon dekhi prime minister’. At one level, this is a good thing. He sees a problem and works for the rest of his life to solve it. But what of things he cannot experience?
The economy is a complex beast, as is society itself, and beyond a certain level, you need to grasp abstract concepts to understand how the world works. You cannot experience them. For example, spontaneous order, or the idea that society and markets, like language, cannot be centrally directed or planned. Or the positive-sum nature of things, which is the engine of our prosperity: the idea that every transaction is a win-win game, and that for one person to win, another does not have to lose. Or, indeed, respect for individual rights and free speech.
One understands abstract concepts by reading about them, understanding them, applying them to the real world. Modi is not known to be a reader, and this is not his fault. Given his background, it is a near-miracle that he has made it this far. He wasn’t born into a home with a reading culture, and did not have either the resources or the time when he was young to devote to reading. The only way he could learn about the world, thus, was by experiencing it.
There are two lessons here, one for Modi himself and others in his position, and another for everyone.
The lesson in this for Modi is a lesson for anyone who rises to such an important position, even if he is the smartest person in the world. That lesson is to have humility about the bounds of your knowledge, and to surround yourself with experts who can advise you well. Be driven by values and not confidence in your own knowledge. Gather intellectual giants around you, and stand on their shoulders.
Modi did not do this in the case of demonetisation, which he carried out against the advice of every expert he consulted. We all know the damage it caused to the economy.
The other learning from this is for all of us. How do we make sense of the world? By connecting dots. An ankhon-dekhi approach will get us very few dots, and our view of the world will be blurred and incomplete. The best way to gather more dots is reading. The more we read, the better we understand the world, and the better the decisions we take. When we can experience a thousand lives through books, why restrict ourselves to one?
A good man with noble intentions can make bad decisions with horrible consequences. The only way to hedge against this is by staying humble and reading more. So when you finish reading this piece, think of an unread book that you’d like to read today – and read it!