Let us attempt to answer this question by looking at how the three determinants of socio-political existence, Wealth, Power and Status are configured today and how these could motivate individuals and groups to vote in 2024.
For the last 3,000 years of recorded history the world has swung between concentration of wealth and dispersion of wealth. Capitalism concentrates wealth due to differences in human abilities and through the advantage which accrues to the early winner. So, the rich become richer. Communism, usually ushered in with the professed reason of reducing wealth inequalities disperses it or reconcentrates it in new hands.
The first cases of communistic ownership of wealth date back two thousand years to Sumeria and Babylon, where the economy, and trade was carried out in the name of the central administration. Plato advocated communism in his utopia. Rome also had a socialist interlude under Diocletian in the third century AD. All communist experiments including the communist revolution of the 20th century ended deficiently and with unintended consequences.
Whenever the world has tried to reduce income inequalities, the spirit of private enterprise has suffered. When it has reduced private plunder, public graft has grown. And so, the world oscillates between capitalism and communism.
No one system has got it fully right, but communism is a bad remedy for the evils of capitalism.
India too has had its affairs with communism. Thankfully these were short lived and regional.
This romance with communist ideology will again start, this time nationally, in the 2024 electioneering and will recur prominently in manifestos. We are likely to see a lot of leftist promises coming from the opposition as they try to best the BJP election machine. So, the overall electoral rhetoric will tilt towards leftist promises. BJP has nearly monopolized Ram (the most popular Hindu God). The opposition will need to invoke Kuber (the lord of the treasury). But let’s not forget that though BJP is a rightist party, in the economic space it is just like the Congress, center-left. So we will witness much left-up-manship in the electoral arena from all key parties.
Societies have followed an almost cyclical rhythm on how they chose to govern themselves. Plato stated – and this time he was right – that Autocracies lead to oligarchies (rule by a few), which lead to Democracies. Democracies then become anarchic due to excessive freedom. Then, societies look for a single strong leader who can quell the chaos. This leads back to autocracy and the cycle continues. Why this rhythm recurs is perhaps because we as social organisms bear some traits that bring this cycle up on us.
Status, loosely defined as social honor, is an important social index in a deeply stratified society like India. For a long time only the rich and powerful could aspire to status. But with the advent of the digital world, almost anyone can be a celebrity. Birth, connections or even arduously cultivated talent are not the sine qua non for status. Anything/anyone can go viral.
It was fashionable till recently to say that democracy in an economically unequal world is a sham. But this observation doesn’t factor in how 75 years of democracy has equipped the have-nots. Earlier it was believed that the Rupee will overpower the vote completely. At best the vote will be an appendage to the Rupee. But today the vote is announcing its independence. The cyber presence of even the humblest voter has given him a new sense of worth.
The have-not is being used by the powerful to troll their enemies. Though the former often gets some compensation for doing so, still it is not just a simple transaction. The have-not is not just a foot soldier in this fight between the mighty. In some way the buyer of the troll and the troll become partners – accomplices.
The rich who often behaved with the poor in a manner which suggested: Mere paas Daulat hai. Tumhare paas kya hai? (I have wealth. What do you have?), Today the poor and the cyber savvy middle class tacitly retort Mere paas “likes” hain, “reshares” hain. Tumhaare paas hain? (I have “likes” and “reshares”. What is your score there?)
Plus, since scandalous and strident dialogue makes him stand out, the man of humble origin who has nothing to lose, has abandoned his muffler. His high decibel fake news and the state diktats have attacked the last remnants of a free press. He even trolls the judiciary.
So, the whole society is quaking. And this anarchy attracts dictatorship. It looks for a single strong leader who can arrest the slide. External threats – military or environmental – and economic uncertainty also make the society veer around the strong man.
In 2024, if the opposition cobbles up a united front, it will need to present a strong alternative leader. Will this rag-tag unity let such a leader emerge? It will be a miracle if this medley allows anyone from among themselves even to be a first among equals. I quote below an excerpt from my book, Machiavelli for moral people.
Machiavelli gave the comical example of Capua, an Italian state in tumult (around 216 BC) because of the hatred between the people and the senate. Pacuvius Calavius was the supreme magistrate of the state, and he understood what perils the lack of harmony between the senate and the people was exposing the republic to. Knowing that the people wanted to sack the senate and have their own representatives, he locked up the senate members in the palace and told them his plan.
He called the public to the palace and said it might be a really good idea to create a new government. “We will put the names of all the senators into a box here and one after the other, we will draw the names of the senators, find a successor for him and kill the erstwhile senator”, he announced. When the first senator’s name was drawn, the public called him haughty, cruel and arrogant, but when Pacuvius asked they suggest his successor – the shouting quelled. Then one person’s name was suggested by some. But the others started to whistle and mock, and to speak ill about the contender. This process went on, and every proposed candidate was judged unworthy of the senatorial post. Then Pacuvius announced, “Since you judge that the city would be worse off with a new senate, so it is time that you reconcile.”
A similar psychology is likely to surface in a united front against Modi. Where regional satraps, used to independence, might forgo the chance of a joint win if it means bowing to someone they find unpalatable.
BJPs economic policy is center left but its politics is far right. You saw Modi’s Sashtang Pranam! Comes so naturally to him. A meme of Rahul Gandhi prostrating himself at the Ujjain Mahakaal temple has also gone viral. Alas he is no match before Modi. Rahul’s smirk after the prostration gives his lack of conviction away. Like the wink after the hug in the parliament!
Coming back to the Sashatang Pranam by Modi. Modi executes it so earnestly. Not leaving his opponent space for even a gestural combat!
While Modi lay there prostrating, millions of Indians would have paid homage to him. And it is not only that many Indians would quickly enamor of a leader who seems religious! It is also that by confidently carrying his tradition on his sleeve, Modi is signaling to the world his proud acceptance of Indian culture and raising the social status of Indians globally.
That said, must also say Rahul Gandhi is sharpening his combat skills. It is still to be seen what else other than stamina and more accurate articulation would he need to take on Modi. But his arsenal is growing. His intention to leverage the caste census could find the chink in BJP’s thinly stretched Pan-Hindu armor. His invocation Jitni Abaadi Utna Haq (Representation commensurate with population), in a country where 70% of the population is OBC/SC/ST could be an antidote to the opiate of religion. His fearlessness also is making him a formidable competitor.
Still, he has a steep climb ahead. Countering BJP’s Ram by Kuber (Far left economic policy) will not be easy. The leftist package, given its history of failure, is not easy to market. Stitching a coalition around this will be another Herculean and Sisyphean task.
So, it is still advantage Modi.
Which brings me back to the strategy which Pacuvius Calavius, who I spoke of above, adopted. It made the public aware that though they coveted power, they lacked amongst themselves, candidates worthy enough to govern them, or the large heart to recommend someone from amidst themselves.
As importantly, his move also humbled the sitting Senators and generated humility and humanity in them. Positive for the public, this resulted in peace and harmony in Capua. If BJP does win, a humble and humane introspection is what this election should trigger within it. That is the hope so that the country is governed assertively yet far-sightedly.