Monday, March 16, 2009

Some thoughts about the upcoming elections in India.

Recently got my legs pulled and jibed at by a senior of mine, Vipul (from my alma-mater CMI and currently at UChicago doing a PhD in Mathematics,) about the stagnant situation of this blog and whether democracy can really be reformed by people who blog about it only once in 2 months.

{ Actually one can look at in this way: I have not been able to put up updates on this blog since I was too busy with my Physics whose professional requirements have been mounting off-late. Hence I was spending more time with Physics. Now is this a bad logic that I have actually been contributing more to the nation by trying to do my Physics well rather than blogging here? }

Anyway thanks to Vipul's comments and pokes, it accelerated the process of me finally writing down some things which I have been thinking of recently. The election round the corner seems to provocate enough number of dinner and coffee table discussions to keep one's mind thinking and hence thought of sharing some of the thoughts which I discussed during these discussions.

1. One thing has always worried me as to whether election makes any sense in a country where most voters are illiterate and are probably have little or no information about the political scenario and the plans of the parties and the larger questions that the country needs to face. Can't really blame the people because if one has to struggle day in and day out to make one's both ends meet one simply can't afford to keep track of the larger questions! The larger issues are simply a luxury when you are not assured of your next meal.

In this situation what is the difference between large number of uneducated/(mis/non) informed or non-thinking voters voting and voting by a random number generator? Like we can have a button on the EVM which will call a rand() function when pressed!

It seems to me that a random number generator will be better since it will be unbiased and might help a better party win in comparison to a corrupt politician being able to "buy" these non-thinking voters by dubious means.

Here one also sees why issues like "caste" and "religion" and "telengana" issue based voting makes such an impact in India. When the population is so huge with no net coherence of thought then if some local issue can cause a local correlation it has large contribution to the net scenario since the rest of the system is anyway randomized! Thats what politicians use, cause local polarization (especially with a non-thinking mass) based in local issues hoping that there is no large scale coherence.

This actually shows why "blogs" are potentially powerful. They can become centers to cause these correlations among a certain section of the population and that can become non-trivial.

2. The point about becoming an effective voter is whether as a voter I am a "thinker" who takes a well-thought decision or a "believer" who goes by the hype and votes for the party which best hypnotizes me into believing in them.

As Vipul put it in a catchy question to me

"Do you think you are believer or you believe that you are a thinker?"

Let us first realize that the essential reflection of whether one is a thinker or a believer is in the way the person makes "choices". Its the process of decision making that amounts to making a choice is what differentiates between "thinkers" and the rest. It can start from simple things like working on a maths question where at every step one needs to think to decide the optimal next step and also in bigger questions like choosing one's life-partner.

Let me try to list out here as to what all a person needs to be a "thinker" apart from the basic minimum intelligence which unfortunately a person cannot change :

1. Freedom of choice.

Unless one has choices there is no use of the ability to think. If one gets excessively constrained that one's choices then there is nothing that the person can do even if he/she can think. Now choices can get constrained by internal as well as external reasons. Internal as in, I fail to see the choices that exist or may be for external reasons where some external force closes choices for me. like as a dalit landless farmer facing the guns of the rich upper-caste landlords, my choices in life are too constrained.

A large section of the Indian electorate is deprived of this fundamental thing as in freedom to choice.

And pretty paradoxically this section of the people who are artificially deprived of choices are the one's for whom a good government might make the biggest difference. Rich businessmen and people in research are probably more immune to political perturbations.

2. Relevant and correct information.

This is the next step. I have enough intelligence to think and say I have choices but still I need some substance to start thinking on. An Economics Nobel Laureate simply can't think about a question in Quantum Theory unless she/he knows enough Physics.

Thats the basic kind of problem a large section of the Indian electorate faces. Many simply can't afford to get time to get themselves informed about the parties and the larger issues since they have their first priority to arrange for food! Who cares about what happens to the nation when I am hungry and have no food to eat? And another considerable section of the population simply doesn't care to find out though they have lots of resources since either they are too busy with their profession or busy hanging out at the malls. Somehow given the kinds of lives we live cocooned inside research institutes worrying day and night about courses, assignments, exams and science, politics and larger questions of India seems pretty distant.

Given that large sections of the population don't cast a well-thought vote..I don't know what sense democracy makes in a country like this.

Now there are 3 sides to see in this:

1. If everybody is busy with his/her life striving for professional excellence isn't that by economic ideas an optimal state for the country? How does it then matter whether each person is thinking about the future of governance and larger national questions since anyway every person is trying for professional excellence?

May be the above idea can be put in analogy with the idea of economics that "we get our bread because the baker wants to make profit". The idea is that such a set of people is creating "positive externalities" for each other and the system is thus progressive and then why would anyone need a government? Somehow isn't it possible for such a system of "self-optimizing systems" to show some kind of spontaneous large scale collaboration like what in statistical physics is called "self-organized criticality"?

The associated idea is that a single man's vote is irrelevant to the election since one vote cannot make difference to the future and the energy and time needed to spend to inform oneself and vote knowledgeably is huge.

And at the end of all this research the person for whom this party voted might not win. Hence the "net payoff" in this process tends to 0 and hence this makes no economic sense for a person to drop commitment to one's profession and educate oneself about the larger national issues.

So why should anyone vote?

2. When every person is trying to achieve personal professional excellence then everyone is tending to get into a tunnel vision where one is slowly missing the larger picture and anyway people are only going to create positive externalities only locally and not cause large scale collaborations to happen.

This is where the government chips in with an external view of the larger picture to cause macroscopic reallocation of resources to optimize its utilization by the entire population as opposed to the only local optimization that you and I can cause.

Hence one needs a good government.

3. Education and ability to think brings in with it a sense of individualism and independence of thought. How likely is it that a set of such people will show cohesion and coherent thinking? Why hasn't it happened that all the good students across the various world class institutes in India like CMI, ISI, IIT, TIFR get together to form a party which will surely have an average IQ and education billion times any other existing party?

Why should a thinker voter when the rest of the thinkers can't think cohesively to put up candidate?

Is election necessarily a compromise?

The question is where does the market equilibrate between these 3 competing factors? Can a government have this global ability to cause large scale optimization by macroscopic rearrangement of resources? Can a government be expected to have enough insight and information to cause this?

If the answers to the above question is "no" and if anyway most voters are "non-thinkers" (and hence 1 thinker's vote counts for nought) and even economically it makes no sense to try to be a "thinker" w.r.t voting, why should I vote or worry about casting a good vote instead of doing Physics and Maths properly?


  1. Hi,

    Let's "continue" the "conversation" on how we can "reform" "democracy".

    To begin with, I challenge your assumption/assertion that illiterate, poor, and uneducated people are less aware about the intricacies of politics than the educated elite.

    I think this varies from place to place, but urban poor (not the poor people in remote areas that don't get to vote) are affected positively and negatively by a lot of government decisions, and many of them are aware of the power of their voting rights. Whether they have the "broader national interest" at heart may be moot (who does, anyway?) but they're likely to keep tabs on issues such as which political party has slum demolition on the agenda, which political party plans to dole out free rice and TVs, which political party plans to upgrade public transport and set price ceilings, and so on.

    I've seen poor people do pretty elaborate math on maximizing their personal benefits, not unlike the now-broke college student or the smart investment banker. In general, avoid confusing lack of literacy with lack of resourcefulness or lack of desire to tailor outcomes.

    As such, people who are most affected by an event are likely to be the ones who put in the most effort to control it to their liking.

  2. Secondarily, there is a difference between contributing to world happiness, productivity, knowledge, and in particular, the happiness, productivity, and knowledge of India, and between contributing to the growth of Indian democracy. By studying physics, you probably increased the total amount of knowledge that you have, and thus contributed to the country. That doesn't necessarily strengthen Indian democracy.

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  4. Anirbit, you seem to have mixed too many things together. How can you expect a Quantum Mechanics expert to lead the people? Each field has it's own uniqueness and each field's expert should try sticking to that area only. Imagine a situation the other way round - a Lalu Yadav teaching Algebra in some college. Your ideas are just as weird as this one, if not more. True, things like minimum level of education ('minimum' is highly debatable here, I agree) and crime record etc. are important, but you seem to be suggesting lofty impractical goals for our 'elections', a concept which is a 'compromise' (as you rightly pointed out). Too much of extremes in either direction will be harmful for India.

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  6. @Pratish
    As I had needs enough relevant and correct information to think about something even if she/he has enough intelligence. A person who knows Quantum Theory well probably has enough intelligence and if she/he wants can easily educate him/herself with the required things to lead the people.

    Science education doesn't train you just Quantum Theory, it trains you how to think logically and precisely. Now if you want you can use this training either to do science well or lead the country well.

    About Laloo..which one applies?..ahem..ahem..

    If you interpret correctly you will realize that I have never said that the "illiterate, poor, and uneducated people" are not politically aware.

    I said that people in the above situations have to think within severe constraints (I have pointed out the various constraints) unlike you and me.Hence their decision is hugely likely to be affected by immediate things like you said "free rice and TVs" rather than by large scale or broader considerations.

    Its a question of longer debate as to how individual perfectionism and professional excellence can contribute to better government.