Games of Delusion

Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House is probably still the best reference on American Presidential campaigns. The entire book is sort of encapsulated in the moment when Gary Hart quotes Warren Beatty thus ‘When forced to show all, people become all show.‘ The relevance of that is perhaps directly proportional to the centrality of personalities and thus more pertinent to Presidential systems than Westminster models[1]. That is, until Narendra Modi came along; or, maybe Indira Gandhi did it even earlier and many of us are too young to remember her style.

To covet anything absolutely, knowing that it entails uncertainties beyond one’s own control, must take megalomaniacs. Therefore, politicians, by definition are that. After all they can at best create environments which are not detrimental in known ways and are hence in the business of selling correlation as causation. In India, very rarely have people outside the INC made their Prime Minister-ship an issue. AB Vajpayee and LK Advani did it fleetingly but neither compares to the scope and scale their party’s current aspirant. We now know VP Singh, Chandrashekar, Charan Singh, Morarji Desai, and Devi Lal played this game far more cautiously[4].

The naked ambition that Cramer chronicled partly explains games and strategies candidates adopt. For example, in 2004 when John Kerry insinuated he might stop over in Colorado[2] or the enormous spending by Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania in 2012 are examples of ambition-blinded wagering. Both candidates knew quite well they had little or no chance of winning the two states — but they had to convince themselves of their own hype to indulge in their wager so that their opponent was forced to waste his resources in a state he was likely to win anyway. That the money each candidate raises in that country is reasonably well accounted helps make each campaign stop and spending decision a signalling mechanism as much as they are actual campaigning opportunities. In a multi-party system with far more opaque funding, the signalling and wager mechanisms are naturally very different.

Despite what the EC does, the only real monetary limit in India is how much ill-gotten wealth the candidate and party have and how much they are willing to expend. The other significant limit in the Indian system is: how many enemies a candidate is willing to make in the quest for power. This requires belief in one’s own hype in terms of the ability to win in hostile territory just as in the American sense; except the downside here is not wasted money but burnt bridges. For instance, if one were to go by the average of opinion polls thus far, Narendra Modi absolutely needs AIADMK and TMC to form a government. By campaigning against the two strong willed and equally megalomaniac women, the BJP is signalling that it’s willing to squander future gains for absolute belief in its own ability to rake in the numbers. Almost telling us that Narendra Modi’s need to believe his own hype is a necessary and sufficient condition for his brand of politics[3].

The one problem with the this strategy of course is that it’s a one-trick pony. Opponents now have a clear gauge of cards while they are not obligated to reveal theirs. For instance, even if the absurdly high vote share that the BJP is polling in TN were true, all the DMDK needed to do was wait, watch and raise its wager. Which works out quite well for the AIADMK as well. The other related issue in raising stakes in traditionally hostile territory is that by definition the transfer-ability is low. The same reason why it was predicted months ago that the AIADMK will ally with the Left, as it now has. The BJP’s double digit vote share, if it enters an alliance, has a very low likelihood of being transferred to its ally. After all the only reason someone wants an absolutely alien party is because they want none of what already exists — including any and all possible local allies. Which is probably one of the reasons the DMDK is playing the high stakes game — for its own upside is limited. A similar situation may be true in Andhra Pradesh as well.

Or, what a neutral observer of games may ask Narendra Modi is: why aren’t you campaigning more in Bihar and UP instead of shooting your own foot in Madras and Calcutta? If those states need a breather, why not try Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, where your return on hubris may be a lot better? Or, even Orissa and non Bombay-Maharashtra?

[1] – It’s probably wrong to call India’s model as strictly Westminster. But for the purpose of this post, it holds.

[2] – That Obama won Colorado in 2008 and retained in 2012 is the story of recent Democratic gain westward that’s been under explored.

[3] – It’s a necessary condition for everyone else too. Just that Modi’s quirk is in adding the sufficiency.

[4] – And for valid reasons which despite what [3] may make those inside the bubble think, haven’t all vanished.