2019 Newsletter 9: Bits of India (1)
There's a reason why I am writing a newsletter a few days after the previous one. It's a promissory note more than a developed argument....
The big news from my part of the world is that India organized the biggest, most expansive (and perhaps most expensive) elections ever conducted. Narendra Modi and the BJP were the clear winners. Not the outcome I desired, but that’s not the point of this series. Instead, let me start you out with three observations:
The elections and the electoral campaigns were among the most complex social exercises in all of human history: 900 million voters spread over two months and the constant ground game and media strategy needed to manage a national campaign. In comparison, running a state campaign is much easier; the complexity of the national elections scales nonlinearly with the number of states you’re competing in. That’s as true of state campaigns: running a state-wide campaign is nonlinearly harder than running a campaign in one constituency. In other words, running a campaign is a systems challenge and so successful political actors need to learn how to manage systems well.
Information systems — news media, social media of course, but also old fashioned campaigning — were central to this campaign. As we all know, politics is as much about emotion as it’s about self-interest. Voters are swayed by sentiments such as: who truly represents me? who makes me proud? in whom can I see my future? Therefore, a technology that helps commoditize emotions and sentiments, i.e., social media, is a key differentiator in elections across the world and it should also not be a surprise that “populists” have mastered these technologies better than their aristocratic predecessors. Let’s remember that the great mass leaders of the twentieth century — Lenin, Gandhi, Hitler, Roosevelt, Mao — were also masters of media; they too were populists. Populism is arguably nothing more than the use of a new technological form to create and reach collectives that didn’t exist before. Those who can do so have a competitive political advantage.
These were the first globalized Indian elections in that they were consistently reported in the Western media as a world-historical event whose impact will be felt outside the borders of the Indian nation. It’s no longer a surprise that the same kind of right wing social media driven campaign has made a difference in the success of Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and now Modi. Globalization has come to politics and India is at its centre.
All of these developments point to politics at a scale that’s not been seen before. The public debate about this election, especially amongst the so-called intellectual class I belong to, was about ideology: Hindutva, liberalism, secularism etc. Of course that’s important, but it doesn’t win elections. Not on its own anyway.
We forget so easily that elections are primarily mechanisms for the continuation and transfer of power, and therefore, the entities that are responsible for fighting elections — political parties of course, but also ancillary entities such as surveying companies, media etc- orient themselves around the demands of power.
Consider the following analogy: companies are in the business of profit making and while some leaven that with design (Apple) and others with reliability (Volvo), the bottom line is money isn’t it? Not just money in this moment, but also money in the future and what one has to do to prevent others from stealing the money that’s currently lining my pocket. The most successful companies in the last twenty years have been those that have built systems: Amazon, Apple, Google come to mind, and even beyond the Silicon Valley bubble, there’s a deep relationship between mastery over information systems and economic success.
Why should politics be any different?
Shouldn’t we expect political success to be a function of mastery over information systems, especially those systems that can help commoditize emotions at scale? Behind these questions are troubling possibilities: what if certain emotions are easier to spread than others? What if anger and resentment are more contagious than empathy?
That’s the premise of this series: that it’s worthwhile to understand Indian politics through the lens of computing, i.e., to import terms like “stack,” “platform,” “data” etc not just as technical tools but as metaphors for the game of politics as it’s being played today.