It is not about resisting shocks and staying the same, but getting beter. Who does it better - BJP, or Congress?
"Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better".
This is how Nassim Nicholas Taleb begins his book ‘Antifragile’ which is the fourth volume in his planned pentalogy on ‘randomness’. The centrepiece of his work is that instead of relying upon complicated predictive models, we should instead prepare to deal with the most unexpected and catastrophic possibilities (He calls them ‘black swans’). Furthermore, he urges us to understand and appreciate that minor shocks and setbacks quite often have the potential to insulate us against stronger shocks and setbacks in the future and hence, the former might not be undesirable irrespective of the grief that might be occasioned to those at the receiving end.
Taleb’s most recent claim to fame is the manner in which, as a trader on financial markets, he insulated himself from the shock of the financial crisis of 2008. In the same year, the Times newspaper called him the ‘hottest thinker in the world’. By means of this piece, we shall try and show how his thesis can be applied to the current political scenario and how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thrives not because of leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and party veteran L K Advani, but because of its ‘antifragile’ nature that is in turn rooted in the party’s organisational and ideological moorings. The aforementioned quality has in turn been made more pronounced by party president Amit Shah’s efforts to turn the BJP into a true pan-national party.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was re-elected in 2009. Observers and journalists and their editors told us that this was due to the pragmatic politics of former prime minister Manmohan Singh coupled with the charismatic brand value of the Gandhi surname. The likes of Saba Naqvi exhorted the BJP to contemplate its own mortality while Hartosh Singh Bal (full disclosure- I am representing him in three cases before the Karkardooma and Saket district courts), writing as late as in 2010, told us that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to power was a done deal. We were told that the BJP’s ‘communal ideology’ did not have many takers beyond the semi-educated ‘upper caste’ middle aged shopkeepers of the Hindi heartland and that the Congress party was the party of the future. We all know how the next five years panned out, don’t we?
As a keen student of politics, irrespective of my ideological inclination, sometimes I wonder as to how and why the Congress party declined at such a breakneck speed. Today the situation has reached such a sorry pass that the party is fighting a rapidly losing battle for its future as a ‘national party’. With every state election (and there is one every six months), things keep getting worse. The social coalition of ‘backwards’, the poor and the Muslims that was deemed to be invincible in 2009 lies verily in tatters. The leadership of the Gandhi dynasty is being questioned within as well as outside the party. In short, the party is in a mess, and to my mind about 60 per cent of it is of its own making. In my opinion, there are three things that the Congress did wrong, which in turn enabled the BJP to steal a march over the former:
1. Failing to deal with or prepare for Black Swan events/or perhaps more appropriately letting their hubris cloud their perception to the extent that they even failed to perceive possibilities of ‘white swans’ even when they shared them in the face: It is arguable as to whether the grand old party failed to comprehend that the corruption that was brazenly committed during the initial years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would come back to haunt them, which it surely did. Having said that, it is inarguable that once confronted with tricky situations like the Radia tapes and disclosures about the CWG, 2G and Coalgate scams or even the likes of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, their clueless and sometimes, schizophrenic response was less than satisfactory.
Today, the perception of the Gandhi family is thoroughly negative, and in the popular consciousness, both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are guilty of massive corruption. Did the Congress party’s leadership think that the belle epoque that stretched from around 2004 to sometime in 2010 (in my reckoning, the beginning of the end was when the Radia tapes were released) would never end and it bought into the rhetoric of the editors and journalists fattened on the crumbs thrown from their own high table? The answer quite evidently seems to be in the affirmative.
2. Extreme fragility as opposed to antifragility: The foundations of the Congress party’s success, missed by the (I)ntellectual (Y)et (I)diot ecosystem (another favoured acronym of NNT that he has recently used to describe the pollsters who predicted a non-Brexit and a Hillary victory) of the Congress party were quite fragile. Unlike the BJP which is a cadre based party with a strong fanatical core support base, the bulk of Congress voters were those who voted for the party because there was no other option available and they did not wish to vote for the BJP. Furthermore, it is amply clear that in times of strife for the resolve of the BJP voter to vote and support the party of his/her choice gets bolstered while the average Congress supporter is at a complete loss as to what is to be done when the party is out of power.
The grand old party of India lost its core support base of middle class upwardly mobile Hindus when it opposed the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. During the initial years of Indian democracy, the core base of the Congress party was pretty much identical to that of the BJP today - hard working, aspirational working class Hindu working to achieve a middle-class status – religious but not quite bigoted about it. This large mass of people constituted the bedrock of the Congress party’s electoral success. However, at the turn of the century, Sonia’s advisers started suggesting that she court the mass of people also called the subalterns (as if they were a monolith!!!), women, farmers and workers (70 per cent of the country’s population so even less likely to be monolithic) and ‘young people’ (not even a constituency in themselves). Since the other categories were difficult to appeal to as they were not categories at all, the Muslim appeasing tendencies of the Congress reached their apogee.
However, the Congress party forgot that the latter were being constantly administered a diet of propaganda by the most regressive elements from their community, who were in turn being assiduously courted by the political establishment. In these circumstances, it would be extremely unlikely for such people to constitute a strong bulwark of support for the grand old party, which still paid lip service to the idea of a secular and united India. I have expounded further on this theme in one of my previous pieces, link to which is given below. Essentially, the Congress party managed to alienate a strong bloc of voters, which albeit slightly smaller, had stood by it during its worst years – 1967, 1977 and even 1989 in exchange for a theoretically larger bloc which (a) was not a bloc in the first place and (b) was unlikely to exhibit any loyalty to a party like the Congress.
3. In terms of geography also, the Congress party’s success was extremely fragile in as much as its electoral prowess was concentrated in less than a dozen states including the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and to a lesser extent even Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh along with a couple of other small states in the north east. The party organisation in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was and still is in a shambolic state for the simple reason that for quite some time the party has outsourced the task of contesting elections against the BJP to the regional formations. In this view of the matter, one miscalculation in the state of Andhra Pradesh effectively meant that the party was rendered quite unable to even put up a respectable total.
The Congress party’s biggest weakness, and one that it is unlikely to get rid of in the near future, is that its geographical footprint has shrunk greatly – especially in the larger states. If it wants to get its mojo back, it must fight the smaller regional formations harder than it is trying to fight the BJP. Today, there is no doubt that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s performance on the economic front, arguably better than UPA-2, is likely to have an adverse effect on the party’s performance in 2019.
However, we can assume with a certain degree of certitude (even amateur political soothsayers have to be wary of ‘black swans’) that the party will indeed romp home again in 2019. The reason for that is that the BJP of today, thanks to Modi and Shah, is no longer confined to a limited number of states as it was in days of yore. The credit for this recent phenomenon must go to the latter rather than the former. On the other hand, strategists of the Congress party must go back to the drawing board and recalibrate their strategy in line with Taleb’s advice.
This is not to say that the BJP as it stands today should not be wary of black swans at all. Even though Modi seems to be quite impregnable today, the party could do worse than to keep in mind that there is always a possibility of a worst-case scenario of the Prime Minister’s popularity dissipating overnight or over a relatively short period of time. In this view of the matter, excessive reliance on the duumvirate of Modi and Shah is something that could impact BJP’s prospects as well. As shown earlier, it is a recipe for ‘fragility’. The best preventive measure would be to focus on the growth of strong regional leadership in all of the 18 states the party rules by itself or under the banner of the NDA. It is the likes of Devendra Fadnavis, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Yogi Adityanath, Vijay Rupani, Sarbananda Sonowal and even Vasundhara Raje who impart anti-fragility to the politics of the BJP and not just Modi and Shah.