The period before Socrates’s in Greece—of the Sophists—that dates back about 2,600 years, believed that right and wrong were relative as were good and evil. Sophists were adept in proving right as wrong and vice versa, by clever play of logic and rhetoric. But Socrates argued that people are largely ignorant of what they want. Unless people acquire a life of good virtues—wisdom, courage, justice and temperance—they are bound to regret. For example, all of us believe in seeking happiness as the prime purpose of life; therefore, material wealth, powerful position, good family and social life are of paramount importance. In pursuit of these very objectives, there is more pain than pleasure. The so-called happiness is riddled with fear and worries of all sorts, or with concerns of losing what we have—therefore, it is illusory.
In the modern democracies, people elect leaders for a more comfortable life, with their expectations linked to the promises made by the prominent politicians. Leaders take advantage of the lesser aware people and flatter their feelings for winning elections. After a few months—at the very best, a few years—those very people who elect leader(s) with resounding victory, start blaming the polity for the failure of the latter in delivering what the people wanted. Rulers suffer the pain of such politicking in the form of the fear of losing power. The Socratic hypothesis maintains that people who are virtuous must choose the leader in a democracy. But who will decide as to who are wise and virtuous—and not clever—is the question that begs answer. Socrates had to consume hemlock, a poison, for adherence to this philosophy of virtues for a democratic set up. Today, Socrates is alive in thoughts of the world while his killers remain forgotten.
In most of the developed parts of the world, the people, despite being well-educated and well-informed, have exposed themselves to great pain in the hope of some unclear gains. David Cameron, the former British prime minister, never expected that Britain would vote for termination of its membership of the European Union (EU) in the Brexit referendum. But, on June 23, 2016, 51.9% of the participating UK electorate (the turnout was 72.2% of the overall electorate) voted to leave the EU—a mere 1.9 percentage point majority countermanded the voice of 48.1% of the participants in the referendum. Thus, in absolute numbers, 34.5% of the British electorate is deciding fate of the entire nation. But, Brexit itself is now trapped in concerns over trade arrangements with the EU and cheaper labour from Eastern Europe, etc. The cheerleaders of Brexit are in a predicament. Was the UK’s earlier, majority decision to join the EU right or wrong? Education alone doesn’t bestow wisdom when considered in such a political context.
The US voted for Donald Trump as its president because of racial considerations, promises of getting rid of conflict “rooted in Islamic fundamentalism”—especially the US’s continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan—and ejection of illegal immigrants from Mexico. That would make the US a safer place—this was the overwhelming belief. But, the honeymoon with Trump ended within a few weeks. Americans realised that a democratic country cannot be run like corporate entity with a CEO issuing executive orders; illegal immigrants are the cheapest channels of service; Iraq/Afghanistan and Islamic clashes have been always been messes the US should have steered clear off. Expectations of the people stand belied, especially with the Russian role in the US presidential election being brought under investigation. Numerical majority being considered as determining majority may not be right. That again validates Socrates.
Prime minister Narendra Modi came to power at the right moment in 2014, at a time when there was policy-paralysis. He sincerely offered a dream world of maximum governance, improved socio-economic conditions, induction of new technologies, doubling of farmers’ income, acche din, dealing with Pakistan from a position of strength, creating an aura of India being a global power and elimination of corruption. People believed in his avatar of political messiah. His decision of demonetisation though understood as ethical, has created deeply divided opinion of supporters and detractors. In the short term, GDP has seen a decline in pace of growth with a massive loss of jobs in the informal economy as reported in the media. GST—as a work-in-progress—has too been terribly mishandled. Prices of farm produce have fallen, affecting agri-income. PSU banks are riddled with rising NPAs while the political blame-game goes on. Exports are tepid.
Supporters of PM Modi are optimistic about long-term benefits while others see more pain in coming months. A section of the society, especially traders and small businesses, is now brooding over his initiatives. The common complaint is that he over-promised. The pain in undergoing real transformation undertaken by Modi is quite severe, incompatible with the varying mindsets present in the diverse Indian society. Many are now asking, “Under whose mandate the pain has been inflicted?” All the while, many good things (Jan Dhan, Swacch Bharat, Ease of Doing Business, etc) that Modi initiated are taken for granted. Here, the issue is not that Modi overpromised, but it is about the lack of awareness in the people about tangible reforms and progress—and not merely policy-tinkering. New technology and novel policy profiles will bring in creative destruction.
When decisions are taken in the interest of the larger welfare of the nation and society, the prevailing systems and the society should be able to absorb shocks, for which India is not ready. Perhaps, Socrates was again right that the ruler, the ruled, the reforms and the systems should all be in harmony for progress. But, such an ideal situation cannot exist in this world of imperfection.