May 20, 2009

Psychohistory and the Indian Elections

Text books define history in terms of events and individuals. Hari Sheldon -- the epicentre of thought in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series -- posits an alternate perspective where the ebb and tide of the human saga is independent of both events and individuals and follows what others call the flow of destiny -- the inevitable. But what sets Asimov's interpretation stand apart from those of others is that he packages destiny in the garb of statistical inevitability.

What does this mean ?

It means that even if specific individual were not present, or specific events did not happen, the tide of history will -- by and large -- be the same. If Hitler was not born then the circumstances in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century would still have resulted in something like the Second World War. If Isaac Newton was not around and the apple did not fall on his head, it is very unlikely that we would still not have known about gravitation. Some one else would have figured this out ... but this someone else could not have done this before the European Renaissance ! So it is these broad trends of society that are the real actors who play out saga of human history.

Unflattering as the analogy may be, the evolution of human history is comparable -- in style, though not in actual impact -- to the behaviour of a colony of ants or of bees. Individual insects are not important but their collective behaviour is. Similar is the case of Brownian motion in a gas -- the behaviour of an individual gas atom does not matter. It is the statistical average of thousands of individual atoms that give rise to the "emergent" properties that we are all familiar with -- pressure, temperature and volume.

The just concluded General Elections in India have also thrown up such "properties" -- in this case seat counts -- that we are debating and discussing across the length and breadth of the country. While we readily acknowledge that individual votes ( or voters ) do not count and it is the collective will that is finally on display .... we still tend to believe that individual "leaders" and "events" do play a role. For example we believe that Mamata Banerjee or Rahul Gandhi are important and events like the Mumbai Massacre influence voters.

This need not be true. At one level of analysis, the individual voter is irrelevant but at a higher level of analysis, even leaders and events can become irrelevant. Even if Mamata Banerjee was not around, circumstances would have thrown up someone else. So is the case with Congress victory ... in Bengal it was because of the consolidation of the anti left vote, in UP it was because of the split of the OBC/Muslim vote and in Maharashtra it was because of the split of the right wing Hindu vote between the ShivSena+BJP and the MNS. So all these events, of limited importance in themselves, add up to a very significant result that finally bring Manmohan Singh to the Prime Minister's chair.

Net-net history moves at its own pace and in its own style. Some people would call this destiny. Some would see in these events in terms of astrological patterns, I would root for Hari Sheldon's psychohistory.

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