Thumos and the Indian Elections

Plato, that ancient Greek philosopher considered to be the father of Western thought, posited that our behavior, is driven by three main impulses—epithumia or desires, nous or intellect/reason and thumos or the desire to be recognized and respected. Subsequent political philosophers, notably Francis Fukuyama, have extended the concept of thumos, to define as the innate human desire not just for individual recognition like being awarded “employee of the month” at work, but recognition as part of a larger whole, with which the individual has certain shared characteristics. It is why I feel very good when Kolkata Knight Riders win a game in the IPL, and severely dejected when they do not, even though my nous or intellect tells me that KKR’s victory or defeat has no impact on my epithumia or desires, I don’t make money when they win, nor lose money when they lose. Yet I feel a sense of vindication when Russell slams RCB to a pulp, and still remember the humiliation of being the worst team in the franchise once upon a time, even though my intellect says that Kolkata Knight Riders has little to do with my home city except holding a license to its name, and that even my association with it based on shared characteristics is very tenuous, but that’s the power of thumos, it overrides self-interest and logical thought to touch a seemingly irrational core that we all carry.

Of course irrational though it seems, we wouldn’t have been here without thumos. It is this thumos, political philosophers say, that allowed humans to form societies, to sublimate their individual desires to that of what would benefit their group. It led to the formation of identities, on the basis of collectives like tribes which became nations, and shared beliefs which became religion. It is also what led to strife and conflict. Purely rational men would perhaps have realized the futility of war, or that war materially satisfies the epithumia of a handful of very powerful people who have the least skin in the game, but then it was not nous that was driving these forces of history but thumos, the desire to increase the collective’s prestige and respect at the cost of those considered “other”, by conquering, subjugating and in many cases assimilating those that do not share the group characteristics. So that even when you die, or what can be considered the absolute zero point of epithumia, you attain infinite thumos or glory. Which makes it worth it.

As Indian elections approach, the only way to analyze is through the lens of thumos. When it comes to nous, or rational thought, there is very little of that in democratic elections, people do not vote based on GDP numbers, promises made vs promises fulfilled, your local MP’s attendance in Parliament or the number of questions he raised or the criminal cases pending against him or the policies he espouses . It may seem that some of the voting behavior comes from epithumia or desires, a guaranteed income of 6000 rupees per month or reservations based on one’s caste or loan waivers definitely drives people to vote, but rational thought, if it was exercised in this context, would have told those voting on these issues that given the past record of the political class, it is unlikely that they would realize the full benefits of what has been promised, even if it gets to them, it will come with riders and terms and conditions, if at all it ever comes to them that is.

Which brings us again to thumos. It is why Indian elections have always been and will always be decided by identities of caste and religion and language and statehood. My vote goes to the person on the ticket with whom I share a characteristic, and here caste is a more exclusive determinant than the Hindu religion,  and my vote shall pretty much never go to the person who I perceive as furthering the interests of the “others”. The Samajwadi Party polls Yadavs, the BSP polls Dalits, irrespective of the candidates they put up, and between them they split the Muslim vote. The BJP gets the upper caste votes, and so when BSP and Samajwadi Party join forces in constituencies where Yadav-Dalit-Muslim population goes above 50%, election results have an air of inevitability, and nothing else matters.

Politicians across the spectrum know this. This is why political communication is exclusively an appeal to thumos, or the self-respect of the group. It’s why Amit Shah says that Durga Pujo is under threat in Bengal, or Mamata Banerjee increases allowance to imaams or her party peddles a form of Bengali nationalism opposed intrinsically to the imperial vegetarianism of the BJP, or that Samajwadi Party announces a plan to impose a 2% tax on upper caste families  or that Mayawati builds statues of herself or that Modi thunders against Pakistan or that influential sections of the media push a narrative of  targeted “intolerance”. The trick here is to make you feel endangered or aggrieved as a group, to convince you that your self-respect has been diminished, and the promise of the candidate, often exclusively through his membership of the group, is to make things right. Needless to say none of this would stand up to rational thought—for instance, if the Gandhi family has not been able to make them feel good all these years, what has changed now?

Once in a while though, in 2014 and before that in 1984, an overarching electoral narrative comes up that upends all of this though. People still vote on emotion though, but there a temporary group identity supplanting traditional group identities like caste and religion became dominant. In 1984, it was the sympathy for Rajiv Gandhi, in 2014 it was absolute disgust with UPA2 and a corresponding faith in the personality of Modi (not BJP, but Modi). But these happen once a few generations, and thunder already stuck in 2014 and it is unlikely to strike again this time, despite Vivek Oberoi’s best, or rather, worst efforts to revive the overarching narrative of 2014.

Which means, in 2019 we are most likely to get a fractured mandate, where factitious state, caste and religious identities will drive voting patterns and ultimately results, where everyone will win, and yet no one will.


6 thoughts on “Thumos and the Indian Elections

  1. abhishek singh April 8, 2019 — 6:26 am

    You nailed it.

  2. Very good reasoning done here. I appreciate it very much.

  3. ” Pappu as PM ” ? Modi ko vote de do bhai .

  4. You are reading too much into the behavior of Indian politicians. It’s nothing more than “The bastard next door has a Merc /and/ an Audi and I only have a dinky Lam? Intolerable!” Plato would turn over in his celestial grave if he knew his characterization of human motives was being applied to sub-humans. Luckily a few countries that don’t suck balls as bad as India have managed to preserve almost-functioning forms of democracy still alive and going concerns.

  5. That News18 article you linked to has a misleading headline. I’m no Akhilesh fan but what he said was that he would tax all “super-rich” people who also happened to be upper-caste in the name of social justice. He didn’t say he would tax only upper-caste folks.

  6. I have been an avid reader of your blog since my college days .i just wanted to convey that i thoroughly enjoy your posts and books.

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