From vampire bats to Sonia Gandhi
Indianomix | Vivek Dehejia & Rupa Subramanya
Why, oh why, can’t we be more like the vampire bat? These terrifying creatures apparently starve to death within 60 hours if they can’t get their share of warm blood. So a vampire that has had its fill locks its mouth with a starving bat that hasn’t fed that night and vomits warm blood into the other’s mouth. Why can’t we human beings, presumably a few steps up the evolutionary ladder, practise such heroic altruism?
Are you aware that every time an autorickshaw or taxi driver refuses your fare, it’s a lot like your dating someone, not finding him or her suitable and moving on? Why do we have Indian Stretchable Time? Did you know that the seat-belt law may have saved at the most 11-15 lives of drivers or front-seat passengers per year in Delhi out of around 2,000 deaths?
If these questions have whetted your appetite, then Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India is for you. The authors, Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya, want to understand why we behave the way we do, using insights not only from psychology and economics but also from fields such as evolutionary biology, game theory and statistics, to name a few.
Is this Freakonomics territory then? Yes, it’s behavioural economics, in the sense that it tries to study how people behave instead of assuming we’re all Homo economicus. But the authors try and give the subjects an Indian twist. For example, many of us, frustrated at the slow pace of change in our country and suffering from a severe inferiority complex vis-à-vis China, have often thought that perhaps an autocratic government is needed for rapid economic growth.
The authors quote William Easterly, a New York University professor, who has analysed growth in many different countries. Easterly says that if you are a fast-growing economy, there’s a 90% chance that you are an autocracy. But the question we should be asking is: If you are an autocracy, what is the chance of your being a growth success? The answer to that is a mere 10%. Think Zimbabwe instead of China. The answer often depends on the way you frame the question.
You could, of course, quibble about some of the examples. In the comparison about autocracies and democracies given above, surely we need to know the percentages of democracies that are growth successes and whether they were democracies when they were growing rapidly? In a chapter titled “Mythical or Modern?”, they make the point that “culturally specific systems of belief, often emanating from history, religion and mythology”, are very important for the decisions people make. Of course they are, but isn’t that rather obvious? Isn’t mainstream economics’ assumption of the rational man the real myth? It is usually economists who go gaga about discovering that people respond to incentives. Long before economists discovered incentives, everybody knew about carrots and sticks.
But then it would be a mistake to read this book for novel insights, or, as the authors claim, to try to make sense of modern India. Instead, just read it for the stories. The birth of independent India at the stroke of midnight on 15 August for astrological reasons is one of them. The polemic between Amartya Sen and Niall Ferguson on whether British rule was good for India is another one. There are many more.
But I must mention the one I found most interesting. It is the story of the extraordinary role played by luck in the life of Antonia Maino, now Sonia Gandhi. As the authors put it, “Sonia’s journey from shy Italian housewife to the most powerful person in India took two assassinations and five unexpected deaths after her chance meeting with her future husband. While it’s impossible to calculate, the odds would be so stacked against such a possibility as to be almost zero.” Truly delightful.