Priyanka Gandhi. (Photo: AFP)
Priyanka Gandhi. (Photo: AFP)

Opinion | The Gandhis and the power of the second-best choice

Why the best idea has serious flaws and the second-best idea is often far more influential

The formal entry of Priyanka Gandhi into electoral politics has reaffirmed an old conviction of Indians that the most powerful members of the Congress consider themselves subordinate to the Gandhi family and that they believe the family is the best bet to lead them. This is a wrong hypothesis today.

I believe that P. Chidambaram’s best idea for party leadership is P. Chidambaram. And Shashi Tharoor’s is Shashi Tharoor. And Kapil Sibal’s is Kapil Sibal. But what is their second-best idea? The enduring charm of the Gandhis is not that they are the Congress’s best bet, but that they are everyone’s second-best bet

In many aspects of life, the second best idea is more influential than the best idea because the best idea is often you, or yours, but the second-best idea is almost everyone’s second-best idea.

I do not say that the best idea always loses to the second best. Just that the second-best idea is more likely to win and we can see this likelihood in democratic systems such as modern marriage and policy making, and also in autocratic systems such as your parents’ marriage, corporations and terror hierarchies. The most important quality of the second-best idea is that the players grow to believe it is innately the best idea

I must tell you my favourite ISI story. When the US used to fund Afghanistan’s war against Russia through several channels, including Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, Hamid Gul, the then head of ISI, had backed one of the seven major Afghan tribal chiefs, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Many years later, the journalist Lawrence Wright asked Gul why he had favoured Hekmatyar. Gul told Wright,“I went to each of the seven, you see, and I asked them, ‘I know you are the strongest, but who is No. 2?’… They all said Hekmatyar.

The most respectable avatar of the second-best idea is“consensus". When seen in this form, we can understand democracy itself as a network of second-best ideas. Consensus is a deceptive word, which conveys a sense that it is a tweaked version of the best idea or that it contains the spirit of the best idea. The second-best idea is often a whole different line of thought.

The power of the second best is as common in our daily lives as in the grand political events of our times. For instance, the world’s pursuit of health, too, is in the power of the second best. The best solution to any form of addiction is abstinence

Ideally people should renounce the whole way of life that makes them smoke and the whole culture that makes them eat refined grain and sugar. However, this idea is not as influential as moderation. People are more likely to begin their path to recovery but by cutting down on the poisons rather than giving up. This, though, is a rare case where the best idea is actually better than the second best in practice.

Also, people have fantastic ideas about their ideal romance but in the end they choose Plan B as mates. It is as though in matters of love, Plan A does not really exist.

In the practical world, the best idea usually has very serious and fundamental flaws. It is, at times, a mythical ideal created by a thinker’s articulation, which makes no sense in reality. Like communism, for instance. Or, it has its origin sin academic thought experiments that the world has taken too seriously.

In economics, the theory of the second-best was formalised in 1956 when economists Richard Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster laid out their“General Theory of the Second Best".“Free

Exchange", a blog of The Economist, once argued that the most important aspect of the theory is that it shows that the best idea is often an impractical ideal and that the second-best ideas are doomed if they try to imitate the qualities of the best idea. Rather, the finest second-best idea “may look starkly different than the first best". The blog adds,“To say that we live in a second best world is just to say we live in the real world, not a blackboard model… The best policy-oriented economists, both left and right, are second best economists in the sense that they grasp the lesson of their fictions, but aim at truly feasible ideals, not blackboard utopias."

This is a reason why those who hate demonetization are wrong in condemning it by saying it was a bad idea. They should condemn it as the best idea. That was the real issue with DeMo. It was the theoretical ideal to destroy illicit cash, according to those who had the power to push the idea through. It may not be the disaster that critics make it out to be, but considering the havoc it caused in the practical world, its impact was modest. It appears that Indians have gone back to their old corrupt ways. DeMo has not broken a deep national habit.

The non-moralistic way of looking at financial immorality is that the morality of taxation is merely an idea. Some will argue that, all things considered, handing out protection money to the state, or tax compliance, is the best idea for a citizen. But then some will argue that tax-evasion is the second-best idea.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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