Reality Check India

On the United Voters of India and Free Agents

Posted in Uncategorized by realitycheck on November 2, 2010

Atanu Dey has a really thought provoking post over at his blog called A bit on Democracy in India.

The central problem according to him and shared by all of us is :

How do we get men of better quality into elected office ?

The man is an accused, lodged in jail, more than likely guilty of a heinous crime — and wins an election. I can confidently assert that had I contested that election, I would have lost to that man. I am not a paragon of virtue but it is hard to imagine that I am less than a man who is suspected of being a viciously violent person.

I don’t know you, dear reader, but I can bet my bottom dollar that you are not as ethically challenged as that minister of telecommunications accused of a spectrum scam that has probably cost the country billions of dollars. I bet that you have more integrity than the prime minister who shields corrupt politicians from being brought to justice. I wager that you are not so greedy as to siphon off thousands of millions from funds allocated for organizing a games event. Yet you, and thousands like you, don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being elected to any political office. Indeed it is your scruples, your sense of decency, your moral values, your integrity and intelligence which will be your handicap in getting you to any political office.

Source : A bit on Indian Democracy (emphasis mine)


He proposes a new voting bloc called “The United Voters of India”. This is how it would work.

Who decides whom should one vote for? I guess the voter decides. In the UVI context, the group collectively decides. Membership to UVI is voluntary but the condition is that the member adhere to the sworn duty of voting, and voting only for the candidate chosen by the association. The members choose whom to vote for through “primary” elections in which all members are eligible to vote — but it is neither compulsory nor mandatory. The only compulsory bit is that the member eventually vote at the real elections for the candidate chosen by the group.

This is a subject that fascinates me because it contains a call to action.   Like many of you I have spent countless hours dreaming about ways to break this gridlock – How do we get into this ecosystem as a mutant – where everyone already thriving in it stands to lose by allowing us in ?   Atanu comes tantalizingly close with his theory of  “endowment effect” – but I think we are actually in a far worse state.  We are in a loop of exclusive benefits leading to political power. This has been iterated over and over again to a point where entry of a mutant can only be tolerated as a court jester.

Most readers are probably going, “Here he goes again with his free agent theory“.  I do feel dirty for taking on an idea promoted by a man of such high intellect with such a mundane counter as “people vote for their benefit protectors”.

Getting elected

Consider this : Does Atanu Dey who has shown such a passion with concrete ideas for improving India really have no chance of getting elected ?

Dont lose hope yet. All he has to do is join an existing party such as the Congress, the Left, the Trinamool, etc – and get a ticket. There are many ways to go about that including just purchasing a ticket. Lo and behold, we have a new MLA or MP.  Hundreds of people including our prime minister and home minister make it to politics that way. Many more such as Kiran Bedi, Narayan Murthy, are waiting in the wings. So it cant be that hard to get in line. That is not what he is really asking.

So me try to rephrase.

Can a person like Atanu Dey contest on the basis of his own big picture issues and win ?

We are getting closer. Almost impossible – but the degree of impossibility depends on how many ‘free agents’ are in his constituency. I can confidently say that south of the Vindhyas there are very few places where such a miracle can happen. I suspect this is true even in the north – but I leave it to better informed people from that area. You may wonder, what about the dozens of independents who make it past the polls.  Those are really local satraps who protect this or that tailored benefit in that area and have little to articulate by way of “big picture” issues. This could be a route to a landlord, a sugar factory owner, a former politician or someone who has a disproportionate influence in his area.

Endowment vs Ad hoc benefits

What we have in India are not endowments or entitlements – it is in fact something far worse.  We have ad hoc benefits to groups purely at the pleasure of the politicians protecting them. In fact, the politicians are themselves selected for advancing new benefits or protecting existing benefits from examination. Allow  me to explain.

From Atanu’s blog an excellent description of the “endowment effect” –

once you give people something, you cannot say, “oops, that was a mistake, so give it back to me” and expect them to give it up.

It is easy to gloss over the all important “you” and “them” in the above sentence.  In this context,  you refers to the state – represented solely by the humans elected and sitting in the parliament and legislatures.  Them refers to the beneficiaries of the said endowment.

Now imagine a system, where there is a feedback loop between you and them. If the nature of the endowment is such that it directly impacts who gets elected and thus gets put in a position to command the future of the endowment – we have an adhoc benefit.  We expect these humans (ie the Indian state) to scrutinize the very endowment which put them there in the first place.  This would be high treason to the beneficiary group and indeed this is the worst mistake a political party can do today in India. If this feedback loop between you and them is iterated over multiple electoral cycles, the gaps get filled up and it becomes a formidable well oiled machine.

To be sure this machine can also accommodate a sprinkling of harmless court jesters – like Tharoor or Aiyar – who pose no danger to the link of endowments.  It must also accommodate a few fixers such as Pranab and PC. The primary purpose of this machine is however benefit protection, big ticket issues are treated as nuisances that need minimum effort patching. However, this machine has one fatal vulnerability – which I shall address later.

The UVI voting block

I think this sounds very similar to the frequent appeals to “the middle class” to vote for governance. Popular bloggers like Offstumped (formerly of INI)  still seem to believe in this.  I claim the middle class is hopelessly divided into free agents and locked in voters. The middle class is least likely to rebel/defect against their protectors.

A true test of the UVI voting block would be : Can you get Christians to join it ? Even the cool rocker types ? You can extend this to Muslims, caste groups like Gounders, Vellalas, other flexible but numerically tiny beneficiaries like public works contractors, government employees just coming off a 50% hike in DA.

Let me further put across the weakness of the UVI in another way.

Consider this duty of a UVI member :

The only compulsory bit is that the member eventually vote at the real elections for the candidate chosen by the group.

Now lets us consider the dilemma of a UVI member with ad hoc benefits, say an OBC or  Minority. What you are essentially asking him to do is “Sacrifice your benefit protector – who is very much on the ballot – and vote for a larger interest”.  The UVI charter would then seek to extract a sacrifice from him while the free agents have to make no such sacrifice.  Very few will resolve this dilemma the way we want it. Indeed over a period of time, the UVI will end up being a free agent voting block. Which is not a bad thing, but then it has little use as a compulsory voting group. Free agents are all ears for debate.  The UVI might then become a platform to inspire debate. A short distance from there is an outfit to relentlessly challenge conventional wisdom advanced by the big media.  This I think is extremely effective because it has the potential to exploit the fatal vulnerability of the “well oiled” machine I mentioned earlier.

More on this vulnerability later. Let us just say the necessary condition for this adhoc-benefits regime to thrive is darkness and ignorance.

This post should not be interpreted as a cynical view at the UVI. I would be the first person to join such an outfit, but you already got me and others like me at “Hi, I am UVI..”. It is about breaking the logjam and releasing a population of free agent voters – none of whom might be like me or you.

A big thanks to Atanu Dey. We owe him for producing such thought provoking pieces day after day. These exercise a part of the brain which has been numbed by our education system.


7 Responses

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  1. Atanu Dey said, on November 2, 2010 at 5:13 am

    I am happy to see my post discussed here. I would like to make a couple of clarifications.

    1. Endowment Effect.

    What I was referring to was the fact that adult universal franchise, once granted, cannot be taken back. In my post I did not refer to any other endowments, benefits, etc.

    2. You write, “Now lets us consider the dilemma of a UVI member with ad hoc benefits, say an OBC or Minority.”

    UVI, “united voters of India,” is an association of urban educated, middle-class voters. These are people who do not belong to any other “vote bank”. They are not part of the “minority vote bank,” or the “dalit vote bank” or this that or other caste vote bank. They are voters who are not part of any recognized group that the political parties routinely pander to.

    As I have repeatedly stressed in all my blog posts related to UVI (and there are several), UVI is a voluntary association. People join if and only if they understand the principles that the association stands for. These principles are more or less libertarian and liberal. Limited government, equality before law (meaning no discrimination based on any criterion such as caste, religion, etc), market based economy, and the rest of it.

    If one agrees with those principles, and takes an oath to vote in all elections and to vote only for the candidate or party that the association chooses through an internal “primaries” process, then one can be a member; not otherwise.

    So the scenario you are considering (which I quote above) does not arise.

    I would be happy to clarify what UVI is and how it is designed to work. Please feel free to ask me.

    Best wishes,

    • rc said, on November 4, 2010 at 5:01 pm


      Thanks for commenting.

      1) If the UVI members agree so much on principle – why would they need a whip ?

      2) The very act of free agents organizing will drive the locked in voters to congeal even tighter around their benefit protectors.

      3) If the UVI becomes significant, it can be compromised by the same divisive technique of offering exclusive benefits.

      I just happen place a sky high valuation for the weapon in the incumbents possession. The ability to offer a better equality, completely at their whim with no burden of evidence. There is no workaround it seems for this, as anyone from the south can attest. The only way out is to build a new conventional wisdom among the people who are used as fodder for this weapon.

      • Atanu Dey said, on November 6, 2010 at 3:49 pm


        1. I think I have explained it in my Pragati article. Suppose there are five voters: A, B, C, D, & E. Suppose A, B, & C privately hold the same principles and would vote for a candidate X who is better than candidate Y. But suppose each of the three believes that the other two will not vote, and that voters D & E will vote for candidate Y. Then if A, B & C act of that belief, they would rationally not bother voting, and candidate Y will win.

        UVI has an explicit set of principles, and makes a commitment that each of its members has sworn to vote. This makes each member realize, first, that there are others like him, and second, that others are going to vote and therefore his vote will not be wasted.

        In short, each member is able to make a credible commitment and therefore the collective is able to make a credible commitment.

        2. The assumption is that the current vote bank — mainly the ‘minority’ vote bank — has near 100 percent participation. But this vote bank is really a minority. One can do the arithmetic and show that on the margin, a counter-balancing vote bank would not need much more than say 10 percent of the votes to affect the outcome.

        3. Please refer to the principles that the UVI agrees to. The government should not be handing out “benefits” in the first place. Limited government is the goal of UVI. So that question of exclusive benefits does not arise.

        I hope this clarifies some things.

  2. B Shantanu said, on November 4, 2010 at 8:28 am

    RC: Thought-provoking post…One request: Can I please post this on my blog as a guest post from you?
    I do want this to be shared and read widely..
    Pl email me at jaidharma AT to confirm
    Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!
    Shantanu @

  3. rc said, on November 4, 2010 at 4:50 pm


    Be my guest !

  4. Revathi said, on November 9, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Dear RC,

    Yes, may be I am morally higher than the guy in jail but if voted into power, can I do anything useful to anyone in the existing system? The answer is a big no for most of us who cannot deal with the system in its present condition. Can I raise huge amounts of money for giving away sops? Once again no. So from the voter’s point of view, the man in jail is better than you and I since he has clout.

  5. seadog4227 said, on November 9, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Keep it simple: have a clear Politician Rating System based on basic criteria, factual data and public feedback. Let the voters take it from there.

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