Lessons On Analysis, Experience And Instinct For The Modi Government, Courtesy Aristotle


I stumbled upon a book about Alexander the Great and his strategies on the battlefield. I was not particularly keen to finish the book, instead my curiosity took me to research about his teacher Aristotle, who claimed by many, is the reason for Alexander’s success. The western philosopher who was highly influential in the middle ages (5th to 15th century) seemed to be a strange subject to occupy my mind for hours on end. But scratching the surface of his work, which forms the first comprehensive system of Western Philosophy, the answers came to me.

Aristotle’s thought processes are very relevant even today in finding solutions to some of the most complex social problems that confront us. But the only catch is the adoption of the philosopher’s work in its entirety and not piecemeal.

My understanding of his work though limited was enough to figure out its relevance in today’s policy decisions.

Aristotle’s work is a combination of analysis and rhetoric. His approach was encompassing, first to include the use of logic where there was only one scenario and one answer. Second to use hands on experience (not jut your own) in a case of multiple scenarios. The core of Aristotle’s work was simple, to work with what one can see rather than what something should have been.

Let’s put the topline of Aristotle’s theory to test on a policy decision of the Government, which has been much debated and for good reason as it has affected the life of every Indian. There has not been a day since Nov 8th, 2016 where Demonitisation has not been spoken and written about.

Let’s say hypothetically the move came with good intentions, to remove black money from the market, reduce corruption and move towards a cashless economy. Irrespective of the narrative, there is a failure of approach if Aristotle’s theory was applied.

Logic is seriously questioned on this one, on the phase out of old currency and the circulation of new currency into the economy.  Right on top of my list is: why was and is the majority of new currency introduced of a higher value, INR 2000?  With 86% of the currency withdrawn, there is bound to be a disruption of consumption patterns in an economy that is dependent on cash.

The second major failure is to understand the multiple scenarios of this move i.e. consequences for the larger population and not limited to the lot that has access to debit cards, Paytm and on the other side the offenders, hoarding black money. What were the different scenarios possible with this policy move? Did the Government account for it?A look at the agriculture and informal sector, where income is earned in cash should be a reality check for the decision makers. We are talking about 800 million people dependent on cash. The agricultural sector, which was expected to grow by 4% this year, has likely taken a hit with farmers running out of cash to buy seed.

And even if we were to imagine that Government lacks the will to act on logic and instinct, how about reflecting on experiences of demonitisation globally as well as in India. In 1954 and in 1978 when demonitisation was rolled out in India, again with the noble cause to tackle black money, it failed. The experience of demonitisation globally, in the Soviet Union or Myanmar, lead to a political price being paid. The learning from the past should have been an indicator on aspects that needed further thinking, therefore leading to smoother implementation.

While it was interesting to put the Aristotle lens on demonititsation, it’s a good question to ask why Aristotle? The philosopher has a huge influence on the way we go about our lives today, the decisions we take everyday. But unfortunately there is a skewed understanding of his work and a very convenient uptake of his teachings and this is the danger. To elaborate the point further, an example taken from history, the Vietnam War.

Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense) who was known for his number crunching, accountant approach to problem solving, won the debate over George Ball (Under Sec of State Dept) to escalate the war in Vietnam, simply using data and statistics. While Ball used predictions based on critical questioning and experience as reasons for not escalating the war,President Johnson sided with McNamara and we all know the deadly end of that war which extracted a huge human cost.

Neither McNamara nor Ball passed their arguments through the Aristotle theory, but I would like to highlight McNamara’s approach. The analytic thought process of Aristotle’s work, which was McNamara’s lens, has dominated the global discourse on development and more so now. It has fueled capitalism and an over dependence on science and technology the objective of which is to bring about certainty and control. While not all consequences are “in your face” and grim like the Vietnam War but I wouldn’t say we are very far.

Now taking an example ofAristotle’s one-sided approach in our own context, the JAM trinity (Jhan Dhan-Aadhar-Mobile) driven by promises of technology. Logically and on paper this looks like “THE” reform that will make life for the marginalized easier and bring them into the fold of mainstream development. But passed through the Aristotle lens many flaws arise.

The pathway of JAM to achieve last mile delivery is simple:

  • First Mile: identification of beneficiary (Aadhar)
  • Middle Mile: Transfer of funds (Jan Dhan accounts)
  • Last Mile: Access to funds (Mobile)

Last mile delivery of benefits is definitely a worthwhile problem to solve for the marginalized in the country today. I am not going to debate on cash vs. entitlements but I would like to pose some questions to the design. For the JAM trinity to be a success the stars of all the three components need to align. Currently this alignment looks challenging, with two clear weak links. The first weak link is the bank- beneficiary linkage with inadequate penetration of banks in rural areas. The second being the bank-aadhar link, till date there are INR 26.2Cr bank accounts, which have been opened due the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, but only 16% is seeded with Aadhar. Additionally if the Government wants to spread the JAM, then identification and targeting beneficiaries will remain a challenge with some schemes at individual level and some at household level.  The Government has the opportunity to tweak this reform and pass it through Aristotle’s theory. One part of that exercise would be to carefully consider which schemes are ready to JAM. Another assessment that should happen today is would the results of realization and linking J-A-M be worth the effort.

Policies might look good on paper and successful in making us look very smart globally, but reality is different more often. There is much to learn from Aristotle’s work on problem solving that will help us come up with unique configurations that are applicable in our contexts.

The majority will be selective about choosing one Aristotle approach over the other, example in point McNamara, but the real change makers will be able to combine the duality ofthe theory as one and see things for what they are rather than what they should be in some ideal wonderland.

Neha Saigal is Currently a consultant in the Development Sector

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