I rarely engage in political discussions especially if they pertain to Kerala. But I could not help but butt in when Bino was extolling the virtues of Oommen Chandy, Kerala's current chief minister. Mr. Chandy has been winning brownie points for his much publicized outreach efforts. These include installing a webcam in his office and holding people's durbars where aggrieved people are dispensed quick justice. Conventional wisdom thus holds that Mr. Chandy is better than his predecessor. But is that true?
Humans are particularly vulnerable to the Messiah effect - the notion that One will rise from the multitude, take charge of human affairs and right whatever is wrong with the world. Notice the emphasis on the singular. We are more comfortable in suspending disbelief when it comes to a single person rather than a group of individuals. Maybe this is a remnant of our tribal psyche where everyone in the tribe had to pledge allegiance to the Chief or else. But our current world is a more complicated animal where the wisdom of yore no longer holds true. 7 billion people pose a different set of control problems - How do you organize them in a scalable fashion? How will you ensure resiliency? Who is in charge of the transfer of power?
India is a functioning democracy albeit a creaking one. As every year 17 million people are added to the national roll, the government needs to reinvent itself to stay effective. One way to do this is by decentralizing power by creating local governments and then empowering them by providing resources. The former has been implemented in Kerala via the panchayat system. However the latter has never been carried out effectively due to the intransigence of successive state governments including those headed by Mr. Chandy. Since the panchayats were not given enough money or power, all decisions are still being made by state governments. So if you need to fix your local roads or libraries, you will need to tolerate the whims and fancies of the bigwigs at Thiruvananthapuram rather than contacting your local panchayat member. Naturally this leads to a situation where the state government becomes a bottleneck as 35 million citizens clamor for its attention.
Conventional wisdom is thus false - adding a webcam or holding people's durbars does not make Mr. Chandy our Mahabali. He should instead concentrate his energies on systemic reforms that address the real problems. So the next time someone dishes out conventional wisdom, think it through before digesting it wholesale. The wise person should always ask these two questions - Why do I believe what I believe? How do I know what I know?