A victory of meaning over mathematics

Brute numbers aren’t everything in politics—they need meaning and context. Politics needs to be seen as an ongoing discourse that needs new ideas and actors
A victory of meaning over mathematics
Express illustration | Sourav Roy

Michel Serres, the philosopher of science, once wrote in praise of Plato. The wisdom of Plato’s philosophy lay in the fact that he could see philosophy both in a fairy tale and a mathematical theorem. Pythagoras often rubbed shoulders with Socrates. There is an everyday wisdom to Plato. In that sense, one must see elections not purely in terms of numbers but as a story, a fairy tale. The 2024 elections in India is a powerful example of it.

Elections are usually determined by the metaphors employed. An election as a battle can be a zero-sum contest, where the winner takes all, or it can be a playful exercise, where victory is not over-emphasised. The 2024 election was pitched as a legendary contest, without asides. Numbers were all that counted, and Modi and Shah were portrayed as masters of numbers. Shah was literally collecting numbers like gold nuggets. Shah forgets there is an irony and playfulness to numbers. He announced his victory like a prophecy of doom, a juggernaut in the making. He forgot that numbers have a context, a sense of humour, a touch of iconicity and irony.

Year 2024 revealed that Modi won the election, but lost the larger picture where numbers in jackboots are discarded in favour of gentle chappals. It revealed that Modi might be the victor, but he was still a run-of-the-mill politician—despite his historic gains, Modi lacked the charisma and iconicity of a Vajpayee. Year 2024 showed the difference in politics between electoral victory and moral victory. An electoral victory is like an accountant’s moral sheet. In moral victory, the plot goes beyond numbers; it provides a sense of theatre. A Shakespearean sense of what drama is and can be. This is something we must treasure.

Rahul Gandhi realised that sometimes numbers do not add up. There is a playfulness to numbers; we are to understand it. This is called a sense of numeracy. Modi emphasised finite numbers, but politics emphasised the symbolic. A symbolic victory is a victory of meaning, and meaning is important in politics. This is the crucial moral the 2024 election taught us.

For the people of India, politics is a critical event and democratic politics is an act of faith, a ritual to be resurrected periodically. In 2024, ordinary people realised a brute number was not everything. Politics had to be meaningful—a performance, a discourse, a morality play—and people, more than politicians, saw this as an act of faith. Faith in politics was a ritual relived by ordinary political workers campaigning hard without any promissory note from the future. They sensed that every idea needed to survive for the democratic idea to survive.

One senses this in the little vignettes across the election as drama. Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar—instead of sounding like yesterday’s newspaper or crotchety old men who have had their day—seem to have re-emerged as wise, vintage politicians with a surprising future before them. The same could be said for Sharad Pawar. Supriya Sule’s victory against Ajit Pawar’s wife has the touch of the sentimental. But accumulated sentiment becomes an emotion. Politics taught us this. In many ways, the plot unravelled like an old Hindi film.

Modi outgunned them, but he could not outmanoeuvre them. There is a touch of the sentimental once again here. Maybe people feel that many of these politicians needed one last ‘chance’—a powerful polysemic word for fairness, for justice, for an equality of opportunity in a lottery like the world of politics. ‘Every man needs a chance’ could be the real slogan of Indian politics. One has to make clear that numbers may have a surprise, a context, but the ordinary man also realises there is logic to politics. There is a sense of balance. Modi and Shah get to rule. They claim the victory of numbers. Only numbers demand meaning too. The instrumental right to rule goes to BJP, but the moral and morale to the opposition parties. It is the ordinary Indian struggling beyond experts, money and power that is the winner. Ordinary man understands that politics is a game of rules that surprises.

One sensed the normalcy of politics as the INDIA group met. Mallikarjun Kharge read his speech like a housewife who had returned the house to order. There is the sense of the normal and the everyday. One sees this in the imagery of Rahul Gandhi. He is everyone’s punching bag. Maybe as a result, he is more a common man than Modi’s self-portrait of the chaiwala. Rahul waves his hand on TV and it is stretched out to parody a public show, while Modi appears like a strict martinet. Even his hand waves are rationed out in strict and studied numbers. Yet, the comic and the futile have their moments of triumph. Rahul sits contentedly at the alliance meeting along with Sonia and Priyanka. Drama and morality have now become an intrinsic extension of maths, and life seems meaningful as politics makes it so.

This does not mean that the fight is over and there is no time for realism. Modi has won as prime minister, but the battle is not over. Hope is not always of a majoritarian flavour. There are urgent tasks before the INDIA group. They have to see politics as an ongoing philosophical discourse. A performance that needs new plots and actors. Politics in India desperately needs new ideas. It has to enact the future in a different way. The new generation may be aspirational, but they also need meaning and a history with a sense of the future. We need the revival of civil society. Secondly, we need politicians who understand and respect the faith of the ordinary man in the democratic process. This faith can only be renewed if arrogance and threat are to be downplayed. Even the BJP will benefit from it.

Moderate interventions can be expected from a few. The economy is in desperate need of inventiveness. Modi sounds like an old text. This is where academics, activists and intellectuals can restore a new sense of meaning. One continues to pray that politics in India mellows numbers with meaning, adding compassion to transparency. The romance of democracy has saved us once again.

(Views are personal)


Shiv Visvanathan | Social scientist associated with the Compost Heap, a group researching alternative imaginations

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