Monday, December 24, 2007

Warrior Politics

Thought provoking.

It’s not very often that one comes across a book which delves into subjects that you particularly like. This book blends two of my favorite subjects-history and politics in an insightful analysis of how ancients lived and ruled in societies. More importantly, what one can learn from them.

Quite a lot as it turns out. The book is based on the firm view that all that is going on in our lives, has parallels in history. Thus by learning how people tackled issues not quite different from our own, we can govern ourselves better. From time immemorial, history has been faithfully recorded by preceptors, who in turn through their rigorous analysis have influenced it.

The most diverse set of luminaries are chosen in this book. It commences with Winston Churchill's experiences in the late 19th century in Sudan, fighting the Mahdi. It was here that he gained his initial military experience, and a sense of the importance of history and people. These insights stood him good stead in fighting Nazism and co-opting the Americans in WWII. He is praised for his foresight in aligning with Stalin despite his abhorrence of communism, only to repel the advance of Hitler. No book on policy can be bereft of Sun-Tzu and Machiavelli. The author vividly portrays these philosophers as well as the historical context within which they lived. Thucydides who wrote the opus, "The Pelopponesian War" is also profiled. Set in the background of the war between Athens and Sparta, it remains a fascinating read combining the military might and political battles in these city states.

Increasingly states might collapse due to the non-availability of resources and massive unemployment of the youth. It has also to do with the unwillingness of people who live in city-states to consider themselves as part of a larger nation. Here Kaplan studies Malthus, whose essays on economic demand and scarcity of resources proved crucial for thinkers of his era.

Finally Kaplan delves into studying political structures in the ancient civilizations of Sumer, India and China. He finds that multiplicity of cultures did not deter successful empires from being formed. Rather, commerce and some astute political maneuvering led to formation of dynasties which survived the ravages of time...until more powerful ones toppled them. He studies Tiberius, who ushered in a long reign of peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire. Thus, while Tiberius did not expand his suzerain, he certainly managed to govern it better.

The impression one gets from reading this book is of fast paced change, shrewd political masters and the primacy of political opportunism. We live in similar political scenarios, where war and the fight for dominance will increasingly become asymmetrical. The astute politician is he who knows how to navigate this.

Next stop : Plain Speaking by N. Chandrababu Naidu

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Games Indians play...

During one of my regular hunts at the LRC, I chanced upon a book with this title.For someone who is fascinated by India and her meandering millions, this book seemed just the right tonic.Add to the fact that it was quite lightweight and written by an academic of IIMB, and I felt this book would pack quite a punch.I picked it up.

The book attempts to answer some basic questions about Indians with a game theoretic approach. Some of the key questions were :

1. Why are we individually so brilliant, yet collectively dumb ?
2. Are Indians the world's greatest free-riders ?
3. Can we learn any lesson from the concepts of game theory ?

The author has made a good attempt at doing justice to the title. He starts with why Indians behave in such a bizzare fashion, something which he seeks to explain with our focus on short-term results versus long-term goals.

Also, he attacks our collective sense of fatalism and the cavalier approach we extends to issues which do not concern us individually.He bemoans the fact that Indians have never work collectively, and when they are put into teams each comes with the impression that work is a zero-sum game. Small wonder why the author compares us to crabs in the bucket,each trying to outdo the other! He concludes with an interesting reference to the Gita, and analyzes how the verses of the Gita actually enjoin us to incorporate a C-C (collaborate-collaborate) outlook to life.

My key "takeaway" from this book was his reference to Axelrod's experiment, which sought to define which game theory strategy works the best irrespective of circumstance. To his astonishment, a strategy with only three words in its program survived every other plan. It was............Tit for tat.

The book somewhere meanders into discussing various game theories and focussess incessantly on potraying the negative aspects of Indian society. Regrettably, it does little justice to ordinary people we meet who despite their fears are warm, friendly and a tad too forgiving at times. Also it fails to even tread on India's greatest glue - religion. India is a tremendously religious country, and much of our lives centre around our beliefs. Logic would suggest that religion should also guide our interaction with others, but this aspect is not covered by the book at all. I wish the author had applied his thoughts on this issue. Finally,he also makes a passing reference to politicians but does not do much of game theory analysis here as well.

All in all, an absorbing book, perfect for those few minutes of welcome nothingness that thankfully creep into our everyday lives !

Coming up next - Warrior Politics !