Irrationally Exposed At The Expo

01 February, 2012

THE WEBSITE OF THE 11TH AUTO EXPO 2012 was surprisingly ambiguous about the dates of the fair. As I clicked through the site, the logo that appeared prominently on the top of each page read “7-11 January”, as did various advertisements in the media. However, on some of the inside pages of the website, there was a brief, nearly inconspicuous reference to “5-6 January” as “Media Days, Special Invitee”.

Aside from the clumsy syntax, the other oddity I encountered was that most people I had spoken to about the fair were unaware of any such dates restricted to the press. Clearly, the organisers of what was being promoted as one of the largest automotive shows in the world wanted to maintain strict access to the expo on its first two days, presumably to ensure a relatively hassle-free environment for journalists and business visitors.

Having had firsthand experience of swirling crowds at the Auto Expo almost a decade ago, I decided to secure a ‘privileged’ media pass. On the designated day, as I made my way to Pragati Maidan somewhat puffed with conceit, I came in for a rude shock: Pragati Maidan was like a bad day at Tahrir Square, a stampede waiting to happen, hardly less than a “Kumbh Mela”, as Anand Mahindra, managing director of the Mahindra Group, would later put it.

Was this the organisers’ idea of ‘restricted access’? It didn’t make rational sense—100,000 people thundering to get in on the “Exclusive Day for media” (that website again). What further defied logic was the supreme irony that was played out the following day, which, despite being a no-restrictions, public access day—hefty entry ticket for the aam janta, though—had a whimper of a turnout.

It’s hard not to make a case for behavioural analysis right here. To understand social behaviour, economists have long relied on the rational choice theory, which—as its name suggests—seeks to explain behaviour on the simple assumption that individuals are rational beings. They always seek to maximise their benefits and minimise their losses, and they make choices and follow actions that allow them to do so. Sounds logical….

But, as more and more economists have come to realise, humans are not necessarily the most rational of creatures. Beyond rational decision-making, which posits the weighing of choices on the numerical scale of benefits and losses, there are deeper and more nuanced mechanisms that guide behaviour—emotions, moral attitudes, social norms and suchlike, which sometimes succeed in steering us away from the path of lucidity.

Down this wayward road, a loss of a certain amount has a far more adverse effect than the comparative benefits from gains of an equal amount; the classic case of diminishing marginal returns—the value of benefits from a third car are much less than that from a first car—even though a rational mind should ideally value them equally (assuming they are of the same brand and price); it is wishful thinking—woolgathering, in other words—that motivates people to buy lottery tickets, even though everybody knows that, over a stretch of time, an overwhelming majority of people actually lose money. Then again, love and hate are irrational emotions that almost always lead to irrational decisions; and respect and shame, although not individual emotions but linked more to social norms, can lead to the same ‘irrational choice/ wrong decision’ effect.

Could this explain the scramble at the Auto Expo?

I thought it might—till I remembered that dominant Delhi emotion: vainglory. Having lived most of my life in this city, how could I have so conveniently forgotten that our excessive devotion at the altar of pomp and show is the one thing that binds together Delhi’s disparate citizens? It almost embarrasses me to think that I might have been embodying this trait when I secured the media pass in the first place.

It’s not that most Delhiites who would want to attend the show can’t afford tickets (even if they happen to be Rs. 150 per aam aadmi). It’s not that they are sticklers for not splurging on excessive frivolities. In this city of one million too many VIPs, the free ‘pass’ is just another power statement, the flaunting of a social hierarchy. And when adoration of vanity is juxtaposed with a mercurial temperament, which is the other thing that Delhiites flaunt, you can be sure that rational decision-making will almost certainly go for a toss.

It might not be wrong to assume that the Auto Expo’s organisers had their hands all over this irrational, racing pulse of this city. For all we know, they might have decided to print and distribute a few hundred thousand ‘VIP passes’ to accommodate the instincts, expectations and attitudes of the very volatile people here. Maybe a ‘Car Kumbh’ was part of their grand plan: you know, give them what they want, help them satisfy their sleepless craving for a bit of freeloading—and watch their toes get crushed under the burden of their petty desires.

It’s a bit of a stretch, true. Nonetheless, many visitors left in disgust after shoving and being shoved around for hours in their vain effort to catch a glimpse of the cars or of the pretty girls hired to add that extra bit of glamour (and who often end up being bigger draws than the cars). It was our obsessive self-regard that ended up putting the brakes on our enjoyment of the show.

Anant Nath