Horse trading and Politics

This brief study started as I was reviewing Portuguese interventions into horse trading during the 16th to 18th Century in South India. While it was somewhat slow going, I noticed that horse trading was starting to get a bad rap. We all know that over time it got linked to politics and voting, so I thought, why not check back see how that reputation came about and how politicians got likened to horse traders?

Some years ago, we studied the introduction of camels in long distance trade and how they became ships of the desert. Then we saw how ships took over from the camels, plying across watery seas.  But for personal conveyance, the horse held its place as numero uno until the second decade of the 20th century, which as you can see, gave it a steady run of some 4000-5000 years at the top!

The good horses were from somewhat distant places and we had Turkic, Arabian and Persian horses, just to name a popular few. Originally they were brought into N India overland and sold in Bazars. But it was with the advent of ships that they started getting sold in large numbers in S India. The cost involved in breeding them and shipping them over large distances increased the risk of maiming, disease and rapid fall in profits. With no insurance, the horse trader had to figure out how best to cover his risks and get a maximum return on his investment. One way was to ensure that the selling price had ample margins, covering the prospect of some losses in numbers due the aforementioned factors. But you know how it is, human beings, at least many of them are avaricious and desire larger and larger profits. Selling pepper, silk, porcelain, produce and so on was based on volume, but the horse was at that time the priciest of them all. 

How would you attach a cost, a price or value to a product? If you went silk carpet shopping in Turkey, the crafty salesman, without your knowing it, will tug at your heartstrings skillfully. He will narrate Bollywood like sad stories of how 5 or 6 poor women and their destitute children spent over two years making that very special carpet for you, with their own hands, with skill, a lot of love and many a sweaty day (usually there is a picture on the wall he can point to, to illustrate his tale). He would tell this all with a forlorn expression and soon you (e.g. from US) calculate in your mind. Two years, four people working @5$ per hour meant $4,000 for the item and you wait with bated breath for the salesman to tell you the price. He has done the same, after determining where you were from (to determine the labor rate per hour) and says- My friend, we have spent over $3,000 in making it, but we want it to find a good home, a loving home, like yours and so, I have a special price $2,000. You know it is a relatively good deal but have to get the better of the third world salesman, after all, you are clever and educated, so you say, no chance! I will pay you not more than $1,000. Tea is brought in, the bargaining goes on for another half hour and hands are shaken at $1,500. The deal is made, the carpet is wrapped, delivered and you walk away smugly thinking about how you killed the deal! For the salesman, well, his cost was perhaps $100, his selling target perhaps $500, so he mutters after pocketing his commission – those stupid yabancis ( foreigners), they will believe anything!

Now what do you learn from this? That you are actually talking value and valuating the object to be purchased. The seller attaches value with a story, the buyer attaches value based on relative cost. What if money was not involved and it was a barter? You have come with a cartload of wheat. So just imagine the scene of you talking about the value of wheat with the person who is attaching a value scale to carpets. The scene must have been fascinating, surely! Today everything is pegged to common currency and relative value has little meaning. Barter, trade has given way to purchase and commodities have been created with fixed prices.

But then, we were discussing horses and trying to get to the origins of dishonesty. The first large scale horse exports from Arabia were made to 16th Century India. Both the Mughals in North India and the Vijayanagar kings in the South were large scale purchasers needing thousands of horses for their many wars and desires to conquer and hold on to large kingdoms. The supplies came from Arabia and Persia and the Arabs brought them in their sailing ships, returning home with spices and other produce. Were they the ones who brought dishonesty into the trade or was it the Portuguese?

Let us assume that in the beginning the valuation was somewhat honest and the buyer was satisfied with his purchases. We can see that risk was covered by the purchaser and the Vijayanagara king paid even for the dead, diseased or lost horses. Sources mention that the trader had to produce at least a tail to make his claim and this was made good (did some traders start delivering more tails and less horses? Perhaps!). As the Portuguese arrived and established their naval might, they saw the potential for quick profits and claimed a monopoly on the horse trade after conquering Goa and other Konkan ports, where these animals were landed. They unilaterally set the purchase and selling prices.  The Arab trader who brought in the horses was neither compensated for his risk nor was he able to achieve his earlier profits. And perhaps that is how dishonesty in the horse trade, started. The middle man, the lazy Portuguese who deserved nothing, had to be cheated, that was a revenge of sorts, I suppose. This developed into a highly skilled system over the next two hundred years.

The North Indian market on the other hand was dominated by Afghan and Turkic horses, delivered through overland routes and sold during fairs or large ‘mela’s’ in the Rajasthan area. It is said that the large volume medium quality horses went to various military units of the kings on pre-agreed prices, while the best and the worst were sold in fairs at negotiated prices. Prices fluctuated based on fodder prices and the situation on the routes of travel. If there was war on the way, prices and risk naturally increased.

So to summarize, prices varied wildly in the medieval times and every tom dick and harry, or their Hindu/Muslim/Arab name equivalents wanted to profit off the poor mute horse. The perceived value of the quadruped in each region swung wildly (400 to a 1000 Rs per horse) depending on the horse trader’s wile and so a mobile experienced horse-trader was in a powerful position vis-a-vis the local consumer. As a result, horse-traders had a particularly bad reputation, augmented by their fast and loose wandering life. Their mere presence could constitute a serious threat to law and order, as is evidenced in many recorded cases in India. We also note that the itinerant horse trader developed his own culture. They had their own esoteric language, a mixture of various local dialects combined with special jargon and an extensive code of manual signs, exchanged during the actual bargaining at the fair, mostly concealed beneath a handkerchief. Tricky business, for sure, while it lasted. After World War I the advent of mechanized vehicles shifted the focus of the trade, Arabian mares and stallions became the fancy of sportsmen and breeders, and were no longer transported in great numbers to India.

At the end of it all, the horse trader ended up as a shady character, having cohorts, speaking strange languages and being generally of an unsavory nature. This reputation spread to Europe, perhaps as the banjaras or iterant traders of Rajasthan drifted to become the Romas or Gypsies. The guile in their practice was exhilarating perhaps, for horse traders everywhere stared adopting such tricks, soon there was no honest horse trader. This quote explains it all - I am neither a horse-dealer nor an Arab. He was old Aaron, the horse-trader, who had been so dishonest that thieves, even, were reluctant to deal with him (By the way, did you know that the word ‘gyp’ or cheat came from the word Gypsy? ).

While horses were owned and used only by real high society in decan and up North, it became very common in Europe and America as an individual’s means of travel. So the skillful and tricky horse trader was one you had to deal with, if you wanted to buy a horse which had by now become a commodity. Over time, he not only became a master bargainer, hard to beat, but also a cheat. He could palm off a sick and dying animal to you as a healthy prancing mare waiting for your care. The horse unlike the dog, was one which was bought and sold several times during its lifetime and thus became an animal whose physical power and appearance carried economic value.

19th century America for example was a period when a man was judged by his horse and his wife, they had to be fine creatures for a man to project his power. You were an idiot if you didn’t know a thing about horses and conversely, the more you knew of horses, the better knowledge you had of women! And thus started the competitions between the man who wanted the horse and the man who sold the horse. It even turned out to be a game, if you could be the better of the other. Because the buyer and seller needed to know the animal and its care, it had great importance in the male domain. Nevertheless, the situation resulted in the horse trade becoming more skilled, and involved doctoring a horse and its defects, all aspects which naturally affected its value. I am not going to bore you with statistics or long-winded theories and studies, but I will tell you of some of those astounding malpractices they had in Europe and America.

A horse for sale would be underfed before the sale so that they breathe easier and look healthy, their nostrils may be plugged to stop whistles (sign of a winded horse), their muscles may be pumped up (with air under the skin, not with stuff like botox), their oft switching tails may be paralyzed (by hanging weights for many hours before the sale), their tail may be lifted up (a good young horse has a perky tail) by shoving a piece of ginger or other irritants up their arse, or cocaine injected into a lame leg to remove lameness. Some had sawed gums sore to stop its cribbing, or others had teeth done (bishoping or dental forgery) to reduce age. Then there was the practice of taking a weeping widow along to impress on the neediness of the sale and they even saw the practice of selling a moon-blind horse at dusk. Ah! Well, the tricks of the trade are many and you, the buyer would never know till you brought the horse home and a day or two had passed. The iterant horse trader would be long gone and you, poorer by many a hundred dollars!

It is not surprising that this very same practices spread to the selling of cars and thus car salesmen also got a bap rap. Afterall, the car did take over from the horse and until some 15 years ago, a car was also sold and repurchased many times before its condemnation and final disposal in a junkyard. And as time went by, what was once dishonest now became in common parlance ‘sales talk’.

I still recall, in the 70’s and 80’s in India, joining the sales department of a firm was kind of unsavory and parents did not encourage it. They suggested you join R&D or engineering departments and sales was meant for the loose talking and untrustworthy smarties (What if I said I started with a sales job?). But if you look today, things have changed and everybody wants to join the M&S department because that is where you get exposure, you get better rewarded for your work, where you get to see the world, enjoy life and where you can quickly rise through the ranks! Do salesman today use any tricks akin to horse trading? Well, you decide.

Getting back to hose trading, America started to accept such practices in the late 19th century in a more positive light, even though they had a lower ethical standard. Perhaps after all, profit is what you need. And thus such techniques crept into days to day activities, including politics as the ever valuable vote became a commodity.

So how did politicians get compared to horse traders, was it because they never delivered what they promised? Perhaps! As you know, the term horse trading actually came from the practice of people buying, selling and trading horses. In such a transaction, the seller would try to hide as many of the horses faults, make many a false claim in order to drive the price of the horse up to maximize his profit. The buyer, on the other hand, would be busy trying to drive the price of the horse down by trying to find all its faults, real or not. So much so that in those time, if you saw something unbelievable and somewhat dishonest you would equate it to the well-known horse trade! Thus it was actually in the 19th century that the association of these two occurred. Let’s now see how horse trading in politics is defined.

Per the Macmillan English Dictionary, it means difficult and sometimes dishonest discussions between people who are trying to reach an agreement. In political parlance, it implies any long-drawn-out negotiation characterized by hard bargaining and compromises. It frequently takes place in democratic institutions like legislative bodies when a parliamentarian or legislator supports some Bill or trust vote in exchange for support for one of his initiatives for another Bill or legislation. But Collins states - When negotiation or bargaining is forceful and shows clever and careful judgment, you can describe it as horse-trading. Cambridge puts it as - unofficial discussion in which people make agreements that provide both sides with advantages. So it all boils down to a lot of discussion, promises and bargaining to reach a political result. As defined today, a lot of horse-trading is usually required to reach compromise in the political arena, and it is considered a zero-sum game where the parties usually extract a gain at the expense of the taxpayer.

As it came to stay in politics, Theodore Roosevelt, so rightly remarked: “In politics, we have to do a great many things that we ought not to do” and Lyndon Johnson who was so adept at political deal-making had his machinations named irreverently as “the Johnson Treatments”.

It differs in India though where it is mostly a quid pro quo in material terms and like a bribe to get votes/representatives for majority, even enticing people of other parties to join you in exchange for financial compensation or perks, that is horse trading. Horse-trading is usually done when the assembly is hung after an election. In order to gain the majority required to form a government, political parties try to pull in members from other parties. The luring game turns lurid at times as we saw recently in Maharashtra. Thus, this method is mostly disapproved. As they explain, horse trading is not illegal constitutionally, but well the practice is looked down upon as it involves rewarding members who switch parties with benefits. In 2002 a Hindu article said - In our country this word (horse-trading) is normally associated with politics. Whenever a government falls, a lot of horse-trading goes on before another government is formed. If you think this is because some of our politicians look like horses, then you are being terribly unfair, especially to the horses!

Nowadays horse trading has evolved to what is known as resort politics – Whatever could that be?
Well, parties quarantine or lock up their representatives in resorts, protecting them from the opposing party who tries to contact them and lure them with incentives, as a senior politician explained “You build a wall around your legislators so that the other party doesn’t encroach on them.” We can also see that within no time, today’s Indian politician, who is now a valuable commodity ends up as incredibly wealthy individuals. These are the potential ‘aaya ram gaya ram’ potentials, and if you did not know what that term means, go back to 1967 political defections where one Gaya Ram changed political parties cyclically three times in a fortnight, demonstrating his opportune flexibility! An anti-defection law was passed, but a counter method called Operation Kamala was quickly discovered and put into effect, and now has been superseded by Kamala 2.0! Bluff and chicane (cheat) once the indispensable tricks of trade with horse-dealers are these days the exact skills sets needed in the arena of politics where as you will all agree, honesty is no longer a requirement to become a great statesman.

And so, Politics, as politicians put it has become an art involving shrewd bargaining, horse trading, appeasement, back scratching, quid pro quo, patronage and lobbying, just to name a mere few. But then again, as Gustav Von Hertzen mentions succinctly in his book ‘The challenge of democracy’ one may despise politicians, but the parliament and the politicians reflect the moral level of the electorate.

Maybe we should get our esteemed Shashi Tharoor (Note: I like him, he is a jolly chap actually and would make a good PM!) to comment on all this. He would perhaps tighten his upper lip and mutter that that this is all just a proclivity to dickering around and tending towards a moral reprobate.

Pic - Horse trader picture – courtesy Alex Snyder, political horse trading - bolanvoice


1 comment:

Pranai Ponnath said...

Why so you think Vijayanagar never tried to produce horses internally or change fighting style to less cavalry intensive?