Peel away the outer layers of news with just one question, in Latin: Cui Bono?

Marcus Tullius Cicero, a.k.a Mark Tully Really Senior or Yo Yo MC Tully, was a Roman philosopher, lawyer, orator, political theorist and hardcore Gangsta Latin Rapper and producer in the first century BC. One of his popular catchphrases that, in combination with a really phat beat, was “Cui Bono?” which is not to be confused with an SMS goodbye to U2’s lead singer (with a typo). It means “To whose benefit?” It was a question he would ask with all the power of his oratorical voice and suitably gravitas-inducing hand-toga manoeuvres and it would, more often than not, make everyone go “hmm.”

We must go to war with the Gaulish tribes, Caesar would say, and Cicero would go “Cui Bono”, and then Caesar would go “Futue te ipsum!” in exasperation. The reader is invited to Google for the meaning of that expression while we move on to our main point: In politics, the question “who benefits?” results in one of many outcomes. The rarest of these outcomes is a civil public debate about corruption in politics followed by a peaceful transition of power to the ... umm ... outcumbent, if you will. But more often than not, the question is an open invitation for conspiracy theorists.

Riots in Bihar? The CM will ask “Cui Bono?” and go on to suggest that communal clashes will benefit the other side.

Riots in Kashmir? Clearly, someone’s secular credentials are at stake.

Firing from across the border? Obviously, someone wants to now show off their ability to “give suitable responses to the enemy.”

In political calculus, outcomes are largely local minima or maxima in a larger optimisation problem. If you didn’t understand that, don’t worry. I borrowed that from mathematics and it doesn’t teach us anything we don’t already know. It sounds impressive so you may want to bookmark it for later use in social settings. 

But when the question “Cui Bono?” is asked of the BCCI, that gathering of august gentlemen working hard to take the Gentleman out of the Gentleman’s game, they are likely to point in the direction of some chap who cheated them of Rs.50 crores in a land deal. In a glorious display of misplaced Schadenfreude, social media has been LOLing and ROFLing at the BCCI. “Serves these greedy fellows right,” seems to be the general sentiment but, you see, the real cost of this fraud is most likely to be passed on to the very people LOLing and ROFLing right now. You can RT a tweet. They can raise ticket prices. You may not book tickets. They may not ticket bookies. 

Winston Churchill once said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” If you are an optimist, you might read that as “good politicians do good things when there is a crisis” and if you are a pessimist, you might read that as “politicians exploit crises to become more powerful.” Schroedinger’s cat would like to say that both are true at the same time.

It turns out, for instance, that builders in Mumbai have already raised the costs of construction because of “the Durga Shakti effect.” Honest officer implies annoyance to sand mafia in U.P., which implies negative media coverage about sand mining in general, which therefore raises prices in Mumbai. If a butterfly flutters its wings on the banks of the Ganga, your EMI will increase in Mumbai. Obviously, all honest roads lead to that tricky dilemma: Are you, the citizen, really willing to pay the price of honesty? Or are you content with Facebook/Twitter campaigns and being that part of the nation that seems to keep demanding answers on televised news shows?

Meanwhile, in the world of sports, Australia has finally mastered the art of turning into the England team from the 1990s, that perfect combination of mediocre performances and articulate whining about extraneous reasons for their defeats.

But it’s interesting how we take cruel pleasure in watching the Australians lose. I asked someone why he enjoyed their sporting misery and his answer was “racism against Indian students.” While you let that stunning piece of guilt-by-association logic sink in, let’s consider, for a moment, what news really is. Nate Silver, in his book The Signal and the Noise, points out that all news is the organised collection and dissemination of rare events. Think about that for a moment.

The next time you learn of a riot in Bihar, a communal clash in Kashmir, cross-border firing, honest officer undone by the mafia or an Australian victory under Clarke, remember that there is quite a good possibility that it is a rare event that is amplified by those on the other end of the question: “Cui bono?”


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