The Origins of Horse-Trading

Fali S Nariman is arguing AAP’s petition in the Supreme Court for fresh polls in New Delhi because large-scale horse-trading is going on. Justice H. L. Dattu who heads the Supreme Court Constitution Bench, is in a jolly mood. He starts a round of what journalists call quips. He asks Nariman “in a lighter vein”, (journalese for jocularly), where the term horse-trading has come from. Justice A. K. Sikri, also sitting on the bench, quips that the phrase must have to do with the fact that in this world, horses are costlier than men. Logical? No. But Nariman also wants to quip. He suggests that the phrase has defamed horses for far too long and the time has come to call the selling and buying of politicians man-trading.

I have a quip of my own to make that attempts to reach the same level of humour that our men of law have displayed. I say, let us coin a phrase that makes it clear we are indeed talking about the subset of men called politicians who don’t mind whom they sleep with as long as the price is right. I therefore propose, in a lighter vein of course, that we adopt the phrase vote-trading in place of horse-trading and man-trading, thus saving both equus and homo sapiens communis from ignominy.  

Now let’s return to Justice Dattu’s question that started it all. Where does the phrase horse-trading come from? The answer to that is simple. Not so simple is the story of how the ethics of the activity has been viewed at various times in various cultures over the centuries. In mid-nineteenth century America, a horse trader was regarded as a bit of a blackguard because of his unfair business practices. He had the tendency to deliberately hide the demerits of the animal on sale in order to make a killing. The buyer was not always expert enough to judge a horse for himself, and became the bakra in the deal.  

A change of viewpoint came when ethical standards in business began to slide at the end of the nineteenth century. The champion of the new breed of businessmen was Edward Noyes Westcott, a banker from Syracuse. He wrote a book called David Harum: A Story of American Life, which became an instant hit in 1898. Westcott’s protagonist, David Harum, was an elderly banker who upheld traditional values. In short he was a model American. This gentleman saw horse-trading as a metaphor for all business, constituting not only a natural, but even a desirable activity in a competitive market. Harum’s golden rule was, “Do unto the other feller the way he'd like to do unto you, an' do it fust.” Westcott gave the world the phrase horse-trading, and made it totally legit.

Not, however, on the other side of the Atlantic. The Brits love horses and would never approve of underhand trading in the magnificent animal. Ergo, horse-trading is even today a term of censure in British English.

In India, horses were never part of the common man’s life or literature. But there’s a story about them in Godse Bhatji’s chronicle of the 1857 uprising, Majha Pravas, which shines like a radiant star over the murky shadows of horse-trading. The Rani of Jhansi was well-known for her expertise in judging and riding horses. Once, a foreign horse trader arrived in north India with a pair of horses to sell. He went first to a well-known horse expert in Ujjain and asked him to test the horses and make an offer. The gentleman failed to evaluate them correctly. Next he went to Gwalior to Jayaji Maharaj Shinde. He too failed to judge the worth of the horses correctly. Finally he went to Jhansi and showed the horses to the Rani. She rode both and offered the horse trader Rs 1200 for one and Rs 50 for the other. The second horse, she said, appeared to have an injury in the chest. The horse trader was thrilled to meet somebody who knew her horses. He sold the pair to her at her price and earned a reward in return for his honesty.
I now wish to submit my final argument in the matter of ethics. May I state that there is a basic ethical difference between horse-trading and vote-trading? Unlike the horse, the politician stands in the market voluntarily, waiting for offers to come. Is it fair then to hold the buyer solely responsible for the bad smell that the transaction gives off?

Published On : 16-09-2014