Weapons of Mass Dialogue

Devangshu Dutta

July 25, 2007


As I read through Arun Maira’s book, the month unfolded with a number of high-pitched disagreements around the world. In India, quotas and reservations were a hot topic, as was an apparent divergence between the Prime Minister and corporate chiefs on executive income and distribution of wealth. Self-appointed moral police disapproved the expressions of a student of art, while, elsewhere in the world, suicide bombers expressed disapproval of foreigners on their soil.

We are surely not the first to wonder why, after millennia of physiological evolution, societies around the world are still stuck in the same, predictable response: where disagreement (on an issue) translates into disapproval (of a person), more often than not leading to conflict that is frequently violent.

The need to accept differences and the use of democratic dialogue as a process to close the gap is the basis of Arun Maira’s Discordant Democrats. While the book is largely about democracy in India, Maira draws from events, personalities and initiatives around the world to make the case for democracy as the only reasonable mechanism to manage diversity in society, and dialogue as the only reasonable mechanism to sustain it.

This is embodied in a quotation that is commonly attributed to French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In fact, Maira goes beyond free speech to the need for mass dialogue. While free speech typically stops at the “right to express different opinions”, dialogue is about the free “exchange” that can move people closer. Dialogue, unlike debate or argument, is not about sticking to one’s own point of view but about parties reaching a consensus through a process of mutual expression and understanding.

When comparisons are made between Communist China and democratic India, democracy is presented as the millstone around the neck of India’s development. India has a demographic diversity that is among the highest in the world, and a body politic that is among the most fragmented. It is the disagreements among the various segments, interest and pressure groups that some people often hold up as the biggest hurdle to India’s economic and social progress. On the other hand, the advocates of “democracy in action”; may hold up noisy debate as the true expression of desires of individuals and small, otherwise powerless, groups. And there is little common ground between these two groups.

But, as Maira writes in the preface: “This book is about democracy and about consensus: two ideas that cannot but be associated with India. Indeed, one must wonder whether India could be one country without democracy or without consensus.”

Maira takes a middle path, in differentiating between the “hardware” and the “software” of democracy. He describes the hardware as the mechanisms that we are all familiar with — the Constitution, devolved institutions and the framework of free and fair elections, whereas the software is dialogue and deliberations. The democratic hardware enables the freedom of divergent expression. But it is the democratic software that enables a convergence to consensus and the emergence of a functional rather than dysfunctional society.

This is an important distinction when we examine the relative success or failure of countries that are all apparently democratic in structure. Most elections may be free and fair, but are the results later really representative of the electorate’s wishes? From what we can see around us, the hardware of democracy is robust, but there needs to be greater emphasis on the software.

Maira devotes the latter part of the book to tools that he calls Weapons of Mass Dialogue. Using topical and real-life instances of the dialogue mechanism being applied, he takes the reader through the steps of creating a common aspiration, exploring and identifying the thought anchors of the parties in the dialogue, framing the situation and then arriving at a solution.

As a comparison, the example of a Native American tribe comes to mind. To resolve conflict between members, the tribe follows a structure that requires a member to silently listen to the other’s views and then express that person’s views back to him until he or she concurs that the listener has completely understood what has been said. Only then does the first listener get the opportunity to express his own views, while the first speaker only listens and then reiterates what he or she has heard.

This mechanism may appear lengthy in most modern debates, but when we are dealing with issues as complex as the evolution of our cities or the uplift of disadvantaged castes and socio-economic classes, do we really have any other option?

Our genetic response to crisis is hard-wired from our days in the wild: fight or flight. While the latter is clearly “escape”, the former is also an “exit” because it shows an inability to deal with a discord to a mutually satisfying result. We need to expand this to a trinity of responses that includes “unite” – an integrative process that can help cope with the complex and interrelated world we live in.

The tools may look contrived and slow to those championing the cause of “action” there are few alternatives to dialogue. But in a world where discordant democrats do not often listen to each other, Maira’s Weapons of Mass Dialogue are definitely worth a try. Here it is on Amazon.co.in.

We want action. And we want democracy. Sometimes, in despair, when that speedy action is difficult in democracy, he seemed willing to forsake democracy. But that is a cop-out. We have to find a way to have both – speedier action and more democracy. Once again, a very important “either-or” choice is raising its head. We must convert it into a ‘both-and’ solution. As Einstein said, we cannot solve the difficult problems that we face with the same thinking that led us into those problems. Rather, we must look into the theories-in-use that are causing the problem, and develop a new one. In this case, the problem with our theory-in-use of how people can work together to resolve problems that they are all part of. The call for an authority above them, “insulated from the intense pressure of democracy” – a dictator or expert that they would be willing to unquestioningly delegate upwards to – is giving up on the further evolution of humanity’s democratic enterprise.

[Here’s the book on Amazon.co.in.]

The Case of the Missing Millions

Devangshu Dutta

April 27, 2006

In my previous column (“Deal Ya No Deal“, 9 March, 2006), I raised a point about unrealistic volume expectations on the part of many marketers launching new products and brands in India.

In some part these are due to the marketer believing his or her own hype. However, a more insidious influence on the expectations are the unrealistic assumptions – a big factor being the incorrect assumption about the size of the market.

Back in the early days of economic liberalisation, during 1993-94, I remember figures being thrown about that talked about the 200-300 million middle class. Multinational and Indian consulting firms, in the slick presentations on behalf of Indian clients pitching partnerships to foreign companies, fed the legend. (Hey, let’s face it, for a while I, too, was part of that game!)

Well, for the last two to three years, those times have been upon us again. The difference is that, instead of hiring consultants, Indian companies have smartened their act, hired a few (or a few dozen) young MBA’s, who are making the exact same pitch to potential international partners again.

As a fall-out in my own small little corner of the world, I have been severely troubled by several international clients and associates whose first question is: “Just how big is India as a market?” and I must say that not many of them like the answers I have given them.

Foreign companies’ first attraction to India is the billion-plus population. Brands from countries which have domestic markets of 50-300 million salivate at the prospect of 1.2 billion Indians starving for their particular make of biscuit or coffee or the latest backless cropped blouse. The thinking goes, “If we can capture even 2% of the market to start with…

Let’s stop dreaming and tell the truth for a change. And I promise you, the truth is still very palatable – you just need to shift your perspective a bit.

The simple fact is that, if we were to evaluate incomes, spending and consumption the way they are evaluated in the developed markets, even allowing for purchasing power parity, the Indian “Middle Class” is possibly less than 20 million individuals.

“What?! But that’s less than 2 per cent of the Indian population,” has been the anguished reaction of many international marketers that I have spoken to in the past year or so. Followed by, “Where are you pulling out these figures from?”

The answer to the first question is: “that’s correct”. And the answer to the second question is: the sample survey carried out by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) over the past few years focussed on household income.

Let’s consider the figures that NCAER has been coming up with. In its figures for 2001, NCAER estimated that approximately 2.5 million households earned above Rs. 500,000. The reason I see the Rs. 500,000 figure as important is because, in absolute terms in the Indian, context it is a good benchmark – about Rs. 40,000 per month – by which to categorise the middle class. Also, in relative terms, adjusting for PPP (say a factor of 3.5), this is an annual income of about US$ 40,000.

After allowing for mandatory household and other expenses, these (or higher) income levels do leave a good margin for discretionary spending. This population has much greater access to the stimuli and information that international marketers rely on to build a brand presence across borders. Other sources of brand and product influence include overseas travel (or relatives travelling in from overseas).

NCAER has dubbed the class earning between Rs. 500,000 and Rs. 1,000,000 as “the Strivers”, and that I believe is the most apt definition of the middle-classes across the world.

Currently, the estimate for this population would be over 3 million households, or about 18-19 million individuals. That then, my friends, is the size of the middle class, to be targeted by international companies and premium Indian brands.

Ouch! that was the sound of thousands of dreams shattering and hundreds of business plans going into waste-bins!

Come, come, let’s pick the pieces up and look at them afresh.

Firstly, a population of 19 million is no small market by itself. Many of the international brands’ home markets are about the same size – Australia’s population is a little over 20 million. Italy’s total population is estimated at about 58 million and UK’s slightly above 60 million, and so on. The problem is that when you start with a reference point of 1-billion, a figure in the vicinity of 20 million looks very uninteresting. So, the first solution is to shift one’s initial perspective on the Indian market.

Secondly, a significant part of this target population in India is concentrated in a few large cities in the country. This makes it easier to target this consumer group, rather than dispersing the budget and management effort across a very large number of locations. The reality is that most national brands can achieve a bulk of their sales from the top 8-12 cities in the country, and there is no reason why the story should be any different for international brands looking to create a new presence in the market.

Third, and very important, I would challenge you to show me another similar population anywhere else in the world (other than China), which is growing at the rate of 11-12% a year i.e. doubling every 6-7 years. This is certainly not because the upper income classes are producing babies at a more prolific rate – it is the rise in real incomes and the wider distribution of wealth through greater business opportunities for businesspeople and increases in salaries for the employed.

So, as an international brand, or as a premium Indian brand, by the end of this decade you’re looking at a potential market of 30-40 million consumers.

Now, that number is a respectable market anywhere in the world. What’s more, on the back of the growing market, if you launch your products now, you’re looking at very healthy business growth rates over the next few years.

“But where is the mythical 200-300 million middle class?” was the third painful question raised by our clients and associates, “Do they really exist and how do we reach them?”

But that, my friends, is the next column.