Some time ago, my team thought it appropriate I team up with my colleague in Bengaluru—a quiet, contemplative veteran with a philosophical bent. The both of us had been mandated to investigate a long form story. It meant we traverse the country, meet up with some very fine minds, listen to what they say, absorb multiple points of views, and finally flesh out something cohesive out of what sounds like a complex narrative.
It sounded intimidating and I articulated that in as many words on one of our weekly stocktaking calls. I expected a sympathetic ear. Instead what I heard was a tough voice at the other end spell it out in no uncertain terms. “Get out there on the field and start talking to real people. Answers don’t emerge if you sit on your backside feeling intimidated.”
Indeed. There was no other way to go about it. Phones were dialled, appointments were sought and doors started to open. We accepted the invitations, packed our bags, and hit the road. One of the doors we walked in through led us to a Spartan office. The man who sits there is one of the finest minds of our times. He wears a quiet demeanour, reads voraciously, thinks deeply, and makes things happen—the kind of things that change people’s lives at a scale the untrained eye cannot comprehend. But he has taken a conscious call to stay out of the public domain.
A part of our mandate is to make sense of the current discourse in the country. And it is a question we asked him to throw light on. “What is with us in India? Why are we so polarized?” we asked him. The conversation led to an interesting insight on why the cacophony is often by design, how generals (and leaders) use it to keep their opponents busy, and how they shield their soldiers from it so that meaningful work can continue to happen.
Noise by design
Whether it be on social media like Facebook or Twitter, on loud panel discussions on television, equally loud editorials in newspapers and magazines or even conversations between friends, everything seems to have acquired a narrative. Either you’re a nationalist or an anti-nationalist. What is going on? Why does everybody seem to hate everybody else so much?
He didn’t blink an eyelid. Instead, he looked most amused. “Because it is designed to be that way,” he said. “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
“Can you explain that?” we asked of him.
He stood up, took a pen, went to the whiteboard and started to draw animatedly even as he infused it with tales from his former avatar as a brand builder of global consequence.
“What do you see here?” he asked
He continued to draw.
“And what do you do see now” he asked?
“Two parallel lines.”
“Good,” he said, as he continued to draw
“Three parallel lines,” we said. He finally drew four parallel lines and two by the side to box it in. He then drew a circle and asked a rhetorical question.
“A circle,” quite obviously, we answered simultaneously.
In the circle, he inserted a few spokes, and then extrapolated that image from what we had described as parallel lines a little over a minute ago.
“What does this look like to you now,” he asked?
The answer was staring us in the face. It was obvious why the man was so acclaimed. He put it clinically. “I can get people to stand up for this, to beat up a friend who doesn’t, get people to swear their allegiance to this, to fight for this, to kill for this, and above all else to give up their lives for this.” He didn’t stop. “And if I were to embed this with saffron, white and green what will become of this? A brand? An idea? An identity? What will it do to you?” The import of what he was saying was beginning to dawn on us.
When put just the right way, a few lines can morph into an image that stands for a powerful idea. In this case, it is the idea of India. The kind of idea that can bind 1.3 billion people. We are emotionally wedded to this idea of India. Because embedded in it is our identity. But when looked at it clinically, it is just a set of lines and a circle with a few spokes and colours that evoke passion and emotion in us.
But we couldn’t look at it clinically any longer. We are wedded to the idea of India and that is why the both of us were in his room and not in North America or Europe where the standards of living are as high as they are. And while the brand man in him is acutely aware of this dichotomy, it is the identity this idea confers on him that compelled him to walk away from the glitz and glamour he was a part of in the West to live in India and work in the Spartan office that he does now. He had to “come back home to where I belong”.
But he hadn’t lost the perspective to look at it clinically either. That is why he will neither kill nor maim. Instead, he has other pressing things on hand to do. Like further the idea of India that will infuse his identity and those of others in the geography that is India with pride.
“What does this have to do with our current narrative on social and other popular media?” we asked of him.
“Does that narrative matter in the larger scheme of things?” he asked, smiling. He doesn’t give a damn about what is argued on social media platforms, nor does he listen in to what the nationalists or liberals scream their guts about. For a moment, I and my colleague were lost. Until he started to put things into perspective again.
The two kinds of idiots
“There are two kinds of idiots in this world,” he started to explain.
Idiots of the first kind don’t know anything of any consequence, but have an opinion about everything. What agenda should the country’s policy makers take, how social norms ought to be, how others ought to live, walk, talk, behave—they have an opinion. But they’re no good at anything. Their only agenda is to scramble onto media of all kinds to voice what they must. When pushed to the wall and probed hard, the only card they can play is that it is in the national interest. Anything uttered against them is perceived as anti-national. These are the ones whose only recourse is irrational discourse.
Idiots of the second kind have some understanding. Those who code for example know how to code and code well; those in the media can communicate and communicate well; those in stock markets understand equity and trade well. And so on and so forth. Their understanding is limited to the domain they operate in, but they are arrogant enough to assume the limited expertise they have confers upon them the right to opine on anything and everything under the sun.
Most of these voices emerge from urban India. They live and operate in echo chambers and pat each other’s backs on imagined victories won on social media. They have no clue what the real issues are. These are the so-called liberals. “Their head of state is the President of the United States,” he said to drive the irony home. Because the issues that concern them are first world issues and not what troubles the real India.
“Both these kinds of idiots are best ignored because they are in a minority,” he suggested. By way of evidence, he asked us to pore over the numbers of people condescendingly described as those who live in “Middle India” and at the “Bottom of the Pyramid”.
When you compare their numbers with the population that dominate the popular discourse, it is clear the voices of the loudest don’t matter. It is the aspirations of the middle and those at the bottom that do. But they don’t yell. They aspire and work instead.
Keeping the distraction at bay
“So how do you wage a war in the long run for the kind of causes you have on mind and stay undistracted from these voices?” we asked of him.
Here again, he started to speak in metaphors. “You got to understand that there are three kinds of pigs. But you can’t wrestle with all pigs at once. As George Bernard Shaw put it, I learned long ago, never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides the pig, likes it,” he said and laughed.
By now, we were lost and asked him to elaborate a bit more. This is when he suggested we ought to understand the human psyche and decode what Bernard Shaw really meant.
Essentially there are three kinds of pigs.
1. The Philosopher Pig: This pig has a disagreement with your idea on fundamental grounds. No rational appeal you make will make an impression on this creature because it is philosophically opposed to you. It is pointless to engage with a pig of this kind. But this pig is harmless and it is a good idea to have it around—it keeps you on your toes because it can ask tough questions you may not have thought of.
2. The Butthead Pig: This is the kind of pig who has no clue what you’re talking about. But this pig can be used as a tool by an opponent and must be taken on. The question is, at what point do you take this pig on? So, you may have a great idea that can change the course of a country’s history or a society’s fabric. But in trying to do that, it may just pull the rug below your opponent’s feet. That is why, this pig has been trained by the opponent to wrestle and distract you. It will come at you and must be dealt with. It cannot be ignored like you would the Philosopher Pig. But for that, you need a well-crafted strategy because what you have on the other side is a sound opponent.
3. The Selfish Pig: This creature knows which side of the bread is buttered. If your opponent’s idea satisfies its interests, you better be ready to wrestle with this pig right away. This is because this pig can potentially be a powerful one and buying its allegiance can be an all-consuming affair.
So yes, when you’ve made up your mind about going to war, you have to wrestle with the pigs. But the real issue is, which pig do you wrestle with and when. And because wars are long drawn out affair, you’ve got to have the mindset of a marathon runner as opposed to a sprinter. You pace yourself. There may be times you have to take on the Selfish Pigs and at others you change course to deal with the Buttheads.
To wrestle with the pigs intelligently so that you may deal with the real war, you obfuscate the real issues on hand by using the idiots. Your opponent knows that as well. But the idiots don’t. Neither do the masses. But these idiots are loud, influential and are all over the place.
At the time of writing this dispatch late on a Friday night for instance, nothing of consequence was happening. A quick look at what was trending on social media included topics such as the ongoing cricket matches, the Manchester Derby, discussions around the movie Baahubali 2, and of course sponsored trends like Justin Bieber’s impending concert with idiots of both kinds taking pot shots at each other. “Who gives a damn really?”
But if you’ve wrestled hard with the pigs and got them on your side, at just the right time, the opponents will marshal idiots to parrot the lines they think appropriate, and make it trend on social media. Loud television anchors on their part will get shriller still while headlines in the mornings will compete to shout even louder that they latched on to the trend before anybody else did. If you’ve lost the battle to your opponent, you shut up, slow down, gather your energies, and prep to run the next five kilometres—that may be uphill in the marathon—while you figure out how to wrestle with which pig and get to the idiots so your message goes to the masses.
It was the finest lesson ever on management and leadership I had taken in two-odd hours.
[This is a mildly modified version of an article first published in Mint on Sunday under the slug Life Hacks, a column that appears every Sunday. This has been reproduced with permission.]