Published August 30-September 7, 2021
A Billion Minds
From corporates to political parties, from marketers to politicians, all are working to change our minds. Our decisions on which products to buy and whom to vote for are being influenced by various forces who desire to win in the marketplaces of business and politics. To persuade us, they must first get us to pay attention and then push us to act in the direction they want. They have to change our minds. In business it is about how we channel our money, while in politics it is about how to channel our votes. The one big difference between the two is that there is no prize for being runner-up in the political contests – it is winner-take-all, while the loser gets a few years in the wilderness to contemplate what went wrong. As such, the stakes are much higher in politics. In this series, I will focus on how to change minds to change India’s future.
In India, if we are to bring freedom and prosperity to our people through a Nayi Disha, we will need to change minds as a precursor to channelling votes. United Voters of India and Sabhas are the foundations for aggregating non-aligned and non-voters, and electing candidates to create a Lok Sabha of Independents to implement the Nayi Disha Agenda. Upstream of changing voting behaviour is to get people to pay attention to the message of prosperity, and unite to orchestrate a freedom movement in India. Persuading people that they are not really free, that freedom is a prerequisite for prosperity, and that the existing politicians and their parties will never reduce the size and scope of government to provide them freedom – these are the ideas we need to spread among both the intellectuals and the masses.
Previously I have discussed the ideas. It is time to now turn to the fundamental question: how will we get people to change their minds? The Indian Revolution, like all revolutions, must begin with a revolution in the minds of people. As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1815 in the context of the American Revolution, “The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.”
In India, instead of the ideas of freedom taking root, we have been pushed more and more towards obedience and voluntary servitude. As Etienne de la Boetie wrote nearly 500 years ago, “It is incredible how as soon as a people become subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and willingly that one is led to say that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement.”
And as we embark on this journey to transform India, it is these words of Gustav Le Bon written in 1895 that we should keep in mind: “The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisations such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples. The true historical upheavals are not those which astonish us by their grandeur and violence. The only important changes whence the renewal of civilisations results, affect ideas, conceptions, and beliefs. The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited groundwork of its thoughts.”
Our challenge in India, if we are to put the nation on the road to prosperity, is therefore to inject new ideas into people who are accustomed to being sheep led by wolves, little realising that the brown-skinned rulers of the past 75 years are in no way different from the white-skinned extractors and exploiters of the previous 175 years. Generation after generation has been brainwashed with the illusion of freedom with the mirage of a free and fair vote. Our task, if we are to effect the Indian Revolution and a Nayi Disha for Indians, is to first change a billion minds.
Factory and Pipe
In a previous essay, I wrote about the mission: “To change minds, channel votes and win elections, we need to offer an alternative. A new direction, a Nayi Disha. We need a clear purpose, a messaging pipe to reach out to people, political entrepreneurs to rise, a platform to unite these entrepreneurs and the voters, leading to a path to power and eventually prosperity…The first step to making this alternative vision of a new India a reality is to get the message across to large numbers – a pipe to the masses. In an increasingly repressive environment where the mundane could be seen as seditious, we need a mechanism to create safe spaces for people to communicate and coordinate. A content factory needs to constantly separate fact from the fiction we are fed, and to spread truth in a melange of falsehood forwards.”
A content factory and a pipe. These are the two building blocks for changing minds. To get people to act, we need to get them to pay attention. The content factory needs to lay out the new ideas and package them in an attractive manner so they can cut through the clutter and impact people. This is what marketing is about. In their book, “Made to Stick”, brothers Chip and Dan Heath offer the SUCCES framework: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions and Stories. As they write in the book’s Epilogue: “For an idea to stick, for it to be useful and lasting, it’s got to make the audience: pay attention, understand and remember it, agree/believe, care, and be able to act on it.” The content factory needs to take the ideas of freedom, prosperity, and the need for a freedom movement and make them stick.
To make the ideas stick, we need to get them to people – this is where the “pipe” comes in. How do we take the stories created by the content factory and get them to tens of millions – day after day, so they not only alter their own thinking, but also become agents of change and amplify these ideas to those around them? We do not have the advantage of mass mono-media or a great leader who the nation listens to. How do we build this pipe to take the output of the content factory to the eventual audience? How to get people to pay attention?
Moments and Movements
In the business world, there are two approaches to communicating new ideas: spend a lot of money in marketing to ensure repeated exposure to the message, or to hope for virality where an idea spreads person-to-person. In politics, it is a combination of the two: a leader crafts the message and a political party uses its organisational mechanism to disseminate it widely. In the Nayi Disha case, none of these approaches will work: there isn’t a big spending budget available, virality is desired but cannot be engineered, there is no great leader with the stirring message of freedom and prosperity, and there is no organisational structure (yet) to take the ideas to the voter. And then there is the constraint of time: national elections happen every five years, so miss one opportunity and the result will be a long wait.
Let’s look at the moments in the past when a large cross-section of Indians have changed their minds: the vote after the Emergency in 1977 that brought the Janata government to power, the vote three years later that brought Indira Gandhi back to power, the vote for Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998, and the Lok Sabha majority for Narendra Modi in 2014. I have excluded the vote of 1984 that gave Rajiv Gandhi a sweeping majority – it was an outpouring of grief and an emotional vote after the assassination of his mother and then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. In 1977, Jayaprakash Narayan led a motley bunch of politicians in a vote against the excesses of the Emergency. In 1980, the failure of this experiment made the people turn to the very leader they had rejected just a thousand days earlier. Vajpayee’s leadership and NDA coalition led by the BJP made people turn away from experiments with the Third Front. Modi’s aspirational politics and rousing oratory punished a weak and corrupt Congress.
There have been other movements which had political ramifications. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement stirred the Hindus into action and the Indians Against Corruption movement woke up the urban middle class. The former led to the rise of the BJP while the latter birthed the Aam Aadmi Party.
In all these cases, there has always been a leader or a set of leaders at the top who have guided the change in thinking with an eventual change in voting behaviour. This is what we have to replicate – but without the benefit of a single political leader because that (party politics) is exactly what Nayi Disha is against.
It seems like an impossible mission, but the future of our nation hangs on this. Whether India will rise to claim its status among the prosperous nations of the world or remain a poor nation as it has been for centuries depends on whether Nayi Disha’s ideas can be piped to tens of millions who then collectively unite to bring about the political change that’s needed. This has to be done against the backdrop of two trends: an India in which free speech is increasingly under attack because of the collusion among the government, judiciary and media, and the rise of digital devices and high-speed networks which has put smartphones and social media in the hands of hundreds of millions of Indians.
Here is the summary of the Nayi Disha Pipe challenge:
- Assume a multi-lingual, multimedia content factory can be created. This is the factory that creates sticky and persuasive stories to amplify the Nayi Disha ideas of freedom and prosperity, and brings out the fatal flaws in the current approach to politics and governance by those who have exercised power through the past decades and prevented Indians from becoming rich.
- The focus then moves to how to take these ideas to tens of millions of Indians while lacking a national leader with a large following or an unbiased media that speaks truth to power. This has to be done in the context of a government empowered with laws to block any social media accounts, sites and apps that it considers against the vaguely omnibus “national interest”. The project also has to be frugal with spending since it will be difficult in the early days to raise funding.
- For Nayi Disha to succeed, it needs to attract the support of about 30% of voters in every Lok Sabha constituency – a collective which decides to vote and vote as one, the United Voters of India as part of Mission Free543 to ensure a Lok Sabha of Independents, free of the negative influence of every politician and political party. It thus has to be a national freedom and prosperity movement, touching every part of India and almost every Indian.
- There are about a thousand days to make this happen until the next national election in the summer of 2024. Miss that opportunity and it is a wait of five years and more importantly, a nation even further away from freedom. Hence, there needs to be a sense of urgency – a “now-or-never” attitude because with every passing year, the terrain becomes increasingly harder to navigate.
The mindset has to be that of a startup entrepreneur. Startups imagine and work to create new futures. They are led by entrepreneurs who know no fear as they know they are competing against strong incumbents. They are constantly solving one problem after another to get the product-market fit, climbing “mountains beyond mountains”.
What India needs for Nayi Disha success is the startup and entrepreneurial mindset applied to the political space. The rise and spread of digital can lay the foundation for possible success. Nayi Disha will not win by aiming to replicate the attributes of political parties; in fact, it has to chart a completely new course – with its ideas, members, products and go-to-market. Nayi Disha has to become the “disruptive innovation” in the Indian political space, and the starting point has to be to rethink the pipe to connect the content factory to the consumers (the influencers and voters).
Let’s now focus on the pipe – how does one create a content distribution mechanism to reach tens of millions daily, cost-effectively? In doing so, each of these recipients has to become a micro-influencer spreading the messages further downstream. New “customers” must be attracted continuously to increase numbers to reach the 30% critical mass in every polling booth, neighbourhood and Lok Sabha constituency in India. And eventually, this pipe must also help attract candidates aligned with the Nayi Disha agenda.
The first obvious answer for the pipe would be to create hierarchical WhatsApp groups, as many of the traditional political parties have done in the past few years. Messages flow downstream and are injected into family, work, friend, building and alumni groups. These hierarchies take time to build. The aim is to have massive coverage with earphones to complement the megaphones of the controlled and pliable mass media (especially TV). Fake news and falsehoods are what matter to score over the opponents; truth is sacrificed at the altar of polarisation. Hope is replaced by hate, for the belief is it is anger against the other that will get people out to vote on election day. It is a playbook that is being perfected and updated daily by scores in the supply chain. Every news item, every statement, every event has to have a spin. Speed and scale are the only mantras for this content factory and distribution machine. Money flows to those with the followers, and so it’s a race to the bottom. But it works in a first-past-the-post system where a third of the voters are non-aligned and another third don’t vote; hence the maximisation of the passions of one’s own support base to pummel the suppression of the vote of the other side and persuasion of enough of the fence sitters is good enough to win.
There is no way Nayi Disha can match or replicate this system. Challengers do not win by taking on incumbents in their strongholds. That is where the startup entrepreneurial mindset needs to come into play. A different approach is needed to build the pipe – with limited capital, no political godfather(s), and no previous experience.
Websites and apps will of course be needed, but they are the destinations. Push messages are needed to bring people to these endpoints for actions. What is therefore needed to build the pipe is a cost-effective push messaging channel that can reach millions and is independent of the control of Big Tech and Big Telco. This rules out the use of social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and even SMS. To build the pipe, one must have a direct relationship with the people and dependency on intermediaries who can change the rules of engagement overnight isn’t the best way to build a platform to change a billion minds.
There is one push messaging channel which has been around for 50 years, is independent of the control of a single corporate behemoth, is cost-effective, and is already being used by tens of millions. It is so part of our life that we sometimes forget how critical it is for driving a lot of our actions and transactions. It is this channel which can be the first building block for building the pipe by bypassing mainstream and social media. It is this channel which holds the key to changing minds of independent Indians and bringing Nayi Disha to life.
Yes, I know. The immediate reaction to email as the magical channel to build the pipe is, “Seriously? Who even uses email? It’s all so full of spam and junk. Who wants to read more email?” And yet, the reality is that email, after 50 years, is still around, attracting a lot of venture capital, driving many acquisitions – because it delivers the best RoI (40:1) to marketers. Here are some stats around email usage in India:
- About 500 million emails are sent daily by brands (about 10% will be transactional, the rest marketing/promotional). This compares with about 1 billion SMSes.
- An email costs 1-3 paise to send, while an SMS is about 13 paise. (A WhatsApp message, by comparison, costs 30 paise, provided the use case has been approved by WhatsApp.)
- Emails typically have an open rate of about 5-15%, so about 25-75 million emails are opened daily
I recently did a Prashnam survey to better understand habits around messaging channels. Here is what I found from a survey of about 3,000 people across multiple Indian states:
- 38% used WhatsApp daily
- 24% used SMS and Facebook daily
- 14% used Email daily
Extrapolating these numbers based on 18+ years population of 900 million, we get the following:
- 342 million daily WhatsApp users
- 216 million daily SMS and Facebook users
- 126 million daily Email users
Note that these are estimates extrapolated from the Prashnam survey.
Compare this with numbers given by the government of India in February 2021 about total users (which does not necessarily mean daily users) of various social media platforms (and presumably includes those under 18 years also):
- WhatsApp: 530 million
- YouTube: 448 million
- Facebook: 410 million
- Instagram: 210 million
- Twitter: 17.5 million
Facebook recently revealed its daily user count in India for the first-time: 234 million, out of a total base of 416 million users. As we can see, this number compares quite well with that in the Prashnam survey.
To summarise: email’s estimated daily user base is about 60% of Facebook and SMS and 35% of WhatsApp.
Now, let’s add costs. Facebook’s organic reach is very limited – one pretty has to pay to play. And thus, it’s hard to reach the same user base again and again. SMS is priced at 4-13X of email, and WhatsApp at 10-30X of email.
Finally, the clinching point: Facebook and WhatsApp are controlled by corporate entities who decide on the rules of the game, while SMS content is dictated by TRAI and the telcos.
Email is thus the most open, most cost-effective channel; it is also an identity for many. Its open rates are low at about 10%, but that is a problem that can be addressed with the right incentives – Mu, the attention currency. Email allows for rich content, unlike SMS. Email therefore is the perfect starting point for building the pipe. 14% of Indians use email daily, and that is a very good starting point. It will not suffice on its own, but as the first leg of a 2-step distribution, there is nothing better than email. And guess what – an email client to read emails is pretty much built into every mobile in the country (even those which are not smartphones) and getting an email account costs nothing at Gmail, Yahoo or other such providers.
Email and WhatsApp
Email is the ideal first connection in the distribution chain. A centralised email list with opt-ins from interested people will get the process started. Content created can be emailed to everyone who subscribes in the language of their choice. Ideally, these emails will be short and to the point – much like the headlines-with-an-attitude of DrudgeReport or Vartam’s microcontent. The key is to make the emails habit-forming – sent daily at the same time. Mu can incentivise recipients for opening and clicking.
The reach of emails will be limited to a fraction of the target audience. This is where the second step of the distribution chain comes in. Those who can access email can use their personal WhatsApp groups to amplify the messages for free. This is a much better alternative than creating multi-level hierarchical WhatsApp groups. This Email-WhatsApp hub-and-spoke combo can serve as a very powerful content distribution platform in the country.
In fact, there is no other alternative. Hierarchical WhatsApp groups are going to take too long and have too many chain breaks possible. An email list, with an opt-in subscribe base, followed by an individual amplification on WhatsApp to friends and family, is the best way to achieve critical mass in a limited timeframe. Some from the WhatsApp groups can then start subscribing to emails directly, and thus build their own next-level.
The challenge of where the first set of email subscribers will come from remains – basically, how to seed the list. It’s akin to finding the first customers for a new product. My belief is that there are many people in India who know things need to move in a different direction, but don’t know how and where. The current media and content options they have do not satisfy their interest and thirst. They also feel they are alone and don’t know whom to ask. Unlike the US which has always had a rich tradition of freedom and liberalism, India has not. The only choices in India have been more government and even more government!
The combination of a content factory, an email distribution list, and WhatsApp redistribution can lay the foundation for a pipeline to get a different set of messages out to people – messages which they will never get from their regular media sources. Just like water finds its level, these messages too will need to find their audience. I believe a message centred around freedom and prosperity, with a call to look beyond the politicians and parties, will find resonance in India in the times to come.
By building an all-digital approach, this startup can replicate the D2C (digital-to-consumer) model that is gaining ground in ecommerce. A D2V (direct-to-voter) outreach can shorten the time it will take to build momentum around the Nayi Disha ideas.
The Email+WhatsApp combo is a first step to gaining attention and changing minds. A daily selection of news, videos, charts, quotes and explainers can provide an alternative narrative on what’s happening. It can provide a freedom-centric view of the world, rather than the narrative dictated by the government of the day. But the content factory and the pipe are only the start. Action needs to come next.
Among the actions that will be needed to bring United Voters of India and Sabhas to life as the two pillars to winning elections and forming a Lok Sabha of Independents will be to build membership and train candidates across India. It will be almost impossible for any entity to create a national organisation like those of the main political parties in India who have built these over decades. Instead, Nayi Disha needs to borrow from the digital marketplaces like Flipkart, Amazon, Ola, Uber, Zomato, Swiggy, and their likes. They have built two-sided platforms to connect supply and demand. Nayi Disha’s platform – in the form of an app/website – has to do the same by connecting members (non-aligned and non-voters) with potential candidates. Primaries (akin to the bidding system employed by some marketplaces) will help choose the winner without a top-down selection mechanism. This becomes a genuine people’s platform, rather than a political party controlled by one or two people at the very top.
The Nayi Disha app can learn a lot from successful gaming apps. The best ones ensure they become utilities in people’s lives – drawing them back, rewarding them, creating a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment, and also creating clans and tribes by connecting them with others. I have watched my son play Clash of Clans a few minutes every day for many years. I too have now learnt the tricks. It is an amazingly well crafted multi-player game with plenty of hooks to bring the users back again and again.
Buck-Fifty MBA has this on Clash of Clans: “Once they’ve activated users through the immersive tutorial, Clash uses more than a few well designed habit loops to bring people back. In Hooked, Nir Eyal describes these habit loops as (1) trigger, (2) action, (3) reward, (4) investment. The trigger gets a user’s attention with something external (a notification) or internal (an in-product prompt). The action is immediate (clicking the notification or following the in-product prompt). The reward should be variable (attacking another player in Clash isn’t guaranteed to result in a win). And the investment is an action with no immediate reward (like training more troops or building a better town hall). Clash relies heavily on notifications to bring users back initially (“your building is finished” or “your troops are trained”), but as you become more engaged the trigger becomes more intrinsic. Supplies (gold and elixir) must be “harvested” to central storage or else the harvesting machines will overflow and stop collecting more. Other players can only attack when you’re offline, so if you’re saving up supplies for a large purchase you’ll want to log in often to keep other players at bay.”
The app can borrow ideas from successful games to bring its members back daily by giving them an interface which feels like fun. Make Nayi Disha a reality game of power, freedom and prosperity!
Creators and Influencers
To make Nayi Disha successful much more will be needed, not just a content factory, digital tools and platforms. It will need to cultivate creators and influencers. Creators are the ones who will add to the diversity and richness of content that is needed to attract members; Influencers are those who will help amplify the content to drive the membership flywheel. Creators and influencers are two sides of the same coin. In fact, this mirrors how the Internet itself is becoming the domain of creators and influencers.
The New York Times wrote recently: “Creators are people who build audiences online and find a way to make money from those audiences. They are usually young, digital natives who are trying to make a living from their social media work… By focusing on influencers, [Tiktok] forced changes from traditional social networks like Instagram and Twitter that had shied away from catering to the people who were creating the popular content on their platforms. TikTok allowed up-and-coming social media personalities to be discovered more easily, and gave them a clearer direct path to making money through the company’s Creator Fund, which pays creators a certain amount based on views.”
More from The Economist: “In the past decade anyone with a phone has become a potential content creator. Cameras have got sharper, processors more powerful and networks faster. Apps can improve even the shoddiest content. Instagram, launched in 2010, provided filters that made ordinary photos look cool. TikTok has made it as simple to edit video. In April Facebook unveiled recording tools that aim to do for amateur podcasters what Instagram did for bad photographers. The internet’s limitless, free distribution and searchability has made it possible for this output—videos, music, jokes, rants and all manner of things that defy categorisation—to find an audience, however niche… Just as the internet allowed brands to bypass physical shops and sell directly to customers online, social platforms “offer a path for creators to communicate directly with their audience,” says Mr Shmulik.”
From Subscribed: “The Creator Economy is booming. Empowered with publishing platforms and recurring revenue streams, thousands of people are striking out on their own as paid creators. This isn’t just about well-known journalists leaving established brands anymore. Today, anyone can become a media company.”
Influencers are celebrities in their own right. Some have become famous in other fields and extended that fame to the Internet. Others have leveraged the new platforms to acquire their own following.
Nayi Disha will need its own ecosystem of creators and influencers to complement what the content factory creates. This will keep growing the reach into newer and newer communities. The key is to get started. The digital world then allows for many methods of multiplying membership.
To bring Nayi Disha to life and give India a new direction with the next elections must be the single-minded goal of all Indians who seek a freer and richer future for themselves and their children. Once they realise that the present path we are on is no different from the preceding 250 years and the eventual endgame is ever-increasing extraction and exploitation, perhaps some will wake up to wanting to play a role in understanding the root of the problem (lack of freedom) and working to craft the solution (Nayi Disha).
The starting point is to change people’s minds. Only then can we hope to channel votes via United Voters of India to create an India freed from the clutches of the politicians and their parties. To change minds, we need to get their attention and then nudge them towards action. To get attention, we need to create a content factory which educates and persuades. This content needs to be then distributed via email and WhatsApp to tens of millions – a pipe that bypasses government controlled media properties and platforms. One person at a time, this all-digital movement needs to grow in strength – just like the Internet startups who have transformed our lives in the past decade.
Once the outreach is there, attention needs to be transformed into action. This is where the Nayi Disha app needs to play a starring role. By borrowing ideas from successful mobile games, it needs to encourage actions and teamwork to create winning coalitions in every part of India to fulfil the endgame of a Lok Sabha of Independents. The numbers are there – two-thirds of Indians are either non-aligned or non-voters. This is the audience that must be persuaded to unite against the politicians and their parties for a free and rich India.
This is a movement without a top-down commander; it is a people’s movement. In the digital world that is upon us, no small group of people can make this happen on their own. The revolution will need creators and influencers, each a mini-celebrity to some. They need to be persuaded to join and use their ingenuity, skills and networks to amplify the message across the country. A ladder of engagement will motivate many – after all, it is a fight for their own future.
Every action can be done digitally except the final act – of voting on election day. This is the only way Nayi Disha can do in months what the political parties have done in decades. Indians don’t have the luxury of time; we cannot lose another generation to mediocrity and capital drain. It is time to not just be customers of digital platforms but create one of our own for the highest cause of them all: freedom and prosperity for a billion Indians.