We are a funny country. We kept voting the Congress party back to power time and time again for a period of more than 65 years without asking any questions. The party made a mess, turning India into one of the most corrupt countries in the world, where governance has more or less collapsed.
And then comes a man, a former bureaucrat, an IITian, who promises to turn the system around. Arvind Kejriwal is his name. And he is—at least in terms of intentions—our best hope. But, ironically, we want him to be battle ready and give us answers for all that has been wrong with the country right-away.
Here are some doubts that I have seen appearing across the conventional as well as social media:
a) Kejriwal and India Against Corruption(IAC) are too obsessed with politics. It could be a movement if they dug up facts against municipalities, industries and others. (A status of a Facebook friend)
b) They don’t have the organisational strength to propose a viable alternative
c) If Kejriwal is starting a party I'd like to know his economic policy too. Shouldn't just begin and end in catching thieves? (Another status of a Facebook friend)
d) What is new about all that he has pointed out? It’s just a rehash. (A favourite with newspaper editors. And something which The Economic Times suggests in its lead story today. And even if it is a rehash, does that necessarily make the issues being brought into the public domain by Kejriwal and IAC less important?)
e) What interest groups does the movement represent? What are its priorities, apart from radical transparency and a maximalist Lokpal bill? Where does it stand on religious minorities? What compromises would be unacceptable? (As an editorial in today’s edition of The Indian Express asks.)
While these are important questions that Kejriwal and IAC need to answer, but expecting them to answer them immediately and all at once is a tad unfair. If we Indians could give the Congress party 65 years, and still not get many answers from them, we can surely give Kejriwal and his team 65 weeks, if not months, to come up with the answers.
Let me paraphrase lines written by my favourite economist John Kenneth Galbraith (borrowed from his book The Affluent Society) to capture this cynicism against Kejriwal and what he is trying to do. "When Indians see someone agitating for change they enquire almost automatically: 'What is there (in it) for him?' They suspect that the moral crusades of reformers, do-gooders, liberal politicians, and public servants, all their noble protestations notwithstanding, are based ultimately on self-interest. 'What', they enquire, 'is their gimmick?'" At the same time we Indians tend to ignore the absolute power enjoyed by the Congress party which has now led to a situation where the Congress leaders are simply not used to answering questions that are asked. As Salman Khurshid, the Union Law Minister, said a couple of days back “Wo (Kejriwal) kahte hain ki hum sawal poochenge tum jawab dena. Hum kehte hain tum jawab suno aur sawal poochna bhool jao.”
Getting back to Kejriwal in an earlier piece, I had equated Kejriwal’s decision (then Team Anna) to form a political party to a disruptive innovation. Clayton Christensen, a professor of strategy at Harvard Business School is the man who coined this phrase. He defines it "innovations that transform an existing market or create a new one by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability. It is initially formed in a narrow foothold market that appears unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents."
The point being made here is that a disruptive innovation always starts small and appeals to a small segment of the market. It cannot be everything for everybody from day one simply because the resources are limited.
An excellent example of a disruptive innovation in an Indian context is the Nirma detergent which was created in 1969 by Karsanbhai Patel, a chemist with the Gujarat government’s department of mining and geology. Patel started making the detergent in a room in his house. On his way to office, which was some 15 km away, he sold 15-20 packets every day. Thus, started the great journey which within a decade would give sleepless nights to the top management at Hindustan Lever Ltd (now Hindustan Unilever Ltd).
But the point is that Nirma started small. Patel sold a few packets everyday and his area of operation was limited given the limited resources available to him. The focus was on making a detergent which was much cheaper than the Surf from Hindustan Lever, which dominated the market back then.
Amul, another disruptive innovation, started small in Anand in the Kaira district of Gujarat. But soon it would become very successful and move to other districts in the state as well. In the end it would also be responsible for making India a largely milk sufficient nation that it is today.
Another great example is that of Apple, which brought about a revolution in the personal computer market. Again Apple started small and focused on one section of the market. As Clayton Christensen told me in an interview I did for DNA, "Apple made a wise decision and first sold the personal computer as a toy for children. Children had been non-consumers of computers and did not care that the product was not as good as the existing mainframe and minicomputers. Over time Apple and the other PC companies improved the PC so it could handle more complicated tasks. And ultimately the PC has transformed the market by allowing many people to benefit from its simplicity, affordability, and convenience relative to the minicomputer."
Another example is Sony. "In 1955, Sony introduced the first battery-powered, pocket transistor radio. In comparison with the big RCA tabletop radios, the Sony pocket radio was tiny and static laced. But Sony chose to sell its transistor radio to non-consumers - teenagers who could not afford big tabletop radio. It allowed teenagers to listen to music out of earshot of their parents because it was portable. And although the reception and fidelity weren't great, it was far better than their alternative, which was no radio at all," write Clayton Christensen, Michael B Horn and Curtis W Johnson in Disrupting Class — How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
So like all other disruptive innovations, Arvind Kejriwal and IAC are small and do not have the necessary organisation to take on heavyweights like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Also, their views on a whole lot of issues that plague India aren’t known.
But what Arvind Kejriwal and IAC have managed to do is focus on one issue - i.e. the nexus between politics and business, and the cosy relationship even between rival political parties. In the case of the Congress party, the nexus between Robert Vadra and DLF has clearly been brought out. And in case of the Bharatiya Janata Party, its businessmen President Nitin Gadkari has been accused of using his political standing to favour his businesses.
This focus has helped Kerjiwal to appeal to the so called "middle-class". It has also managed to clearly rattle his biggest opponents, the Congress party and now the BJP. The Congress party unleashed a string of lawyer ministers to defend Robert Vadra. The BJP yesterday had both the leaders of opposition in Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha (Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj) along with three party spokespersons defending Gadkari in a press conference.
Also right now is the time when Kejriwal and IAC are building their brand. And as marketing guru Al Ries keeps saying, "Focus is the essence of marketing and branding". They are doing just that. There is no point in spreading their thin resources all over the place. Once the brand is built they can gradually start moving to other issues.
By then, hopefully, more people would have joined them also. Any disruption does not come as an immediate shift. Similarly, the IAC isn’t going to take India by storm overnight. It will need time. In a way Kejriwal and IAC are in a similar position like the Congress party was in 1885 when it was formed. The initial aim of the party was to get a greater share in the government for educated Indians. The party wasn’t opposed to British rule at that point of time. The point being the Congress party wasn’t clear from day one all that it would do in the years to come. As years went by, things evolved and the party led India to its independence and tried to come up with answers to questions that arose along the way.
The challenge for IAC will be to figure out how to hold the interest of the people once they start losing interest in the corruption issue. Also they might appeal only to a section of the voters initially, probably the urban middle class, like Apple PCs had appealed to children and Sony radios to teenagers. So they are likely to start off with a limited appeal. Chances are if they stay true to their cause their popularity might gradually go up over the years, as has been the case with disruptive innovators in business.
Any disruption does not come as an immediate shift. As the authors write, "Disruption rarely arrives as an abrupt shift in reality; for a decade, the personal computer did not affect DEC’s (Digital Equipment Corp's) growth or profits." Similarly, Kejriwal and IAC aren’t going to take India by storm overnight. They will need time. And as time goes by more questions will be asked of them and they will need to come up with answers.
As I had said on an earlier occasion, there are three things that can happen with this disruptive innovation. Kerjiwal’s party tries for a few years and doesn’t go anywhere. That doesn’t harm us in anyway. Kejriwal’s political party fights elections and is able to build a major presence in the country and stays true to its cause. That benefits all of us. Kejriwal’s political party fights elections and its candidates win. But these candidates and the party turn out to be as corrupt as the other political parties that are already there. While this will be disappointing, but then one more corrupt political party is not going to make things more difficult for the citizens of this country in anyway. We are used to it by now.
As far as Arvind Kejriwal and IAC go, they must well remember these famous lines from Majrooh Sultanpuri, the famous Hindi film lyricist and Urdu poet.
Main akela hi chala tha janibe manzil magar,
Log saath aate gaye aur karawan banta gaya.
(Loosely translated, it means this: I had started off alone towards my goal, people began joining and a huge caravan began forming!)
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org