The Story Rules Podcast E21: Nitin Pai – Public policy thought leader (Transcript)

E21 Nitin Pai - Public policy thought leader
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E21: Nitin Pai – Public policy thought leader (Transcript)

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Intro Hook

“Some amount of anchoring and mooring toward identity is important. But that’s the word – your identity should be a mooring: it tells you who you are and from there you can depart to wherever you want. It tells you where you started and which direction you want to go in. But if instead of being a mooring, it becomes a straitjacket – you are held together and your mooring is also a radius beyond which you cannot move, then it becomes naturally constraining.”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Nitin Pai, founder of the Takshashila Institution (A think-tank and school of Public Policy based in Bangalore). Nitin is a public policy intellectual and has been my go-to thinker on the topics of geopolitics, defence economics and public policy choices.

Nitin once said – “The stories we tell ourselves shape the reality we live in” – and it is this avatar of his as a teacher – and student – of narratives that I wanted to know more about on this podcast.

In this episode, we dive into several topics around narratives and storytelling:

  • Nitin talks about how narratives are at the most fundamental level about identities and how that means – we can become prisoners of our own narratives. He shares the evocative analogy of how narratives can serve as a mooring or an anchor for who we are, but can sometimes also become a straitjacket, severely constraining the space that we as societies create for ourselves
  • On public discourse, I liked Nitin’s frame of the four levels of stories that societies (and organisations) can grapple with.  Level one being the story of ‘Who we are’, our identity; Level 2 deals with ‘What are the key problems’ that we want to focus on, Level 3 being the ‘What are the right Solutions for these problems’ and Level 4 that dealing with ‘Where do we want to go’, our vision. Unfortunately, a lot of societies often get stuck at Level 1, making very little progress on the higher levels.
  • In sharing these stories, there are two broad types of narratives that Nitin says we can use – narratives of hope and narratives of fear. While narratives of fear can get short term electoral gains, over time, people become tired of being fearful… and look forward to more optimistic narratives.
  • Nitin also shares why the medium of narrative dissemination also matters – specifically, how Nitin himself started with blogging, then got into Twitter in the early 2010s, how he got disillusioned with it and what alternatives he’s exploring now.

We also geek out about the meaning and utility of frames and frameworks in storytelling.

Finally, Nitin shares why everyone should read philosophy and fiction.

It’s an eye-opening conversation.

Let’s dive in.

Ravi (00:01)
Hi, Nitin. Welcome to the Story Rules Podcast!

Nitin (00:04)
Hi, Ravi. I’m glad to be here in a place where we can tell stories to each other and people (will) actually believe them.

Ravi (00:10)
That’s wonderful. There are different types of stories, Nitin, and I come from a world where I believe that stories can be used to tell the truth or facts in a better way – in a way that’s clearer to the audience, that’s more engaging, and in a way that manages to hopefully persuade them. I feel that the writing you do and the stories you share embody many of those principles of good storytelling, which is why I’m quite excited to have you (on the podcast.)
I’ll start with a complaint, Nitin: I started reading your blog somewhere in 2013 or 14, and it was one of those where I would be at work but not too engaged in work and go, “Has The Acorn been updated?”, then I’ll say “Okay, it has been updated, great!”, and I’d get 5-10 minutes of reading time and I started reading that. Eventually, I started realizing that the frequency of posts was dropping down. I later came across this post on your current website, I quote – “My public policy blog The Acorn has been around since 2003, although I slacked off by 2016. That was because of Twitter which is the shortest path to ground. But hey, now we are back here, so all is well.”
Now, I’m happy that you’re writing more regularly. But that, interestingly, was my gateway to get into Twitter. I realized that The Acorn is not writing on the blog, but there is something called Twitter where he is writing, so let me get on there. Thank you for nothing because you got me dragged into this whole pit of Twitter that I went into, came out of for some time, and have re-joined now and focused on some non-political and non-controversial accounts.
But seriously speaking, Nitin, I’m a huge admirer of the way you write about Public Policy, about Economics, about Geopolitics. I think all these topics can be quite fascinating by themselves, but I think the way you tell them is quite powerful.
I want to start with a quote you mentioned in a recent interview, which talks about the power of stories or storytelling itself. You say, “The stories we tell ourselves shape the reality we live in.”
I’d love to get your deeper thoughts on this concept of stories or narratives versus actions – countries take action but they also spin narratives; companies do it; leaders do it. A lot of times, people say actions speak louder than words, but words also have power. What do you think about the power of stories and narratives in the grand scheme of things, and in specific areas?

Nitin (2:57)
First of all, I must profoundly apologize for dragging you into Twitter. I don’t think friends do this to any other friends. But the fact is that back in 2012 and 13, Twitter was massively substituting blogs. As I said, as an electrical engineer, the analogy for me was that it’s the shortest path to ground – current always likes to find the shortest path to ground – thoughts always found Twitter as the shortest path to an audience. Which meant that when you could get instant gratification with 140 characters, why would you write a 400 or 500 word blog post? Unfortunately, the price we all paid for that instant gratification is an amount of deliberation that is required to write one good sentence or paragraph; we lost the ability to be nuanced in our arguments, and we lost our ability to use writing as a form of discursive storytelling. What I mean by that is that it’s not a statement you put there and run away, but a story you create in conversation with others. If you look at old blogs, a blog post is usually just an invitation to a conversation. A blog post would usually have a set of commenters who come there and write – they have their own perspectives and you have a conversation with them; you have a debate; sometimes you have a strong debate with them. But together, it creates a sort of narrative, right? On Twitter, you don’t. Twitter is where you come, you spit at somebody, swear at somebody, then run away. Most often, you position yourself as a totem pole or a flag in a tribal argument. It’s basically tribes spiting each other and you are just a member of a tribe representing that flag. Unfortunately, Twitter has done a lot of damage to our storytelling ability both as individuals, as well as societies. Now, some kind of correction is going on thanks to the mercurial attitude of the new owner of Twitter and the attention given to other things in the Fediverse – Mastodon and other things. I would like to encourage you and your listeners to consider Mastodon as an option. I think it lends itself to a sober, reflective, deliberative, open-minded conversation, rather than a very shrill and demonstrative platform which Twitter is right now. Having said that, even if something like Mastodon becomes mainstream, I think we’ll still be trapped by the old business of being demonstrative; we’ll lose all the charm and reflectiveness of a small, closed platform. That’s a long apology for getting you onto Twitter and making amends by getting you onto Mastodon.
What you mentioned about stories…it’s rather amazing that in 2023, after so much of science, technology and building means of communications, global networks, etc., humankind has discovered that at the root of our social lives – are stories. Stories that we tell ourselves as individuals; stories that we tell ourselves as societies; stories that we tell ourselves as humankind. I started by saying that I’m an electrical engineer – that’s a story I tell myself and others. In a way, I like to use that qualification because it tells the listener and me that I’m likely to use certain sets of frames, metaphors, analogies, etc. So that you are warned that I might say “Intelligence adds up as resistors in parallel, and stupidity adds up as resistors in series.” Unless you’re trained in electrical engineering, you might say, “What the hell is this guy talking about?” but once you’re aware that this is an electrical engineer, you’ll be sort of forgiving for using these kinds of analogies. But also, in a way, it reminds me every time that engineering is a field where you’re not looking for perfect answers. You’re not a physicist – a physicist is looking for perfect black bodies. But an engineer is looking for a good enough answer that can solve a particular problem. At the next iteration, you see, “Okay, is this problem good enough? Can we improve?” If we can improve it, then we improve it some more. If the solution is bad, then you throw it away and try something else. But you’re never striving for that mathematical elegance of a physics proof, a perfect black body. There is no perfect black body. We just try to measure ourselves with that level of perfection, but we know, as engineers, that we’ll never be able to achieve that perfection, so why don’t we do approximations? Incremental improvements? Feedback loops? And so on. I like to tell myself that because the field I work in now – Public Policy – is very much that. If engineering is approximation, then Public Policy is the mother or perhaps the grandmother of all approximations. You will never be able to achieve a perfect public policy solution. You’ll never have a perfect traffic system; you’ll never have a perfect tax system; you’ll never have a perfect healthcare system. What you can do is see how far you are from the threshold – how far are you from the frontier of achievement? And then try to improve each time, with each iteration, and try to get closer and closer (to that point). Ultimately, at some point, you’ll say, “This is the optimum we can achieve given the resources. Let’s try it the way we are.” Similarly, societies tell each other stories, and the earliest example I learned about this is Pakistan. I was studying Pakistan very deeply from 1999 to 2015. I found Pakistan to be a nation that is entrapped in its own narrative – they have created so many constraints for themselves, that it’s difficult for them to escape it. One narrative of Pakistan is that it’s the citadel of Islam; the other narrative is that it’s a home for the subcontinent’s Muslim population; another narrative is that it’s a theocratic government; another one is that it’s everything which is not India. When you have so many constraints around you, it’s very difficult to look at the context you are in and change according to the times. Whatever change you do is in support of that same narrative. You’re still trying to work with superpowers to score a point against India. Every time you score a point against India, you feel you’ve done something great. You miss the point that winning or losing in the game of Nation states is not how many soldiers or civilians of the other side you’ve killed – but about how well you are doing for yourselves and your people. The ultimate measure of success in the modern age is: do people want to migrate to your country? What is the net flow? Are more people migrating to your country, or away from it? That’s why I think the United States – despite all the trouble it’s in – is a very successful nation state, because more people want to go into the U.S. than move out. Even China is not there. I think the stories you tell yourselves trap you, sometimes, very often. Then it constrains the kind of thing you can do, constrains the imagination you can have, even the imagination you are allowed to have. If a Pakistani says, “Let’s be a liberal, democratic, secular state.” You’ll say, “Look – you’re not allowed to have that imagination in this state.” I think that societies are often trapped in their own narratives, like the lyrics of the song Hotel California: “We are all prisoners here of our own device.” We are all prisoners here, of our own narratives. It’s very hard for societies, especially, to break out of it. Individuals probably can; I can stop defining myself as an electrical engineer and start defining myself as a policy wonk. It’s a transition I can make if I’m comfortable with it. But if a society has to say, “We’re changing from a liberal democracy to being an authoritarian state”, it’s going to be quite hard for the society to do that. Or vice versa, if you’re in Pakistan and you say, “We are a citadel of Islam, and now we want to be a secular state” – it’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of other people who will come and say you can’t change. You’re not allowed to change.

Ravi (12:29)
Fascinating points, Nitin. There’s a couple of reflections that are coming to me. One – I love the point you made about blogging, about how narratives are often built together. About how you often have this thing of “I need to push my narrative out there,” but my narrative is actually enriched by the inputs I get from other people and various platforms over time have had their pros and cons in terms of how easy they make it to build narratives together. Going back to the olden times when people used to debate – there are these famous debates by Shankara versus various other saints. I think a very interesting point you’re making which is (about things being) more conducive to sharing ideas is that a format like Twitter – as they say the medium can be the message – constricts this open exchange of ideas and gives everybody quick, short-form content and caters to the lowest common denominator. That’s an interesting point that to improve the narrative, we may have to figure out the right medium for it, and it has to be something that is built together.
The other powerful point you’re making is that narratives do have a lot of power, and they are sometimes put forth probably with some short-term gains in mind, like “If I push forth this narrative of my people, of my country, I might get some short-term electoral gains”, but it might have a strongly constricting force in the long run on what you can do to take your country forward.

Nitin (14:20)
Yeah, I think I just wanted to make a point that when we started thinking about teaching public policy…our course is called GCPP – Graduate Certificate in Public Policy. One of the modules we teach is called Policy Analysis, and there we have narratives as a central part of teaching policy analysis. Back in 2009 I was having a cup of coffee somewhere, and it struck me that politics everywhere is a quest for narrative dominance. What you’re doing in politics is not coming to power; coming to power is just an instrument of enshrining your narrative and making it the dominant one. Power involves travelling around in an aircraft, having a convoy of cars and allocating funds for this or that, and you’d be able to do all sorts of things if you’re politically powerful. But at the deepest level, what you’re trying to do with political power is to enshrine the preferred narrative you have. Ideologies of political leaders or parties or political formations that have a coherent narrative, or a powerful narrative, tend to do better over the long term than parties that don’t. What that means, is that if you have a strong narrative then even if you’re out of power for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 terms, you still have the narrative that sustains you and your followers which you can keep alive and keep articulating. If you don’t have a narrative, if all you’re saying is “I’m a political leader. Vote for me,” Or, “I’m a political leader; I don’t stand for anything. Just vote for me.” (Spend) 1, 2, or 3 terms out of power and you’re finished because there’s nothing to sustain you. Politics everywhere and every time is a quest for narrative dominance. What I mean by narrative dominance is that there are multiple narratives floating around – you’re playing in a competitive narrative space. You’re a person with a political view, another person has a political view; there are many parties, ideologies flowing out; there are new ones coming into play all the time. All of these are competitors in this narrative space. You, as a political leader, or political party, are fighting this battle of narratives such that when you acquire narrative dominance – electoral dominance or political dominance just follows. But it doesn’t follow the other way around: just because you have electoral or political dominance today, doesn’t mean you’ll have (a sustained) narrative dominance. But if you have narrative dominance, political dominance is a matter of time. It’s much more long lasting. You might lose elections here or there, but over a period of time you will be a strong political force.

Ravi (17:26)
Another fascinating point!
The way I think about it is that if you aren’t a big Bollywood star, but you’ve got a huge following on Instagram Reels or YouTube or whatever, you will eventually get that chance to get that power because the big stars cannot ignore you – because you’ve managed to build that narrative or space in the minds of people. (You’ve established) mindspace, which is what narrative dominance tends to do.

I want to build on this, Nitin, with this brilliant frame you’ve given about the four levels of public discourse in Politics. I’m going to quote from your article where you write that there are 4 levels of public discourse in politics, each centred around a basic question: “The lowest, foundational level, is the question of who we are. Above it, is the contest to define what our problems are. The third level concerns how we should collectively solve these problems. Finally, at the highest level, is the question of where we want to go. Now, a society that plots its future without understanding itself is likely to run aground. Equally, one that spends all its time debating ‘who we are’ finds very little time to consider ‘where we want to go’. Such a society is likely to end up wherever chance and circumstances take it.” I found this to be so clarifying! There are all these narratives that keep flying around, but this frame or structure immediately makes it clear why this narrative of identity pervades so much – because it’s an easy one; it appeals to our basic instincts. I’d love for you to expand on this frame and maybe you can think of examples of narratives that have succeeded in India or outside, which have gone higher on this frame which talks about the future and solutions, etc. (Is there) anything that you would like to add to that?

Nitin (19:30)
I think this 4-step framework works not only for nation states but also for companies, corporations and individuals also. Since a lot of your listeners are from the corporate world, let me use a corporate analogy to make this whole thing (fit together). At the base level of it, when you start a company or a non-profit – I run a non-profit so this is relevant to me – ‘who are we?’ is the first question. Why are we doing what we’re doing? The answer can’t be “to make money”. If the answer is only to make money, you could just accumulate capital, invest in the stock market and make returns. You don’t really have to go build a company, build products, go through all of this pain just to make money. We do certain things because we want to achieve some things. It could be that in the start-up space the idea is to become large, earn a lot of money, and exit. That’s a very short-term view of building a company. Even so, the company has a reason for its existence. It might not be articulated by the top leadership often, but I think it should be. Every single person who joins the company should know why we exist. For example, at the Takshashila Institution, we say to every single person who comes, “Look, we’ve given up our careers in the private sector; a lot of us are specialists or professional in various areas. We’ve given up those careers to work in the policy space in a non-profit because we believe that we want to transform India.” Now that’s a big, hairy, audacious goal. We’re transforming India in a way that is defined by the foundational constitutional values that are there in our country, which is liberty, pluralism, active citizenship; India is a great power, and we want to advance India’s national interests. This set of why we do what we do is ingrained in each and every one of our people. Some pick it up very quickly, others take some time to pick it up. But the core team, made up of our donors, our key stakeholders – everybody knows this is why we exist. That is why we won’t take foreign funding, for example. That’s been a core to our existence from day 1 because we’re talking about India being an important player in international affairs. We can’t talk about this when we’re taking international funding. Donors, stakeholders, everybody knows this. It makes a lot of things easier because everybody knows who we are. People aren’t going to come up to us and say, “Why don’t you take this sum of money and write this kind of report?” People know very well we won’t do that. People will look at it and say, “This is not us.”
That ability to say “This is not us” is crucial to the growth and development and sustenance of a long-term institution. Whether it’s a private company, a nation state, or a non-profit, the ability to say “This is not us. This is not what we do” is critical, that’s why it’s the base level. Once you’ve gotten an understanding of what we are and what we aren’t, you still have day-to-day issues to solve. There are hundreds of problems to solve. You need to prioritise them – you can’t just say, “I’m going to solve problems in order of first come first serve,” or “Garbage in, garbage out”, whatever. There has to be a thought process by which you prioritise (your approach). Many companies, nation states, many non-profits can be identified and defined by the kind of problems they want to solve. Let’s say we are interested in India being a great power. We’ve defined that as one of the important problems we want to solve. That defines us. Externally, anyone (who sees it will say,) “So these are the kind of problems these guys are working on.” These guys are not now going to say, “There’s a pothole outside my street, can you please fix it?” That’s not what we do. That’s not the problem set we are working on. But if you, as a nation state or a community, or a company, are unable to prioritize that and say “These are the big 5 problems; we might not agree on the sequence of 1 2 3 4 5, but we know that these are the top 5. All of us in this company believe these are the top 5 problems we want to solve.” But if that’s not there, and instead we agree on the top 1000 problems and can’t prioritize, then it’s a very different kind of situation. All your energies are spent trying to debate which problem to solve rather than trying to focus on one of the problems and solving it.
The third step is easy. Once you decide what problem to solve, there are many ways to solve it and you have to isolate one.
The fourth one is not about problems. The fourth one is about where we want to go. Things are changing all the time; the world is changing society is changing; technology is changing; culture is changing; people are changing; demography is changing. You can’t say, “Look, I used to sell South Indian food in an old-styled restaurant, so I’m going to continue to sell South Indian food in an old-styled restaurant.” Because you might be out-paced by Swiggy and home delivery (apps) and other things, in which case you have to change your process, etc. You’re still going to be a restaurant selling high quality South Indian food, but do you still want to be an old-styled restaurant model? Do you want to do fine dining? Quick service restaurant menus? Food delivery? Do you want to get into the fast-food industry? There’s a lost of things to (think about) so you can figure out where you want to go. Here, the less time you spend on this, the more you’ll be captured by the fierce reality of the present and the past. You’ll be fighting yesterdays and today’s problems and before you know it you will be upstaged by competitors. Knowing where you want to go and being able to have that conversation internally and telling that story to yourself and others is also the whole part of long-term sustainability of an organization.
If you have to look at success stories, look at the companies in the Fortune 500 around 5, 10, or 50 years ago. Are they still there? Those that are, have been able to do it successfully and those that dropped out probably have not. IBM being a classic example – IBM has been around for 100+ years now, through various periods of time and here they are. I don’t know what the IBM story is because I’ve been out of the IT industry for close to 15 years, but talking to people from IBM you get a sense that there is an identity. They know what they are about, they know what they are not. That can change over a period of time, but at any given point of time they know who they are and what they are or are not about. Many of the bigger companies, too. I think what gets complicated in a situation like India is that we have this whole conglomerate effect because of the way the economy is structured. Once you’re a big company, you have a lot of cash and access; a lot of ways to do business. It’s easy for you to do a whole lot of other things. You might start making ships, then say “I can now make cars. Then I can grow vegetables; I can do home deliveries. I can make computers; do software; take rockets to the moon; I can do all of this because I have mastered the art of doing business at scale and now, I can do all these businesses at scale.” But after a while, you’re a conglomerate and people ask you what you are about. It’s very hard for a conglomerate to answer that question. Why would some interesting young person want to join that conglomerate? Other than the fact that you’re offering a very good salary and some good career path. But you won’t get innovators, right? You won’t get people who are really passionate about this and that. That is why you’ll see a lot of passionate people going into start-ups because start-ups are very clear on what they are and the problems they want to solve, the timeline they want to solve them in, and so on.

Ravi (28:25)
What about at a national or country level? Any stacking examples that come to mind where countries had to sell a good narrative about future direction, at a level 4, which was for the public good but was a tough narrative to sell but they still managed to sell it?

Nitin (28:45)
I think at this point in time, most liberal democracies are in that moment. Most of us are very India focused. We think India is the only one with these problems that nobody else has, but if you look at every single liberal democracy, all 4 steps of this ladder are under challenge. “Who are we?” If you ask Indians, the debate is really about are we a pluralistic, liberal, secular democracy? Or should we be a majoritarian semi-democracy that is highly democratic but not really concerned about rights and citizenship and republicanism? Even the basic structure of the constitution, for example, is now being debated. It’s the same with the United States. They are questioning if they should really be an immigrant society or if they should become a majoritarian populist place. Turkey is in the same situation; you have the same thing in Brazil, and in many parts of Europe. There is a certain information dynamic that is causing all liberal democracies to ask similar questions and face the same dilemmas today. That’s where we are. It’s a question of do we define ourselves as a pluralistic, liberal democracy that has rule of law? Do we define ourselves as a majoritarian state where individual liberty is not as important as the majority community at any setting – on a national level, or even in a moholla(local neighbourhood)? The majoritarian preferences take precedence over individual liberty. This is a ‘where do we want to go’ kind of question which is out there, but it’s also intimately linked to ‘who we are’ because the people making the case of ‘where we want to go’ always refer back to ‘who we are’ to make that case. It’s not that you can’t start ab initio. You have to say we have this glorious tradition of X, Y, and Z, therefore, we should do A, B, and C. For all values of X, Y, and Z and A, B, and C.

Ravi (30:46)
That is something that is worrisome because as you also mentioned about too much focus on history and the past, too much on discussion around identity. At the end of the day, narratives are operating in a constrained space of scarcity of time and attention. How much ever time gets eaten up by who we are and what kind of movies we should see, what kind of books we should read, what kind of colours people should wear in movies’ songs…it constrains the space for more meaningful, development-oriented discussions. Do you see that it’s probably some growth pangs happening now, and eventually some of these will get settled and we might emerge for higher-order discussions? What’s your prognosis of the situation?

Nitin (31:35)
I think this debate and review of examining our own identity and being comfortable with it is important. We have thousands of years of intellectual history; we have thousands of years of lived experience. We have shown that pluralistic, diverse subcontinent can be held under one regime – under the constitution of India, for example. There are lots of things that we can be proud of. It’s good to revisit and debate this periodically and be comfortable with it. I think it’s also, to a large extent, a demographic thing. More than half the country is below the age of 28. Since 1991, there’s been very little in terms of trying to build a common national narrative. You have multiple TV channels, multiple media streams, multiple activities. Other than probably cricket, there are very few things which bring the whole country together and tuned to one wavelength. Therefore, I think there’s been a lot of fissiparous tendencies in terms of examining who we are and so on. Some amount of anchoring and mooring toward identity is important. But that’s the word – your identity should be a mooring: it tells you who you are and from there you can depart to wherever you want. It tells you where you started and which direction you want to go in. But if instead of being a mooring, it becomes a straitjacket – you are held together and your mooring is also a radius beyond which you cannot move, then it becomes naturally constraining. It’s best if every generation makes up its own mind, instead of absorbing it because your parents or the founders of the constitution told you something. I think it’s important for us to have a liberal democracy because it’s important in and of itself, because it’s important for my children and grandchildren to have it. I don’t support liberal democracy just because my grandfather supported it, or the founding parents of our constituent assembly did. They did a great job and gave us a great legacy, but it’s not the legacy that I’m trying to defend. It’s the future that I want. That’s why I think it’s a good thing to have these conversations. Unfortunately, when you have a national conversation in a no holds barred or no rules apply kind of situation, instead of having a thoughtful, reflective conversation, you get into a conversation which is either tribal or coerced by the use of force, the power of the state, or the police. The police should not be a factor in an intellectual discourse. I’m using the word ‘police’ very broadly; the state and the coercive machinery of the state should not be a factor in intellectual or creative discourse. The state shouldn’t be determining what kind of movies we make, songs we sing, books we write, magazines we read, or content we consume. The state is ultimately a bureaucrat. I’ve been a bureaucrat before; as a bureaucrat, you operate according to rules. You might use judgment, but you’re not the most sensitive, discriminating or the most aesthetically accomplished person. Even if you are personally, once you sit in the seat of a bureaucrat – once you’re a representative of the state, all of that goes out the window. You become a rule-enforcing, career-protecting person sitting on a chair. I am hopeful that once we are through this paroxysm of populist, majoritarian moral panic, we’ll go into a plateau of calmer, more balanced and more harmonized national conversations.

Ravi (35:53)
Great points, Nitin. If we look at some headwinds to head towards the positive – there’s of course our general tribal tendencies; it’s easier to stoke up fear. There’s also this thing of how there are many years in which history has been written in a certain slant and now it’s time to go the other way. Plus, the complete disintegration (I meant disintegration disintermediation) of entire media which means that anybody can say anything and sometimes that tends to go into the lowest common denominator. There’s a lot of these forces that make it more challenging. Are you seeing any forces which give you hope that things are changing for the better?

Nitin (36:35)
One of the books I would recommend to your readers is a book called Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone. What she says in the chapter on narratives, is that there are 2 broad types of narratives – narratives of hope, and narratives of fear. It could be the same thing you’re trying to argue but you could use one of the two narratives. Let’s say we want to build great roads across the country. That’s the project we want to promote, that we want to build infrastructure; we want a great highway system. You could build a narrative of fear which says that “Look our current road system is terrible. A lot of accidents are happening, and unless we fix them, a lot of people are going to die. By the way, China has these great roads. They are fracturing capturing so much of our economy. Unless we fix our roads, China is going to walk away with a whole lot of prizes.”
You could also have a narrative of hope, which says that “If you build this road, this child will be able to go to a school which is in the district headquarters in half an hour. Imagine ten million kids going to school, reducing their travel time, getting the girl child into school in a safe way. We’d be able to improve our indicators by so and so much.”
Whatever the end goal is, people have a choice of what kind of narrative (they put forth.) Whether it’s the positive narrative of hope, or you could choose the negative narrative of fear, anxiety, doubt. This, I think, is a political calculation. In a corporate context, it’s the same. You might want to use a positive or negative narrative. It’s about what gives you more mileage. What do you think will get you more of what you want, rather than the other?
There’s been a calculation thanks to the moral panic on social media that negative narratives sell a lot more.

Ravi (39:05)
Just to add to that, Nitin. Do you think the loss- aversion theory also comes into play because we tend to weigh losses higher?

Nitin (39:12)
Yeah. A whole lot of it. Essentially, people are making a decision on a broad set of things. What type of situation is this? What’s the external condition? What’s the state of mind of the people? What other things are going on in people’s mind? Are people scared? Are they hopeful? Is economic growth taking place? Is the geopolitical scene stable or unstable? Based on a whole lot of things, people make a call to use fear and anxiety. “Let’s sell the same dope we are selling, but let’s use fear to sell it.” That works for a while, but I think the human condition is such that fear and anxiety only take you so far. People get fed up of being scared and anxious. There’s usually some sort of push back, that “I’m done with this. I don’t want to be scared anymore.” History is replete with examples – peasant rebellions happen, people just say “I’ve had enough of the feudal lord, we’re going to overthrow the guy.” Similarly, people just say “We’re tired of this narrative” and then you’ll go into something different. That’s the reason for hope. You cannot keep people pressured down for a long period of time. Because of social media and other things, you have multiple ways to keep people anxious and fearful, this (fear mongering) can extend beyond anything we’ve seen in the past. But there has to be an expiry date to it, because the human condition is not one where you’ll be perpetually ready to live in fear.
I think a lot of good people are also making this mistake. For example, I use climate change as the favourite one. A lot of people trying to fight climate change are perpetuating a narrative of anxiety or doom, which only makes people a lot more anxious to support simplistic options. “Vote for this guy!” “Vote for that option!” “Let’s pass this bill and all our problems will go away.” By selling this apocalyptic doom and gloom, the climate case is self-defeating. It might create a lot of awareness and angst and heartburn about the climate and what is happening, but it might not create the kind of impetus for change (that one would hope for.) I would go out on a limb and say that unless we can change the climate narrative into one where there is less apocalyptic thinking, and more of a promise of a beautiful world, we won’t be able to solve it. Apocalyptic thinking has a place in western – especially semitic – religions. Semitic religions have this idea of an apocalypse and an original sin where you’ll be judged on a judgment day and then right or wrong will happen. Which I see happening in the western climate change narrative. It’s like an original sin – everything you do is wrong. By your very existence, you are harming the planet. In 2077 some nasty thing will happen and everything (will be ruined forever, etc.) I think that kind of cultural frame has been transformed into climate change in the west. But we don’t have that apocalyptic thinking in India. In ours, everything is cyclical. There is a Kalyug and then you come back to Kritayug again. There is always this idea of karma and hope. You can change your future by the right actions. I think the Indian story for climate change has to be “Let’s try and create a better country. Let’s have a beautiful city. Let’s have cleaner air. Let’s make sure the places are nice for our children to walk around. Let’s have a countryside where there is no disease spreading. Throw garbage in a way that doesn’t make things ugly. I don’t want to go to a beautiful tourist location and see mountains of garbage. So, let’s clear that.” that gives a lot more positive zeal to people which makes them more ready to do things on their part, rather than surrendering and saying “let the government do everything.” This apocalyptic thinking enables people to easily displace the responsibility to somebody else. To society as a whole, or to the government, or to somebody else, and to say “let somebody else solve it.” “The government is taking taxes, so let the government do something about climate change. Why should I worry?”
It really matters whether you’re choosing a positive or negative pedal. It’s contextual – different countries will do different things; different societies will do different things.

Ravi (44:03)
I love this frame, Nitin, of positive and negative pedals; hope versus fear. I wan t toot talk about the concept of frames in general. You use a lot of frames which help clarify something that looks very complicated from the outside. The 4 levels of discourse in politics is, itself, a very clarifying frame. I also love this concept of looking at history not so much as a series of periods of war and peace but as a series of order and disorder. All of these frames are ways in which you are essentially helping your audience look at the world in a better way. This is something which I think, as a skill, is underappreciated and underused by leaders. Whether they are corporate leaders, non-profit leaders, political leaders. How do you think of the concept of frames? How do you come up with some of your own frames? How would you aid or encourage others to think more in terms of these frames?

Nitin (45:11)
I always used to talk about this particular story when I used to teach narratives. You’ve walked into a James Bond film – you know how it works. The first scene is some spectacular action stunt. He jumps off from a helicopter and lands in water, there’s a beautiful woman whom he talks to and he delivers (the classic) “My name is Bond. James Bond” (line). That’s the first adventure. And then the main story starts, and usually there’s an evil guy who wants world domination and this guy has to go solve it. There’s a lot of beautiful women in the scene; there are a lot of spectacular scenes. Then suddenly, a woman comes up to him and says, “Mai tumhare bacche ki maa banne waali hu.” (I am pregnant with your child.) And then you say, “Look! Something happened here.” This particular scene does not belong to the movie. That’s the power of narratives and framing. You know immediately that this person who’s come and said “Mai tumhare bacche ki maa banne waali hu” belongs to a 1970s Hindi film, it doesn’t belong to a James Bond movie. It is not a James Bond thing. That’s the power of framing – it immediately tells the audience something is wrong here. It indicates certain things which are legitimate and which belong, and certain things which are illegitimate, that don’t belong. This is dangerous. As we said in the Pakistan case, if you build a narrative in such a strong way then you are trapped if you want to have change. But in most other cases, the narrative you build for yourself really helps to construct a set of desirables and a set of undesirables. In that sense, both you and your listeners are in tune with what is desirable and what is undesirable. That’s what a big narrative does.
If I were to technically define it, frames actually provide an infrastructure for those narratives. You could look at it as a (clothesline) which you hang across two poles and then you can hang clothes, or sceneries, etc., on that line. It’s that line on which you can peg things. The frame provides that infrastructure. Frameworks, on the other hand, are slightly different. Frameworks are a systematic way for people to think through. Frames are infrastructure; they are the anchor on which you can peg your story. But frameworks are systematic ways for you to be able to think. What do I mean by that? Very often, when you’re in a setting where you have to make decisions and think through certain problems, you tend to focus on the visible – what is palpable, what is at the top of your mind – and you tend to ignore other parts of the universe that might be relevant to you, but that just aren’t at the top of your mind. For example, in stakeholder analysis, when you ask companies who their stakeholders are, they’ll give you a list of their shareholder, their employees, the milkman, the office rental guy, all of those people. Then (you might ask), “What about this kid who is an influencer, who listens to music – is this person a stakeholder?” They’ll say “No, he’s just a kid.” But now imagine this kid says, “I used a product from this company, and it was terrible.” Suddenly, a whole lot of teenagers are dumping your company. You ignored this particular stakeholder; you never even thought this person is a stakeholder. Instead of this, imagine you had a systematic way of constructing a stakeholder map. At Takshashila, we are believers of a simple 2×2 thing. You have 2 axes, put an X axis and a Y axis. Use important but uncertain things as the bases of your two axes, and then you plot everything. Suddenly, you’ll discover using this simple 2×2 framework that there are several kinds of stakeholders here which I previously didn’t think were important. It allows you to discover and see which ones are relatively more important. It allows you to make what I call as ‘second-best choice decisions.’ Usually, when you draw a 2×2, one quadrant is your best-best or your good-good. The 4th quadrant is always your best. It doesn’t require a genius to say “Let’s do things in the 4th quadrant.” But what about things in the 2nd and 3rd quadrant? Which is more important? If you plot it out, you’ll see. How do you choose your second choice? What parameters are most important? All of this helps if you have a good framework. You need frames and frameworks, but the best situation is when you have a frame and framework that coincide. What I mean by that is…the simplest example I can think of is when you have a demand curve and a supply curve in microeconomics. You have a downward sloping demand curve and an upward sloping supply curve, almost anybody who’s done basic microeconomics knows this. It’s a frame as well as a framework, because with this frame you can talk about price gaps, price flows, surplus, profits, prices going up or down, you can predict when prices will go up, etc. A whole lot of thing can be visualized, predicted, and most importantly, communicated, using this framework. When I say there’s a price gap, everybody immediately knows what a price gap means in the supply and demand curve. You’re communicating this to a lot of people. Not just the action you’re doing, but also the consequences and implications of that action. This is a very wonkish thing about narratives. When you’re talking about storytelling, I don’t think anybody will tell you about frames and frameworks. But if you want to do it in a systematic way, I think there are multiple ways you can think through and one of the ways I would say is to focus on frames and frameworks and make them coincide. Try to work on narratives where the frames and frameworks are coincident. The same framework acts as your frame, and the same frame acts as your framework.

Ravi (52:01)
Can you give one more example of that, Nitin? The demand-supply was useful, but (is there) anything else that comes to mind?

Nitin (52:07)
I can’t pull out something from the top of my mind; I’m saturated at this time.

Ravi (52:11)
No worries. This is interesting, because I use these words interchangeably, so it helps me. The way I think of it, framework is different but I look at frame from a photography perspective, that there is a subject which you are trying to photograph, and what do you include in the frame? Do you put the context of history, other countries, or time? It helps you to put it in the right context. What you’re telling with the framework, the way I interpret it is to have a tool that helps in decision making, if you are faced with a recurring problem of that type. The word that comes to mind is a consulting term called MECE, you might have heard of it: Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive. Frameworks, ideally, if they can be MECE, it will help you to make sure that you’ve thought through all the possible questions that need to be answered to solve that problem well. A classic framework is the 4 Ps in marketing, and so on. It was interesting to get that perspective. I know we are running close to the end of the hour, Nitin. I’d love to have another conversation where we can delve deeper into these (topics). But before we sign off, there’s one last question which I had. I’ve seen you write about the power of reading 2 types of books, which is unusual. Normally people talk about non-fiction, but you talk about philosophy as a category, and fiction. You write about what all you read in fiction every year. So, (my question to you is,) why should people read philosophy? And why should people read fiction?

Nitin (54:03)
One of the most important challenges of the 21st century, when there is so much of technology and automation, the biggest challenge for human beings is to use judgment to make good decisions. Whether it’s in your private life, or your corporate life, or as a citizen. You can’t make good decisions if you’re unfamiliar with what constitutes ‘good’. How do you define good? When you say “a good decision”, what goes into ‘good’? When you say something is beautiful, what goes into ‘beauty’? When you say ‘justice’, what goes into that? There are multiple traditions among various civilizations that have come to us today, which allow us to unpack those questions and make good decisions. Philosophy is a broad term which describes these traditions. Science, itself, is a child of philosophy. It used to be called ‘Natural Philosophy’ and now we have a name for it, called ‘science’. Science is a particular type of philosophy where you have hypotheses you test and it’s a method of uncovering the truth. There are other ways of doing it, and philosophy is very important. It’s something that all of us have to deal with more and more, especially in the 21st century. Because the thing that distinguishes us and our decisions from machines and machine decisions, is exactly this. How can you make a judgment which is human and not mechanical in nature?
Fiction isa different planet. That allows me to think and set my current beliefs and thoughts and biases against that of somebody else, and then make a correlation. I’ll go, “Oh, maybe she’s right”, “Maybe she’s wrong”, “this is where I agree with her; this for a different reason. I think a lot of us get trapped in our current narratives. I am an engineer, so I do engineering; I am a public policy wonk, I see the world in a particular way. I look at free markets and I think a world where free markets prevail is an ideal world, but then I go and read a book by Ursula Le Guin, which is science fiction, and she visualizes a world where communism or some kind of non-property holding society is the future on  is where I disagree with her.” You do all this in a very entertaining way, without even thinking that you’re making these kinds of judgments. You’re actually enjoying the process. So, reading good fiction gets us into that territory. Actually, I must tell you why I wrote my book that came out this year. It balances the two areas – it’s philosophy and it’s fiction. It came out of the realization that a lot of people, especially in the corporate world, or as citizens, have very few philosophical bases to live our lives as citizens. We might read the Arthshastra, but it was written for a prince. It was about Rajadharma for the king to do what a king does. I used to think the Panchatantra is for citizens. Turns out, it was also written for princes.

Ravi (57:38)
Really? Oh!

Nitin (57:39)
Exactly! And so is the Hitopadesha. Hitopadesha was written for princes. Almost all the texts we have are written for the kings and princes.

Ravi (57:47)
Because they must have been writing for the paying audience, which was the kings and princes.

Nitin (57:50)
Right. It was not for citizens. Now, when you see ‘Arthshastra for business,’ or for corporate readers, I get very scared. Because it’s written for an amoral prince, who operates in an amoral, political world. He’s not bound by constitutions or morality of any kind. Power is the only currency in an international relations context. But if you are a corporate leader or a citizen, you are bound by the morality which is called the constitution. You can’t say “I’ll do whatever I want to do” and get away with it. The Nitopadesha was written for citizens and for people who run corporations and non-profits, and other civic leaders, etc., to get a sense of what is the morality of being a citizen. What is the morality of us – on the other side of the power – I’m not writing for political leaders. They’ve been catered to by all these great authors for the last 2,000 years. But there is very little, apart from our 6th standard civics textbooks, that tells us what it means to be a citizen and what is the right way to be a citizen. Telling it through the medium of Indian stories, stories within stories and puzzles within puzzles, riddles within riddles, will make it more interesting and more educative at the same time. That’s the answer.
Philosophy and fiction are ways that we can appreciate the world better in the 21st century. Not just we ‘can’, but we must. Those who will succeed in the 21st century are people who can imagine and make judgments. The people who will not be able to do so well are the people who can’t do these two things well.

Ravi (59:40)
So well said, Nitin! I’ve been loving reading the Nitopadesha, which is something I would highly recommend. It’s a great, fun way to learn about some of these concepts that we’ve never been taught in an interesting and engaging way. Each of these fables and stories are really short. It’s a book that anybody can pick up and read parts of; it doesn’t have to be read in one sitting. It’s a great book to read and to gift.

Nitin, where can people find out more about you?

Nitin (1:00:00)
About me, on my website. Whatever I wish to reveal to the world is on my website, what’s not (open to) the world is not there! That’s about it. Most of the time, I’m writing and I’m online. I’ve found a way to keep the personal, personal, and the public, public. I think that’s a skill which I’m trying to learn and to teach my children and others. In an information society, you still need a way to retain your private and personal thoughts, personal views, your personal sphere. Your friends, your personal relationships, and to also have a public sphere where you can communicate with the others. If you do it wrong, then you are sharing everything that happens to you every day. What coffee you drank, what happened to you, what medicine you took tonight, etc. I don’t think those kinds of things need to be shared with the public. But there are certain things you might want to share. Getting that balance is the principal challenge of our generation. We’re still trying to learn all of this.

Ravi (1:01:13)
Among many other challenges.
Thank you so much, Nitin! It’s been a huge pleasure. As I’ve said before, we need to get you back on the podcast to go deeper into your thoughts on narratives, frames, storytelling and philosophy. Looking forward to round 2 sometime later – maybe when your next book comes out. Is there a next book in the making?

Nitin (1:01:34)
Well, I hope so, but that’s a sensitive question. You’re not supposed to ask that.

Ravi (1:01:38)
Fair enough. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Nitin (1:01:40)
Thanks, Ravi. I hope your listeners had a great time, and (I’ll be) happy to respond to comments and criticisms which come my way.

Ravi (1:01:50)
Superb. Thanks.

And that was Nitin Pai, one India’s leading public policy storytellers, who strongly believes in the power of narratives in shaping a nation’s future.

A few things which stood out for me in the conversation:

  • The stories we tell ourselves shape the reality we live in – we need to ensure we don’t let our stories constrain our present and future.
  • The four levels of stories and the need to not be too focused on any one level
  • The need to read philosophy and fiction to be able to imagine better and take more effective decisions

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

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