The power of grassroots democracy was on showcase in the recently concluded elections in Delhi. Small won over the large; household agenda triumphed national agenda; micro trends stumped macro trends; new party wiped out old party and the story of David and Goliath repeated again in the plain sight of a billion people.
Aam Aadmi Party (‘AAP’) which means Common Man’s Party, is made up of civil servants, poets, teachers, social workers, housewives, journalists, software engineers and members from the most common strata of the society. People with no relevant political / administration experience with only the pain of a common man and frustration for corrupt bureaucracy binding together them formed a political party and contested elections. AAP was an underdog in the elections and they achieved a landslide victory in Delhi State elections defeating the ruling national party BJP with a ratio of 67:3 (i.e. AAP won 67 of the 70 seats and rest of the 3 seats won by BJP) and it managed to completely wipe out Congress, India’s oldest political party.
We see such unexpected success stories in every domain. History is rife with the stories of underdogs achieving unexpected results in what seems to be an asymmetric situation i.e. underdogs win against significant odds. J K Rowling an unemployed single mother; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak computer geeks working out of a garage; Dhirubhai Ambani a gas station vendor in Yemen; Narendra Modi a tea seller; Barack Obama an African American with no political ancestry and many more such people who started off with nothing have achieved unthinkable greatness. We see such stories of David (the disadvantaged) defeating the Giant Goliath or the Indian Mythological equivalent of five Pandavas defeating hundred Kauravas, all the time all around us.
Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits And The Art Of Battling Giants (I have an author signed copy of this book and a picture with the author🙂) has many such stories of disadvantaged people achieving unexpected greatness. Malcolm writes –
“We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is — and the definition isn’t right. And what happens as a result? It means that we make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage.”
” Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable”
One hypothesis why underdogs win is that people tend to identify themselves with the underdogs. They see their own disadvantage, struggle, helplessness and frustration in the underdogs and when time comes to take sides, root or vote, people like people who are like them. In an experiment to test this hypothesis, researchers created an underdog brand and when in competition with more popular brands tested who wins. They observed –
“… consumers react positively when they see the underdog aspects of their own lives being reflected in branded products. Four studies demonstrate that the underdog brand biography effect is driven by identity mechanisms: we show that the effect is (a) mediated by consumers’ identification with the brand, (b) greater for consumers who strongly self-identify as underdogs, (c) stronger when consumers are purchasing for themselves versus for others, and (d) stronger in cultures in which underdog narratives are part of the national identity.”
What is the appeal that makes common people to support the underdogs? Malcolm Gladwell further writes –
“Because it makes the world seem just. If the strongest win all the battles, there’s no hope for the rest of us, is there? If the same people who have all the power and all the money and all the authority are also going to win every contest, what’s the point of going on for the rest of us? So the underdog story gives all of us who are not on top hope. Occasionally we do get to come out on top. I think that is profoundly true, that’s what the underdog is all about.”
Do underdogs win all the time?
Political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft did some research and concluded that underdogs win 28.5 percent of the time. In his research he looked at four hundred years history of weaker countries winning wars against countries that are at least 10 times more stronger them. Arreguín-Toft also looked at what happens in wars between the strong and the weak when the weak side refuses to fight the way the bigger side wants to fight, i.e. using unconventional or guerrilla tactics? The answer: In those cases, the weaker party’s winning percentage climbs from 28.5 percent to 63.6 percent.
This research further validates why the entire world (including NATO countries) with nuclear weapons and military capabilities unheard of is unable to contain terrorism. Terrorists just refuse to fight the conventional battle.
The rise of Android is another classical example of how the underdogs win. By offering open source, open marketplace and free of any license costs, Android opted to compete differently (i.e. refused to fight the conventional battle). They succeed in winning against the more popular platforms as can be seen in the graph below.
Another attribute of an underdog is that they have very less to no risk of losing anything they value or have toiled to accumulate. They only have upside in fighting for the purpose they strongly believe in. Such asymmetric situation reminds me of Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (I have an author signed copy of this book too). Taleb argues that such a situation can be called Antifragile –
“A fragile object breaks or weakens under pressure, like a porcelain vase or a heavily leveraged financial portfolio. A robust object is pressure resistant, like a rock or an ancient but unchanged technology like the book shelf. An Antifragile object becomes stronger under pressure, like an immune system or an economy”
“And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.”
What caused AAP to win?
Any answer that I may offer will have Hindsight Bias and I would be fitting a theory to suit the outcome. Instead I would like to improve my Inductive Reasoning from such observations and learn from it. In this situation all I know is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, AAP had nothing to lose and they were in an antifragile situation. As Taleb explains the success of Ayn Rand’s books is owed, in no small part, to her intense critics, so is the success of AAP is owed, in no small part to intense critics from BJP, Congress and the media.