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India's Renewed Tryst with Destiny

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Nilekani, N. (2008). Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation. New York: Penguin Books.

Nandan Nilekani represents India's entrepreneurial class that is spearheading a quiet revolution to change the world. He claims that the forces of information technology, economic liberalization and globalization have created a resurgent India, which resembles the heady days of the founding of the nation. In the words of his friend and confidant, Thomas Friedman, who has written the foreword to the book, India's economic uprising can level the playing field for more than one billion people. Weaned off of half-century of dependency on quasi-socialist ideologies, India's forays into the information technology sector have amply demonstrated that India is ready to take on the challenges of the free market economy and globalization and through the process become the largest and the fastest growing democracy on the planet.

Nilekani's rediscovery of India through entrepreneurship tells the story of an ancient civilization entering the information age -- an antique land with one of the fastest growing cell phone and blackberry penetration. India today stands at a crossroads, facing a major demographic transition and bustling with the spirit of technological innovation. She can embrace the demographic reality, take the arduous path less traveled and reshape the country for the twenty-first century, or due to a lack of political resolve simply forgo the big economic tidal wave that can lift up all the boats and improve the life-standards for its tiring and hungry masses.

As the co-founder of Infosys, who stumbled upon the idea of a technology start-up in the early 1980's, Nilekani describes himself as "an accidental entrepreneur" trying to renew the idea of a nation. "But as an IT company, Infosys always faced challenges different from the rest of the Indian industry. Shortages in infrastructure did not affect us, as our markets were international, and all we needed to do business was a wire and some computers. We experienced little of the labor problems and strikes that plagued India's traditional industries" (p. 3). Thus, Nilekani concludes India's recent victories in economic reforms have been gained "despite the state," an idea encapsulated in the underlying theme of the book: "India's weaknesses are all within, in the ongoing struggle to define the direction of our future ideas and policies for the future" (p. 5). This theme like a piece of software code or an Indian classical raga concentrically plays throughout the book in different variation, tempo and pitch.

This is a book driven by ideas, both large and small. In part one, the book examines ideas that have arrived, where attitudes in the Indian population have changed. For example, once the English language was seen as a vestige of the Raj; with the onset of outsourcing, it has become the language of choice with a ticket to globalization. Not long ago, India's population was seen as a burden, with too many mouths to feed; now, it forms the human capital reserves needed to meet the challenges of affordable labor. Prior to liberalization, global brands were driven out of India; yet, today no one raises an eyebrow when another KFC or McDonalds opens in a local town or city. Conversely, Indians are quite enthusiastic about Indian multinationals taking over global firms from software to steel.

The second part of the book examines ideas that are in the zeitgeist but have not been fully adopted. For example, the idea of universal literacy has gained momentum, but has not been fully implemented throughout the country. Similarly, the idea that "real India" is to be found in its villages has been central to the romantic notion of India, but lately this has given way to the power of the cities and the need to build an urban metropolis with integrated infrastructure connecting different states and interstate highways.

The third part of the book examines controversial ideas that are hotly debated, such as, the ideas of reforming universities, the role of government in private education, reforming labor laws and building integrated financial markets. Finally, in the concluding section of the book Nilekani challenges readers and policy makers to create innovative solutions to uniquely Indian problems, rather than simply borrowing or importing social ideas lock-stock-and-barrel from other countries. India's economy, population and energy challenges demand Indian solutions that are not necessarily preconfigured in Western ideas about development.

For a high-tech man, inclined to measure progress in nanoseconds, Nilekani has a long view of Indian history: "The problem was that the curve of India's history and its ideas had been an extremely discontinuous one-a foreign occupation had long divorced the region from its pre-British ideas and economic and social structures...What we saw in its place instead was strange grafting of the Indian identity with an entirely new culture. The British brought with them the English language and Western education, and with such education came the ideas of modern nationalism, self-determination and democracy. However, these ideas only reached a small elite-the British consensus was that, on the whole, Indians were best left alone" (p. 10).

Nilekani states that the fissures created by the British have endured the span of time; India has remained divided between the elite civil service class and the mass of humanity which is predominantly feudal and rural. The chasm between the old India, "the village India", and elite India, "the Babu-sahib culture", saddled the post-independence India through the stagnant years of growth, leading up to the economic liberalization in the 1990's. India was unified in the two decades after independence due to the afterglow of the national goodwill created by the transformational leaders like Gandhi and Nehru and for brief moments during the wars with China and Pakistan; otherwise, India has been divided along traditional lines of rural-urban region, religion, caste, social class and gender hierarchy. Economic liberalization was the singular event that marked the beginning of the great Indian middle class, which approximates the population of the United States.

Partly due to his global vision, Nilekani breaks through with clear insights. He correctly recognizes that India at the time of independence and shortly thereafter was a unified nation under the shadow of its founding fathers. This was a short-lived moment, however, and India has not been unified ever since; post-independence India has been splintering from within and without. Indira Gandhi tried to create a national identity driven by genealogy, personality, and an iron-fist rule, which after her demise led to the rise of the nationalist BJP, a fragmentation of multiple communal parties and the weakening of the traditional center. Today, Nilekani regretfully admits, "Our politics is broadly organized along the lines of caste, religion, region and class. These form the basis of our loyalties and, often, of our development policies." All hope is not lost, however, as "our divisions were overcome once, in the heady days after independence, and this may happen again" (p. 15) as demonstrated by the consensus formed in the recent elections in favor of the Congress Party.

Nilekani is boldly envisioning, what I call, India's second renaissance. Is Nilekani an overly optimistic dreamer, an entrepreneur buoyed by success and confidence in the private sector, wishing that all of India will soon possess laptops, flat screen monitors and manicured lawns like the Infosys campus? Or, is he a cautious realist who knows that structural changes require a paradigmatic shift in the social and moral order, which may have been jump-started by the growth in the information technology sector but still has a long way towards completion? Nilekani represents a combination of both of these attitudes; parts of the book are truly inspirational, yet other parts are weighed down by serious policy analysis. As someone who has examined India from the perspective of social and marketing sciences, I found Nilekani's vision informed by years in the industry, a well-needed antidote to the outdated social and cultural theories as well as to the recent hypes and hopes about India. This book will certainly go a long way towards correcting the romantic view of India as the land of snake charmers and levitating yogis.

The top-heavy policy analysis lays out a systematic argument for why India is poised to make a significant contribution to the world economy and how the current century might be the Asian century. "India has gained dramatically from similar, massive changes in our attitudes towards our population, entrepreneurs, the English language, globalization and democracy. It has made India a country that right now has a unique cadence, where all our major strengths have come together and matured at the same time" (p. 32).

Nilekani discusses how India, once considered the basket-case of the world overpopulated and unsustainable country of a billion hungry stomachs, is no longer seen in these Malthusian terms. In light of the information technology boom, India is the preferred destination for the untapped pool of talent and affordable labor. Comparing different government policies, India and China stand at the opposite ends of the demographic and political continuum; India's destiny is tied with democracy and the demographic boom, while China's growth is the byproduct of autocracy and the one-child policy. Nilekani of course believes that history favors the Indian model of development to reap what he calls "the demographic dividend", while China may have already peaked in terms of population growth where the typical family structure now consists of four grandparents, two parents and only one child; this has led to irreversible levels of fertility and a shortage of labor supply. Thus, India appears green and young demographically, while China is already graying, not unlike the baby boomer generation in the developed economies.

Nilekani suggests that India in fact has "a camel" in its demographic graph, consisting of a double hump or a bimodal distribution, representing a different population rate for its advanced southern region versus the backward northern states. While the southern hump has already peaked and led to irreversible birth rates in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerela, the northern hump, consisting of U.P. and Bihar, will peak sometime near 2020. According to many demographic models, the majority of India's population will remain younger till 2050 in comparison to the rest of the developing and the developed world. Thus, the benefits of democracy coupled with the demographics of a younger population support the Indian model of development over the long haul. The challenge is that the Indian government and the populace at large must have its own house in order to fully take advantage of these demographic trends that align once in a century.

Indians have always had an uneasy alliance with the profit motive and the world of private enterprise having been colonized by the East India Company; even the two thousand years old Hindu scriptures warn against the profit motive as maya or illusory. Thus, the founding fathers when confronted with the challenges of governing an independent India opted to not give much weight or responsibility to the private sector in the formation of the fledgling democracy. This led India down a socialist path for the development of the Indian industry, where the government was the majority stake owner. While this fostered strong local businesses, India remained parochial, closed-off and uncompetitive vis-à-vis the rest of the world. As the path of last resort, when India faced bankruptcy and was forced to adopt economic liberalization in the early 1990's, Nilekani along with nine other entrepreneurs received a call from Montek Singh and the current Prime Minister to attend a meeting of American and Indian business leaders for a conference with the President of the United States; the agenda of course was how to jump start the Indian economy. This in essence began India's American revival with technological innovation, which in the two decades since has doubled if not tripled its growth rate and made India an envy of the world.

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Dinesh Sharma is a marketing science consultant with a Doctorate in Psychology from Harvard. He is a senior fellow at Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Research, St Francis College, NYC, and a regular columnist for Asia Times Online. (more...)
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