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nandan nilekani imagining india

sunday telegraph, 10 may 2009

If a single moment could be said to symbolise the contemporary transformation of India, it was probably the unveiling earlier this year of the Tata Nano, the Indian built super-cheap super-Mini. The Nano is an expression both of the growing aspirations of the Indian masses and of the burgeoning confidence of Indian entrepreneurs not just of meeting those aspirations but also of making their mark on the world stage.

Yet if the Nano gave us a glimpse of the new India, it also reminded us of the old. ‘Even as the world is acknowledging India’s new promise’, Nandan Nilekan observes in Imagining India, ‘the opportunity of the global economy has highlighted our internal differences – between the educated and the illiterate, the public and private sectors, between the well- and the poorly governed, and between those who have access and those who have not. 'Whether or not India becomes a global player depends at least in part, he suggests, on how India deals with these contrasts.

Nilekani is co-founder of Infosys, one of India’s biggest IT firms, and a corporate icon in his homeland. This book, however, is no primer on business strategy or economic policy. It is primarily about ideas: the ideas that have held India back, the ideas that are allowing it to forge ahead, and the ideas that it still needs to embrace.

At the heart of the new India, Nilekani suggests, has been a transformation of India’s self-image. And key to this has been a transformation in the perception of the nation’s multitudes. Where once India’s teeming population was viewed as a burden, it is now seen as a boon. The nation that feared a ‘population bomb’ now celebrates its ‘demographic dividend’. ‘At a time when the rest of the world is growing gray’, Nilekani writes, ‘India has one of the youngest populations in the world with a median age of twenty-three’ and ‘the second-largest reservoir of skilled labor in the world.’

The new recognition of the importance of people has gone hand-in-hand with an embrace of a bottom-up idea of change. For much of the postwar period, change, economic and social, was tightly regulated by the state. No longer. Major reforms in the early 1990s opened up the markets, reduced state influence, and encouraged change from below.

As people have become more valued, so have cities. ‘I regard the growth of cities as an evil thing’, Mahatma Gandhi once said. India’s urban centres were largely abandoned in the postwar years, becaming decrepit slums. Today, though, there is a growing recognition of the city as the driver of change, a place that brings with it, in Nilekani’s words, ‘the promise of liberation’ to the millions trapped in rural poverty and ancient beliefs. And where once foreign trade (especially with the West) was seen as kowtowing to imperialism, it is now seen as the means of turning India into a global player, leading many to embrace both industrialization and globalization.

Nilekani does not just show how the economic transformation of India is rooted in an intellectual transformation. He also places this intellectual shift in historical perspective.

Nilekani is highly critical of British rule - not because, as many critics have it, Britain undermined traditional India, but because it failed to do so. He agrees with the great poet Rabindranath Tagore that India’s medieval past was ‘a place from which we were glad to be rescued.’ The trouble was, Nilekani writes, that ‘Instead of the occupiers transforming Indian attitudes, it was the British officers who absorbed the caste and regional distinctions within Indian society.’ The British ‘often collaborated with India’s traditional elites and the lumpen aristocracy, deliberately strengthening feudal systems.’

The result was economic and social stagnation, on the one hand, and, on the other, the creation of a ‘two-tiered cultural hierarchy’ in which the elite ‘embraced ideas of democracy, self-determination and nationalism’ while the masses were ‘dominated by the iron rules of caste, religion and social custom’.

India’s post-independence leadership did little to bridge that gap. It adopted a secular, modernist vision of India, yet feared that the masses were too much in thrall to tradition. Rather than attempting to win people to its ideas, the ruling Congress Party simply imposed its policies from the top. With no real challenge to the politics of caste and identity, such politics continued to rule on the ground, so much so that India, almost uniquely among third world nations, has never had a powerful mass leftwing movement.

There are many difficult issues over which Nilekani skates. The key to ensuring that economic growth creates a more equal society, he argues, is to ensure access to resources for all, but does not explain how this might be possible, especially in an already deeply divided society. Unshackling the market can encourage economic growth but it can also exacerbate inequalities and make it harder for the poorest to gain access to resources.

Nilekani notes that the opening of markets is replacing caste struggles with class conflict, yet never addresses the consequences of such conflict. The growth of class tension is itself an expression of the way that free markets fail to meet the needs of all, and a reminder that freeing markets is not necessarily the same as promoting 'change from below'. Progressive, middle class liberals like Nilekani will soon have to make difficult choices about whose side they take in such conflicts.

There is, however, a bracing optimism about Nilekani’s analysis that vaults over such difficulties and which can only be welcome in this age of doom and gloom. What is most striking about the ideas now transforming India is that they challenge not just the old India but also the contemporary West. Today it is Western intellectuals who most fear the population bomb, decry economic growth, deplore consumerism, and fret about urbanization. India is confronting the West in more ways than one.