Nandan Nilekani: Imagining India

11 April 2009

In the opening chapter of Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India, The Idea of a Renewed Nation, (The Penguin Press, 2009), the author reminisces on a primary architect of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru. As one belonging to the same generation as Nilekani, I relate to how Nehru’s vision shaped for our parents and thus for us the idea of a secular and democratic India. I too remember, as the author does, being taken by my father to see the great man when he arrived in my hometown. The picture of the elegant leader, alighting from his Russian-gifted plane, poetically named the Meghdoot after Kalidasa’s play, remains in my memory.

At one level, Imagining India is in the tradition of Nehru’s Discovery of India. India is a nation based on ideas. Nehru, in his book, attempted to sweep the cobwebs off a colonized and de-energized India to define a nation, drawing inspiration from the greatness of its past and imprinting on it his own belief in science and modernity. Nilekani’s book is a vast survey of the debates and issues that have confronted India in its sixty years as an independent nation.

Where Nilekani parts course with Nehru is in his attitude to business and entrepreneurship. Unlike in Nehru’s day, entrepreneurship is celebrated in India today, and the author, a co-founder and now co-Chair of Infosys, is an icon of business success. Nehru’s central planning had resulted in a period of economic dirigisme that stifled business. The early gains of independent India in sowing the seeds for an industrial infrastructure and investments in science, technology and quality higher education were followed by years of stagnation.

I also found interesting Nilekani’s reference to Minoo Masani whose Our India, published in 1940, was an economics primer on India that caught the imagination of that generation. Interestingly, when Our India was first published, the average life span for Indians was a mere 27, now the average age of an Infosys employee. Masani who began as a socialist ended up as a votary of free enterprise. He presaged the path followed, in a measured manner, by Nehru’s successors since the reforms of 1991.

Imagining India is a conversation about India that progresses through a framework of ideas. Nilekani classifies the ideas into four trays: ideas that have arrived, ideas in progress, ideas in battle and ideas to anticipate. The author carefully lays out the context of each major idea and seemingly takes us to meet and converse with thoughtful people who have worked on many aspects of India.

Ideas that have arrived are ones that are not in dispute today although there had often been strongly divergent views in the past: perspectives on population, entrepreneurship, English, information technology, globalization and democracy. Thinking in these areas has moved from contention to consensus.

Population control was a subject on which the country saw swings to extremes, from a Health Minister who believed in abstinence to an obsessive implementation of “snipping” during the Emergency. Today, India’s young population is seen as valuable human capital capable of paying a demographic dividend. While the rest of the world has an ageing population, India’s youthful population presents a huge opportunity.

Entrepreneurship and an appreciation of the value of competition is another idea on which there is virtual consensus. Nilekani remarks on the transition that has occurred, exemplified by what he calls the transition from the Bombay Plan to Bombay House. The Bombay Plan, of which JRD Tata was a prime mover, was among the country’s first planning exercises. Initiated by a group of well intentioned business leaders before Independence, it was still imbued with a protectionist attitude. Today’s Bombay House, the headquarters of the Tata Group, exemplifies a new attitude to competition – where business leaders welcome the opening up of India’s markets and have the confidence and competence to venture into global markets.

Independent India had a hang-up in its attitude towards the English language, once resisted as the language of its colonial masters. Today there are few serious arguments heard in India against the value of English as an aid in progress and in national competitiveness. Today, English is seen as the language of upward mobility. India is in some ways remaking English for use in India. For this and other reasons, Thomas Babington Macaulay is probably turning in his grave. He had insisted on training Indians in the use of English to sustain British rule in India. Today, the largest private sector employer in the UK is India’s Tata Group.

Attitudes towards the use of computers and information technology have shifted from suspicion that they would displace jobs and livelihoods to their value in promoting growth and facilitating good governance. The impact of IT has spread, over the last decade particularly, into a number of areas including banking, railways and the conduct of elections.

Nilekani feels that the average Indian agrees that globalization is now good for India. The country’s psyche was clearly marked by its experience with the East India Company that came to trade but stayed to rule. Independent India’s leaders could not overcome that memory as they formulated India’s economic policies. In recent years, the country has made great progress in opening up its borders to commerce and ideas. Nilekani points out that globalization could deepen economic cleavages such as between the educated and the rest. To address these issues, it is important that access to education and resources be enhanced.

Ideas in progress, ones where consensus is gaining, are universal education, urbanization, infrastructure and a single-market view of India.

Until not too long ago, the idea of universal education was a difficult one when a child going to school meant a setback to the family’s meager income. However, today there is increasing demand for education even in the poorer sections of society. The challenge is in implementation – in making education truly accessible and ensuring that drop out rates are reduced. India lags China in making education available to all its citizens.

Mahatma Gandhi had declared that India lives in its villages and had advocated a village-centric approach to development. The realities are that employment is generated in the cities and India is seeing significant urban growth. The country needs more cities and the amenities to support them.

Along with an expansion in urbanization, India badly needs to address its roads and infrastructure. The Indian approach of infrastructure lagging growth contrasts with China’s supply driven approach. While India has a few successes like the Delhi Metro, overall this has been a difficult area, one where significant investment and progress is badly required. While there is increasing agreement on the importance of infrastructure, execution is lacking.

India as a populous subcontinent holds tremendous potential as one unified market. The potential benefits of this proposition are in reality diminished by tax policies and implementation especially where indirect taxes and interstate tax controls are concerned. A new focus on single-market synergies is promoting reform towards consistent national policies in this area.

The story “gets messy” when we reach ideas in battle. There are strong disagreements in India about affirmative action, labor laws and higher education.

Caste is a big factor in India’s elections where large sections of people vote their castes when they cast their votes. While there has been enormous empowerment of the Dalits, there isn’t widespread agreement on how much affirmative action is needed. Nilekani suggests that new economic freedoms will benefit the weaker communities more than state intervention.

Labor laws in India have created market distortions that provide protection only to a small organized sector but inhibit the expansion of employment and investment. Nilekani discusses how regulations have placed a glass ceiling on the economic potential of India’s workers.

In the last section, ideas to anticipate, Nilekani covers ideas that are not yet discussed adequately but should be. Included here are information technology for governance, public health and lifestyle, pensions and social insurance, environment and ecology, and the post-urban economy. The discussions in this section ranging from changes in health concerns from hunger to heart disease to issues of social security cover issues that have parallels in the United States. Indeed, Nilekani’s motivation is to explore how India can avoid some of these problems that affect affluent countries.

In addressing a holistic view of India, an area that Nilekani has decided to exclude is the area of foreign affairs. India is home to a sixth of humanity. Its neighborhood is a troubled one — ringed as India is by unstable polities in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The country’s foreign policy and attitudes will have a bearing on its domestic potential and progress. When and how, for instance, can the Indian subcontinental market be extended to encompass its neighbors and create a joint stake in peace and progress? A discussion of ideas to anticipate in this arena would have been worthwhile.

Overall, Nilekani suggests that India has a new tryst with destiny. The demographic dividend presented by a large young population is an opportunity on which India needs to act expeditiously. There is so much to do and it is mostly clear what needs to be done for India to reclaim its position as an important nation that once accounted for a significant part of the world’s GDP.

Imagining India is a forward-looking book even as it carefully lays out the historical context of each subject the author tackles. It draws its energy from the potential that India holds and the author’s optimism. While the issues are weighty, the discussion is engaging, laced in good measure with humorous observation. One is left with a sense of awe for the sweep of Nilekani’s mind and for his passion to see India as a renewed nation.