There was a time, not so long ago, when India was emerging as a global power, and every book mapping this incredibly rapid transformation was lapped up by publishers and readers alike. Thomas Friedman was among the last to ride this wave with his book, The World is Flat (2005).
It is difficult to put an exact date to it, but the shift in reader preference probably occurred after India was officially declared a trillion dollar economy. Aravind Adiga, with his Booker-winning effort The White Tiger, introduced the new narrative. The critique of contemporary India, especially the growing inequalities (implicit in the references to the cars of the rich in Delhi with tinted windows as “dark eggs”) probably marks a new trend in modern writing on the new India that has captivated the rest of the world.
Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Seen against this backdrop, Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani seems out of sync. The global meltdown which is maiming sunrise sectors of India’s service economy such as civil aviation, information technology and organized retail (though policy wonks in New Delhi continue to live in denial, some even arguing that India is decoupled from the world economy and hence insulated), only reinforces this sentiment. The strong optimism that underlies the book is in contrast to the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions around us. Especially since a major part of the book is devoted to establishing the progress India has made in the last decade.
Besides timing, this effort from Nilekani—who, as one of the co-founders of Infosys Technologies Ltd has charted one of the most compelling start-up stories in modern India and inspired millions of wannabes—will inevitably be measured against high expectations. After all, Infosys demonstrated that you could be honest and still prosper.
And given his spectacular personal achievement, the expectation that Nilekani would chart out a unique vision for India—otherwise struggling to marry its myriad contradictions—is justified. From him, we expect a narrative as gripping as the rise of a firm started by a bunch of “skinny” techies back in the early 1980s. Not to speak of the fact that this very affable individual is also a gifted thinker, amply demonstrated in the scores of interviews and public appearances that have made him and his company a household name.
Imagining India: Penguin India, 380 pages, Rs699.
Imagining India will also be weighed against recent and past scholarly non-fiction works on new India—from Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India to Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. Both these works are seminal academic exercises and hence may not be comparable to Nilekani’s book in the true sense. But it is inevitable that a reader will judge his effort against the very best. In fact, Guha’s book, though insightful, fell short on the contemporary history of India—which has been shaped by the likes of Nilekani and Infosys.
The irony is that the book posseses the other key ingredients: clean writing, and a modular and sequential layout of chapters (not surprising, coming from an engineer). It is a speed-read on the political economy of modern India and why things are as they are. Since it is fairly agnostic about apportioning blame, one doubts it will offend anybody in particular.
For instance, while Nilekani rightly points out the mess in the country’s education sector, he stops short of nailing individuals—education ministers Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh—who had the opportunity, but failed to exploit it. Nilekani’s criticism would have carried weight and influenced future prime ministers to nominate more dynamic people for the job.
The book is peppered with comments by experts, including Vijay Kelkar, former finance secretary and present chairman of the 13th Finance Commission (and who, according to Nilekani, inspired the book in the first place), C. Rangarajan, former Reserve Bank of India governor, Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, Janagraha’s Ramesh Ramanathan and so on.
Liberally speaking: Nilekani says that religion should not play an important role in our public life. Amit Dave / Reuters
But one expected Nilekani’s own viewpoints. Especially since the success of Infosys has been achieved despite the handicaps—which the book flags repeatedly—of operating as an entrepreneur in India (although information technology companies have relatively less red tape to deal with than their counterparts in the bricks and mortar economy). This viewpoint remains implicit, articulated only through expert comments. There are moments in the book where you do get glimpses of Nilekani’s brilliance—particularly in the segments where he sets down a blueprint to get around red tape by employing information technology.
It is a good effort, but disappointing given what one expected from Nilekani. My instinct says that the book will sell—and I suspect, that will have more to do with Nilekani, the brand.