Newspapers everywhere are agog with excitement on the debate between Jagdish Bhagwati’s and Amartya Sen’s prescription for India’s development. Characterized as a growth versus development debate, this spat is now entering the “mine is bigger than yours" stage. Even as this spectacle turns into a media circus, policymakers and others interested in India’s development would do well to turn their attention to Larry and Ram.

Larry and Ram, who?

Lawrence “Larry" Bossidy retired as chairman and chief executive of the US company Allied Signal after serving for over 30 years on the leadership team of General Electric under Jack Welch. Ram Charan is a shoe merchant-turned-academic, then strategy consultant to the world’s biggest corporations. Neither Larry nor Ram are economists. They have no chance of receiving a Nobel prize. Larry and Ram (I am, for effect, straying from the usual protocol of referring to authors by their last names) wrote a book more than 10 years ago called Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, that spent more than 150 weeks on the New York Times best seller list.

The ideas in this book taken together with the DNA of getting things done is what India needs, not more advice from the ivory tower on any new ism. Our implementation deficit has become so endemic that we have reached a point where we can neither enable growth of the Bhagwati kind nor distribution of the Sen kind. The wheels of growth enablers—infrastructure, deregulation, simple but wider tax collection—and the wheels of compassionate distribution—nutrition, health and education—have come unglued. (Of course, that simple characterization of Bhagwati’s and Sen’s arguments is quite wrong, but let me resist the temptation to enter that debate and stay focused on the topic at hand.)

The nub of the issue is this. Today, India and Indians have lost their ability to get things done.

Larry and Ram speak of a discipline for meshing strategy with reality, aligning people with goals and achieving the results promised. On arrival at Allied Signal, Larry makes this simple observation: “The processes were empty rituals, almost abstractions. People did a lot of work on them, but very little of it was useful. Strategic plans were six-inch thick books, full of data and charts, but the data had little to do with strategy. The operating plan was strictly a numbers exercise, with little attention paid to action plans for growth, markets, productivity or quality." Eerily similar to what goes on in India, isn’t it? And Ram adds, “In the past, companies got away with poor execution by pleading for patience. I saw that company leaders spent too much time on what some have called high-level strategy, intellectualizing and philosophizing, and not enough on implementation." A major part of Larry and Ram’s book deals with how to go about execution. They focus on the three core processes—people, strategy and operations—and how to make things work.

Of course, countries are different from companies. But there are also similarities. A democracy is a like a large, fuzzy company ultimately accountable to its citizens (shareholders). You could even infer some market prices and performance indicators for the country in aggregate—gross domestic product growth, whole economy profits, employment creation, real income growth, capital and labour contributions from the economy and so on. If you were persuaded by Sen’s arguments, you would add infant mortality, nutritional coefficients, years of education and other such indicators. Regardless of the markers, the fundamental thing would still be to get things done. Looked at from this angle, India’s second-generation reforms should focus on the people, strategy and operations of getting things done. Not sector reform in power or roads or food or education.

To Larry and Ram’s framework, I add mine. For getting things done, it takes a four-pillared framework. Pillar one is transparency. Pillar two is competition and accountability. Pillar three is supervision and enforcement that includes reward and punishment. And, importantly, pillar four, pride. All four need to exist simultaneously to get something done at city, state or country scale.

We have made some progress on pillar one. The Right to Information Act (RTI) has opened up many opaque decision-making structures. The latest victory is that six political parties have come under the jurisdiction of the RTI by the Supreme Court direction. Transparency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for development. The other three pillars are, unfortunately, dead in the water. Our collective focus should be on reviving these pillars in one institution at a time.

It’s time to move on from Bhagwati and Sen. What we need is a healthy period of getting things done—repairing roads, clearing cases in courts, getting the standing committees to stop sitting on things, finishing work on metro systems, improving primary school outcomes, and clearing out our garbage.

India’s great debate is not growth versus distribution. The good fight should be action versus inaction.

PS: Mahatma Gandhi was fond of doing things. “Action expresses priorities," he said. And “an ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching".

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Comments are welcome at

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