Nandan Nilekani, Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century (New Delhi: Penguin/Allen Lame, 2009)

Bipin Adhikari
Source: Spotlight Newsmagazine

India is an example of success in the third world. It has achieved significantly over the last two decades in almost every area of human development and nation building. The country has enormous advantages in its young population and its entrepreneurs, a growing IT capacity, an English speaking workforce and strength as a democracy. It seems hovering to grow into a strong economic power - rapidly catching up with the developed world. But even now it is a nation that has barely scratched its potential. There must be good reasons behind it.

The book Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century is the latest visionary work that explains what a 'big' Indian, Nandan Nilekani, thinks about the situation. Nilekani, a famous business leader, and the co-founder of the Infosys not just talks about his country’s nagging problems, but also about its latent strengths in all walks of life. A big reason for India's struggle, he argues, lies in its inability to push through and implement critical ideas.

Nilekani not only looks at evolutionary process, that India has been through, but also singles out the cynicism evident in that process, including the politics of money and votes. A number of contradictions in its economy, and new found wealth are also the area that the author has pin pointed. He does not hesitate to note that there are many things holding Indians back - their pessimism around what they have accomplished so far, and a resistance to the ideas they need to implement in order to solve their remaining challenges.

The book has four parts. Part 1 discusses issues where Indian attitudes have changed radically over the years. In his words, it is the shifts here that are at the heart of India's dynamism today. Be it the development in the area of human capital or increasing acceptance of globalization, they mark a shift in Indian thought process.

The second part of the book examines those issues that are still in the ether. Nilekani says they are now widely accepted, but have yet to see results on the ground. For example, here he argues that the idea of full literacy has gained popular appeal over the last two decades, but India is still framing strategies to implement universal education, and address the discontent around the state of its schools.

Part III deals with more fundamental issues. They are the issues which have led to partisanship, and it has been difficult to reach consensus. Here, the author discusses furious ongoing debate in India about regulation of higher education, easing up labour regulations, and similar other reform agenda which some consider as empowering and some see them as exclusionary.

Part IV, which is also the final part presents the readers with his final set of ideas. Here he points out that "this final set of ideas presents us with a challenge we are not as adept at meeting as we once used to be." But, as he argues, India's rapid economic growth is demanding much more of us in innovating new ideas, as existing solution for issues like health, energy and the environment have proved ineffective around the world, India cannot, in his opinion, have an energy policy that is based entirely on the heavy use of hydrocarbons.

The author emphasizes in a very neat language that the rise of modern capitalism has helped India much. But it has to go further in right direction: "[t]he challenge we have faced across our ideas is in uniting our people and policy makers toward urgent and necessary solutions. Our coalition governments at the centre often give themselves labels that reiterate unity and a common purpose - the United Front, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But in reality they represent fiercely sparring ideals, and reflect an India that is intensely fractured, its divisions sharply defined not so much by ideology as by religion, caste, class and region. ... But the reason I am optimistic is that we have achieved consensus before. Through our history, our divisions and debates have been in constant flux, as the ideas that define and animate us as a people changed and evolved." The process must go ahead.

There is a momentum for change. But this change has not reached a vast number of Indians. The author considers it as important to put cash in the hands of the poor, which would in turn allow them to participate in the markets more effectively. Local governments must be made strong and vibrant, giving them bigger roles in governance. Regional disparities must be addressed. "Addressing these rising inequalities in class and region means opening the doors wider and empowering more people to enter the market and benefit from it - this will entail ensuring full literacy, creating a common market so that people can get the best price for their wares and building better cities and infrastructure to access markets." It is in the interest of the majority of the people to remove state shackles on higher education, enact further labour reforms, and open up organized retail and revamp supply chain infrastructures. It is not possible to manage exchange rates, interest rates and free capital movements without economic and fiscal discipline.

His concluding remarks must be noted in this respect: "As I travelled around India, I realized that this feeling, this intense belief in the future, has not yet infiltrated our governments, and our ministers still talk about the people as masses to be taken care of, as one would tend an ailing patient, rather than as fellow citizens to empower. In our politics, we have yet to tap into our new language of hope. For this to be mirrored in our political institutions it requires us to imagine an India that rests not on the struggle of our past but on the promise and challenges of the future. It requires us to shape systems and policies that give people the ability to travel in search of work, to educate their children and to tap into economic growth, to recognize how fully India is transforming itself... [India] is young, impatient, vital, awake - a country that may finally be coming close to its early promise." There is reason to agree with him.

The book of Nilekani is full of thoughts, analysis and inspiration. It gives enormous hope to the poor people of India. It is just lengthy for anybody who is not a good reader. He could have conveniently reduced half of its size without impairing his message anywhere. Notwithstanding its length, however, it is very readable, well edited and stimulating book.

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