Wednesday, August 19, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Imagining India, Ideas for a New Century


Nilekani, Nandan (2008) Imagining India, Ideas for a New Century, Penguin Allen Lane, London. 531 pages

Sudhanva Char, ICA Institute Editor of Academic Resources
Professor, Business Dept.
Life University

“Imagining India” is a fascinating potpourri of many facets of India - its economy, education, energy, environment, leadership, politics, global role, sociology, and what have you. It is what happens when an IT gets crossed with a fertile and roving mind that refuses to be confined to any one specialty. Obviously the motivation for writing a book of this nature comes from, inter alia, a deep adoration for one’s country together with easy access to an encyclopedic knowledge base about India and the world. That the author was still recently at the helm of affairs in India’s popular IT company Infosys comes out clearly. The book has perhaps instrumental in landing Nilekani his latest job as in charge of the Unique Identity Authority of India.

Nilekani, the co-founder with Narayana Murty of INFOSYS is prodigy unbound in these pages. He writes at times with authority, but most other times he is tentative, throwing up an idea just to get your reaction. As a matter of fact, that is the rationale for this book: “It (India) requires us to shape systems and policies that give the people the ability to travel in search of work, to educate their children, and to tap into economic growth, to recgonize how fully India is transforming itself.” (p.485). Nilekani like the youth of the country is brimming with optimism about India’s future. And so he has come with an imaginative narrative about where and which way his countrymen should take India to achieve its potentials despite the daunting challenges.
Tom Friedman is in high spirits about the book under review, saying Nilekani was the inspiration for writing The World is Flat . For one thing, he got his ‘flat’ idea of the competitive world from an interview with Nilekani some six years ago. In order to understand the chemistry of ideas that spawns Imagining India you have got to see first the acknowledgment section (p.511). You have here all the eminent and distinguished and professional literati such as Ramachandra Guha, Andre Beteille, Atul Kohli, Girish Karnad, Vijay Kelkar, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeff Sachs, Douglass North, Raghuram Rajan, Sam Pitroda and virtually dozens of others. Those names are not included here because I did not know those persons and what they are renowned for till I read the book.

The book has some 26 chapters with copious end notes for each one of them. The chapters themselves are grouped under four parts. The first part “India Re-imagined” contrasts the changes in opinions and perceptions that have occurred in the post-independence decades. One example is that though we still regard a large population is difficult to manage, it is no more regarded as a Malthusian bomb, but is spoken off more appreciatively in terms of “population dividends.” More obviously we jettisoned the socialist shibboleths decades ago and even Indian communists believe in giving a free rein to free enterprise. There is also for instance the generally accepted feeling that as the largest democracy in the world, we are closer to the West than to any statist or authoritarian model.

Talking about the milling crowds on Bangalore’s streets, on page 39 of the book Nilekani speaks about pirated editions of books such as Friedman’s The World is Flat. Unwittingly I bought a copy of Nilekani’s book from such a Bangalore hawker and soon realized Nilekani himself is pirated! I paid just Rs.100 when on the back cover the price mentioned is Rs.699. That is a problem Nilekani has to address himself even if I stop buying books on the City’s streets!
Nilekani has recently been appointed as the Minister in charge of the Unique Identity Authority of India charged with the task of issuing a bio-identity card to each one of the 1.2 billion citizens of India. In the background of the attack on Mumbai last year by persons looking like Indians, but actually from the neighboring country, this is perhaps the most strategically vital task Nilekani is asked to take up and his book even writes at length about it (pp. 367-74, 419). It is no exaggeration to say that the future of India has arrived and in order to know the characteristics of that, you must read the book. Not just that. You must react in writing if you want to be one of the dramatis personae in India’s future progress. Or you can choose to miss the bus!