Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century, Nandan Nilekani, Penguin, p. 380, Rs. 699.
This book is the maiden attempt by an accidental entrepreneur. The person happens to be Nandan Nilekani, one of the well-known faces of India’s IT industry.
If you thought the book would be on how to create wealth or the story of IT or about building successful business models or companies, you would be in for a surprise .
Nandan Nilekani has chosen to address a bigger canvas (challenge), India — the opportunities and challenges in the new century. In many ways, Nilekani seems well suited to undertake this exercise. For one, he happens to be part of the bright, young students at the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), where the dominant tendency in the 1970s and 1980s was to go to the U.S. for higher studies and achieve fame.
That he chose to tread a different path to emerge in the Indian firmament as a software entrepreneur and co-founder of Infosys Technologies, India’s biggest entrepreneurial success story scripted and driven by youngsters from ordinary backgrounds under testing times, gives him the unique advantage to venture into “Imagining India”, with both well-known and fresh ideas in the thick, 531-page, work.
Laced with personal experiences and interactions with over 100 opinion leaders from different walks of life, Nilekani pieces together an exciting journey for the reader. There are ample examples of the impediments to technology infusion to the role of bureaucrats who made a difference, which in essence give an insight into history that was made. This, in a way, places the book in the genre of non-fiction as a well researched effort and a good reference for students.
Though the author has addressed the paradoxes facing India’s forward march, with all its strengths and weaknesses, he cannot hide his bias for the IT industry. It’s not surprising and deservedly that he places IT and telecommunications as the trigger for the new image of India as an emerging superpower. None can deny that these two powerful tools have touched every aspect of human life from banking, booking rail tickets to cheaper connectivity, which started bringing a transformation in people’s lives.
The IT sector has also unleashed the rising aspirations of the middle class as it offered countless jobs, growth mobility (both upward and abroad), spawned a new breed of entrepreneurs (of Indian origin) in Silicon Valley, U.S, and in India’s own clone in Bangalore and many more cities cutting across caste, religion and regional barriers.
While the ideas on which the author dwells at length are not new, the approach to tap them and convert them into growth engines for national prosperity is laudable. The chain of issues that engage his attention are: population-English language-entrepreneurship-IT-globalisation and democracy.
Unlike his fellow Kannadiga and well-known cartoonist, R.K. Laxman, who eloquently mirrored the many facets of a struggling India during the 1960s to early 1990s through his “Common Man” in a telling manner, Nandan Nilekani uses his long conversations with a cross section of contemporary Indian leaders to highlight some of the key ideas that have the potential to be translated into successes. Of course, he throws in enough caution on how the progress can be impacted. There is specific focus on the Indian demographic advantage (read young, productive population), the evolution of English as an asset in the global arena, the political diversities, the reform-driven, new economy/industry with lucid examples. On the India-China demographic edge, he points out an interesting aside. China is heading grey, before becoming rich and by 2040, the world’s second largest population after India’s would be Chinese pensioners, estimated to be over 400 million. In essence, he is conveying that India’s demographic dividend projected up to 2040 needs to be carefully exploited, lest it becomes a bigger burden.
Post Mumbai terror attacks, which are seen as an assault on the “idea of India”, it could perhaps be appropriate that those concerned about the India story give the author’s work a read. The book in ample measure sets out to present the complexity of issues that need to be addressed to realise the India dream. The target audience being predominantly the youth, there is a definite case to make it more affordable in price so that its message reaches them fast. In the final analysis, Nilekani could rest on well-founded optimism, that the ideas for the new century that he has presented and many others, including our former President Dr, Abdul Kalam, are propagating tirelessly, taking shape as the ordinary Indian gets more involved and pushes them forward. A whole new class of entrepreneurs is emerging across the country. In the last one year, nearly 70 per cent of IITians who graduated, to quote the Secretary, Union Department of Science and Technology, Dr. T. Ramasami, stayed back in India, a reversal from the author’s days in the hallowed portals of the IITs.