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National tech hero Nandan Nilekani warns of pitfalls, mighty obstacles, and the danger of letting down a billion-plus people
Imagining India:The Idea of a Renewed NationBy Nandan NilekaniThe Penguin Press; 511 pp.; $29.95
Business readers have been treated to a steady stream of books about India over the past half-decade. These have ranged from Edward Luce's journalistic chronicle of the country's rise in modern times, In Spite of the Gods, to Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath's marketing brochure, India's Century. But the country continues to evolve, and its challenges refuse to go away, creating an opening—and a need—for a fresh perspective. Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation by software entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani comes through with genuine insights. Nilekani, a household name in India, is a would-be reformer, and his book may well light a crackling fire under the country's aspirations to greatness.
The author is a co-founder and co-chairman of Infosys Technologies (INFY), a leading Indian tech-services company, making this one of the first books about today's India written from a business leader's perspective. To Westerners, Nilekani is best known for telling New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman that knowledge work can now be performed anywhere there is an educated person, a computer, and an Internet connection. That nugget inspired Friedman's 2005 best seller, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, in which he warned Americans about the impact of this shift.
Nilekani's book is aimed primarily at his fellow Indians rather than Friedman's audience. He warns that in spite of India's competitive advantages and tremendous opportunities, the country could still blow it, mainly because of persistent and potentially destabilizing economic inequities. But Imagining India is also an important read for non-Indians. One of the most valuable assets any global businessperson can possess these days is cultural intelligence: a deep understanding of how other countries really operate. And Nilekani shines a light on many facets of India, from the tangle of its bureaucracy and the volatility of its politics to the ongoing influences of both the caste system and post-independence socialism.
He also celebrates today's animating ideas: the shared belief in the power of education, entrepreneurship, and globalization. But he warns that this national consensus will fall apart if the ideas fail to deliver on their promise. The country's goals can't be reached, he believes, unless India's masses gain access to jobs, capital, and better infrastructure, health care, and schools.
Nilekani is passionate about schooling. While the popular perception in the West is that India is pumping out armies of software geniuses, the reality is far different. The public university system—including even the vaunted Indian Institute of Technology—is chronically underfunded. Some regulations restrain legitimate competition in higher education, while others allow charlatans to peddle degrees of little value. Nilekani calls for a sweeping set of reforms, including increased openness to private investment and competition. Until changes are made, India will have plenty of people but too few with the skills needed in the global economy.
Much has been written about the successes of consumer-products companies that opened up vast new markets among India's poor by offering their products in small, inexpensive packages. Similar conceptual breakthroughs are possible for foreigners who understand that India is not a single national market but 28 separate states, each with separate policies and tax rules. Nilekani says foreigners investing or seeking to sell products in India need to develop an understanding of how individual states operate. Businesses, he explains, often have to devise unorthodox methods in India. One example he gives is India-based food processor Calypso Foods, which has managed to patch together—with the help of cell phones—a synchronized virtual company made up of more than 6,000 small farmers.
Despite his warnings, Nilekani is hopeful. India's enormous potential, he writes, "offers us a real chance to address our massive income inequalities and challenges in job creation within the next few decades. But, to get there, we will require the courage and optimism to embrace good ideas and not remain imprisoned by bad ones." A wise warning for any country.