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    Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani

    by Shariq on 2nd August, 2010 at 9:32 am    

    Nandan Nilekani is one of the founders of Indian software giant Infosys. Some successful businessmen buy into their hype and start commenting on things outside their expertise. Nilekani isn’t one of those people - he is a serious intellectual whose brilliant book should be read by everyone with an interest in India and the modern global economy.

    The best parts of the book are when Nilekani illustrates how his ideas work in practise. For example right wingers often talk about how the state can be an overbearing drag on the economy. Nilekani actually goes through the steps from how India’s entrepreneurs were hampered by regulations, the type of dynamic growth they have achieved as a result of reforms and where the govt is still getting on the way of the private sector.

    This does not mean that he is an arch rightwinger. When it comes to providing infrastructure, social security, education and health care, Nilekani firmly believes in the role of the state.

    A lot of the book actually reminds me of what Fareed Zakaria referred to during the American elections, in that the debate today isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) about big government or small government, but smart government.

    One critique I have of most things written about India is that analysts clearly identify the enormous challenges India faces, but then argue against themselves by believing that it will all come together in the end.

    In his sections on the ideas in India that are disputed, as well as those challenges that need to be anticipated, Nilekani outlines the problems. They include pensions and energy which are both enormous problems, and that doesn’t include things which everyone accepts needs work like education and infrastructure.

    So how will India cope? Well the answer always seeks to be that a combination of its democracy and entrepreneurs, will allow it to move forward.

    With regards to democracy, one of the most interesting points was that the Indian electorate is shifting from expecting the state to being a maternal figure which provides jobs or subsidies, to demanding rights and access to services, which will allow them to be less reliant on the whims of bureaucrats and middle men.

    As for the market, some of the developments which connect some of the poorest rural areas to agricultural markets is really interesting.

    Overall, you probably won’t agree with all of the book. From a left wing perspective, there are segments which will challenge you, for example on the role of teachers unions in inhibiting better teaching outcomes in the govt sector. However, at the very least the book will give you an insight into India and plenty to think about.

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    1. sunny hundal

      Blog post:: Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani http://bit.ly/cR4w2Z

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    1. Cauldron — on 2nd August, 2010 at 10:17 am  

      I thought Edward Luce’s book was better.

      It’s interesting that both Nilekani and Luce would like to see the state getting more involved in things that we could describe as “social” leftism - things like land reform and primary education for example - but less involved in things that can be described as “economic” leftism - state-run airports, state-run electricity monopolies, state-run monopolies on tertiary education etc.

      The corruption surrounding the Commonwealth Games is a classic example of the unaccountability, inefficiency and pomposity of India’s politicians and public sector bureaucrats.

    2. shariq — on 2nd August, 2010 at 6:46 pm  

      Luce’s book is more colourful and probably better for the uninitiated. I think Nilekani is more profound as he goes deeper into the deeper problems.

      I think the reason both are not arguing for old style statist leftist is because that debate is over. In India both the bjp and congress are both looking for the centre ground.

      Another thing to note is that the govt is going to be able to do a lot more as its economy continues to grow. Something like the Delhi metro would have been unthinkable not that long ago. How they use the funds will be interesting to see.

    3. Shamit — on 3rd August, 2010 at 12:23 pm  

      The debate about big government vs small government is simply not applicable in India.

      The Government simply does not exist unless if you have money or influence. Whether its health, education, law & order or social security, those who need it the most do not simply get it. Government or agencies of government being force for good is an alien concept so far.

      I was in India just recently, and it is growing at fast pace and rich along with middle class India with its command of English is now one of the biggest consumer of designer labels be it clothes, cars or whatever it may be. However, the 600 million who do not have the basic education or opportunities have been left behind.

      The private sector is fueling the growth - however, the federal structure with state’s rights almost make it impossible for the Government at the Centre to actually deliver the growth output to alleviating poverty and creating opportunities.

      Furthermore, the oligopoly of dynastic politics across the board is now leading to a new breed of politicians educated in the West, who are completely removed from the struggles of the masses. In fact, very few of them have any mass appeal unless they cause trouble.

      On another note, it seems to me it is in the best interest of the political class not to actually work on development - the poorer the masses the bigger the influence of politicians on their lives.

      And, India needs a few dynamic leaders who can challenge the rule of dynasty and forge a policy relationship between those who are left behind and Delhi.

      The quality of state run education is simply crap - where even people who are earning Rs. 10,000 a month are sending their children to private schools. Health care, if you have money, is world class but state run hospitals are pathetic and are patients usually take one way trips.

      What Nandan Nilekani does not touch upon in his book is how to remove this great divide between those who have the riches and those who do not. As clinton proclaimed during his presidential campaign - when the divide becomes too large, society in itself loses its cohesive force.

      India, may be different from the West, but human beings all want a fair share all over and when the system blocks it - usually, the whole society crumbles.

      It requires political will - and it requires renuniciation. None of these are going to happen very soon so unfortunately it would be upto the private sector to bring about change which in itself is usually unfair.

    4. sonia — on 3rd August, 2010 at 12:40 pm  

      well said Shamit. very good analysis.

    5. sonia — on 3rd August, 2010 at 12:42 pm  

      and everyone knows to keep to their place by a religious system which has transcended religion into culture.

      the only thing that explains why the indian poor don’t revolt or think they have rights, the lack of movements on the ground that we see in Latin America. I didn’t get it myself because i didn’t see how even the Muslims buy into it.

    6. sonia — on 3rd August, 2010 at 12:45 pm  

      And healthcare, as Shamit points to. without adequate healthcare standards for such a huge population, there really is going to be no change in the future.

      but do Indians in India really really care? I don’t see how they can, you can’t possibly live in that country (or any of the subcontinental countries) unless you blind yourself to what life is like for those MUCH less fortunate than you, it simply isn’t possible without going mad or turning into a nihilist.

      that is one of the things, i never see in analysis about India, this reality.

    7. Jai — on 3rd August, 2010 at 6:37 pm  

      Excellent article, Shariq. As you’ve probably heard, India is predicted to match Britain’s economy within 15 years and increase to 4 times the size of Britain’s economy by 2050.

      A lot of the book actually reminds me of what Fareed Zakaria referred to during the American elections,

      Fareed Zakaria’s “GPS” show on CNN is superb. He always makes very interesting book recommendations at the end too.


    8. Vikrant — on 4th August, 2010 at 1:46 am  

      but do Indians in India really really care? I don’t see how they can, you can’t possibly live in that country (or any of the subcontinental countries) unless you blind yourself to what life is like for those MUCH less fortunate than you, it simply isn’t possible without going mad or turning into a nihilist.

      The Indian middle class in India long ago perfected the art of not giving a shit!

    9. shariq — on 4th August, 2010 at 7:06 am  

      shamit, I agree that inequality is a huge problem in India. I do think that Nilekani tries to deal with this.
      for example, his stuff on the perverse impact on rural subsidies is excellent, and how building even basic infrastructure would improve the quality of life for the rural poor. the use of technology and web kiosks to allow farmers to get the best price for their produce is also fascinating.

      for the urban poor, having social security payments directly to the poor through a secure universal id card in order to remove the middlemen is also interesting. obviously implementation is the key for something like this.

      vikrant, are you really that sceptical of the Indian.middle class? I would ha e thought that as they become more prosperous and secure, more will become interested and available to engage with the country’s social problems.

      don’t want to be over optimistic, but I think India does have a lot going for it.

    10. Shamit — on 4th August, 2010 at 9:08 am  

      “vikrant, are you really that sceptical of the Indian.middle class? I would ha e thought that as they become more prosperous and secure, more will become interested and available to engage with the country’s social problems.”

      The sad truth is that Vikrant is spot on. The middle class in India is no longer middle class - they are mostly rich. And their social consciousness is close to zero - no one feels bad when their child goes in a Mercedees to school while another 5 year old working in the tea stall on the side of the road.

      And the class system we complain so much about in Britain is in India big time - its got nothing to do with religion or caste (may be in very rural areas) - but its got to with Money.

      Money is GOD in India - social justice and equal opportunities are words people hardly ever use while speaking let alone practice.

    11. Shamit — on 4th August, 2010 at 9:18 am  

      Having a larger economy does not always mean its better. As far as pure economic size goes, India would surpass Britain and most other countries just like China has done.

      However, unless India and China, can increase the per capita GDP - its really not a big deal.

      For example, with all its troubles, Japan who has recently lost its position as the second largest economy, the per capita income/GDP is far superior to China.

      Both India and China lack a social security system. The social security systems in both countries fail to provide a safety net let alone a ladder and both have massive number of disgruntled citizens, who have trouble getting two meals a day.

      China has a bigger economy than Britain yet it still needs International Aid from Britain and much other smaller countries.

      So does India - yes I am very happy that India is doing very well, however, being born poor is still the ultimate curse. And unless that is resolved having a larger economy which does not help in delivering basic social justice is nothing to be really proud about.

    12. Jai — on 4th August, 2010 at 10:01 am  

      building even basic infrastructure would improve the quality of life

      delivering basic social justice

      Vince Cable actually discussed some of this in the article I mentioned on the Nirpal Dhaliwal thread:


      Quote: “….the massive programme of investment now underway - in Indian roads, ports, airports, power generation and water supply.

      …..Two episodes signified for me what the future holds. One was a visit to a ‘hospital city’ built outside Bangalore by a group of NHS-trained clinicians.

      They perform oper­ations on an industrial scale: heart surgery, orthopaedics and cancer treatment.

      The cardiac hospital carries out more heart operations on children than any other in the world.

      Its ­mission is a combination of idealism - to save or transform the lives of as many people as possible - and tough business methods, driving down costs by operating on a large scale.”

      don’t want to be over optimistic, but I think India does have a lot going for it.

      I agree completely.

    13. Shamit — on 4th August, 2010 at 10:20 am  

      Jai -

      I am as Pro India as one could get. And I want India to succeed. India has a lot going for it, in fact, better than most other countries.

      It has the fastest growing middle class in the world - with world class higher education institutions. The size of the middle class is bigger than the population of most countries which ensures India is growing at a rate of almost 9%.

      South India has actually done better in delivering literacy, education, infrastructure as well as managing the great divide - the rest of India is not the same story. Beyond Noida and Gurgaon, what does UP offer? The rule of law does not even extend to villages where khap panchyats are doing whatever they want to do.

      Tell me how would a poor farmer or a labourer in a tea garden in Assam get to Banglaore to get his child’s heart fixed. Its impossible and those are stories that need to be told.

      However, private enterprises have done a lot of philanthropy and is doing what the government is supposed to be doing - and there are many such examples especially in South India.

      Political violence is a norm in most states and when you talk about North East India - most of them feel left out.

      The civil society exists but most people do not care about society and thats a fact.

      Yes, India will shine and we would all benefit from it - however, it does need to address the issues of the most vulnerable and create opportunities for them to share in this growth.

      That’s all I am saying.

      In 2003, the BJP got killed in the election (partly because of Gujrat) but partly because of their campaign “india shining” - and Congress countered that with “roti, kapda, Makan” - in the urban areas, BJP kicked ass especially in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore etc etc however, in the rural areas - it got its ass kicked because the poorest did not benefit from India shining.

    14. Jai — on 4th August, 2010 at 4:13 pm  


      Very good points as always and comprehensively argued. India is obviously a huge country both geographically and in terms of the size of its population, which obviously makes managing the various issues you’ve mentioned even more complicated, but hopefully the country should manage to make considerable progress during the next few decades and begin to fulfil its true potential.

      By the way, you and Shariq should find the following article to be interesting — it discusses why India’s priority is the United States much more than the UK:


      This is also very interesting: There are plans to rebuilt the ancient university at Nalanda in Bihar:



      During the six centuries of its storied existence, there was nothing else quite like Nalanda University. Probably the first-ever large educational establishment, the college – in what is now eastern India – even counted the Buddha among its visitors and alumni. At its height, it had 10,000 students, 2,000 staff and strove for both understanding and academic excellence.

      …Now this famed establishment of philosophy, mathematics, language and even public health is poised to be revived. A beguiling and ambitious plan to establish an international university with the same overarching vision as Nalanda – and located alongside its physical ruins – has been spearheaded by a team of international experts and leaders, among them the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen. This week, legislation that will enable the building of the university to proceed is to be placed before the Indian parliament.

      “At its peak it offered an enormous number of subjects in the Buddhist tradition, in a similar way that Oxford [offered] in the Christian tradition – Sanskrit, medicine, public health and economics,” Mr Sen said yesterday in Delhi.

      “It was destroyed in a war. It was [at] just the same time that Oxford was being established. It has a fairly extraordinary history – Cambridge had not yet been born.” He added, with confidence: “Building will start as soon as the bill passes.”

      The plan to resurrect Nalanda – in the state of Bihar – and establish a facility prestigious enough to attract the best students from across Asia and beyond, was apparently first voiced in the 1990s. But the idea received more widespread attention in 2006 when the then Indian president, APJ Abdul Kalam set about establishing an international “mentoring panel”. Members of the panel, chaired by Mr Sen, include Singapore’s foreign minister, George Yeo, historian Sugata Bose, Lord Desai and Chinese academic Wang Banwei.

      ….Mr Sen said the new Nalanda project, whose ancestor easily predated both the University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco – founded in 859 AD and considered the world’s oldest, continually-operating university, and Cairo’s Al Azhar University (975 AD), had already attracted widespread attention from prestigious institutions. The universities of Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Paris and Bologna had all been enthusiastic about possible collaboration.

      Some commentators believe a crucial impact of the establishment of a new international university in India would be the boost it gave to higher education across Asia.

      …..Writing when plans for Nalanda were first announced, Jeffery Garten, a professor in international business and trade at the Yale School of Management, said in the New York Times: “The new Nalanda should try to recapture the global connectedness of the old one. All of today’s great institutions of higher learning are straining to become more international… but Asian universities are way behind.” He added: “A new Nalanda could set a benchmark for mixing nationalities and culture, for injecting energy into global subject. Nalanda was a Buddhist university but it was remarkably open to many interpretations of that religion. Today, it could… be an institution devoted to global religious reconciliation.”

      As Mr Garten pointed out, the new university will have much to live up to. The original, located close to the border with what is now Nepal, was said to have been an architectural masterpiece, featuring 10 temples, a nine-storey library where monks copied books by hand, lakes, parks and student accommodation. Its students came from Korea, Japan, China, Persia, Tibet and Turkey, as well as from across India.

      The subsequent comments thread is thought-provoking reading too, although as someone there has already pointed out, India’s oldest university was actually at Taxila, not Nalanda.

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