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Nandan Nilekani envisions India's future

Reviewed by Rajesh C. Oza Email Reviewed by Rajesh C. Oza
September 2009
Nandan Nilekani envisions India's future

Imagining India: The Idea of A Renewed Nation.

By Nandan Nilekani.

The Penguin Press, 2009. 511 pages.

When I began reading Imagining India, I was pleasantly surprised that a leader of a global multi-billion dollar corporation had the time, inclination and aptitude to persuasively write about his vision for India in the 21st century. To be sure, Nandan Nilekani is not the first corporate leader to believe that his thoughts warrant something more substantial than a PowerPoint presentation or a strategic business plan. In the United States, there are numerous titans of industry whose experiences and/or egos have encouraged either memoirs or business management guides (Jack Welch, David Packard, and Andy Grove come to mind). In South Asia, there are fewer such executives-cum-writers; perhaps the most prominent is Gurcharan Das, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, who has penned several books, including India Unbound, which was written before Y2K (Year 2000) and BPO (Business Process outsourcing) became wealth-generating catch phrases. But unlike Das, Welch and others, Nilekani has not waited to retire from bourses before turning to books.

Nilekani’s Bangalore-based company, Infosys Technologies, continues to leverage its software core competency to capitalize on Y2K, BPO and a host of other business trends that have been closely linked with the globalization of ideas, capital and people. And when Imagining India was published earlier this year, Nilekani continued to lead Infosys as co-chairman (along with N. R. Narayana Murthy) and serve as an informal spokesman for India’s thriving IT industry. Indeed, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, an unabashed champion of global free markets, has long credited his “teacher and friend, Nandan” for inspiring the title of his best-selling The World is Flat.   

In reading the first few chapters of this book, I found myself thinking that this was the writing of a man whose aspirations went beyond the New York Times best-seller list. It was like reading an Indian version of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. Though not as literary as Obama, Nilekani has an easy, flowing style that makes the pages fly. Also, both men share a passion for enabling the transformation of their countries. Of course, the world knows about Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” slogan; and now readers of Imagining India know about Nilekani’s “changing seasons,” “changing faces” and “changing epidemics” (all part of the book’s thematically connected chapter titles).

The focus on change is both a strength and a weakness. As Friedman writes in Imagining India’s foreword, “Nandan Nilekani’s life and book are testament to the fact that the new India has truly arrived – in many ways and many places.” The new India is a changed and changing India. As such, this dynamic nation requires an engagement with ideas that matter; and Nilekani has written a book chock-full of ideas – hopeful, optimistic, forward-looking ideas.

One area where this book’s objective hopefulness and optimism are in full-display is its forward-looking examination of India’s infrastructure. One delightfully-titled chapter (“The Long Roads Home”) is a fine essay ranging from the colonial roots of the subcontinent’s infrastructure to today’s chaotic mess and onward to the expansion of road, rail, and air transportation in parallel with copper-less telecommunication. Nilekani is not Pollyannaish in his assessment of the current state: “India now presents us with a bewildering landscape – of vibrant, private enterprise choking up as it meets crumbling infrastructure.” But rather than dwell on the potholes to the future, or complain that India’s demand-driven democracy cannot keep up with China’s top-down autocratic development, Imagining India imaginatively suggests that “the rise of effective infrastructure through the system of public-private partnerships is a hopeful sign.” To be sure, legal and ethical issues of eminent domain will need to addressed if India’s evolving model is for all Indians rather than just the plutocrats populating public-private partnerships.

But sometimes this hopefulness and optimism needs to look not only forward, but also deeper. For example, in a section praising Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries and change agent responsible for introducing a domestic version of Wal-Mart to India, Nilekani writes, “I marveled at the scale of [Ambani’s] ambition. ? Mukesh told me that his supply chains would go a long way in addressing the massive infrastructure gaps between India’s farms and its markets – he called his initiative ‘from farm to fork.’ And as more such entrepreneurs focus on India’s problems, a whole new force of change is becoming possible.”

I re-read this section a bit more deeply after learning that in June Nilekani had been appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a cabinet minister who will chair the Unique Identification Authority of India. On the one hand, it is wonderful that Indian politics is attracting talented individuals of Nilekani’s caliber; on the other hand, Imagining India begins to read like a politician’s book. And as a political statement, it requires a different kind of scrutiny. To go back to the Ambani episode, one wonders why little mention is made of the lakhs of shop-owners and sabji-wallahs who have been displaced by Reliance Fresh. One also questions why no mention is made of the fact that Ambani’s venture into retail petroleum distribution began with the expensive launch of over one thousand highway petrol stations, only to end in the sudden shuttering of these same stations. It is not inappropriate to ask the author, “Whose side are you on?” When one “entrepreneur” is privileged over hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, the answer might be abundantly clear: Mukesh wins over the Common Man.

However, the intrigue of Imagining India (and, perhaps, India herself) is the ambiguity of the answer. Although Nilekani the chairman occasionally refers to peers such as Mukesh Ambani on a first-name basis, Nilekani the populist wistfully imagines an India with “systems and policies that give people the ability to travel in search of work, to educate their children, and to tap into economic growth.” He has written a book chock-full of ideas for all Indians – from Mukesh to the Common Man, and from Ahmedabad to Atlanta: “ideas that have arrived,” “ideas in progress,” “ideas in battle” and “ideas to anticipate.” As a book reviewer, I test these ideas for a credible narrative. As a change management consultant born in India, I embrace these ideas as a transformative theme that enlightens. And as a father, I hope that Nilekani’s ideas gain traction and continue to develop India into a place that my American-born children will call a home.

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza serves as consultant to organizations and individuals requiring change leadership. His doctoral dissertation was titled “Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation.”

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