Explaining India, one problem at a time

Explaining India, one problem at a time

Nilekani’s book is wonderfully anecdotal but falls a trifle short on analysis, says Srivatsa Krishna.

Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India is a remarkable book of stories, soulful conversations and anecdotes, all trying to explain India, its people and its institutions. Nandan has the right idea, but ultimately the book does not go beyond these conversations and insights, and this is where it fails. However, India unarguably needs educated, honest, middle class professionals without famous family surnames to play major roles in public life and politics. If Nandan is preparing ground to enter the political realm, and his book is a de facto manifesto, then this is a welcome move which should be supported by one and all. Nandan could well be one amongst a few vying to become India’s Obama in 2018.

Imagining India
Nandan Nilekani
Penguin Books India
Price: Rs 699
The book itself is both exhilarating and disappointing. Exhilarating because it is packed with conversations and anecdotes, which, taken together, give a fascinating ringside view of contemporary India. However, it also disappoints because it doesn’t go very much further than this. Nandan has interviewed a slew of eminent experts across the spectrum and has, surprisingly, left the narrative jarringly conversational over large tracts of the book by repeating “X or Y tells me” this or that. Instead, what one expected from a problem solver of Nandan’s repute was the extraction of the essence of these conversations in such a way so as to open up new vistas for debate and new ways to solve old, lingering problems. The single biggest attraction of the book is that it repeats a lot of facts about India, some of which you probably already know— but they are melded to wonderful new stories and anecdotes.

Here are some questions that Nandan’s book fails to address: For example, why is private investment not flowing into infrastructure despite the fact that most policy barriers to the sector have been removed? Is state funding of elections or other kinds of reforms to the electoral system, which lower the financial barriers to entry, possible? Can political parties introduce a salaried class of professionals to join their ranks so as to infuse ideas and new thinking into public life? If so, how can one make these people ‘electable’? How can a national smart ID card be designed and implemented when the challenge is of collecting and validating a one billion-strong database, which is constantly in flux? How do we ensure that criminals don’t contest elections or come to power? What about industries other than IT, which have flourished post-1991 India, and what lessons do these hold for us? Tackling some of these key issues that face India today would have given the book more teeth. However, the book has some poignant stories to tell. It talks about how a group of fishermen in Tamil Nadu accessed loans to buy fibre glass boats to increase their incomes; a poignant account of India’s unique relationship with the English language, an incisive explanation of India’s democracy and the school system and an expansive analysis of the Nehruvian era and its challenges.


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Nandan does turn a blind eye to some facts. He heaps praise on Dr N. Seshagiri for being the first person to expose the bureaucracy to computers, while conveniently forgetting that Seshagiri created a gigantic, inefficient monopoly called the NIC, which ensured that not a single e-governance project ever saw the light of the day; likewise, while talking about ICT in India, the various pioneering e-government initiatives in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, such as CARD, e-seva, MPHS, transport system computerisation, statewide area networks, etc., are all conspicuously left out in the chapter on bureaucrats and IT.

He correctly identifies land as one important constraint in developing infrastructure, but doesn’t problem-solve the issue (or explain why it has not been a problem in Gujarat, AP, Karnataka and TN). Nor does he mention why so few projects get bid out, or why many of those who do get bid out fail at the execution or design stages. Some minor data errors crop up occasionally: Nandan says that government infrastructure spends fell from 3.7 per cent of GDP in the 1980s to below 2 per cent in the 1990s, whereas in reality total investment in infrastructure stood at 5.7 per cent of GDP in 1991 (its highest ever) and plummetted to a 33-year low of 3.3 per cent of GDP only in 2003.

Celebrityhood has its perks. Sharmila Tagore held forth on national TV on her suggestions for changes in the security apparatus to protect Mumbai; Suhel Seth is a permanent fixture on various talk shows, and speaks on a variety of issues other than advertising, his own profession. Likewise Nandan, a software supremo, has weighed in on a whole gamut of issues that plague India. After reading his book, the main issue that lingers in my mind is whether unparalleled success in one field makes us qualified to hold forth on other areas as well.

The author is an IAS officer and these are his personal views

Revisiting the classics
With big companies slashing costs and small ones facing a cash crunch, guerrilla marketing can save the day.

Was big because: Levinson showed that big budgets are not the only way to success in marketing, and his book has, since, sold 15 million copies in 44 languages. Levinson says big ideas (imagination) coupled with energy, among other things, can boost profits even in a downturn. (The focus, he says, should be on profits and not higher sales.) Instead of national campaigns, he suggested tools like visiting cards, satisfied customers and word-ofmouth buzz. Instead of expanding customer base (which costs a lot of money), the guerrilla marketer focusses on customer follow-up and retention.

Why read it now: The wrong question to ask when recession stares you in the face. According to Levinson’s site, it costs $1,000 (Rs 50,000) an hour to get his advice on the phone. If people are ready to pay that much to talk on the phone, you might as well start with the book and learn to think like Levinson. Tip of the day: did any electronics repair shop return your gadget repaired and cleaned? Apparently, the cleaning makes the customer happy more than the repair job, and that means the repair shop can charge more than its rivals for the same job. Also, the book has been updated to fit today’s world of technology.