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The decline and rise of India

October 2, 2008

Sanjeev Sanyal writes well. Had the book been written today, the optimism might have been more muted. But it was written in the days of 9 per cent, not 7.5 per cent, GDP growth. And regardless of cyclical downturns, the core reasons behind the India Shining trajectory remain valid— savings/investment rate increases, demographic transition, sectoral shift away from agriculture, increased efficiency in use of capital and the performance of the external sector. Not with standing constraints (institutions, infrastructure are flagged), the underlying thesis in the Sanyal argument is a bullish one.

There are nine chapters and barring the first two, the others are about contemporary India— entrepreneurial revolution, great Indian middle class, poverty/inequality, two revolutions (demographic and in primary education), institutional reform, change (urbanisation, westernisation) and the inevitability of India’s rise. The second chapter is about the period from Independence to “freedom”, interpreted as the start of economic reforms in 1991. Though written by an economist, this is not an economist’s book a la Arvind Panagariya (The Emerging Giant). Therefore, if one is looking for a comprehensive description of antecedents and consequences of liberalisation, or of the pending agenda, it is to Panagariya one should turn. However, Panagariya is heavy-duty stuff, consciously so. And Sanyal is light-duty stuff, consciously, too. The target audiences and writing styles are different.

The Indian Renaissance is more anecdotal and less pedantic and places change in a broader sociocultural-civilisational setting. “However, there is nothing inevitable about India’s rise. Demographic change and growing literacy are but enabling factors. In the end, what matters is that India has the confidence to take advantage of the opportunity. This calls for a mental attitude that requires to be actively promoted. Human history is full of civilisational dead-ends and India’s own history shows how things can unravel. The decline of Kolkata, the city of my birth, should serve as a warning that even the most cosmopolitan of societies can lose their way.”

An anecdotal account of Kolkata’s decline then follows and there is nothing one can substantively disagree with, just as there is nothing one disagrees with in the quote given. But academic training results in one being careful and less prone to sweeping generalisations, even if a book is deliberately written in a style that is popular rather than academic. Since Sanyal’s quality of training is not in dispute, I think the author has made an error in judgement. There is a book Sanyal has written and one Sanyal could have written. The one he has written will do well, because the style and content are popular and topical.
The Indian Renaissance
India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline
Sanjeev Sanyal
Penguin/Viking, 2008
Pages: 230
Price: Rs 499

But it isn’t a book that will leave a lasting impact. It won’t even be quoted and referred to in the way Edward Luce (In Spite of the Gods) is. Consider the first chapter. “The picture of ancient India is of a society that encouraged innovation and risk-taking.” That culture of openness went into a decline in pre-Muslim India and the Golden Age didn’t last. That’s an interesting proposition, which merits probing and one could have written a book directly linking this hypothesis in the first chapter with the rest of the book on contemporary India. Sanyal will argue that’s exactly what he has done, focusing on openness. But he has used a shotgun and chosen a canvas that is too wide. That sweeping span of three thousand years requires more focus and care. You can imagine where Nayan Chanda (Beyond Borders) would have gone with that hypothesis, retaining the popular flavour without sacrificing rigour. India still lacks a Fernand Braudel. Some day, we will find one. But meanwhile, Sanjeev Sanyal has lost out on an extremely good book he could have written. Going back to the book he has actually written, there is little in the nature of commission one can complain about.

The thrust is proreform and one can’t complain about that. However, there is a political economy of reform, or resistance to it. And there, one can complain about omissions. The book would have been richer had there been more comprehensive sections on agriculture and the rural sector (even though the point about increased urbanisation and reduced role of agriculture is valid) and regional and interstate disparities. For instance, control examples in education could have been reinforced with those from agriculture and issues of rural infrastructure more directly addressed.

And there should, perhaps, have been a discussion on federal issues, since most pending reform areas are state subjects. There is a point to the India Whining story, except that it misinterprets symptoms and prescribes wrong cures, having mis-diagnosed the disease. Any book on the Indian economy that doesn’t address these issues is likely to be accused of being pro-urban and elitist. That will be a pity, because this is a good book that should serve to sell the cause of reforms, especially to Generation Next. However, Sanjeev Sanyal should write that other book, too.

Revisiting the classics
Poof! Another company goes under, is taken over or fades out… Read this book before it is too late for your company.

(Harper Collins, 1994)
by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras

Was big because:
The authors first set out a definition of what a visionary company should be, combing through Fortune 500 lists and other lists to pick up 18 such candidates—each of them founded before 1950—buttressed with feedback from a thousand CEOs. To put their findings in perspective, they compared and contrasted each of the selected companies with a leader in its sector that was good but had not made it to that level. The result of six years of research, the book is extremely readable.

Why read it now:
None of the companies listed has disappeared—so far. Apply the core findings of the research to the ones that are disappearing from the corporate landscape, and check out their validity. Collins’ and Porras’ research showed that the built-to-last companies almost always have a set of core values and in-house talent farming, apart from the BHAG or big, hairy, audacious goals that distinguish them. The built-to-last companies don’t Have to be founded by visionary leaders or on visionary products, or have master plans and prima donnas. Like the companies listed by the authors, it seems one can put the book in the same class.

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