India Unbound by Gurcharan Das

In order to see the picture, it is said, one ought to get out of the frame. This possibly holds true for Gurcharan Das, the former CEO of Procter and Gamble India who spent many years in P&G’s worldwide headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio as part of their Strategic Planning group. The perspective he brings into his thinking, as is evident from his erudite work India Unbound, is unprecedented as far as writing on Indian economy and business goes. In the words of N. R. Narayana Murthy, ‘I do not know of any book that describes the impact of India’s economic policies on her growth during the post-Independent India as analytically, logically and vividly as this one’. Das, a Harvard Business School alumnus, author of three plays, a novel and innumerable newspaper columns, quit his corporate career at the age of 52 ( in ’95) to concentrate on writing and consulting. India Unbound came out in 2000. It lucidly traces the growing pains of Indian business from the pre-Independence era to the global information age. In the process Das offers, as the blurb says, a ringside view of the economic and social transformation of a nation. Das does to Indian business what V.S. Naipaul did to Indian politics via his India travelogues or Romila Thapar to ancient Indian history.

Das traces the transformation that has come over the years in the attitudes of the Indians vis-à-vis business. Earlier on we had collectively frowned upon money making and emphasized heavily on intellectual learning that seldom translated to wealth generation. The dichotomy in the middle-class mindset is elucidated in the chapter titled, ‘Ranting in English, Chanting in Sanskrit’. Das is fair and impartial in giving the British Raj its due for whatever good the colonial legacy has bequeathed us and says that we cannot conveniently gloss over it. V. K. Krishna Menon once said that India is rich though Indians are poor. It was a matter of time before we tapped the rich resource potential to make the needed transition from impoverished to prosperous. And none have striven more in that area than the Tatas and Birlas – our own counterparts of the American Rockefellers and Carnegies. Das marvels at the acumen of the biggest member of the ‘zero club’ Dhirubhai Ambani – dubbed so because he started from absolute scratch. He also traces the success story of Infosys under the austere Narayana Murthy who epitomizes ethical corporate behavior. The Nehruvian approach to industry, taking after the Soviet/ Stalinist model, nurtured the public sector institutions which turned out to be white elephants. Corruption was inbuilt in the license raj system which was abetted by politicians who had vested interests in doing so. We were finally left with the choice of shape up or ship out in ’91, arguably the most important year in free India’s history.

The industry and the economy did a volte-face, thanks to the visionary steps of the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh (not to mention the contribution of Commerce Minister P. Chidambaram and his Secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia) under the patronage of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. The ushering in of reforms spelt magic for the economy. The ForEx reserves shot from USD 1 billion in July ’91 to USD 20 billion in just one year. Inflation came down to 6 % from 13 %. Industrial licensing was virtually abolished. MRTP control was lifted, paving way for the automatic entry of foreign investment into companies in 34 industries. In spite of the failure to de-regulate power and telecom sectors, FII had shot up to USD 3 billion by ’97 (ironically enough, by that time, the Rao government was thrown out of power for all their reforming effort).

Das studies some of the revolutionary contributions to Indian industry during these 50 odd years including M. S. Swaminathan’s Green revolution, Verghese Kurien’s White revolution, Sam Pitroda’s single-handed turning around of telecom and creation of the ubiquitous PCO, etc. His broad purview ranges from Kanwal Rekhi’s epoch-making business ventures in the Silicon Valley to the inherent flaws of Indian democracy with its caste manipulations to the increasing influence of Indipop on MTV. On the whole India Unbound is a book worth not one but many readings. A more recent work of his, where he takes his exposition further, is ‘The Elephant Paradigm: How India Wrestles Change’. It is more scholarly and a bit more philosophical in scope. This reviewer did not find it as easier a read as the first book.

(Apr 05)

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