Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ goes a famous maxim. What if the cover features the facial profile of the author who happens to be the poster boy of globalization today? This is the dilemma that I found myself in as I set out to read Nandan Nilekani’s ‘Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century’. Prejudging I could not help, but I am happy to say that I was not in the least mistaken. The book is as forthright in its articulation of visionary ideas and ideals as one can expect from a protégé of N.R. Narayana Murthy, the man who gave the corporate community a radically new mantra in compassionate capitalism. The title dispels any doubt one might have about what the Infosys Chairman’s much anticipated book is all about. Perhaps we might get a book on the Infosys story from Nilekani yet! New York Times journalist, author and friend Tom Friedman describes him as a ‘great explainer’. Explain he certainly does, while taking upon himself the onerous task of inquiring into, probing, dissecting, delineating and engaging in profound research into what ticks and what does not about the complex entity called India. It is a heart-felt love for bettering the lot of its people that we see in page after page of this book embedded with cold facts and incisive data. The jocular rhetoric and flamboyant flourishes of Friedman, media cheerleader par excellence of globalization, is conspicuously absent here.

Nandan Nilekani was born in 1955 to Mohan Rao and Durga in Sirsi in Karnataka. He studied at Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton Boys School and later electrical engineering at IIT Bombay from ’73 to ’78. He joined Patni Computer Systems where Narayana Murthy was a senior. They along with five other colleagues left Patni and started Infosys in ’81. Nilekani became the CEO and MD in ’02 and remained so for five years before being elevated to Chairman in ’07. Nilekani is married to Rohini and they have two children – Yale going daughter Janhavi and son Nihar. Rohini Nilekani who has a novel called Stillborn to her name, is the Chairperson of Akshara Foundation. In ’04 the Government of India decorated Nilekani with the country’s third highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan. Fortune magazine named him as one of Asia’s 25 most powerful business people. In ’06 Time listed him among the 100 most influential people in the world. Forbes hailed him the Business Leader of the year. He is a member of the World Economic Forum Foundation Board, chairman of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, president of the National Council of Applied Economic Research and also co-founder of NASSCOM. He is in the review committee of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. As a member of the National Advisory Group on e-Governance, Nilekani sponsors NGOs like eGovernments Foundation who are transforming government machinery through better usage of IT. He has served on the Boards of IITB and RBI.

It is curious to trace how Nilekani’s interest in his environment and the nation itself evolved and bloomed in spite of him being a technocrat with a punishing work schedule, although he terms himself at the outset an accidental entrepreneur. As a child he went to see Nehru when the first Prime Minister visited Bangalore. The seeds of liberal thinking must have been sown at the IIT where he was an avid quizzer. His regular quizzing partner in those days was Jairam Ramesh who is now a Central Minister. He has always been in contact and extended dialogs with intellectuals of his time like Ramachandra Guha whom he describes as a mentor and the main motivator behind the book. Guha, a brilliant academic from the finishing school of St Stephens whose interests range from anthropology and demography to cricket and literature is given credit along with economist Vijay Kelkar for catalyzing the genesis of this book. And as it took shape, infinite support and encouragement came in the person of Rohini whose ‘compassion and work in the social sector made a stunted IIT nerd into a more rounded human being’. The book is a product of tireless research. The writer did have research assistants in this mission, but what is particularly note-worthy is the first-hand nature of most of the information. The author has met or got in touch with people who matter in the Indian industry and politics as well as India watchers from around the globe while painstakingly building his thesis. The book is updated to the point of talking about the Recession that started in September this year. He has also cited from a plethora of writing from Charles Dickens to the recent Rosett Report. Some of the key ones from the surfeit of India books that came after the golden jubilee of our Independence are referenced, notably Sunil Khilanani’s The Idea of India and Guha’s India After Gandhi. The reader might be excused for feeling a stale taste wherever the author recycles twentieth century Indian history for the sake of completion of the narrative. A newcomer, say a firangi who wants to learn about India afresh, might appreciate it better. Nilekani is inspired by the lives of entrepreneur-philanthropists like Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates in the US and their Indian counterparts like Jamshetji Tata and G.D. Birla. Even as he adopts a pan-Indian stance on developmental matters, his special affection for two cities is unmistakably evident – hometown Bangalore and the city of his vibrant student days, Bombay, down to the last chai-chaat he had there. He outlines well-etched plans for the renovation of the IITs. In fact as someone who walks the talk, he had co-founded two new hostels at the Powai institution, thereby adding 1000 rooms, an increase of 30%. These were built under two year’s time. He states his case for developing Dharavi, the largest slum in Bombay and perhaps the world, which is also a hub of industry that generates $1.47 billion annually.

Infosys appears in illustrative examples, like when he points out that it is a marquee company for environmentally friendly business approaches. The governmental interference that Narayana Murthy ran into while chairing the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL), gets a mention. Another Infosys leader who gets pride of place is M. D. Pai in the context of the nationwide mid-day meal scheme that he initiated. We learn that in the days of the license raj, one of the founders of the company N.S. Raghavan had to hang around in the lobby outside a bureaucrat’s office in Delhi for eighteen days just to change the ‘port of arrival’ from Madras to Bangalore in an import permission letter! Nilekani traces the progression of Indian attitudes to business from the days of Nehru who for all his statesmanship nursed contempt for ‘a bania civilization’ to Indira who spoke of businessmen as the ‘dark and evil forces’ to Manmohan Singh who lauds businessmen as the ‘source of India’s confidence and our optimism’. Along the way came man-in-a-hurry Rajiv Gandhi and the techies like Sam Pitroda whom he patronized. They played a commendable role in steering us on to the right track, disoriented as we were in a maze of complacent and degrading socialism. The crying needs of today are bijli, sadak aur pani which is a shift from the roti, kapda aur makan priorities of the previous generation. Nilekani points out that today we are increasingly less blaze in the face of problems like unscheduled power failures, delayed trains, broken sewer lines and mounds of garbage on the road. Certain initiatives like BATF which he once headed are helping bring about a conscious awareness among the public on the need for change. Even though Nilekani started with a technocratic solution, a few years and many frustrations later he realized that what held us back were financial and political weaknesses and not so much operational ones. Today urban reforms have become the policy bandwagon that everybody is clambering on, he further states. He is all praise for eGovernments Foundation. Their systems, implemented across 100 Indian cities, have empowered citizens by getting rid of the gatekeeper while paying utility bills and property taxes, filing complaints and applying for documents, etc.

I have minor grudges with the book. It is sparsely illustrated and the pictures are perfunctory. Maybe the editors could have done away with them altogether. Here are a couple of bloopers in an otherwise flawless book. On page 169, Jaideep Sahni is referred to as a director of some movies which he had actually not directed but written. Also in the Indian history chronology on page 503, the number of people massacred at Jallianwallah Bagh is given as 10,000 which is factually incorrect and is apparently a case of an extra zero creeping in. I am sure these are editorial gaffes that will go away in the next edition. I also wished that Nilekani had garnished his work with a bit more sprinkling of humor, of which we get but rare glimpses like mirages in the parched desert sands of academic arid land. Pondering on why family planning failed in the rural areas in the years soon after Independence, Nilekani quotes villagers, ‘They talked of the rhythm method to people who didn’t know the calendar. Then they gave us rosaries of colored beads. At night, people couldn’t tell the read bead for “don’t” from the green for “go ahead”. Wry humor pops up in this case of an entrepreneur telling him, ‘Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel says that people use their mobile phones most when they are in a traffic jam. So the fact that telecom is far ahead of the rest of India’s infrastructure has brought him a lot of revenue!’

In summary Imagining India is a comprehensive work though not a compelling read. It will be dated for sure, but still looking back many years from now, a person interested in the India of its first 60 years of freedom – politically, economically, socially – would want to grab this amazing book for some insights. The target audience is anybody who is interested in India. It is a serious work and definitely no airport thriller….well, not unless your name is Palaniappan Chidambaram or Montek Singh Ahluwalia or something. In a country where if you sell 5000 copies of a book you are labeled ‘best-selling writer’, Nilekani’s book has already crossed the 30,000 mark in a month. At the recent Kovalam Literary festival I heard two publishing honchos, the India CEOs of Penguin and Harper Collins reiterate as to what kind of books they would love to publish in fiction – it is the mass literature/ pulp novel popularized by the Chetan Bhagats. One wonders what it is when it comes to non-fiction. I would wager my money that it is books like Imagining India – blue-prints by visionaries and statesmen-in-the-making like Nandan Nilekani for a bigger, better and brighter India.

(December 2008)

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