Review by Leonard J. Baldyga
Nandan Nilekani, Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation, New York: The Penguin Press HC; 2009, ISBN-10: 1594202044 and ISBN-13: 978-1594202049, $29.95, 528 pp.
With the good fortune of having served in the country some 20 years ago, I had no difficulty imagining the India Nandan Nilekani portrays in his voluminous and superbly written book: Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation. In visits to Bangalore I saw the huge satellite dishes Texas Instruments had installed to beam the R&D created by the talented and innovative Indian engineers and technicians to its headquarters in the United States. And it is no surprise to me that Nandan Nilekani, the software entrepreneur, founded his highly successful Infosys Technologies Company in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. At the U.S. Information Agency offices in New Delhi, we also recognized the benefits of hiring the same Indian Ph.D.s to develop our programming and budgeting computer software for USIA operations throughout South Asia.
Nanden Nilekani’s book is a compact history of India’s difficult transformation from its colonialist past, the heroic struggle for independence, the agonizing efforts to create a Democratic nation where there are 22 official languages, continual Muslim-Hindu strife, persistent societal issues stemming from the caste system, a carryover socialist/ Fabian economic mindset hindering business development, immense bureaucratic roadblocks, widespread corruption and ongoing governance issues between the central and state governments —into a global giant in the IT (information technology) field. And for Nilekani, India’s future will depend on IT and the reformist ideas he promotes throughout the book.
Nilekani structures his narrative into four distinct sections. The first deals with “Ideas That Have Arrived” and includes (1) the recognition that English is critical if India is to remain globally competitive and he points out the massive efforts underway to teach English in rural as well as urban communities; and (2) the radical attitudinal change toward business and entrepreneurship that has allowed improvements tied to IT in banking, agriculture, railways, the stock market, and even the running of Indian elections. And while there are skeptics, Nilekani argues that India is and will be benefiting from the “demographic dividend” and is “a young, fresh-faced nation in a graying world.” India, he points out, already has the “largest reservoir of skilled labor in the world. It produces 2 million English-speaking graduates, 15,000 law graduates and 9,000 Ph.D.s every year. And the existing pool of 2.1 million engineering graduates increases by nearly 300,000 every year.”
The second section, called “Ideas in Progress”, focuses on the challenges confronting India in the fields of primary education, urbanization, infrastructure, and in a unified countrywide market. He is highly critical of an educational system that produces the second largest number of engineers in the world, but also the largest number of school dropouts and where a third of its population is illiterate. And, as if in response to Nilekani’s criticism, India this year passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which promises access to education for all children ages 6 to 14 years old. But for Nilekani, the major problem is not access but quality. In this section, while Nilekani also maintains that “India is no longer imagined as an essentially rural country” he notes the weak political leadership of city governments, the under-funding of cities by the central government, and the tremendous problems facing the cities as people flock from rural to urban areas. He blames the policies of both the former British colonial government and of Nehru for many of the problems inherited by India’s major cities, particularly Bombay, New Delhi and Calcutta. He promotes Bangalore as the model Indian city.
Section three deals with “Ideas in Battle” and Nilekani says this is where things get “messy.” He writes: “we have two kinds of ideas in India now — those we can discuss calmly and somewhat coherently and those where our debates rapidly derail into white-hot, emotional arguments, deeply rooted in ideology and beliefs so long held they have become a matter of faith.” He goes on to lament that while the country has become more optimistic with the developments in demographics, entrepreneurship, English language, the role of IT, globalization and democracy, which have served as the foundation for an expanding economy, “the most frustrating part of my experience with Indian policy has been in the ideas where we still have such fundamental disagreements that we simply fail to see the logic of the other side.” As a result in such vital areas as higher education, the role of markets and labor laws, India’s politicians and voters still maintain “very specific and stubborn beliefs” which create roadblocks in the country’s ability “to balance fairness and competition, meritocracy and egalitarianism, and the included versus the excluded in our economy.”
Of the politicians, Nilekani is particularly critical of the West Bengal Communist Party leaders Jyoti Basu and Buddhabed Bhattacharjee for mounting the fierce opposition to the 2008 India-U.S. nuclear agreement on the grounds it would result in American influence over India’s foreign policy. The nuclear agreement, Nilekani argues, would bring India significant energy benefits and that without it India’s nuclear plants would run out of fuel. At the same time, the same West Bengal leftist government welcomes private investments, even American, as long as they generate jobs and benefit the state.
Nilekani also goes after those responsible for the problems in India’s higher education system which creates thousands of graduates every year but “who cannot string a coherent paragraph together — ‘educated illiterates’ — whose degrees literally are not worth the paper they are written on.” He notes that the resistance to change has been pervasive among college administrators and government bureaucrats resulting in Indian universities becoming “islands untouched by the fast-changing economy that surrounds them” where 75% of the graduates are unemployable for the jobs they ostensibly were trained to do. Nilekani calls for urgent reforms to remove the caste-based reservation system, the establishment of an independent regulator separated from government, greater transparency in governmental oversight of educational institutions, allowing new institutions to enter the system easily, and opening up the system to permit private investment both from India and abroad.
In his final section, called “Ideas to Anticipate”, Nilekani is concerned that while India is on a steep growth curve it has fallen behind in producing new, innovative solutions to the many problems it faces in development, health, energy, pensions, the environment and a “crumbling infrastructure.” In addition, he feels that India is yet to recognize the full potential of IT. And he is right to do so. The New York Times recently reported that academics “say India has the potential to create trend-setting products but is not yet doing so”….”Indians are granted about half as many American patents for inventions as people and firms in Israel and China.” Echoing Nilekani, the article quotes Nadathur S. Raghavan, one of the founders of Infosys, who points out that “India is held back by a financial system that is reluctant to invest in unproven ideas, an education system that emphasizes rote learning over problem solving, and a culture that looks down on failure and unconventional career choices.”
Nilekani also displays his and seemingly every Indian’s worry about being beat out by an undemocratic China and comparisons keep popping up throughout the book. While India currently may have the lead in IT, it is behind China in the manufacturing sector and the ease of conducting business. Nilekani’s cites the expanding use of English in India, but recent reports indicate the number of English speakers in China may soon surpass those in India. And it is not helpful when the Karnataka state government, following a court ruling, recently threatened to close more than 2,000 private schools for teaching in English and not in Kannada, the local language. The Karnataka government said that it would now require its 24,000 state schools to teach English as a foreign language. In the meantime, the Asia Times in an article four years ago noted China made English compulsory in primary schools from Grade 3 in 2001, while big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai had already introduced English at Grade 1. An estimated 176.7 million Chinese were studying English in 2005 within the formal education sector.
Even after candidly enumerating the many profound political, social, ideological, governance difficulties still deeply ingrained in the daily life of India, Nilekani remains optimistic that India will overcome them by implementing information communication technology breakthroughs and envisions the day where it will be possible to put an electronic device into the hands of every citizen in every village (low-cost computers, smart phones, smart cards and PDAs) and that within a few years “every Indian home, hamlet and town” will be connected on the information/technological highway.
Since the publication of the book, Nilekani has joined the Indian government as head of a new agency tasked with creating a national identification database for the country’s 1.2 billion people in an initiative designed to document Indians so they can join in more fully in the India’s economic growth.
Tom Friedman is a friend and huge supporter of Nilekani and his ideas and closes his foreword to the book by pointing out: “Nandan is optimistic but not naive. He would tell you it all depends: It all depends on India having a government as aspiring as its people, politicians as optimistic as its youth, bureaucrats as innovative as its entrepreneurs, and state, local, and national leaders as impatient, creative, and energetic as their kids — and, in my view, as Nandan Nilekani.”
Leonard J. Baldyga is a senior consultant at the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) specializing in Eastern Europe. He served on the Editorial Board of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Polish Edition. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Sabre Foundation (Boston) and serves on the board of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences (New York). He retired as a Career Minister from the U.S. Information Agency and served as Minister-Counselor in New Delhi and Rome, as well as Public Affairs Officer in Mexico and Warsaw. He held senior positions at USIA including Director of the Office of European Affairs. He was Acting Director of the Murrow Center at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts where he also taught courses in international political communication and public diplomacy. He is a member of the American Foreign Service Association’s speaker’s bureau.