Imagining India or wishing it away?

In his new book Imagining India, Nandan Nilekani documents his thought-process on the reasons for urban India's serendipitous success, but unfortunately and wrongly imagines it to be the success of India at large.

The book also attempts to document some ideas for improving the circumstances of not just urban India, but of the whole of India. While we highly appreciate the author's efforts in meticulously researching and codifying India's (read "urban India's") status quo today, we give the book a thumbs-down in terms of providing ideas or thoughts which can lead India in the 21st century. That sort of thought-leadership material is completely absent in the book.

In the light of the fact that urban India is getting increasingly divorced from rural India and even speaks a different language (of which divorce the author is an advocate even if unawares), and the fact that the author does not display understanding of the ground realities of rural India or for that matter the role of mother-tongue in education, the book fails to give any sort of solution for the "whole of India". This utterly restricted view of India makes one question if the author really wishes away India at large and originally wanted the book to be titled Imagining English Language Call Centers in India.

Fairly accurate first part but disappointingly restrictive in idea of India

As already mentioned, the retrospective analysis of urban India's post-independence success is fresh, fairly accurate and bold - as long as it's not confused with the success of India as a whole - which confusion the book is full of. Anyone concerned with India as a whole tends to be disappointed with the lack of insight into what must be done in order to ensure that the serendipitous urban success reaches far and wide, and more importantly, in order that it sustains.

In the first part of the book, called "Ideas that have arrived", Nandan documents six things - or rather the "evolution" in the way we think about them - which have in his mind propelled India's growth in the recent past (in reality, it's only the growth of urban India). They are: population, entrepreneurship, english, technology, globalization and democracy. In short, Nandan believes that we've started considering population as an asset instead of a liability; entrepreneurs as respectable members of the society instead of hostile; english as the language of "social and economic mobility" instead of as the language of oppression; technology as an enabler of growth instead of as a threat to labor; globalization as aiding India instead of harming; and democracy as something which has matured instead of something India wasn't ready for.

We believe this analysis is fairly accurate if not complete, except for the fact that none of this applies to more than a tenth of India's population (barring perhaps the infatuation with English in which non-urban India blindly but understandably imitates the urban).

Other three parts are a let-down

The other three parts of the book lack the fresh analytical juice to be found in the first. In them, Nandan lets down those who might have looked up to him as an influential thinker whose thoughts and ideas for the future have the power to transform India; he merely documents what went on, what's going on, and a bit of what can be almost mathematically derived from the foregoing two if we let the engine run by itself with folded hands - what may happen. Clearly, that's not thought-leader material.

The book has some factual mistakes too, which stem from the author's distance from ground realities and inexperience in extra-corporate matters. While the author feels that Hindi Imposition is a thing of the past, we know and you know that that's far from reality. We invite the author to have a look at some of our blog-posts both in English and Kannada on this matter and ascertain for himself how rampant Hindi Imposition is even to this date.

Slighting the role of India's languages is unscientific and disastrous

The author's slighting of the power of India's languages and their role in education, and the implicit and unscientific assumption that English has what it takes to pull the whole of India out of misery is a glaring, unforgivable mistake which is central to the book's thesis. We expected the author to have been more scientific than that. Also, instead of dry documentation of how English was regarded as a language of oppression and has now become the language of "economic and social mobility" (the very concept of social mobility due to a foreign language stinks of British oppression), what one expects from a leader is answers to difficult questions with respect to English.

Leaders in India must dare to ask these questions: What should English be tomorrow? How should we plan the role of English in India tomorrow? How do we see to it that we neither loose quick BPO bucks, nor regard with neglect the latent talent of the majority of Indians to whom English is a foreign language? How can we build a system which taps the inherent talent in India's children instead of imposing a system which neglects everything they are from day one at school, but at the same time make sure we don't lose easy money from the Infosyses of India? In not even asking - let alone answering - these and other difficult questions, Nandan Nilekani completely disappoints the reader.


dandapinda said...

Well Well Well, what can you expect from a businessman. He has made millions thanks largely due to English and its obvious he will preach what he has been practicing.

Mr Nilekani, I am sorry but your views will definitely have repercussions on your organization some day or the other. You are a lucky man (yes, you have worked hard for this, no doubt) that you will not be facing the crisis when the Govt of Karnataka will start giving projects worth thousands of crores requiring the interface to be in Kannada when you and your vision will take a beating.

I thought losing railway contract to TCS already would have signalled alarms in the organization and your views would have changed atleast for the book. I guess not.

Jai Veerupaksha said...

A lot of what Mr.Nilekani has written is wishful thinking and definitely the first part of the book's title "Imagining" is justified in that respect. The attempt truely is honest but it appeared to be more in line with the "Scalability" rhetoric that one has come to expect from the Infosys stable in any forum.Just picking an existing short term solution(read "low hanging fruit") and extrapolating it to be a panacea for the whole of the country is not what is expected of a leader who should dare to think beyond the obvious and what the media expects.

Growth has 2 dimensions to it-direction and speed. In imagining India, while there is emphasis on speed (picking up stray good things happening here and there and proposing a ramp up irrespective of the context)...there is no questioning whether we as a country have set our directions right.

Issues like migration across states due to varying stages of exploiting demographic dividend.....or the arm twisting tactics of regional parties that can hamper growth of other parts of the country ....are just given a passing reference. While one cannot wish away above happenings, one would have expected a bold standpoint from Mr.Nilekani that questions whether as a federal set up we still need clearly defined policies which are objective and where all states are equal in the true sense, the role of media which is vastly urban centric and market oriented...far from its true role as a guardian of values/ethics.Obviously coming from an entrepreneur who would have economic interests foremost,it is understandable that such fundamental questioning would not have bene in the best of self interests.

But from an would expect a logical flow of thought..Defining,then Measuring before Analysing and then suggesting Improvements and Control structures(true DMAIC approach)...instead of starting directly with suggesting improvements from existing status quo and without questioning our very definition of what India actually is.

Sadly this book also is for the English speaking "socially and economically mobile" elite of India.It will surely be a hit with the target audience though....but the real India of another 700 million really do not have much of takeaway.

sunaath said...

Good analysis.

dandapinda said...

Coffee table books at its best! Providing birds eye diplomatic view of everything and trying to be politically correct so as not to harm business.

Pathetic yet I somehow feel Nandan is better of the lot..

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