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"Imagining India" - A Book Review

By: B Shantanu
Jan-17-2009
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At first glance, Nandan Nilekani"s "Imagining India" is daunting.

500+ pages, densely packed with statistics, policy prescriptions and anecdotes do not make for easy bedtime reading.yet I found it highly engaging and written in a very readable style. If there was ever a book you wished that reflected a bird"s eye of what ails India, "Imagining India" would come pretty close to it.

On the very first page, in the preface, Nandan Nilekani recalls a conversation with a visitor in which he was asked:

"Why don"t people like you get into politics?"

Nilekani"s response to the question encapsulates India"s problem # 1:

"I was, I said, quite unelectable"

I turned the page.and spotted problem # 2:

".our government, where the socialist ethos is still dominant"

.and problem # 3:

".when it comes to policy, the urgent wins over the important, tactic triumphs over strategy and patronage over public good"

In some ways, "Imagining India" is Nilekani"s attempt at articulating policies and strategies that would prioritise the important over the urgent and public good over patronage.

Nilekani"s underlying belief is that the key to growth (and consequent progress and development) is in expanding access to resources and opportunity. Therefore "reforms that expand access are.most crucial for the disempowered" (Pg 23). This is the underlying theme that runs throughout the book.and it is one that strongly resonates with me.

I believe if we were to do nothing else except focus on creating an enabling environment for our students, entrepreneurs, farmers and professionals - and giving them access to opportunities - we would solve more than half of our problems. On the flip side of course, if we fail in providing sufficient opportunities for work or income for our incredibly young population, we will create conditions for enormous social upheaval.

The book is divided in four parts. The first deals with ideas on which there is now broad consensus - at least amongst the urban elite and the middle-class. Ideas for example, that see entrepreneurship as essential to development.and population as an asset rather than a liability.

The end of Part I is a chapter titled "The Deepening of our Democracy" and this is the chapter where Nilekani occasionally slips. For instance, when he mentions terrorism as being driven by the "tendency of our governments towards repression". Or when he says that "secular principles were paramount across our laws.(since independence)" - as many of you would know, the phrase was actually inserted via an amendment in the constitution in 1976.

The second part deals with areas on which there is broad agreement but a lot of work needs to be done; literacy, managing our rapid urbanisation, connecting our towns and cities and creating a common market across India. Part III deals with topics on which there is still no consensus e.g. the role of state in higher education, labour-related issues and so on.

The final part is an attempt at identifying and articulating our medium-term challenges or ideas that are "largely missing from our public discourse" such as environment, social security and our energy needs (although the part to do with energy solutions probably belongs to Part II). I found this section the least stimulating - perhaps because it lacked the immediacy and the urgency of the other sections - and was devoid of the "heat" that is generated in a debate around some of the other ideas.

The one thing that I did find odd (and unsettling) was the almost conscious attempt, - throughout the narrative - at avoiding any mention of India"s ancient heritage, its civilizational continuity and the underlying cultural unity.
For instance, even though Nilekani talks of how every country is governed through some overarching themes and ideas (Pg 8), he does not mention what this might be in case of India - saying simply that, "India.is a country that is as much an idea as it is a nation" - which is odd considering that the word "India" does not occur in any of the languages spoken in India.

The absence of even a cursory nod to our roots and a sense of cultural unity is also evident in remarks such as the one mentioning India as a "region riven by factionalism, whose caste and religious divisions seemed to be written in stone" (Pg 151) and as a "disparate group of communities.knit together" (pg 290)

There are also some historical inaccuracies - largely due to (I guess) over-reliance on the kind of academic research led by leftist historians. E.g. he mentions "Sanskrit" as an "alien" tongue that entered the region with an "invading army" (Pg 101) - clearly an allusion to the Aryan Invasion Theory (which has now been widely refuted).

Overall though, I would strongly recommend the book to anyone with more than a passing interest in public policy and governance. It is a great overview of some of our most immediate challenges and a good compendium of ideas that will dominate public discussion in the years to come.

I sincerely hope that our legislators, politicians, policy-makers and opinion leaders take note of some of the policies and ideas it contains.It might help us get a step closer to a better India.

On the back cover, Thomas Friedman has called Nilekani a "great explainer". Reading "Imagining India" may help you understand why he said that.


B Shantanu

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References & Notes:

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book for this review. Sadly it did not have Shri Nilekanis autograph. Perhaps next time!




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