Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the IT company Infosys, wrote a primer on India that became the biggest nonfiction best-seller in the country's history. Now it hits the U.S., and it’s a must-read.
Policy tomes don’t usually generate much excitement, but when a book called Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation, came out in India in November, it created a huge national sensation. Written by Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of the technology giant Infosys, the book was hailed by eminent Indian historian Ramachandra Guha as “a primer on understanding policy issues facing India.” The book’s sales skyrocketed, and it became the best-selling nonfiction book ever to hit India. Now the book is debuting in America, with a prologue by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who will introduce Nilekani at an event at the New York Public Library on March 23.
For American audiences, the book’s release could not be better timed. Next month, India will begin its national elections, 16th since the nation’s independence in 1947. Some 700 million people are registered to vote in a process that will be the largest organized electoral event in history. For those who want to understand India better—as a thriving democracy and emerging global power—Nilekani provides an excellent introduction.
Nilekani may not be a household name in the United States, but he is no stranger to international power lists. Time named him one of the 100 most powerful people in the world and Forbes Asia called him “Business Leader of the Year.”
Nilekani may not be a household name in the United States, but he is no stranger to international power lists. Over the last five years, Time has named him one of the 100 most powerful people in the world, Forbes Asia called him “Business Leader of the Year,” and in early March, India Today put him on a list of the 50 most-powerful people in India. Nilekani serves on many committees and boards, including the World Economic Forum, and the Peterson Institute for International Economics. His full-time job involves co-chairmanship of the board of Infosys; he co-founded the company in 1981 and has been part of its leadership since then. In his spare time, over the last two years, he wrote Imagining India.
Nilekani is rare among the writers of books about the new India. He’s neither a journalist nor a social scientist; as he himself says, he is not a “specialist of any type.” But that is what makes his book unique. He is an active participant in India’s transformation, and the ideas he presents have the authority that comes with real-world experience. Many of India’s most successful companies are family-run enterprises, but Infosys stands out as a company built from scratch over the last 30 years, an IT powerhouse with over 100,000 workers spread over 50 cities in 20-plus countries. Nilekani is now the consummate insider, but unlike many Indian insiders, he wasn’t born to the position. He grew up in a middle-class Indian family and attended the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology before he joined Infosys. His book comes alive through the power of his diverse experiences.
One of the most compelling stories is Nilekani’s description of how the country’s bureaucratic “License Raj” complicated Infosys’s attempt to import its first 150MB hard drive in 1983. As he tells the tale, it took the company six months to get import approval. Since the approval was for a specific hard drive, in six months the newest generation hard drive was double the capacity. Fortunately, as he recounts, India developed its first whiff of liberalization with when the young Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister and changed the laws to allow swifter import of software products.
Reading through the book, one begins to understand the profound effect ideas have had in changing India. I grew up in the US, where the view of the Indian narrative was simple: India is a poor, socialist country that has a pro-Soviet tilt but declares itself non-aligned. India was lumped together with Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Today, India is paired with China, and is seen as a rising superpower and a potential tech giant. No doubt, swaths of India are poor. But many Indians are being lifted out of poverty and many are moving into the global middle class. This transformation didn’t happen overnight.
The first part of Nilekani’s book details the most significant shift in India: from a socialist to a capitalist economy. Nilekani takes readers through the years of Socialist India during Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He then focuses on the 1980s, with Rajiv Gandhi at the helm. Those governing realize the state is part of the problem, not the solution, and India slowly shifts from a “license raj” to a free-market system. Today, “businessman” and “profit” are no longer words of disparagement in India. The Indian entrepreneur, long seen as unfit for polite company, is seen, as Nilekani quotes the current Indian prime minister, as “the source of India’s confidence, and our optimism.”
Nilekani also follows India’s embrace of English and the acceptance of the IT industry. As someone who helmed India’s IT growth story, he highlights how technology is transforming all aspects of Indian life, from rural villages to stock exchanges. In one anecdote, Nilekani recalls meeting a union leader in the late 1990s who didn’t agree with IT in banks. The same leader approached Nilekani after a meeting, sheepishly saying he couldn’t publicly agree with him, but that his two children worked in Boston as software engineers and that privately he couldn’t agree more.
One surprising idea that Nilekani touches on: China’s restrictive one-child policy has hurt its future prospects while India’s more liberal child policy has been a help. As a democracy, India couldn’t enforce a one-child policy and instead relied on massive health and education programs to advocate the benefits of two children. Today, China faces a demographic time bomb with more than 40 percent of its population projected to be older than 65 in 2050. India, on the other hand, will see a demographic boom over the next two decades. Even as the nation’s population growth recedes significantly, it has a mix of young workers to sustain continuous development.
Nilekani also addresses ideas that have near universal agreement in India, but have not been implemented. Chief among India’s failures: its high illiteracy rate. While universal education is seen as a must, the Indian state has failed to deliver. Nilekani takes readers through the myriad programs that have been designed to address India’s literacy. Significantly, the chief problem is not a lack of money, but an ineffective delivery system. Nilekani also addresses other issues: faltering universities, environmental challenges, health care, social security, and a job crisis. The list looks remarkably similar to the list of issues plaguing the United States. I asked him about the similarities between the two countries, and he noted that despite the glaring economic differences, India and the US do face many of the same problems. Solutions used in India may have practical applications to the United States and vice-versa.
When I asked him what he hoped to achieve with his book, Nilekani said he saw it in the tradition of “Edward Filene, David Packard, and Eugene Mayer, who not only built businesses but also shaped public policy.” He potentially saw a “similar role” for himself. I asked him if he wanted to run for public office and he replied he has more impact from outside.
I asked him what he hoped American readers will get out of his book. He replied that he lived in the US for seven years in the 1980s and travels there frequently now; he joked that he “has been to more US states than Indian ones.” He added, “while in the US, I am always asked about India. People are very curious as to how India is doing, where she is going.” He says he wrote the book, in part, to provide an introduction to India for Western audiences.
Imagining India does that in a readable fashion. The book doesn’t address the global economic slowdown. (It was first published before the global meltdown). Nor does the book address the security and terrorist threat in India. And for a man who serves on the board of World Economic Forum, there is little on India’s evolving role in the new world order. Historian Ramachandra Guha said that the one disagreement he had with the book was that it “was too optimistic”; he attributed this to being a historian and being more pessimistic by Temperament. Still, the book provides a compelling introduction to the India of the present—and the future.
Prashant Agrawal is CEO of Indipepal.com, India's only social portal. He previously worked at Skadden Arps, McKinsey, and a hedge fund. He graduated from Columbia University with a JD/MBA. He is also a contributing editor to GQ India and the magazine’s business columnist.