Imagining India sets out a detailed and thoughtful analysis of modern India facing an opportunity to emerge with a global future in international trade.
India's development has been rapid and is supported by a demographic dividend of having a population whose average age is only in its twenties. Combined with India being the world's largest democracy this provides a major opportunity to allow India to move from being an emerging market to a global powerhouse.
Although Nandan Nilekani is not a political or social commentator, in Imagining India he has produced a masterful and readable analysis of India's progress since its independence from the British Empire in 1947. It should be essential reading for anyone doing business in or with India as it explains why things work, or not, as they do.
With the aid of many leading thinkers and change makers working in or watching India Nilekani moves on to consider the wide ranging challenges that could derail or slow continued progress. It is thoughtful and wide ranging in its examination.
The first part provides the historical context for the analysis to come in later sections. It shows how India at Independence was more of an idea than a reality as a nation. Nilekani shows how this has changed in the intervening sixty years such that there is a much stronger sense of what being Indian means and growing national pride.
Imagining India explains how in many respects India's feudal past is still to be seen in today's India especially outside the more egalitarian environment of the booming urban centres. This is perhaps surprising as democracy has only strengthened since independence despite many crises along the way. There has been little demand for one party rule even when politics was dominated by the Congress Party. There is a growing dissatisfaction with populist political rhetoric and a desire for a more reformist agenda but change is slow.
The other reason for slow change is the other Briitish legacy, the Indian Civil Service. Along with organised labour they are a powerful minority that is well positioned to resist change that challenges their privileged and comfortable existence. Whilst the civil service in western economies has moved on Nilekani argues that in India it has not and many practices would still be recognisable to the civil servants of the pre-war British Raj.
However there are new challenges that need to be addressed urgently if progress is not to be checked by inadequate infrastructure and institutions.
Since the 1990s and especially during the early years of the 21st century there are two powerful forces that are demanding change. The liberalisation of the economy has led India's rapid economic growth and with it the expiations and aspirations of its people.
Aspirations have risen across all levels of India society including the rapidly expanding middle-classes and the rural poor. They all want part of the new affluence and for the most part are being creative in seeking their new roles and opportunities.
The booming cities are showing what a more egalitarian India could look like without the divisions by class or caste. In the cities, at least for those in the new economy, the remnants of feudalism are fast disappearing as Indian business becomes an important part of the world economy.
However although the population of India is young it has some of the oldest politicians in the world. They still tend to manage by crisis and think in terms of populist handouts rather than more effective fundamental changes. Popular pressure is growing for that to change even from the rural poor who are showing that they are more sophisticated voters than many politicians have arrogantly assumed.
Nilekani opens this section of Imagining India with "This is where it gets messy".
Although one can take comfort that many ideas that were until recently emotional or ideological items of faith have become accepted and can now be discussed rationally - these inlude the use of the English language, IT and globalization which have supported the expanding economy.
Although the debate on topics such as cast reservation, subsidies or the role of the private sector can be ideologiocal or emotional Nilekani considers these subjects calmly and rationally. In this his evidence suggests he is tapping into a growing popular national mood even amongst the poor who are supposedly being "protected" by the status quo. In fact it can be argued it is the politicians, bureaucracy and middle men (the remnants of a the feudal past) that are most resistant to change.
He considers the performance of the state sector and especially its failure in education and infrastructure that lock the small farmer in to poverty. The wealthy have always sought such services privately and sent their children to universities abroad where they have achieved qualifications that are valuable and useful. Increasingly the growing middle class is now doing the same even the poor are using what little money they have to buy worthwhile education from the private sector. They see education as an escape from poverty for their children.
Nilekani points out that completing the move to a developed economy is not a given for India and these challenges and attitudes could squander a one-off opportunity.
India ought to be able to make the transition from a rural agrarian economy to a wealthy diverse and industrial economy whilst avoiding the mistakes made by the developed world. For many major economies it took more than 200 years to make that transition. India can potentially manage it in seventy-five or so years. After all India does not have to invent the intermediate technologies or societal structures of the incremental transition of the past.
Already in India there are signs of both third-world problems such as malnutrition and problems of affluence such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Nilekani in his thoughtfully optimistic way works through these challenges and, with other leading thinkers, sets out Indian approaches that should work for India. He neither seeks to apply culturally insensitive solutions to his country nor is he blind to the difficulties that it presents. However Imagining India sets out a vision of hope and optimism.
Nandan Nilekani puts his trust in an India that "is young, impatient, vital, awake - a country that may finally be coming close to its early promise."
Anyone who thinks they are insulated from what is happening in India needs to think again. The developed world has exported manufacturing to India and is now doing the same with knowledge based white-collar jobs, however high level, that can be conducted over a digital network. Initially it was call centres but now includes financial analysis, accounting and programming - the list continues to grow. Major Indian companies are becoming Global Powerhouses and forces in international trade as they take over major brands in the developed world such as Jaguar and Land-Rover
Young people especially should read Imagining India, Ideas for the New Century – their careers will depend on it.