Source: The New York Times, March 25, 2001
A writer and executive extols the new India and its rising consumer class.
By Gurcharan Das.
406 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $27.50.
In 1997, when India celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence, the world paid homage to its most populous democracy. Other countries had grown richer in those postcolonial years. Many had escaped the political and religious convulsions that had so often shaken the region. But almost alone in the non-Western world — barring a short interruption in 1975, when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency — India had clung doggedly to its democratic convictions. A slew of books commemorated the achievement. One of the finest, Sunil Khilnani’s ”Idea of India,” described India’s polity as ”the third moment in the great democratic experiment launched by the American and French Revolutions.”
Like many of these books, Gurcharan Das’s ”India Unbound” is a broad summing-up of the last half century. Part memoir, part journalism, part history and part management bible, the book begins shortly before independence and continues until the new millennium. A former C.E.O. of Procter & Gamble in both India and America, and currently a venture capitalist and consultant, Das is less concerned with political than with economic history. And where authors like Khilnani cherish the revolution that began with independence in 1947, Das does not find full cause for jubilation until 1991, when India unleashed a series of economic reforms, the start of an ”economic revolution” that he believes ”may well be more important than the political revolution.”
Those reforms were forced upon India, adopted less than enthusiastically when the nation found itself with foreign exchange reserves worth only two weeks of imports. Over the course of what Das calls a ”golden summer,” a newly installed government surprised everyone by easing foreign exchange restrictions, devaluing the rupee, lowering import tariffs and undoing the byzantine controls that had stifled Indian industry. Many — Das included — feel the reforms should have gone further, but the results nonetheless have been dramatic: after decades of chugging along at the so-called Hindu rate of growth (a dismal 3.5 percent per year), the economy grew by an average of 7.5 percent in the mid-1990’s. The growth in disposable incomes, and the opening up of the country to world markets, has altered the face of Indian society, creating a new consumer middle class. Das argues that these changes are only the beginning of a dramatic reversal of fortunes. ”The theme of this book,” he writes, ”is how a rich country became poor and will be rich again.”
At the heart of ”India Unbound” is a deep ambivalence about Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of Indian independence but also of its disastrous economic policies. Das recognizes the political contributions made by Nehru, and he writes of the admiration he felt as a young man for the handsome leader whose lofty ideals inspired a nation. But, echoing an increasingly common attitude in modern India, he feels that Nehru’s faith in Soviet-style central planning cheated the nation of the prosperity enjoyed by some of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Nehru’s revolution, Das argues, was incomplete, delivering political liberty but failing to unshackle the nation economically. In one of the more eloquent expressions of this sentiment, he tells of a meeting at which the industrialist Rahul Bajaj is threatened with imprisonment for producing more scooters than permitted by his quota. ”My grandfather went to jail for my country’s freedom,” replies Bajaj. ”I stand ready to do the same for producing on behalf of my motherland.”
Such stories enliven what could easily have been a dull piece of economic history. Das had a ringside seat at the events he describes, and the result is an engaging account that moves easily from the big picture to the telling anecdote. Through Das, we are introduced not just to the standard pantheon of political figures but to a range of lesser-known characters from the corporate world. These include old-fashioned industrialists like Bajaj and also a new brand of businessman — entrepreneurs like Narayana Murthy, the C.E.O. of Infosys, India’s most successful software company, and Subhash Chandra, the founder of a global Hindi satellite television channel, often called ”the Murdoch of Asia.”
Das’s sympathies clearly lie with this later generation of managers. He sees the earlier breed as dinosaurs, pampered by a protectionist government and doomed to oblivion. His enthusiasm for the new order becomes most apparent in the book’s final section, where he succumbs to a certain giddiness over India’s prospects in the 21st century. Das is particularly excited about India’s software industry, a sector whose great success has led many to predict — as the head of India’s largest mutual fund recently did — that ”what oil is to the Middle East, infotech is to India.”
Such optimism is not entirely misplaced. India’s high-tech industry has been the most visible success of the reforms, generating fabulous wealth and great opportunities. What is less clear is the extent to which this wealth is trickling down to the 300 million Indians who still live in poverty and the 75 percent who live in the countryside, far away from the new economy. Das is undoubtedly right that poverty has tarnished India’s democracy, but he seems less concerned that unequal prosperity may have the same effect. To be fair, he does argue that democracy and capitalism need not be mutually exclusive, and cites from the work of Amartya Sen, who has repeatedly written on the importance of integrating the two. But despite his professed preference for ”democratic capitalism,” Das’s faith in free markets can come across as overly zealous, as when he complains that too many Indians ”are still listening to the background noise of democracy when we could be listening to the music of entrepreneurship.”
However, one doesn’t need to share Das’s unbridled fervor for markets to appreciate this book. ”India Unbound” is like an opinionated but insightful guide to a rapidly changing nation in which old clichés about spirituality and poverty are increasingly irrelevant. Near the end, Das writes about his son, who has decided to leave a job in New York and return to India to start a company. ”He’s caught up in the spirit of our times, when every young person is willing to risk the security of a job to pursue his passion,” Das writes. That ”spirit” signals a dramatic widening of horizons, a new self-confidence. Something tremendous is happening in India, and Das, with his keen eye and often elegant prose, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the transformation.