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Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century

Nandan Nilekani’s first book has nothing to do with either the Infosys story or his own. He has approached India through the power of ideas, says Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 23, 2008 00:09 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Over a year ago, at lunch in New York, Nandan Nilekani told me about his book. The idea of the book, he said, was ideas. If that sounded circular or complicated, it wasn’t. Nandan’s contention was that nations, societies and civilizations are shaped by ideas. And yet despite the fact that India itself is an idea, Indians are strangely reluctant to delve too deeply into the realm of ideas.

I provided a knee-jerk response: had Nandan been influenced by the success of The World Is Flat, the Thomas Friedman bestseller which took a cheerful look at globalisation and became, in itself, a global success story? The book had emerged out of a conversation with Nandan (“the world is flat,” is his term) and contained many of his ideas.

Certainly, an Indian World Is Flat would work. The market is full of what we could call ‘high concept’ books in which the author takes a single idea (such as “the internet allows as greater access to products desired by a minority” or “intuitive judgments are the best ones”) and turns it into a book, padding the pages with travelogues, anecdotes, gee-whiz! statistics and simplified versions of other people’s theories or research.

But the more I spoke to Nandan, the clearer it became that what he had in mind was far more ambitious than a high concept bestseller. His model was less The World Is Flat and more Ramachandra Guha’s masterly history of modern India. (And, in fact, Nandan thanks Guha in his acknowledgments as his ‘mentor’….. who stayed the course with me and was extraordinarily helpful…..”) But while that book concentrated on events, Nandan wanted to approach India through ideas.

A year later, when the first draft was ready he sent it to me (full disclosure: he has been my friend for nearly three decades which is why this does not pretend to be an objective review written by a disinterested critic) and I was staggered by the scope, range and ambition that the book displayed.

The first part looks at traditional ideas and how they’ve changed over the years. From worrying about our population, we’ve now gone to praising it as our human capital. And we’ve changed our minds about economic regulation too.

The second part examines ideas that are in the throes of change. For instance, we’ve accepted now that all that stuff about ‘the real India is the India of the villages’ is an incomplete vision. So, slowly but surely, we are coming to terms with urbanisation.

The third part deals with the clash of ideas — to use Nandan’s words, “between people who see reforms as empowering and those who see them as exclusionary”.

And the final section deals with the ideas that will shape our future: on health, energy, the environment etc.

In the book’s 500-odd pages, Nandan deals with these issues in a manner that’s neither condescending or simplistic. There are no profiles and travelogues here. There are previous few anecdotes and only the odd jokes. This is not designed to be some mass-market bestseller, read by purchase managers on plane journeys when they want to trade up from John Grisham. This is a big, serious and important book, one that requires attention and concentration while reading and one where the research (much of it by Devi Yesodharan) shows up on every page.

And yet, I think it will be a bestseller. I’m not a fan of the book’s packaging (it is hideous; a complete aesthetic nightmare) but I can see why Penguin have put a soulfull picture of Nandan on the front cover: every intelligent young Indian has respect for his enormous achievements. I can also see why there’s a very long quote from Thomas Friedman on the back cover too — everybody who bought the World Is Flat will want to buy this book. (Though the quote only tells half the story. Yes Nandan is a ‘great explainer’ but his real strength is as an original thinker.)

But I don’t think the commercial considerations worry Nandan. Much has been made of the advance that Penguin paid him: the highest-ever paid for a non-fiction book. But frankly, such is his personal wealth that Nandan could probably buy Penguin India before breakfast and not notice.

I think he will be happy when the book becomes a bestseller because it will reach thousands of people. But his real concern is not with sales figures, it is with the ideas in the book. He wants them to provoke debate, to set off storms and to make us rethink some of our beliefs. As he says in his introduction “I hope this book is read by my peers, by people in business, media and the government — even if they only brandish it above their heads while loudly refuting my arguments. I would welcome the debate.”

That sentiment is somehow typical of Nandan — and perhaps of the company he helped found. I find it interesting that his boss Narayana Murthy never wanted to be known as a corporate titan who created one of India’s best companies. Rather, he wanted to be known for his views on Indian society and how we should live our lives.

So it is with Nandan. Though he describes himself as a ‘stunted IIT nerd’, he has rarely made much of Infosys’ success. His real passion lies in the world of ideas. He once told me (in an interview for the HT) that the biggest thrill for him was not when his company declared record profits but when his ideas entered the public domain and spurred discussion and debates.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that his wife Rohini and he give away so much of their money each year. When the time comes to assess Nandan Nilekani’s legacy, it’s not the billions he wants us to count — it is his contribution to the world of ideas that matters.

And judging by this book, it is a contribution that will be remembered.