Posted by: John Elliott | November 19, 2008

“Yes we can” but “No we don’t” – Businessmen hit at India’s failings

The economic crisis is beginning to flush out some of the frustrations felt by India’s top entrepreneurial businessmen, who are saying how appalled they are by the way much of the country is run.

This began to emerge this week in the wings of the otherwise mostly-boring annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Delhi – a Geneva-based public relations-driven institution that has thrived in the boom times but showed this week it has yet to learn how to structure its events in a crisis.

Most people did not want to admit there are serious problems – especially Palaniappan Chidambaram, the finance  minister, and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, head of the planning commission. There were of course exceptions – including speakers in software outsourcing, real estate and airlines.

Broader worries came from two of India’s top IT entrepreneurs. One, talking in the wings of the conference, was Nandan Nilekani, a founder and now co-chairman of Infosys, a software market leader. The other was Pramod Bhasin, founder and ceo of Genpact, a top ranking call centre and BPO operation that began life as a GE company.

Bhasin made his remarks in a WEF session and then repeated them to me afterwards. Commenting that India “is in serious crisis – in denial” he said that “politics are not getting any better and public services don’t work”. India was good as “repositioning” itself but could not “execute” what it decided.

“Fraying at the edges”

“Can we get power organised – water to the right places – roads, drainage,” he asked rhetorically, adding his punch line: “This country is fraying at the edges.”

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Nilekani is thoroughly enjoying himself now that he has shed his line management responsibilities at Infosys and has joined the ranks of international opinion formers and commentators – a ranking that opened up after he inspired the title The World is Flat for Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book.

The world of course is not flat – at least not in the usual sense of a level playing field, as Mani Shankar Aiyar, a politician and polemicist, memorably told Friedman at the book launch in Delhi three years ago.

Nilekani is in a way picking up Aiyar’s theme in his new book “Imagining India – ideas for the new century that is to be published on November 24. He looks at what he calls “horizontal” themes. These are basic failings such as poor education, health, environment, and infrastructure that need to change if India is to begin to operate in a flat world. More on all that next week.

Meanwhile, though Nilekani is clearly an optimist, he was scathing in an article he wrote in the Times of India last Sunday.  It was headed, courtesy of Barack Obama,  “Yes We Can”, but one section should have been sub-headed “No We Don’t”.

“Play a waiting game with an Indian, and you will always lose,” wrote Nilekani.  “Indians – inured to serpentine queues, traffic jams, foundation stones laid for bridges never built – have long adapted to an economy that moves slowly and that has, in key reforms, struggled over the last mile.
 
“India’s policy makers and politicians have been great at forming agendas and presenting blueprints, and our five-year plans have been nothing if not exhaustive. Our big weakness has been in execution…….

“This response-led strategy has not been a good model for growth. It has made chaos the rule in our crumbling cities, our highways that meander into deadends and mud roads, and in schools with failure rates of 100%.

“In essence, while the Indian economy has changed over the past 25 years, the state has not. Our public institutions function under the same rules and incentives as they did in 1980 and under standards that date back to colonial India. What is required is a fight to remove long-rooted interest groups and bring about fundamental changes to our governance.”

When I haven written things like things like this in the past, especially when this blog was on Fortune.com, I was assaulted verbally by irate readers – mostly it seemed NRIs living in north America.

Let’s hope that the cries for change from Nilekani and Bhasin, both highly successful entrepreneurs based in India, are heard and picked up. If you want to join the debate, please comment here – and on Nilekani’s blog – welcome to the blog-sphere Nandan!

Nilekani’s Penguin promotion

ps: Nilekani’s blog is part of a website forum where he hopes Imagining India’s issues and ideas will be taken forward. The site has a detailed breakdown of the book, and leads on to a site (Indiaplaza) to buy copies online. Nandan’s book also marks the launch in India of Penguin’s Allen Lane imprint, which is designed to cater for ideas. Promotional plans around the book include a tieup with a coffee chain and a contest on ‘Imagining the India of your dreams’, and a link with a mobile service provider.


Responses

  1. We must be impatient for change…we are not. We must be self-critical…we are not. We must punish the corrupt…we do not. We must have a vision…we do not. We must have a leader…we do not.

  2. I believe the attitude most politicians and Indian’s have is “head in the sand”…we are okay and everything will be fine…just vote for us.


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