Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower, edited by McKinsey & Company, (Simon & Schuster, RRP$29.95)
India’s parliamentary elections next year, like each of its predecessors, will be the biggest in history. They are also set to be among its most engrossing.
Mostly this is down to personality, given the rowdy contest between Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata party; and Rahul Gandhi, scion of the ruling Congress party’s family dynasty. But the battle also offers an ideological choice: the former’s centre-right agenda of better governance and economic reform against the latter’s focus on social welfare.
Yet, as a true contest of ideas, or a deeper debate about the type of country India wants to become, the poll will inevitably fall short, lost amid the hullabaloo of campaigning in a nation of 1.2bn. It is against this backdrop that a book such as Reimagining India is to be welcomed.
This collection of about 60 essays brought together by the McKinsey consultancy probes the country’s anxieties about its uneven progress on the path to becoming “Asia’s next superpower”. As the foreword notes: “India is reclaiming its historical prominence in the world economy. It has congratulated itself for ‘rising’ and ‘shining’ – but is doing so as quickly or as brightly as it should?”
The answers are provided by an impressive array of authors; mostly corporate leaders, academics and journalists, but also a classical dancer, a restaurateur and a chess grandmaster. (Edward Luce and Victor Mallet of the Financial Times also contribute chapters.)
The line-up of business luminaries is especially eye-catching, featuring a clutch of Indian billionaire tycoons, such as Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Mittal, alongside foreigners such as Bill Gates. Sadly these contributions are often the least interesting, mostly because their authors strike a genial and upbeat tone, revealing little of their frustrations over India’s commercial climate or political leadership.
More diverting are those chapters that put India’s contemporary development into historical perspective. The country is often portrayed as chaotically governed; but, as academic Ashutosh Varshney notes, it is now vastly more stable than in the decades following independence in 1947 – not least because of the fading “existential threat” that its huge regional and ethnic diversity could wrench it apart.
Most satisfying of all are the authors who are willing to criticise decisions that have caused India’s economy to stall in recent years, a period economist Ruchir Sharma describes as a grand missed opportunity, characterised by fiscal indiscipline, “top-heavy central government” and endemic corruption.
A more lyrical example comes via novelist Manu Joseph, who chides India’s prosperous classes for blaming their country’s imperfections on “the rogues whom India’s poor have elected leaders”, and often on the less privileged themselves. “India’s middle classes have contracted a fever,” he says, which is “fanning one quest after another: an arsenal of nuclear weapons, extravagant space missions . . . [and] the clamour for election of a ruthless Hindu chauvinist”. That oblique reference to Mr Modi is a rare mention of politics in a collection whose most obvious limitation is its unwillingness to wade into the more inflammatory topics of governance and political leadership.
Its other weakness is that these essays do not quite add up to a coherent analysis of India’s future, which may leave some readers frustrated – even though anyone with an interest in the country will find much to satisfy their curiosity in the volume.
For all that, it is worth noting that discussions about India’s future direction at least happen in the open, be that in elections, or, in a more limited sense, books of this type, which often also feature a degree of self-examination from the country’s business elite.
The contrast with China is clear, where the recent Communist party plenum in Beijing was billed as a pivotal forum for charting the direction of Asia’s largest economy, but whose proceedings took place entirely out of public view.
This broader point is made, in one of the book’s most compelling essays. Yasheng Huang, a Chinese-born academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, attacks the notion popular among Mumbai and New Delhi elites that India’s faults are unavoidable consequences of its democracy, providing autocratic China with an insurmountable competitive advantage. “We should not seize on the authoritarian edge theory in the absence of empirical evidence,” Mr Huang writes, arguing persuasively that this evidence is much weaker than often assumed. “It is far more likely that China will move closer to the political system represented by India than the other way round.”
The writer is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent