Review Essay

India's Fortune

The Prospects of a Country on the Rise

In This Review

Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation
Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation
By Nandan Nilekani
Penguin, 2009, 528 pp. $29.95 Purchase

"Businessmen, after all, do not usually make good public intellectuals," writes Nandan Nilekani early in his book, as he recalls discussing with a friend whether to put finger to keyboard. A few pages later, he describes himself as an "avid amateur" when it comes to modern India's political economy. Avid and proficient, it turns out, for his efforts have produced one of the best and most thought-provoking books on India in years. Few Indian, or indeed Western, businesspeople would be capable of drafting such a dispassionate and self-critical account of their country's prospects. And perhaps no other Indian public intellectual could write across so many disciplines -- politics, economics, finance, education, the environment -- with as much clarity and acuity.

Nilekani's book, Imagining India, charts how India arrived at the potentially transformative moment it has reached today and describes the gargantuan challenges the country will have to overcome if it is to fulfill that potential. ("Potential" is always a key word with India, which explains why the titles of so many books about this extraordinary country begin with Imagining . . . or The Idea of . . . or The Invention of . . .) Nilekani, one of the most prominent faces of India's success in information technology (IT), is especially well qualified to write this book. As a co-founder of Infosys, the country's second-largest IT company and one of its biggest earners of foreign exchange, he both departs from the traditional Indian way of doing business and embodies its recent promise.

First, Nilekani did not inherit his business or his wealth. His father, a smalltime mill manager and a supporter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, raised him to believe that the state, rather than the private sector, would provide for India's future. Nilekani remembers the logic that dominated in those days: "Why allow wealth to be created in private hands where it would probably be used for nefarious purposes?"

Second, Nilekani is a risk taker. Nobody, including his father, gave him or his company much chance

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