Restart

Mihir S Sharma

I picked up this book at Crossword after reading the rather provocative subtitle – “The Last Chance For the Indian Economy”. The author is a well-known columnist and an active participant on twitter. Although I don’t subscribe to the same political views as him, this book is on a different topic (mostly). On flipping a few pages, I found the premise interesting and decided to dive in for a read. restart book review

The crux of the book is how the Indian economy, after many false starts, hasn’t yet made significant progress on becoming a world power. The book starts with introducing the much-hallowed reforms started by Dr Manmohan Singh in 1991, and how they are considered a watershed moment for the country on its path to a better future. The author argues how these “successful” reforms were actually made less effective by the half-hearted attempts of the politicians who had a chance to actually change the direction of the country towards a brighter future. But with the politicians themselves not completely convinced of the reforms, they failed to make the impact that India needed at the time.

A few of the chapters also takes on a important yet neglected topic Рto leave well enough alone. Today people often complain about what is wrong with the country. But such arguments often end with heavy sighs and a resigned acceptance of the good things that have happened till now. Unless the apathy of most Indians towards demanding the best from the government is reduced, the common man is doomed to suffer while the rich 1% (and their political allies) keep off skimming the cream from the top. The examples of how, allegedly, sibling rivalry has held up important infrastructure projects in the city of Mumbai are incredulous. But not impossible.

According to the author, the country also made a risky move by not improving the manufacturing infrastructure and directly jumping to the service industry. Although both banking and Information Technology have made rapid strides over the last couple of decades, the manufacturing industry still suffers in most parts of the country.

The book goes on to explain the spread of that notorious epidemic consuming true innovation in the country – jugaad. What was once a mental model worth Harvard case-studies has stifled real innovation. Where entrepreneurs should demand their government to remove the barriers to business, jugaad has resulted in entrepreneurs making their own way within the box itself. Within the same barriers and bureaucratic nightmares.

The author, as a closing salvo, presents the way India can yet get out of the mess that her politicians have forced her into.

Restart is eminently readable. What is good is that it doesn’t go into a dry monologue filled only with numbers. I’ve read books about India that have made me snore after only few pages. Thankfully, this is not such a book. It is a breezy read for someone familiar with basic economics, or even for someone without that background.

The content of the book is varied and covers a lot of ground, in terms of geography and time. I particularly found interesting the chapter on Mumbai and its chequered history from being a potential world-class cosmopolitan city to a den of petty politicians and crooks.

The only thing I could find fault with was the tone of writing. The book is generously peppered with sarcasm. But just like a good dish can be ruined by an excess spattering of salt, sometimes the sarcasm goes overboard. For example, just how many instances of “no sirreee” in consecutive pages can you smile at? As a result of such repetition, the author often sounds condescending towards the government and its leaders, both past and present. There are two things that the author seems to forget with his excessive use of sarcasm – one, that hindsight is always 20-20, and second, that India politicians are also subjects to human foibles, just like anywhere else.

Another example of a minor flaw in the structure is how the author has a habit of interrupting, sometimes too often, his sentences which affects, to a great extent, the flow and continuity of sentences. Once a while it does break the monotony. But when you find yourself going back again and again to understand what the never-ending sentence is about to say, it becomes formulaic. Again, this should have been the responsibility of the editor.

But these minor quibbles aside, Restart is a very interesting book about India and a must read for entrepreneurs, businesspersons and others alike, who wish to understand why India is in the state that it is, and how it came to be. Who knows, if enough people make an effort, there’s still a last chance for India.

The recent fracas on a report over a family being heckled for not standing up when the Indian National Anthem was being played has brought a rarely known fact out in the open. That it is not legally enforceable for people to stand during the playing of the National Anthem. It is only when someone tries to intentionally disrupt the playing of the anthem can legal action be taken. This rarely known law has split open twitter on yet another debate with people taking sides on expected lines. On top of that, the article mentions the religion of the family which was heckled. And that meant it was open season on social media.

My personal opinion is that even if one is not legally obliged to stand up during the anthem, it is still basic courtesy and the duty of every citizen to respect the symbols of the country that you live in. The National Anthem and the country’s other emblems are not representative of any religion or class. They were chosen for the country, and thus for every citizen of the country. Consequently, it is the duty of an individual to respect and uphold the values that they stand for. That’s all about that. What comes to my mind is a little bit of nostalgia, and how I learnt to stand during the anthem.

Yes, I stand for the National Anthem, and I stand rock still. The origins for this go way back in school thanks to our strict principal, who was also an ex-Army man. The Lt. Col. was jovial on all matters and forgave all kinds of mischief (After all, children are children). But the only time he was “intolerant” was during the playing of the National Anthem. As in most schools, the anthem played in our school’s assembly daily along with the usual prayers, news etc. For most part of the assembly, he watched with indifference as students yawned, scratched their ears, picked their noses, or generally behaved like uninterested chaps. But whenever the anthem was played, we could see his eyes furiously scanning the endless rows of fidgety students standing on the huge school ground. He never moved a muscle until the last strains of “Jaya he” faded into silence. And then all hell broke loose.

In his robust army voice, he called out the students one by one to step aside for everyone to see. These were the students who, for whatever reason, were unable to stand still for 56 seconds or so. Then, I was surprised that in a school of around 1500 students, he managed to remember everyone’s name. But today I understand he didn’t have to memorize everyone’s name. Only the ones he expected would create trouble.

So, while the rest of the assembly dispersed, furtively glancing at these unfortunate creatures who had been singled out, the victims themselves simply awaited their punishment. It varied often. Sometimes the Lt. Col. made them stand under the hot sun for hours, as the students sweated profusely and missed one class after the other. I wonder if they even treated the latter as punishment. Sometimes he would send all such students home along with notices to their parents.

But whatever his methods, the Lt. Colonel instilled a very good habit in all of us – respecting the country. The end result of this? On one particularly wet August morning, I remember us students standing on the ground on an outline of India when rain broke out suddenly and drenched each and every student. But no one moved a muscle. The whole school stood in attention, and so did the Lt. Col. on the stage, his uniform completely wet and the water dripping from the brim of his hat. But at that moment, he would have felt himself back in the army, and prided himself on transforming this raggedy bunch of uncouth students into disciplined young men and women of tomorrow.

Yes, patriotism is not simply standing up for less than a minute while watching a movie. It has to be something more than that. But for many of us, who treat it as a minor inconvenience of having to put aside the delicious popcorn and to stare at the national flag, it can certainly start from this small gesture. Don’t sing if you don’t know the words, or if you don’t want to. But stand up. Show that you’re part of something more than just a group of 1.5 billion individuals, going about their daily lives mindlessly, bound only by geographical proximity. This country deserves that much respect from you.

I just finished reading the book “In spite of the Gods – The strange rise of modern India” by Edward Luce. I had eyed this book since a long time and had delayed buying it for some reason. Luckily, I found a second-hand copy of the book in Pondicherry. I had started reading the book on my way back to Pondicherry, and to my utter surprise (and shock), the first paragraph itself had a mention of Pondicherry and the community set up near it, Auroville. The introduction talks about the author’s meetings with people living in Auroville and how India is known mainly for its spirituality. The author seemed none too amused by this impression of India and that is what he sets out to change in the book.

The author, Edward Luce, covers all the major areas of concern for India, which include social, political, religious and economic. The structure of the book itself is such that each chapter focuses on one burning issue from these field. Luce covers India pre-independence, the timeline of the major political parties and the rise of the newer parties. Religion ocupies a central position in Indian households and he focuses on the largest two religions in the country and the problems which have arisen between them as well. He goes on to analyze India’s past relation with the US and the Soviets, and the current equation between India-China and India-Pakistan.

The book ends with the issues India faces and the opportunities the country has to become a major power in the 21st century. According to the author, India would do well not to become complacent of its newfound growth. Only if it deals with the issues in a proactive  manner will it manage to reach the level which is being expected of it. And one of the important ways is by the electorate to vote in such a way which brings the political party most capable of bringing about the change which is required. This endnote becomes all the more relevant in light of the up coming elections.

What I really liked about the book was its comprehensiveness in all the issues it tackles. Luce does not refrain from calling a spade a spade. The interplays between rival political parties especially SP vs BSP is wittitly depicted with Amar Singh again making a fool out of himself. Luce has described the rise of caste politics quite vividly. The book goes beyond slums and spirituality which is all what India is made out to be. I totally agree with the author’s belief that India is much more than a few squalid slums and some old-age Vedic literature. Luce makes the book more interesting by its witty jokes and humourous anecdotes he has come across while living in India.

The cons of this books are minor, yet I’ll list them down all the same. More space could have been devoted to the rise of IT in India. I know this industry has been written to death but in a book about the rise of modern India, IT should deserve a considerable share. Luce could also have researched more about the rise of manufacturing in India which is all set to accelerate in growth once the global economy gets back on track. Also I noticed that the author seemed to have a very critical view on Bollywood where he describes the typical Indian movie as “a blend of brilliantly choreographed titillation.” Agreed that song, dance and rain play a major role in Indian movies, but lately the film industry has also produced very good movies. If anything else, the author would have had good words for alternate Indian cinema. Luce also had a negative view of the nationalist political parties in India, which for all pratical purposes, means the BJP. The author himself admits to this bias.

All in all, I found In spite of the Gods to be a quite comprehensive read about modern India. The book goes beyond a superficial introduction to the country and dives well into some of the major issues affecting the country in recent times. It explains patiently the contradictions which India faces at each and every step of its journey. Luce has painted a masterpiece about one of the fastest developing nations in the world. Which brings me to my next question – Why do foreign nationals, be it Edward Luce, Gregory David Roberts or William Dalrymple make for better writers about India than us Indians?

Yesterday one of our profs made a statement which was quite profound in its terseness. Later I found out that the statement was made a few years ago by Gurcharan Das.

We [India] may have law, but they [China] have order.

Both forms have their advantages and disadvantage. Read this article for a better understanding of the line in context.

It is often repeated in global business circles that when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. But have you ever wondered what happens when the US catches a cold? Judging from recent events, this is what precisely has happened. With the burst of the housing bubble, US has dragged down many other economies of the world. Even the BRIC juggernaut has slowed down.

When did the turn of events happen? When did sub-prime, which was a catch word in B-schools and a hot topic of discussion, suddenly turn into a monster? We have come a long way since last year. A lot of money has since flowed under the bridge. Last September, the sub-prime crisis had just reared its ugly head but no one could have predicted the level to which it has affected every one of us today. Governments are hastily organizing bailout packages for mopping up bad debts. Age old institutions are going off the radar. Investment Banking as a concept has been wiped out.

As far as India is concerned, the decoupling theory was badly routed. India has not been immune to the global hiccup. Inflation reached alarming levels, the pathetic levels of IIP has demoralized the industry and the stock market have seemed to lost all steam. The irrational exuberance which led the Indian stock markets to record highs till January has been squashed. The exuberance has gone; now only the irrationality remains. Newspapers scream valutions at 2005 levels, but who has the courage or the cash to buy today? Judging from the industry scenario, it seems India is heading for a recession with no brakes. And I’m on that train.

P.S. The above is not a rant, nor a crib. Just a dispassionate look on things which have happened and which are in store.