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.
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 – to 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.