India Unbound

India Unbound by Gurcharan Das. Gurcharan Das studied at Harvard, started his career at Richardson Vicks and went onto head P&G. Retired recently, he is now a consultant to many companies and also to government.

India Unbound is about the economic history of India since 1947. To make certain aspects clear, Das goes a bit behind independence to describe the economic activities but his focus is completely post-independence. I have read a few books on Indian economics. From micro-economics driven Bimal Jalan to superficial browbeating Thomas Friedman. But Das is different. Das shows neither the painful details of Jalan nor the infectious but jingoistic optimism of Friedman. He is meticulous in details yet simple enough for a common reader.

To begin with, Das believes strongly in reforms. Every chapter begins with his description how a certain aspect was during socialist India’s time and how different it is now. He squarely blames Nehruvian policies on our economic backwardness in the last fifty years but he is not very critical of Nehru’s intentions. Nehru was a well-intended man but with confused economic outlook. On the other hand, Indira Gandhi twisted the socialist policies to her favour and even went forward to tighten her grips on the industry. This caused huge damage and practically killed any entrepreneurial sprits left in the land. Das demonstrates this with multiple examples for every ordinance, every law and with every business failure that happened during her time. And these details are explained at the prowess of an economist and the skill of a paperback writer. Das was merely talking about MRTP act or production licenses or FERA violation but I was surprised to find the book unputdownable.

The way Das weaves his arguments over the so-called ‘nationalists’ and the ‘left’ is uncanny and with his supreme ability in placing the facts and data, I really wonder what will Prakash Karath think if he were to read this book. I strongly recommend that he reads it. Talking about the nationalist’s claim about preventing multi-nationals, Das says this:

It is easy for the top-20 percent in society to decry the evils of modernization from the comfort of their upper- and middle- class lives. But ask the people. They will any day put up with Coca-Cola and KFC if it means two square meals, a decent home, and a job. Given a chance to exchange a Japanese standard of living with their own, they will always vote to give up their traditional life in the village for a better standard of living.

He also goes on to say:

‘We need $200 billion to to build up our infrastructure. No one in India has that kind of money. We have to depend on global capital. It was British capital, which financed America’s infrastructure in the 19th century and launched its industrial revolution. America did not lose its sovereignty in the process. Even the BJP concedes that it needs foreign capital for infrastructure. But if it is willing to turn over strategic assets like power plants, roads, ports, and bridges to foreigners, it should not worry about potato chips and aerated water.’

The real stories on how Birla, Ambanis and others built their forture are highly fascinating and the comparison to old money and new money is very convincing. His eulogy to Internet boom is infectious though with hindsight benefit, you want to question his IT forecasts.

Towards the end of the book, he confesses that he has put enormous weight of our failure on Nehru alone and tries to balance it out. I would rather put that enormous weight on Indira Gandhi. Regardless of that, Das’ record of post-reforms activities is quite promising. He authoritatively demonstrates how each aspect of our reforms would help lift poverty and how it is doing so now.

After a very strong and breathless argument in favour of liberalizing and open and free economies, he aptly ends it by quoting Tagore:

‘Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine.’

With the exception of the cover design, India Unbound is the finest book I have read in a long time.