Imagining India

Updated 20 Apr 2009: NR Narayana Murthy has published a book as well. He talks about giving access to inexpensive English education and computers to everyone. Exactly Sir. 

Updated 10 Apr 2009: Imagining India links to this review on their site. Thanks Imagining India.

Managed to read the recent book Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani – one of India’s top entrepreneurs.  Judging from the title of the book, i had imagined that the book would be some kind of a glorified story of Infosys. What can i say, i was completely wrong.

Nilekani has produced a 485 page magnum opus covering the key ideas that have shaped independent India in the spheres of politics, science, education, food, poverty, power, water, economics..  Interspersed in this sweeping discourse are some futuristic but practical ideas, that could take India to the next level [If only our politicians read this].

Within just the first 100 pages, Nilekani’s in depth research as well as the sheer breadth of the topics shines through. I could not help admiring the amount of work that must have gone in to write this book. Even those, that have been following post-1947 India closely, will benefit from reading this book, thanks to the extensive research done by Nilekani.

Nilekani’s  ability to put ideas in perspective is worth appreciating. For example, in the chapter titled “The Phoenix Tongue”, he explains how English became the key language in Southern India, thanks to Tamilnadu’s vociferous opposition to Hindi imposition and the embracing of the English language by the South Indians.  [I am also of the view, that if not for the anti-Hindi agitations, the whole of India would have abandoned English completely foreclosing the rise of the Indian IT/BPO industries which are now the engines of the Indian economy. By the same token, the Hindi belt states, by abandoning English, could not participate in the IT/BPO industries and prosper.  I hope the Hindi/Tamil and other local language chauvinists take note of Nilekani’s points].

On a related note, he points out in the chapter titled “The Awakened Country”,   that the Green Revolution, the White Revolution and the IT Revolution, have all passed by the BIMARU states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) [my view – Thanks to ignoring English].

He rails against the subsidy economy – giving subsidies for power, food, oil etc. Given his IT background, he advocates a smart card based system where the Government can give the benefits directly to the deserving citizens instead of subsidies which are indirect and almost never reach the intended recipients in full. Brilliant idea. [During my stint in America, i admired their use of Food Stamps, using which poor citizens could shop in regular grocery stores like everyone else. Why couldn’t we do that in India – where Public Distribution System stores distribute rice, wheat, sugar, cooking oil etc at an enormous cost to the taxpayers with corrupt employees siphoning off the goods into the black market leaving the recipients with rotten stuff. The entire cost of maintaining the PDS can be given away as direct benefits].

His criticism/appreciation of both the UPA and the NDA governments is quite balanced. The telecom policy introduced by NDA govt which gave rise to India’s mobile revolution gets the praise it deserves and so does Manmohan Singh’s, P. Chidambaram’s (UPA) economic policies.

Overall, i found myself nodding my head for many of his well-researched view points on eGovernance, Power issues, Green issues, Education issues, Water issues etc. Nilekani analyzes the mistakes India has made and at the same time presents potential solutions which are quite practical instead of some pie-in-the sky idealist dreams.

I totally loved Nilekani’s statement that is at the very end:

This is why I believe that the only way to push changes through and safeguard our economic future is to create a safety net of ideas. It is imperative to ensure that our ideas transcend political agendas and are endorsed and demanded by a large number of people. if we can do this, we will insure our future against instability, slow growth and inequality.

My prediction is that Nandan Nilekani is entering politics. I hope for India’s sake he does enter politics. He certainly gets my vote.


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 19, 2009, 4:49 pm:

    My point is simple – if success can be quantified, say someone is X quantity successful. If it is possible that by learning English, one can be 100X quantity succesful, why wouldn’t we learn English. Isn’t this a simple point? This does not mean that one cannot be successful without English.

  2. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 19, 2009, 4:54 pm:

    I am sorry i made that point incorrectly. What i meant to say is this – we have had mother tongue language research for the past 5000 years – what is the quantity of publications do we have?

    Now take the scientific research material published in Indian languages in just the last 50 years since we became independent. How much will this be quantity wise? Then compare the quantities from step 1 and step 2.

    Obviously English would have a lot more. Which is why at this point in time, it makes the most sense to learn Science, Management, Technology, Geography, History (to understand world history better), Medicine (most forms of knowledge) in English.

    This does not mean we don’t learn our languages, we do. but we focus our local language learning on culture, our religion, our literature, our history, local geography etc.

  3. Quote

    Very nice review!

    Now heading to the offical site, to buy the book

  4. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 20, 2009, 9:11 am:

    Thanks a lot Lakshman for your kind words.

  5. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 28, 2009, 6:06 pm:

    You may want to read this brilliant article from Jared Diamond on why written and spoken languages vary so much.

  6. Quote

    hey Guys,

    Why Should we care for, which language we are speaking and in which region we are living (North and South) as long as our nation is moving ahead..

    We can make a difference by concentrating on our careers and voting responsibly…

    Jai Hind….

  7. Quote

    Your prediction about Nilekani seems to be in the right direction as he now heads the UIDA.But still, to say that ‘he will be entering politics’ does not appear to be the right term.He is a mere IT entrepreneur whose professional expertise is used by the Government of India and he is likely to have zero political influence even in the future….
    His tag in the future,at the maximum, is more likely to be that given to Sam Pitroda or Raghuram Rajan rather than a Manmohan Singh(who has a life long service in public service to know the intricacies of politics) or a Manishankar Aiyer who has carved out a political image and a political decision making power…

  8. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said July 1, 2009, 8:18 am:

    In my view, holding the rank of a cabinet minister in the govt leading an important govt sponsored initiative counts as being in politics. I am sure most people will agree with me on that. For you, somehow Manmohan Singh who was directly plopped into FM role and now into PM role is a politician but Nandan isn’t? I think you are just splitting hairs. Sam Pitroda didn’t know or didn’t care enough to parlay his role into something bigger. Nandan will most certainly parlay his role into something bigger – another prediction. Like this one came true, i am sure that will also over time. If that happens, you saw it here first.

  9. Quote
    Arun g said July 1, 2009, 1:52 pm:


    The tag ‘politician’ is a difficult one to define and I guess we may differ on it`s defenition..
    The line between a politician and a non politician in public service is a blurred one.

    For me nominated rajya sabha members like Kasturi Rangan or Shyam Benegal are not politicians.I guess nobody will care to refer them as politicians even after reffering them as film artist or scientist.Even politically nominated independent Rajya Sabha member like Anil Ambani is not a politician according to me.

    Staunch opposition members may still call Manmohan a CEO appointed by a politician but I will differ.From 1991 he is the part of Indian National Congress and is a representaive of the political party.
    With the firm patronage of politician PVN and Sonia Gandhi power was thrust upon Manmohan Singh which was big and now it is too large so that one cannot ignore him as a nonpolitician.But one should concede that it was a mere handpicking by a politician monarch and was not because he parleyed for a bigger political role.His experience in public service for years may have significantly contributed in working in the political environment.

    Now coming to the case of Nilekani I dont think he will represent the INC or any political party and hence his role will be limited to professional expertise used in the public service.I don`t agree that a rank conferred which is equivalent to cabinet minister will make one a politician .
    Nilekani is not involved in any policy initiative but a professional brought onboard for the implementation of an already declared project in the manifesto.

    I know that anything is possible in politics and will agree that there is also enough possibility for your prediction to come true.Wish that more honest and capable people should be brought onboard for the service of the country

  10. Quote
    Abdul said July 1, 2009, 5:21 pm:


    Sukumar does have a very valid point there in the use of the term ‘politician.’

    We should not confuse our day-to-day unease with the term ‘politician’ as different from its meaning in the English language.

    Simply expressed, ‘politician’ means a person who holds a political office or a person skilled in political government or administration or a statesman or stateswoman.

    Several of us wish Mr. Nilekani the very best but whether he would parlay his role into something bigger would depend on the choices he would make as well as the political process / events in the years to come that catapault some individuals into higher/greater responsibilities.

  11. Quote
    Arun g said July 1, 2009, 7:17 pm:

    I maintain a different opinion and I don`t think clear cut definitions are available.The derogatory term ‘politician’ is all together different and we have not at all included it in the discussion.
    To consider anyone who is associated with the matter of state as a politician may be etymologically valid or may be true as per the definition of Aristotle but in modern world this will be too generic a term.
    In India we won`t call the President or the Accountant General or the District collector a politician because they are holding posts in the government.The impartiality and independence of several apex bodies are well defined and the same is expected from their heads.
    One who occupies executive branch of the govt are not usually referred as politicians just because they are occupying the positions.Nilekani`s position appears more like the position of a bureaucratic head though he has been provided with a rank equivalent to that of a cabinet minister.
    As of now I won`t even agree that the planning commision D.C. Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia –who also holds a cabinet minister rank and who has more proximity to a political party and who has more experience in public service– as a politician .
    And Iam sure not much of the people will call him a politician either.

  12. Quote

    Thanks Abdul.

    I think you are splitting hairs as i said before. Let me help you further in that dept. First of all, if you read my post carefully, i said Nandan is entering politics. I didn’t say he will become a politician.

    I think you are confused about aspects of public service. There are constitutional posts like that of the President. President is actually elected by the electoral college. It is not a nominated post. While all Presidents are not Politicians, there have been several politicians who have been President like RV. The President is not expected to carry any political agenda.

    The reason you cannot call AG or DC as a politician is because they have to rise through the ranks via the Indian Administrative Service.

    There is a category of posts similar to UIA, that are created by the Administration. This is a political appointment because, i am sure Nilekani will implement the vision of Manmohan Singh, who is a Congress Party politician. Nandan’s post is very much an artefact of a policy initiative from the Congress.

    Therefore, he has entered politics. Whether he is a politician, time will tell.

  13. Quote
    Arun g said July 4, 2009, 3:22 am:

    Thanks for taking pains to comprehend and reply to my messy comment.
    I can`t see any edit option once I posted a comment, even if no one has commented after me.

    I can make my point with more clarity.

    1) The bureaucrats of the country are supposed to implement the policies/vision of the government. But by being a bureaucrat and implementing the government`s policy one cannot tell that the person is in politics. If that was the case we should have ideally said that all the people in bureaucracy are but in politics. The reason we do not call a D.C as politician is because he/she is part of the bureaucracy which is different from being a part of politics.

    2) You said holding the rank equivalent to that of a cabinet minister is equivalent to entering politics. Remember holding the rank and status of a cabinet minister and being a cabinet minister are two different things.A cabinet minister has to be a member of either houses of the parliament BUT the one who just holds the status of a cabinet minister is not necessarily to be a M.P….Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia also holds the status of cabinet minister. Can we tell that Dr Montek is in politics? Or is he a part of bureaucracy ?If that is the peculiarity of the unit planning commission then we can take the case of NSc.
    M.K.Narayanan-chief of NSc- holds the rank and status of the minister of state. Adding with this his years in public service can we still tell that M.K.N is in politics? Or is he a bureaucratic professional?

    3)Highly important bureaucrats are carefully selected by politicians and there is enough room for using political discretion in their selection. This does not make those appointees politicians.

    4)Practically (not sure whether exceptions are available ) a cabinet minister should be atleast a primary member of a political party and should follow the constitution of whichever political party he belongs to.

    I don`t think the position held by Nandan ,AS OF NOW,could satisfy enough conditions to tell that he is in politics. The only difference is , instead of selecting members from the Indian civil service who conventionally occupies such positions the P.M has selected a member from the private sector.
    The status of cabinet minister will provide him enough administrative power to implement the policy of such a large scale.

    PS: There is still some confusion on how Nilekani is going to work under the planning commission since the one who runs the planning commission ,ie Deputy Chairman, also has a rank and status nothing higher than that of a cabinet minister.

    PSS: Some of the bureaucrats flirts more with politicians and holds open and strong political views which makes it tough to draw a clear line between the two(Eg Brijesh Mishra was more like a politician but anyway not because of his protocol position but because of his proximity to AB Vajpayeee)

  14. Quote

    I think this argument is all over the place. This is not about whether tom, dick and harry are in politics. It is about Nandan.

    To me it is simple – if you read Nandan’s book (which i have done and not sure if you have) and look at his appointment as UIA chief. He is in politics. Period. Manmohan Singh, who has much better credentials in public service than Nandan is now inarguably in politics although if we had had a similar argument about Manmohan Singh in 1991 you may not have accepted that he is in politics.

    Here is my reco – please read Nandan’s book. If after that if you still feel this UIA has nothing to do with Nandan entering politics, we can discuss.

  15. Quote


    You may have a logical point.. but i feel, the very purpose of nandan’s book is to have an entry point to the politics..

    My prediction would be, he will be elected to Rajya sabha, and then made a formal entry to politics..

  16. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said July 5, 2009, 5:42 pm:

    Thanks Senthil. Arun, Senthil is right. I think your rules/logic about politicians in general is quite accurate. Sorry if i came across as stubborn. I just wanted the argument to center around Nandan and if he has indeed entered politics, which in my view he has done.

  17. Quote
    neo (subscribed) said December 22, 2009, 7:45 pm:

    Guys, i came through this page while searching on Nandan’s point on Tamilnadu’s agitation against hindi imposition. Such a wonderful discussion, though old. Didn’t get the privilege of joining this discussion though.

    I do agree with you guys on most of the points except a few.

    /* Today, it has acquired a racial character and the some tamil racists (particularly DK) are attempting to purify tamil.. they are proved wrong, simply by the numerous scriptures (kal vettu & pattayams) where the spoken tamil is used as it is, which contained sanskrit words also.. */

    — This doesn’t seem to be true for me. The DK of Periyar revolutionized things, which are pivotal to what we see today. A small change then though, a large impact these days. Eg: forced entry of temple, eventual reservation system. The current DK is useless and it doesn’t look like having a proper agenda. The purification of tamil is something that has been taken by PMK, if I’m not wrong. Which we all would read back to know thats completely a political agenda.

    /* While the DK are chauvinists, there point about Sanskrit’s influence on Tamil is entirely accurate. However, what they are forgetting is that we can’t turn the clock back on history. */

    — Again, i don’t think DK focuses on lingual chauvinism. Sanskrit’s influence on Tamil is there,, and then, Tamil also would’ve influenced Sanskrit. DK’s agenda then, from 1930s or later,, have been mostly on atheistic and caste systems. Now people do believe in God, and still don’t believe too much superstitions. Which itself is a big change. Caste discrimination is not there at office at all. However I might not know about government offices. People misusing caste based reservation privileges are there,,, its happening around, which is an unwanted byproduct. But the impact it has created making millions of societies from lower middle class to middle class, mix with communities is because of DK’s stance then, by Periyaar. It fits perfectly for chaos theory proof.

    The language roots and their sources are pretty important for any analysis. For instance, being a tamil guy, when I learnt malayalam and telugu, I learnt fastly. I was able to converse in those languages pretty fast. However, when I learnt Hindi, I was able to write fast, but unable to converse very fluently like a native speaker. When I learnt English, it was worse. I was able to write, but unable to converse fluently. Malayalam and Telugu native speakers couldn’t differentiate my accent as quickly as a north indian did. North Indian friends, who speak hindi were able to tell me my accent differences.

    I had felt the same from Rajinikanth’s tamil accent from a kannadiga origin, and Jaggi Vadudev Swamiji’s tamil accent from a kannadiga origin, that these guys are from karnataka. But theirs were very close. However, there are many rajasthani friends who live in my place, whose tamil is very different.

    Coz phonetically hindi and tamil are different. In fact, Indo aryan languages differ from Indo dravidian languages. This condition is worse if you notice my English. Anyone from the world, can find my accent and language different. I need to practice more spoken english to make speech fluent. So, for a tamil guy to speak fluent malayalam, all he needs is ONE subject, malayalam.

    For a tamil guy to speak fluent english, he needs to be TAUGHT COMPLETELY in english or spend most of the time in an English spoken atmosphere. All the private schools do this only to improve fluency. Nothing else.

    So mere comparison of two languages will be incomplete. Certain languages for a certain tribe will be difficult to learn, and hence needs more attention. English needs the attention to make us globally competitive.


  18. Quote
    Neelesh said August 8, 2010, 10:51 am:

    read a short title review of the book here

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