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Imagining India

Is India ready for global leadership?

By Vijaysree Venkatraman / April 1, 2009

When India opened its markets, nearly two decades ago, international media dubbed the developing nation an emerging economic superpower. So visitors to India’s financial capital may be forgiven their confusion when they see shantytowns right next to high-rise buildings. And the sight of grimy children peddling glossy magazines at intersections can be bemusing, to say the least.

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But the numbers indicate that India is the second fastest-growing economy in the world. Clearly, some explanation is in order – and that’s exactly what Nandan Nilekani attempts to provide in Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation.

Nilekani is cofounder of Infosys, the NASDAQ-listed Bangalore-based software services company. It was during an interview with Nilekani that New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman gained the insight (derived from the startlingly simple idea that the Internet could render geography irrelevant for skilled workers in a global knowledge market) that inspired him to write his international bestseller “The World is Flat.”

Now, Nilekani has come up with a thought-provoking book of his own.

A puzzled visitor from New York once asked Nilekani, “If you can have such good roads in the Infosys campus, why are the roads outside so terrible?”

In “Imagining India,” the entrepreneur gamely takes up the challenge of answering this seemingly straightforward question. An engineer himself, he consults policymakers, academics, and experts in the field to explore the reasons why India grapples with infrastructure issues and seems unable to provide basic services for its masses.

A very detailed response at 511 pages, “Imagining India” could also serve as a road map and a reality check for a resurgent India. This neatly structured narrative on modern India has four segments: Ideas That Have Arrived, Ideas in Progress, Ideas in Battle, and Ideas to Anticipate. Woven in is the back story of how an overpopulated, poverty-stricken nation came to be considered a potential superpower.

One novel idea central to this book: In billion-strong India, the masses are a valuable asset. People represent human capital, Nilekani writes. With investments coming in, they constitute a dynamic pool of workers and consumers who can catalyze growth.

In the popular imagination, India is still an ancient land. But the median age of an Indian citizen is now 23. As the median age of citizens in developed countries inches into the high 30s, India is just getting ready to cash in on its demographic dividend.

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