13 February 2016


Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower. Edited by McKinsey & Company. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4767-6333-0. Rs. 699.

(This book has been produced by Clay Chandler and Adil Zainulbhai. Chandler is the Asia Editor for McKinsey’s global publishing division and Adil Zainulbhai, is Senior advisor (former chairman) of McKinsey in India where he says he “helps India’s largest companies win on the global level and works with public-sector leaders to drive growth, improve living standards, and build the nation.”)

“Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower” is a compendium of wishes and dreams of a diverse cast of business leaders, academics, professional pontificators and guns-for-hire reimagining India from their perches and narrow concerns, and put together by McKinsey and Company. McKinsey & Company, Inc. is an American global management consulting firm that focuses on solving issues of concern to senior management. The firm now serves as an adviser to businesses, governments, and institutions around the world. McKinsey is considered to be the most prestigious management-consulting firm in the world. 

James McKinsey, a professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, founded it in 1926. McKinsey has since then grown to become the biggest management consultancy in the world. It employs 9000 consultants in 97 locations in 55 countries. Its former managing director Rajat Gupta, now serving time in a US federal penitentiary for fraud and insider trading, explains McKinsey's structure as follows: “It is very much, in many dimensions, like an academic organization. We have senior partners who are very much like tenured faculty: they are leaders in their own right. We have about 80 to 100 performance cells -- a geographic office or industry practice or functional practice. They are very much autonomous and they are not organized in any hierarchy beyond that. We don't have any regional structures or sectoral structures. So all these performance units, in a theoretical sense, report to me, which means they don't report to anybody, because nobody can have 80 or 100 people reporting to them.” 

In September 2013, the same Simon & Schuster published a book on McKinsey by financial journalist Duff McDonald. Entitled The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, the book examines the influence of McKinsey over nearly a century: "the history of McKinsey, given its role as consigliere to the most powerful people in business, can be seen as a history of modern business itself." It has indeed been a consigliere to many corporate buccaneers, raiders and looters. Enron probably is an association that McKinsey would like forget. The Guardian wrote: “Enron is the house that McKinsey rebuilt. The brightest minds at the world's most prestigious consulting firm helped turn the lumbering old-economy gas distribution dinosaur into a new-economy success story envied by every corporation in America.” Led by Jeffrey Skilling, a Harvard Business School graduate, like Rajat Gupta, who honed his skills at McKinsey for eleven years, “Enron from being a company that simply piped stuff around the US to a giant market place in which companies could 'cherry pick' commodities such as oil and gas contracts, seeking out new suppliers and cheaper prices over the web. Enron made its money from trading on their behalf and offering a range of additional high-margin services, which brought in far greater returns than its old, vertically integrated model of producing and shipping gas.” It was a big hoax and billions were stolen and thousands of individual lifetime savings went down the pipelines and pipedreams that McKinsey engineered. This little digression from the contents of the book is so that we are aware of who is behind this latest attempt at reimagining India.

With that caveat lector (warning to the reader) “Reimagining India” is like a “Drinks by the Dram” whisky sampler set where get a neatly labeled and compartmentalized case of various whiskies in 3 ml bottles. To most having the sampler set itself becomes more important than sampling the wares. A small dram of 3 ml is too small and is gone too soon. If you are the drinking kind, you just move on to the next one and before you can begin to savor it, it is gone. This book has that quality.

Mind you there are some very good drams there. Propagating “A Uniquely Indian Growth Model’ (p.17-21), Anand Mahindra wisely writes; “For India’s economy to expand as rapidly and yet more sustainably than China’s, we need to make our differences into virtues rather than vulnerabilities.” Without saying it explicitly (which Indian businessman can afford to say anything explicitly?) Mahindra suggests that rather than pretending India is a single investment destination or even a coherent, unified economic entity we should see them as varied from each other as the nations of Europe. 

Indeed they are. India has about 1.2 billion people, and the Union of India consists of 31 States and Union Territories, with some more being currently midwifed. The biggest of these is Uttar Pradesh with a population of 199.6 million or 16.49% of India’s. It is as big as Brazil. The smallest political unit is Lakshadweep which has just 64,000 (0.01%).

Clearly, a monochromatic central plan administered by a central dispensation will not work any more. We need to locate decision-making in the state capitals. He advocates a creative competition between the states to attract investment for industrialization. He advocates a similar competition between cities. When the units compete, the nation as whole benefits. 

In “Parsing the Grammar of Anarchy” (p.68-73), Patrick French pinpoints the crisis in India’s democracy with the observation: “The problem in Indian politics is not that the leaders are unelected; It is once they are elected, they are unaccountable until the next cycle of voting. Democracy functions, but governance does not.” The French economist and author, JJ Boillot in his new book “Chindiafrique” a look into future of trajectories of China, India and Africa, and the shift of the world’s economic growth into these three regions recently very pithily remarked “India has a democracy, China has a government.” But Yasheng Huang in “Overtaking the Dragon” (p.74-79) concludes that nevertheless “the world is trending the Indian way, not the Chinese. Indians should continue to seek solutions to their problems within a democratic framework and ignore both fellow citizens and well-meaning outsiders seduced by overly simplistic notions about the ability of authoritarian governments to conjure rapid economic growth.”

Where there are drams of pure delight there are drams of rotgut too. It is in the nature of business to slip in the lesser with the better when selling a pack. Ever buy a box of strawberries; then you will know what I mean. In “Fixing the Fourth Estate” (p.312316) McKinsey turns to Suhel Seth, the ultimate fixer whose most recent contribution to our body of knowledge is “Get to the Top: The Ten Rules for Social Success”. Social success no doubt is measured by column centimeters and mug shots in the Page Three’s and forages from cocktail parties to dinners like a cockroach moves between sewer and drain. The Outlook magazine, Seth so approvingly quotes in his contribution had once famously listed him as one of India’s top lobbyists. Seth bemoans: “ Over the past two decades, India’s press has become entangled in a corrupt nexus of politics and industry. Political pandering and commercial pressures have transformed our once-valiant fourth estate from a watchdog for the public interest to lapdog for the rich and powerful.” Indeed it has. But whom do we owe this to? Seth is the best qualified to tell us.

In another real dog of a chapter, “Cricket Superpower” (p.277283) the well known cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle chortles: “There is an element of pride also in the way India dictates to the rest of the world in cricketing matters. The Indian fan is today the most important entity in world cricket.” These two lines perhaps tell us more about ourselves by the rather infantile longings to be a “superpower” that has come to grip the imagination of India’s elite. Should we become a superpower just to dictate to the world? We seem to forget that the USSR was a superpower despite half its population living in primitive poverty and several millions in its many gulags. We even seem to forget that the USA became a superpower long before it allowed black people to ride in the front of a bus, or enter a restaurant, or even to vote. 

Though the title suggests that the notion of becoming a superpower is somehow desirable, the book is in many parts about how to become a better nation and a better people. Aziz Premji in “India Rebooted” (p.80-85) dwells on the need to reboot the Indian system to lift millions of young people left behind with no or more often now, inadequate education, and millions whose productivity is blighted by poor health and whose sufferings are magnified by inadequate health care facilities. Premji squarely puts this responsibility at the proper door. The government’s. Quite clearly India needs to spend much more on health and education. This is obvious, but we see little of this enlightenment in business leaders. But his fellow Bangalore billionaire, Nandan Nilekani, is less altruistic when he touts “A Technology Solution for India’s Identity Crisis” (p.199-203). With the delinking of Nilekani’s Aadhaar from the direct transfer of subsidies on LPG, the biggest national boondoggle in recent times has effectively been laid to rest. It has cost India over Rs.6000 crores and millions of headaches. But Nilekani is still plugging it as a panacea. His moment of basking under the glory of the son will soon come to an end, and so will Aadhaar. As a wag in Bihar said it: “ khana nahi diya, makan nahi diya, naukri nahi diya, par number de diya!”

The book is not meant to be a serious attempt to catalyze new thinking in India as it is meant to drum up more business for McKinsey in India. Its structure dooms to be like froth in a cup of cappuccino. Stir it and it’s gone. Cool it and its gone. Serious topics cannot be discussed in short op-ed style and, I suspect, mostly ghost written pieces. Would I buy it? No. Would I keep it? Yes. For “Reimagining India” is a collection of drams. It’s a good collection to have on the bookshelf, but not to imbibe.

Mohan Guruswamy

Email: mohanguru@gmail.com

7 February 2014

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