Washington Post

Unleashing the Tiger

Reviewed by Jonah Blank

Published on: Sunday, March 11, 2001


By Gurcharan Das

Knopf. 406 pp.


As a rule, books written by businessmen are shameless exercises in auto-hagiography, smug tomes of self-congratulation and banality offering about as much intellectual honesty or literary merit as a corporate filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. I can see how CEOs might view themselves as repositories of wisdom and narrative brilliance (which of their overpaid lackeys is going to tell them otherwise?), but I often wonder why respectable publishing houses choose to encourage this delusion. Surely editors aren't so mercenary that they'd print the musings of moneymen solely to make money?

Fortunately, most rules have their exceptions. Gurcharan Das, a venture capitalist and former head of Proctor & Gamble India, is far more than a mere harvester of filthy lucre. The author of three plays, a novel and innumerable newspaper columns, Das is a writer whose subject is business rather than simply a businessman who subjects us to his writing.

The argument of Das's new book is straightforward: From Independence until 1991, the government of India strangled commerce and stunted the nation's economic development; now that the shackles of socialism are being loosened, India is poised for great financial success. It is an argument that might be considered settled fact in most boardrooms and seminar-chambers from Delhi to Dallas, but it could be an eye-opener to readers unfamiliar with the radical transformations currently under way in the subcontinent.

A decade of economic reform in India has created a cottage industry in works of academic analysis: Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, Ashutosh Varshney, Lloyd and Suzanne Rudolph -- the list of scholars examining the phenomenon is long and distinguished. What Das brings to this crowded table is first-hand experience and a desire to address readers who may never have heard (or cared) about import substitution theory or the Licence Permit Raj. His book is partly a memoir, partly an economic policy primer, and partly a bracingly forthright rant.

By way of background, for 44 years India pursued an economic strategy from which it is now seeking to extricate itself. The goals of this plan -- crafted by the nation's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru -- were primarily social: to provide all citizens with basic human necessities, to ensure that India remained economically as well as politically independent of foreign control, to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and to solidify the foundations of democracy in the sprawling, newborn state. These goals were remarkably ambitious, and (even more remarkably) they were essentially met. Critics of Nehruvian socialism point to the lack of rapid economic growth during the years when other Asian states were chalking up impressive trade figures. But this was never part of the plan. Das (together with many economists) argues that it should have been. Maybe so. Such arguments are easiest to make with 20-20 hindsight, and at the time Nehru was instituting his program the consensus among Western economists advising developing nations favored state-sponsored central planning rather than a free-market approach.

More to the point, India may not have been able to institute democracy and overhaul its economy at the same time. None of the Asian "success stories" did. Japan had its democratic constitution written and imposed by the occupying forces of the United States, which also supplied the massive funding necessary to build modern business infrastructure. South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore have become true democracies only quite recently, long after their economic ascent. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are still wrestling (often violently) with the issue of popular rule. And can China, where 50 million people died in the man-made famines of the Great Leap Forward, serve as any sort of a economic or political model? Don't get me started.

Like many other observers, Das rails against the inefficiencies of the old Indian economy, and waxes ecstatic about the improvements in the decade of reform. As anybody who has tried to book an airline ticket or place a phone call in India can testify, it's a fair charge. Even today, there are plenty of offices (particularly in the public sector) that employ 10 people to perform a task incompetently instead of one person to do it well. But this was part of what made Nehru's plan function: In a nation now numbering one billion, barely half of whom are literate, it may have been the only substitute for enormous investment in social services. Most Indians would rather be employed in an inefficient economy than unemployed in an efficient one.

Yes, with democracy and national unity firmly established, Nehruvian socialism has outlived its usefulness. It was Nehru's own Congress Party that instituted the 1991 reforms, under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Even Jyoti Basu, the crusty old communist baron of West Bengal, has gone from trashing transnational conglomerates to pleading with them for investment capital. In arguing for economic liberalization, Das (whose leanings are conservative despite his criticism of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party's push for indigenous production) has set up a bit of a straw man. But for American readers accustomed to view India as a land of tigers rather than high-tech and maharajahs rather than microchips, this book will come as a welcome surprise.

Jonah Blank is the author of "Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India" and "Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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