This "Year of India" (4): The NY Times’ Man in Bombay

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anand Giridharadas (45 min, 27 mb mp3)

We’re getting a personal take on the New India that we haven’t heard before from New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. When he went “home” after college, from Cleveland to the land of his ancestors, the feeling he confronted was, in effect, hey, your party in America is over, and you may be too late for the party underway in Bombay.

Born in Ohio and educated in Michigan, Anand is a child of that wave of immigration that brought India’s best and brightest out of a bad time back home in the 1970s to the land of milk, honey, high tech and opportunity in America. When Anand returned to do his bit for the mother country, as a McKinsey consultant in the mid-90s, he found not his parent’s stifled old India but rather a swarming entrepreneurial frontier more modern, more gung-ho in many ways than the American Mid-West he grew up in, but also a nation growing less “westernized” and more indigenous on a surging wave of growth.

He carried with him the story of India that his parents had given him, an image of a great civilization trapped in a box; a place where, in his words “No one questioned. No one dreamed. Nothing moved.” He begins this account of that quarter-century transformation through the eyes of his father:

AG: One of the reasons my father left — none of us leaves countries for massive geopolitical reasons, we ultimate leave for personal reasons. His personal situation was working in the 1970s for a company called Tata Motors, selling their trucks and buses in Africa. All he could do to make a judgment about whether he wanted to be in India long term was look around him at work. I will never forget the simple way in which describes why he decided to leave. He said he looked at his bosses twenty years ahead of him in line and concluded he didn’t want to spend his life becoming them.

Now fast forward a quarter century, Tata Motors is today, that same stagnant dead company that in some ways pushed my father out of the country as a whole, is today one of the most admired car companies in the world. Why? Because it no longer only sells rickety trucks and buses in Africa. It has now also made the world’s cheapest car, for about $2,000, in an engineering feat that has wowed every major auto maker.

CL: How did they do it?

AG: There are two ways to think about it. One is to say that they had consultants and advisors who had certainly come back form the West. But here’s another interpretation of what was different. the constraints were in some ways the same. They still had essentially 1 billion poor people around them; they still had engineering constraints; they still had a government that’s not particularly helpful to what business does. But in my father’s day most Indians would have interpreted that context as essentially hindering progress and being an excuse for producing sub optimal stuff. The new language is “we have unique hardships which gives us a unique opportunity to create globally competitive products that are better than anyone else’s products. Because our roads are bumpier, our suspension systems have to be even better than the Americans’ suspension systems. Because people are poor in this country, we have to work twice as hard to bring the price point of a car down to $2000.” It’s the same context, just a different way of looking at it.

Anand Giridharadas in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, March 4, 2010.

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  • nother

    Anand Girlidharadas’s perspective is indeed enlightening. I do hear the voice of the new India. He convinces me that modernity has taken hold, and that Indians have one-uped us in our way of thinking. We like cheaper and more efficient, well, they found a way to make it MORE cheap and MORE efficient.

    Yes, the “new India” is winning, but It’s the “language” of our 1950’s that they are winning.

    Anand’s says, “there are three billion people, who would be very excited about a two thousand dollar car.”

    The language of the new now is, where is the good in three billion more people driving a ton of gas guzzling metal around congested cities with inadequate roads and bridges. And where are all these people going in these cars? Are they going to school, I pray? Is it good just because it will make them “excited?” Because the language of new now is – where is the happiness in the endgame of capitalism.

    In the modern world we find ourselves staring at a spiritual vacuum, and now I stare in wonder as India gleefully sucks out their own abundance of spiritualism.

    Anand says about the current captains of industry in the new India, “the constraints were essentially the same, they still had a billion poor people around them, that has not changed.” He argues that what has changed is “a new way of thinking.”

    Ok fine, but something else has changed as well, the standard of living for the workers of India’s competitors. As the wage rate in competitive countries increases, the value of a “billion poor people around them” gains value in direct proportion. Old economics, not “new thinking.”

    Anand’s take is important, but it’s a take from the top. His dad had the opportunity to look around at the trajectory of his colleagues and make a decision to migrate to the U.S. I’m not sure most Indian line workers have that luxury. Arnad is eloquently and intellectually ambivalent about the paradox on the new India. That makes good copy, buy there are a billion people who are not ambivalent about the new India, and when will we hear that voice? The voice of Unions, of child workers, of women, of Gandhi.

  • ‘nother’ has a good point. To tap into the 4 billion poor in the world is an attractive market, as it was initially suggested by CK Prahalad and Hart in their first “Base of the Pyramid” model. Let’s be creative, and manufacture smaller sizes, distribute better, develop cheaper products and so we can sell to 4 billion new clients. Alas, that was very myopic and brought more problems than happy shareholders. We live in a spaceship that has limited resources, and making more ‘stuff’ is not lifting anyone out of poverty. As a matter of fact, small size packaging makes more waste, and costs in proportion more than larger sizes. Hart learned the hard lessons, and in 2007 proposed many changes to the model. What is needed is to consider the systemic interconnections, and what are the real needs of the billions poorest. That may be access to transportation – which means many other things besides cars.