Ten Years After
There's a country rising out of its slumber. It's called India. And it's poised to be one of world's great economic powers. If you believe this, rest assured that you are not daydreaming. You are just one of the billions inside and outside India who swear by this fact, those who know this is
possible soon and are working towards it.
But why is the Elephant God suddenly up and dancing? What exactly has triggered the surge of optimism in the minds of Indians and India-watchers?
Why is there such an enormous sweep of feel-goodness in the economy?
Because the next 10 years could belong to India.
And it could begin with a bang. Right now, India is one of the three fastest growing Asian economies. In 2001, it could become the fastest. The Asian Development Bank (ABD) predicts 7 per cent growth for India in 2000 and 2001. This year, India would be overtaken by South Korea, which is
expected to clock 7.5 per cent. But next year, Korea's growth will slump to 6 per cent, the same as China's, and India will forge far ahead.
What happens when India grows at over 7 per cent? Per capita income doubles in 12 years. And with an 8-10 per cent growth rate, poverty can come down to 15-20 per cent in a decade. From Rs 11,000 now, India's per capita income could be Rs 22,000 by the early 2010s. And the next doubling could come in half that time. By 2020, your and my children could
be studying or working in an India beyond our wildest dreams.
The ABD forecasts were not in finance minister Yashwant Sinha's books when he presented the Union budget in February. But he was bullish enough to target the first decade of the 21st century as India's Decade of Development, with a GDP growth rate of 8-10 per cent in the period. Post-budget, the markets reacted badly and for
a while it seemed he'd been speaking out of turn. Then, in June, when the International Monetary Fund chairman Horst Kohler came visiting, Sinha found a believer in him. "I believe India is a country of the future," he said.
"With accelerated reforms, an 8-10 per cent growth is possible."
In effect, the endorsement had come much earlier. In mid-April, Nirupam Bajpai and Jeffrey D. Sachs, two distinguished economists with Harvard University's Kennedy School, wrote: "We concur that India has a chance
for a tremendous breakthrough in economic development this decade (authors' emphasis)." Agree India's Delhi School of Economics' Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) professors B.B. Bhattacharya, K. Krishnamurthi and Gopal Kadekodi, who have worked out a long-term growth model for the economy which says that if India worked to achieve its full potential, it could even grow at 10-12 per cent a year.
India has been on a high-growth path for some time. Says Subir Gokarn, chief economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research: "Actually, we have been among the fastest growing countries for the last two decades. Our average rate was about 5.5 per cent a year in the '80s
and 6.5 in the '90s." A decade of opening up has also produced new dynamism in many sectors, the emerging infotech and entertainment sectors, yes, but also in sectors where government control has receded.
As a result, India is now at that historical turning point where this dynamism, assuming there is no going back on reforms and no untoward incident like the rupee crashing or major earthquakes or other calamities, can by itself propel the economy by 6-6.5 per cent every year! But, says
Bhattacharya of IEG, "More relevant here is a growth based on the medium-term capability and better utilisation of resources. And that would easily be 7-8 per cent." Adds Rajiv Vij, country head, Templeton Asset Management: "I'd like to take a medium-term view of the next three years
and I would be extremely bullish on India."
Theory, however, must be matched by ground reality. Ask investors and they are confident that the bad times have bottomed out. Says K.N. Memani, partner, Ernst & Young: "We're definitely looking at 7 per cent growth this year." The revival is clear in industry, which took the full brunt
of globalisation for the last three years. Explains Vij: "As globalisation hits, the first thing that happens is margins get squeezed. With increased competition, prices decline. But after a point, as demand picks up, the greater efficiency achieved in manufacturing adds to the bottomline. This will soon begin to happen."
It may be happening already. The latest CII Business Outlook Survey (April-September 2000) reports "continuation of an across-the-board resurgence of the feel-good factor". In 1999-2000, industry grew by 8 per cent. More important, in April, the first month of the current fiscal, year-on-year growth in the Index of Industrial Production was 12.2 per cent.
Manufacturing industries grew by 14 per cent, a record in recent years. Says Raghvendra Jha, senior professor, IGIDR: "This year, growth has clearly tilted towards manufacturing from being only services- and consumption-led. This is a very important differentiator. The capital goods sector needs to grow faster than the current 8.5 per cent and on a more sustained basis for the first two quarters. If this happens, we're clearly in an expansionary phase."
Apart from the industrial turnaround, the other reason that has sparked off the sudden buoyancy is the 13th consecutive good monsoon. After an above-normal monsoon that, however, ignored groundnut, coarse cereals, pulses and cotton-producing regions last year, the news has sprinkled
hope of an early end to the miseries in the water-starved lands. And also of a better farm output growth than the 1 per cent recorded last year.
Compared to 191 million tonnes, foodgrains production may touch the magic level of 212 million tonnes this year, leading, ironically, to higher incomes in the sector and to a problem of prosperity for the government. Less than one-third of our GDP comes from the agriculture
sector, yet most of the services and manufacturing demand is generated there. In consumer goods, where demand is threatening to reach saturation levels, higher rural incomes hold the key to a revival. Says Sunil Joseph, president, Dundee Mutual Funds: "For growth, we need to look to
the rural economy."
And this is where the current moderate inflation can help. Says D.H. Pai Panandiker, advisor, RPG group: "When inflation is very low, the economy doesn't perform. Historically, a 6-7 per cent inflation has always augured
well for the economy." But what happens when the latent inflationary pressures surface? Already, the Indian currency has depreciated to Rs 45 to the dollar and Assocham predicts it might travel further down to settle at
Rs 46-47 by year end, forcing interest rates to harden. In most industrial countries like the US too, after a year (1999) when world inflation declined to its lowest level in 40 years, rates are inching up triggering bearish
forecasts. In such a situation, how much money can flow to this part of the globe?
It could still be quite a lot. India's trade is already booming, exports grew 12 per cent last year-a double-digit growth after a long drought, and a lower rupee can only help. But the news of the global economy, particularly the
US, hardening is not good news for Indian exports, though that may take some time to impact. The offsetting factor here is that imports also grew 43 per cent in April and non-oil imports by 25 per cent. It's because of this that Assocham feels the rupee slide will be halted soon. With forex reserves at $37 billion even after the rupee depreciation, the Reserve Bank of India can take a generous trade gap ($8.6 billion last year) in its stride.
And of course, India has its vibrantly growing services sector. Says Nikhil Khattau, ceo, Sun F&C Mutual Fund: "Over half of our GDP comes from the services sector which is quite under-represented, so the real economy is growing at a significantly higher rate." Adds Vij of Templeton: "Services
like software, consulting, travel and express mail are all growing rapidly. The need for all kinds of services is driven by the intellectual capability of Indians and the cost of labour, which hasn't been factored into our GDP
Vij is merely underscoring what Indians have already witnessed. Thanks to revolutionary technological change in services-growing at 8 per cent plus-and infotech, it is now possible for India to midway leave the slow industrialisation route to development and take a shortcut to the growth path followed by the Asian wonders. The $5-billion software industry already employs about 200,000 professionals and offers enough opportunity for the 75,000 plus computer professionals graduating every year. Prosperity in these two sectors has also helped create the maximum number of jobs in the last few years and resulted in sharp income growth in pockets.
According to one estimate, an investment of a mere Rs 5,00,000 (a little more than $10,000 and five months of average low salary in the US) is enough to create a software job. Michael Dertouzos, a professor with the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has a laughably simple theory. He says India could easily boost its GDP by a trillion dollars in the next few years performing backroom white-collar jobs for western companies. This would generate 50 million jobs at an average annual salary of $20,000
each. Sounds absurd, but it's true; the only problem is that India may not have enough educated people for these jobs! Why, even that doesn't seem to be much of a problem when you listen to what Gokarn says: "We have a window of opportunity of high growth because of the demographic transition. For the next two-plus decades, the share of our population
between 16 and 60 years, the economically active people, will be rising exponentially. This means a consumption and savings boom." The challenge for the government here is to broadbase this boom by investing adequately in the social sector and education in particular. Bajpai and Sachs, in fact, want the government to implement universal education by 2010, with focus on girls and disadvantaged groups.
It's a shortcut that threatens to turn economic theory on its head. Any classical economist will tell you that for India to go beyond 7 per cent, the investment rate and capital productivity need to be stepped up. And in this
respect, the Asian tigers will beat us hands down. There is some truth in this. Compared to Southeast Asia and the newly industrialised economies, our productivity rates are abysmal, though improving. Our savings and investment rates are still stuck in the 22-25 per cent band; the tigers are,
except for South Korea, closer to 40. But then again, since today's practical economic experience suggests savings to be a direct result of higher incomes, not the other way round as we have all believed so far, there's a lot of room for India's savings to go north.
The problem with our savings rate is that it not only covers government dissavings but also underestimates household and private savings. But with investment, the problem is less technical. First, most growth areas in India now need much less physical investment. Second, as Intel Corporation ceo Craig Barrett put it recently, India can have enough
dotcoms but where are the telecom and broadband networks? India needs massive investment now to put growth infrastructure in place and for this, reforms need to be fast-forwarded. Of late, the government has taken
several steps to encourage flow of foreign capital in power, banking and ice (infotech-communication-entertainment) sectors, which indicate that the reform fatigue may, finally, be getting over.
As for productivity, globalisation is already working at it. Studies have proved that post opening up, capital efficiency of firms has improved dramatically. Says Bhattacharya of IEG: "Efficiency requires things to be priced properly. And the biggest defaulter here is the government, which
undercharges everything it offers." Labour productivity, on the other hand, can improve only after the two pending reforms-exit policy and sell-off of public sector firms. Says Jha of IGIDR: "Standard economic theory is that
when you press for economic reforms, you press the hardest on the toughest issue, which for us is the labour policy. There is a vrs policy but that is no option to a proper exit policy."
Is there any reason why the government will do all this? Especially now that the biggest vested interest, government employees, has been hit? Cribs Ernst and Young's Memani: "The biggest bottleneck to growth is the coalition government, which harbours contradictory views on crucial
economic issues." Well, which government would have striven to cut its own nose and bring out a Fiscal Responsibility Act? Sinha did try to stop the communications minister from bargaining with his employees, didn't he? Says Bhattacharya of IEG: "Long-term acceleration everywhere has
required a long-term commitment and growth plan. The government has wasted half of the '90s debating over selling off inconsequential companies like ITDC, rather than allowing the banks freedom to deal with their bad
ebts." We agree, but we'd rather go with the ABD economist who's convinced that the genie has been unleashed and that it's rather difficult for even the government of India to put it back in the bottle. Wouldn't you too?
Giant on the Move
From high technology to the creative
arts, India is rapidly becoming a
By ROGER MITTON New Delhi
Forget the India you once knew: It is gone.
Contemplate instead a new, funky, self-confident,
resurgent nation, embracing its role as an
emerging Asian superpower. This year, India's
growth rate could outstrip China's and prove
more sustainable. From far-off Silicon Valley to
home-base Bangalore, Indians are big in global
software development. In tacky Tinseltown and
London's effete Bloomsbury, Indian writers, film
stars and directors are tops. India's core
institutions, from an independent judiciary and a feisty free press to a massive,
nuclear but always apolitical military, are anchored by roots more than
half a century old. There is mounting support for India to become a permanent
member of the United Nations Security Council. The country's scientists plan to
launch a moon probe. Then there is the brightest jewel in India's crown: its firm
adherence to democracy. Put all this together and the surprise is not that India
is gatecrashing the elite superpower league, but that it has not happened
The changes hit a visitor right away. In newspapers ads, the tradition of parents
seeking spouses for their offspring continues. But read those classifieds more
closely and see the number that give an e-mail address or even a website for
reply. And note all the telephone chat lines for everything from spicy film gossip
to advice on cutting business deals. Want to celebrate at a spiffy eatery? Then
make a reservation, for while the choice is staggering, the queues can be too.
No, this is not Lan Kwai Fong, Boat Quay or the Ginza. It's Delhi's Pandan
Market, Bombay's Colaba and Bangalore's Gandhi Road. India is on fire and
its people know it, from the dotcom wallah to the man at the top. Says Prime
Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee: "Together we are building a strong and resurgent
nation whose confident march forward is being keenly watched by the whole
world. Let nothing be done that would slacken the momentum."
What has kicked India's pace up a gear is its ongoing economic revival. Under
Vajpayee, the so-called second-phase market reforms are completing the
unleashing of India's long-shackled economy. It is happening so fast some
believe India may overtake China. It has many advantages, like facility in
English. "Our strength compared to China is that more Indians know English,
the international language," says power minister R. Kumaramangalam. "So we
have a greater reach." That means a lot in this dotcom age. Says Vinod Mehta,
editor of the Delhi-based newsweekly Outlook: "If you come here as a
businessman, you can hire everyone your accountants, lawyers and so on. If
you go to China, you must take the whole lot with you."
Kumaramangalam says that "the political will to forge ahead with these faster
second-generation reforms is more evident today." It shows in ways that reach
down to all levels of Indian society, but especially the affluent middle class
estimated at over 200 million, or equivalent to the entire population of Indonesia.
"We have perhaps the largest middle class in the world and it is going to
expand rapidly," says law minister Arun Jaitley. As it does, its children will
demand more. Adds Jaitley: "After graduation, every second fellow is not
looking for a job in government, but trying to get into a higher institution. Many
are going to be entrepreneurs."
Of course, there's no need to go abroad to get a top degree. In this year's
Asiaweek rankings, two of Asia's top ten MBA schools are Indian (Ahmedabad
is No. 1 and Bangalore No. 5), and fully five out of the ten best science and
technology schools are Indian (Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Kanpur and
Kharagpur). Recalls Jaitley: "When I went to school, people would talk of the
ten elite schools you would want to go to. Today, you have a choice in New
Delhi alone of 400." Even Indians who studied overseas are returning.
Harvard-schooled Suhel Seth, vice-chairman of Brand Dotcom, says: "I studied
and worked abroad, but I chose to come back. I believe India is a first-rate
Today's new breed of Indians are embracing a liberating, anything-is-possible
atmosphere. Says Seth: "To succeed in today's India, you don't need a legacy
of wealth or connections." You just need to be good. And that is what a growing
number of Indians are, from CEOs to production-line workers. "After two
decades of decline, manufacturing productivity increased in the 1980s and
again in the 1990s," says Isher Judge Ahluwalia, who heads a Delhi think-tank.
"So India's growth is really productivity-led, rather than investment-led." And it is
finally bearing a rich harvest.
Of course, many problems remain. One concerns the pace of economic reform.
New-generation free marketeers like Jaitley and Seth cross swords with
old-guard socialists like aviation minister Sharad Yadav and Congress legislator
Mani Shankar Aiyar. Says Ahluwalia: "It is a serious problem. There are those
two forces, both within the ruling coalition and the opposition." But Vajpayee, a
noted consensus builder, is working deftly around the face-off.
Another major obstacle is widespread, abject poverty, especially in the rural
areas. According to the U.N. Development Fund, some 53% of India's
population live on less than a dollar a day the World Bank's definition of dire
poverty. That compares with 37% in China. The poorest Indians are
concentrated among landless agricultural laborers, those with unviably small
land holdings, the rural and urban unskilled, the disabled, and the chronically
sick in destitute families. Despite the greater numbers of poor peasants, urban
poverty is causing more concern, says former prime minister V.P. Singh.
"While the rural poor have some space for life and some political representation,
the urban poor are very badly off," he told Asiaweek. The government expects
half of India's population to be living in the cities by 2011. While acknowledging
the national consensus on political liberalization, Singh warns that it could bring
widespread unemployment and social upheaval.
Even so, the positive mood prevails. "India has finally found its place in the
community of nations on the strength of knowledge rather than size," says
Seth. Its knowledge-based competence is on show not only in information
technology (IT) but across a broad spectrum of activities including the arts.
Veteran film actor Om Puri, who starred in this year's award-winning hit movie
East Is East, says: "Indian actors are in demand in the U.S. and Europe now.
But Bombay is still best." And, of course, there are the writers, from
heavyweights Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai and Vikram Seth to newer lights
like Arundhati Roy, Raj Kamal Jha, Jayabrato Chatterjee and this year's
Pulitzer prizewinner Jhumpa Lahiri.
India's expanding middle class, with its cars, powerbooks, mobile phones and
holidays in Phuket and Singapore, is increasingly unabashed about extolling its
achievements and material gains. Even flaunting success is no longer
frowned upon. Says Seth: "I drive a Mercedes and I am happy doing it." Indians,
says Tarun Tejpal, who recently launched a groundbreaking website (see story
page 44), "are increasingly less inward-looking. Take the Indian Diaspora, it's all
over the place. So much of the U.S. and Canada, as well as Malaysia and
Singapore, is India now." Foreign leaders have noticed. Luminaries like Jiang
Zemin and Bill Clinton have recently visited, and Russia's Vladimir Putin will
drop by soon. "They are coming mainly for economic reasons," says a diplomat
in Delhi. "They see the big middle class and an opportunity to make money in
Adding to the optimism is a perception that the present government, while
seeming fragile, is actually quite solid. Vajpayee, who heads the ruling
coalition's dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has cobbled together an
alliance of 23 parties, the broadest in India's history. "It is the first stable
government since 1995 and should last a full five-year term," says a diplomat.
"That is a big psychological boost." The key factor holding Vajpayee's
patchwork group together is that it hammered out an agenda as a team before
the election. It also has a safe majority of about 50 seats, contains no
capricious mavericks, and none of its members want another election soon.
Moreover, the opposition Congress is in disarray.
Still, the BJP needs to broaden its base to seek long-term power. With
members like the neo-fascist Shiv Sena group, it has gained a reputation for
rightwing Hindu-chauvinist policies which are viewed as discriminatory,
especially by the nation's 120 million Muslims. (Not a single full minister in
Vajpayee's cabinet is a Muslim.) "That is a wrong perception," protests Shiv
Sena minister Suresh Prabhu. "We are not anti-anybody. We are pro-India and
everybody who is a citizen of India." Notes a diplomat: "Prabhu may belong to a
fairly radical party, but he is very pragmatic and totally pro-development."
Indeed, the energetic former accountant from Maharashtra state exemplifies the
new trend of merit winning out over lineage or wealth. "In certain sectors, yes,
you get by on merit," says Vir Sanghvi, editor of The Hindustan Times. "IT is
the prime example; it's a great leveler. The other is the multinationals coming
into the country so that salaries for professionals have gone up. That has been
a huge boost to middle-class confidence."
Even so, the "old economy" agriculture, manufacturing, industry, resources
cannot be disregarded. "Try telling the poor that the answer to their problems
is the Internet, that it lies in Microsoft," says Congressman Aiyar. "You'll see
the absurdity of the position. We need the old economy, as well as the new."
Also needed is greater attention to implementation rather than conception.
Says Seth: "We are a superb nation when it comes to thinking and discussing,
but perhaps the worst at implementing."
Underpinning the forward movement is India's commitment to democracy. That
a nation of a billion people, ranging from the super-rich to the abysmally poor,
continues to practice what may be the world's most open system of government
is little short of a miracle. Add on the independence of national institutions and
it is evident that India's civil society has a sturdy moral backbone. Says
minister Kumaramangalam: "Democracy gives a lot of stability to the economic
situation. You are answerable, so you are more careful. But it does slow the
decision-making process." That has been the bane of India's development in the
past. Yet few Indians would sacrifice their freedoms for faster development.
Says Sanghvi: "Indians value things like freedom of speech and democracy,
which some countries in Southeast Asia haven't valued to the same extent."
Indians also cherish their rich heritage. "Look at the incredible romantic charm
of classical India," says Tejpal. "It may be a mess, but it's also a dream." Adds
minister Jaitley: "India has great resilience. If you have flooding in one part of
the country, India is not paralyzed. We had the Kargil conflict last year, we had
the hijack of an Indian Airlines plane, but the country became normal within two
days. We don't allow ourselves to be bogged down." Yet many wish the forward
momentum were faster. "My only frustration is that we are capable of much
more," says Ahluwalia. "If we would just get our act together a bit more, we
could easily hit 9% to 10% growth this decade." But commerce and industry
minister Murasoli Maran is happy. "We don't believe in big-bang reforms
because we have seen that the countries that did are suffering," he says. "In
Southeast Asia, there was a meltdown."
For all that, India will continue to be at ease with both East and West. "We've
always believed in interacting with the world," says Aiyar. "We've never gone
the Burma way or the Mao way." Yet India is wary of translating its elevated
profile into a more forceful role in South Asia. And New Delhi, which has
traditionally looked West, is now turning its gaze toward East Asia. "That's
changed over the past five years," says Ahluwalia. "Now, there's much more
awareness of the need to look East." Adds Sanghvi: "We've been concentrating
on Singapore. We think that's where we can make a mark." It is already evident
in Calcutta, where the new Singapore-style Upwan Horticultural Resort, with its
conference center, water sports park, go-kart track, ten-pin bowling, tennis and
condominiums, is taking shape. Its brochure boasts: "Drive 30 kms to
Singapore" the distance, of course, from Calcutta. The idea is to marry
Singaporean infrastructure with Indian openness.
Geopolitically, India's importance is as a bastion of democracy and a
counterbalance to China. "The U.S. has come to understand us better,' says
Kumaramangalam. "We have proved that democracy works in Asia." But ties
with Beijing remain edgy. Yet, the minister adds, "no one is really a threat to
India today. We are growing too fast." Still, it irks Indians that China often gets
better press and more investment. Says Ahluwalia: "The Chinese always
look so much better than they really are because they sweep the right things
under the carpet and say the right things. Whereas India never looks as good
as it is economically, because we are so complex, so open, so diverse."
Many Indians already think of themselves as second to none in Asia. Combine
that with the economic boom and you have a recipe for the current mood of
euphoria. But it is tinged with doubt. "We've been on the launch pad a long
time; we've now ignited," says Kumaramangalam. "The key is whether we've got
lift-off velocity." There is little likelihood of going back. Says Seth: "We have
traveled too far to tolerate resistance of any kind to the economic reform
Besides, there is a sense that no sector of Indian society wants to back-pedal.
"If you visit villages today, you will find long-distance telephone booths," says
minister Jaitley. "Soon, there will also be a television, an Internet connection,
and they will become communications hubs. There is no resistance to
technology." That is why India is surging ahead. As Seth notes: "The rapidity of
change over the last two years has been far greater than in the preceding 50
years." Imagine what the next two years will bring, let alone the following 50.
Those who ignore India's rise do so at their own peril.
Who is shaping the new India? Here are three of the many talented
nation-builders who have come to the fore in recent years. While they
represent different regions of the country and various political
ideologies, they fervently extol economic reform and development, and
believe India is moving ahead as they are.
By ROGER MITTON New Delhi
Advocate of Wealth
ARUN JAITLEY, 47, below left, gets most people's vote as the man who best
epitomizes the way India is changing. Says an Asian diplomat: "Jaitley is the
modern face of India, a brilliant man with a clean image." Waspishly articulate,
impatiently dynamic and with a star-studded background in law (including a
stint as solicitor-general), this bespectacled former student leader from Delhi
was imprisoned during the 1970s Emergency declared by then-premier Indira
Gandhi. Always right of center, he rose through the ruling BJP's Youth wing to
join the party's topmost national executive committee in 1991. But Jaitley has
never won a constituency seat and instead sits in the Upper House a fact
that may preclude him from ever becoming prime minister. Until recently, he
was minister in charge of disinvestment (privatization), with the task of
persuading the private sector to take over some of the nation's dinosaur public
companies, such as Air India. He says it was no easy task, made more difficult
by resistance from anti-reformist cabinet colleagues. "Some people may
oppose economic reform for reasons of political advantage, but change is
gaining acceptability," he says. "The people want investment to come in, both
from the private sector and from overseas." Now law minister, Jaitley wants
Indians to view material gain as a good thing. "There was a time when success
was considered elitist and mediocrity was the norm," he says. "Today, success
is excellence. The time is now coming where, in terms of growth and
development, India is going to occupy center-stage. We are becoming relevant
on the regional map. In fact, we'd like the regional map to begin with us."
RANGARAJAN KUMARAMANGaLAM, 48, right, is a soft, genial bear of a man
with a ready laugh and husky smoker's voice. Born into a Tamil Nadu political
dynasty (his grandfather and father were both ministers), he has kept up the
family tradition, becoming a minister in 1991 when he was in the then-governing
Congress party under prime minister Narasimha Rao. He left two years later. "I
resigned from that Congress government essentially because of its half-hearted
reforms and political policies," he says. "I was in Congress for 30 years, but it
has now become a motley crowd of sycophants." Kumaramangalam is now a
gung-ho member of the dominant BJP unusual for a Tamil, given that party's
strong Hindu ethos. Tagged a gadfly for jumping parties and looking after his
own interests, he retorts: "That's not fair. I joined the BJP because they seem
more clear about what they are doing." Having held various portfolios, he is now
in the key ministry of power. In a country the size of India, this is a Herculean
task and one where it is almost impossible to meet expectations. A World
Bank report released last month warned that India's creaky infrastructure
including its power supply could stymie its economic resurgence.
Kumaramangalam admits: "There is a lot still wanted, no doubt about it. But
we've already improved vastly. When I came to this position, we were about
18% short of our power needs. Now we are only 5% short. This is not just due
to additional capacity, but to improved efficiency in production and distribution."
As for India still lagging behind its Asian rival, China, he says: "They will be a
little ahead in the short term because their economic system is not transparent
and because they have an authoritative government. They can say, 'You want to
invest here, I can give you the go-ahead and not be questioned.' In India, you
are answerable. In the longer term, though, we will not just catch up with China,
we will outstrip them. China has never been democratic; India always has
The Extreme-Right View
SURESH PRABHU, 47, above, hails from India's financial and economic
powerhouse state of Maharashtra. He is disarmingly pleasant and soft-voiced
considering he is a member of the neofascist Shiv Sena. The radical pro-Hindu
party's leader, Bal Thackeray, was recently arrested for allegedly contributing to
Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1993 in which thousands were murdered. The
charges were dropped last month. Prabhu tendered his resignation as a
symbolic and politically astute gesture of support for his temporarily
beleaguered party boss. As expected, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did
not accept it. The premier's coalition government would likely collapse if Shiv
Sena left and, besides, Prabhu is too valuable to lose. First appointed to the
cabinet in 1996, he is now in charge of chemicals and fertilizers a tough job
in still largely agrarian Indian. There always seems to be a stream of people
waiting to see Prabhu in his office in the decrepit old government complex. This
is partly because of the minister's easy accessibility, which he advocates as a
deterrent to bureaucratic delays and corruption and as a conduit for new ideas
and views. Prabhu says the world is finally noticing his country. "I believe India
can be the next engine of growth for the global economy."
Spreading the Wealth
Azim Hashim Premji, 54
Chairman of Wipro Group, mostly information technology.
Estimated net worth: $9.4 billion. Wipro was a vegetable-oil business when
Premji took it over in the 1970s. He has built it into one of India's most
formidable IT giants, providing software, hardware and software services around
the world. Premji is now based in Bangalore. His worth is calculated according
to the price of Wipro stock, of which he owns 75%. At one time, before the
decline in the price of IT shares, his wealth was put at $35 billion.
Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande, 45
Founder and chairman of Sycamore Networks, maker of optical networking
software and hardware. Est. net worth: $4 billion. Deshpande, who was born
and initially educated in India, went to the U.S. in the 1980s to study. He
founded Cascade Communications, which he sold for $3.7 billion in 1998.
Sycamore Networks markets optical networking products that enable network
service providers to upgrade their existing fiber-optic networks to offer more
bandwidth. Deshpande is based in Massachusetts.
Lakshmi NiWas Mittal, 50
Chief of Ispat International, steel production. Est. net worth: $1.9 billion.
London-based Mittal heads one of the world's biggest steel corporations. After
starting in India, where his father owned a steel mill, he purchased his first
plant, in Indonesia, in 1971. The company now owns mills across the world and
has an annual production of about 20 million tons a year.
Shiv Nadar, 53
Chief of HCL Group, an IT company. Est. net worth: $1.2 billion. Nadar was an
engineer when, in the 1970s, he and friends started HCL to manufacture office
equipment. In the 1980s, it moved up to computers. The company has
subsidiaries in Singapore and the U.S. HCL also provides software and
Dhirubhai Ambani, 66
Chairman of Reliance Group. Producer of textiles and petrochemicals. Est. net
worth: $1.2 billion. A self-made man, Ambani built a textile business into a
huge petrochemicals giant in 30 years of sheer effort. Reliance is the largest
company in the private sector by turnover and number of employees. It is
backed by millions of small-time investors. A movement in its stock price
generally affects the entire market.
Kumar Mangalam Birla, 31
Chairman of Aditya Birla Group, diversified interests. Est. net worth: $1.1 billion.
The young Birla was thrust into the leadership of this family-owned
conglomerate when his father died three years ago. Since then he has begun a
modernization program of the venerable company, which has a vast range of
manufacturing interests, some of them in Southeast Asia. They include textiles,
chemicals, cement, iron and motor vehicles.
Rich Wisdom : Azim Premji
The wealthiest man believes information technology will
transform the nation
W hen the stock price of Bombay-listed information technology company Wipro
hit an all-time closing-price high of 9,800 rupees ($218) earlier this year, its
founder Azim Hashim Premji became the planet's second-richest man after
America's Bill Gates. Premji's 75% of Wipro translated into paper holdings
worth $37.5 billion. On July 28, Wipro was trading at $54.85 per share, which
means Premji's stake was worth just $9.4 billion. He remains India's wealthiest
man, but 54-year-old Premji could not care less. The Wipro chairman lives in
Spartan simplicity. He travels economy class and refuses to stay in five-star
hotels. The Stanford-educated Premji spoke with Asiaweek's Arjuna Ranawana
India is increasingly being seen as an information technology
Over the years the Indian software industry has grown in both volume and
international acceptance. The success stories of companies such as Hotmail,
Exodus and eCode provide examples of Indians who have taken Silicon Valley
by storm. To me, the biggest opportunity is the change in the nature of critical
resources needed by an organization and the nation. Material and capital
resources characterized the manufacturing economy. The power of the mind is
the critical resource in the information age. This is where we as a nation have a
major competitive advantage.
How will this change India?
Typically India was seen as a country with a lot of poverty and other problems. I
am not saying the new image has displaced the old, but it is supplementing
this old view. That is a major morale booster from the country's point of view,
and is going to have a major overflow into a number of other industries.
Particularly in the technology area, there is a self-confidence building up.
Self-confidence is a prerequisite for a country looking into the future. Indians in
the IT (information technology) sector have the confidence to say that this
millennium belongs to us. With the momentum we have generated, IT is one
industry where India has become a global brand.
But brands, like people, need nourishment to sustain and enhance values and
competitive advantages. India needs to nurture its talent like never before. We
must forget dogmatic ideas of the past and provide freedom and entrepreneurial
space for all. We will have to build globally competitive and compatible
infrastructure. Only this infrastructure can make us invincible and sustainably
invincible. Government must take bold visionary steps, as we have nothing to
lose but our poverty. If we win, we will create immense national wealth to be
shared by everyone.
Yet much of India is still mired in poverty and illiteracy.
The IT industry can transform the wealthscape of our country. Information
technology is in the business of creating wealth and redistributing wealth. The
logic is very compelling. The creation of 1 million additional IT jobs will earn us
$20 billion in net foreign-exchange revenue. This is three times our
trade-account deficit. This revenue alone adds about 5 percentage points to our
national GDP. With current multiples in the stock market in India and in the
U.S., these jobs conservatively add $200 billion to the national wealth, thus
creating more than 10 million millionaires in India.
Other countries have IT ambitions too.
The dominant competition will come from China and East Europe, and also
places like the Philippines. They will eventually take up market share from
India. But the nice thing is that even in a country like America today, there is a
shortage of between half a million and 1 million IT professionals. Indian
companies will only be niche players in the product area, where you build
massive brands. But they will and should dominate the services area.
Where does India's IT industry go from here?
The leading players are concentrating on higher quality services, whether in
technology, telecom and e-commerce. The second area where the industry is
focusing is vertical expertise. That is, you build industry expertise in retail, in
the stock exchange, in manufacturing, in energy and in other sectors so that
you are able to understand customer requirements. You can add value in terms
of the solutions you have to offer. You can take more independent
responsibility, because you are not overly dependent on the customer to
explain his industry to you all the time.
The third area is taking more turnkey responsibility for projects which are
executed offshore. If we execute a project overseas, the compensation we pay
has to be commensurate with salaries in those countries. If we can do 70% to
80% of the work here, then we can offer more competitive pricing. The next area
is what is termed IT-enabled services. We [at Wipro] run a global support
system for a global operating system. This is a very specialized IT area. But it
could become broader. For instance, if an AOL customer wanted some help, he
can get it from an Indian operator, one who is well trained and speaks [English]
with a globally understood accent. A person in other countries may cost you
$30,000 a year. Here you would pay him $2,000. You can see the cost
arbitrage more than one in ten. These are low-end services, but they are also
Prominent citizens contemplate its prospects
To the world, it seems that India has finally arrived with a bang and is suddenly
the flavor of the year. But how do Indians themselves see their nation? Some
are gushingly optimistic and others sourly skeptical, but most acknowledge
that it is exciting to be an Indian today. A sampling of views:
SUHEL SETH, the Harvard-educated vice chairman of Delhi-based Brand
Dotcom Ltd.: In the last few years, India has moved from an autocracy to a
meritocracy. Before, you still needed licensing, you needed to toe the
government line, to suck up to the powers that be. Now, old-world values have
been replaced by new-world vision. Earlier, we were feared because of our size
and the mistakes we could make. That has been replaced by admiration.
ISHER JUDGE AHLUWALIA, head of the Indian Council for Research on
International Economic Relations: Growth in India was 5.8% in the 1980s.
Then in 1991, we opened up the economy and growth in the 1990s has
increased to 6.6%. We are clearly on an uptrend and there is no going back.
Still, democracy restrains us. It makes decision-making slower. But that is a
price worth paying. Some people talk about how the "controlled democracies"
of Malaysia or Singapore do better. I would not want that. And if you look
long-term, because we have our democracy and our institutions, we may fare
better than China.
SYED SHAHABUDDIN, an ex-MP from poor and populous Uttar Pradesh
state and now publisher of the Muslim India monthly: India may be doing
well, but its Muslims are not. They are very unhappy; there is a bias against us.
Only 11 of the 543 national MPs are Muslims. The police discriminate against
us when we go to them, they say: Why are you complaining? If you don't
like it here, go to Pakistan. But Muslims are doing better in small-scale private
businesses, where they are self-employed and look after themselves.
NAJMA HEPTULLA, a New Delhi Muslim and deputy chairman of the
Upper House of Parliament: We are a mature, strong democracy. No other
country in the region has that kind of democratic base. We could have gone
faster. But it's better to be slow and steady, than to be fast and make
mistakes. Economically we have made great strides, especially in information
technology (IT). And there is no country that can match India's textile industry.
SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY, a Calcutta-based commentator: India, which
should play a much more prominent role in the region, is very squeamish about
exercising its power. The other nations in South Asia resent India's size. But
India cannot shrink to order. In Europe, I don't think that Belgium and
Luxembourg expect to be taken on a par with Germany. But India concedes
that kind of parity to all its neighbors. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN is astute
which the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is not. ASEAN
members, which are wary of Indonesia, subsume the potential Indonesian threat
in constructive engagement.
MANI SHANKAR AIYAR, a south Indian MP of the opposition Congress
party: Economically, China does better than India because it is self-sufficient in
oil, receives huge investments from overseas Chinese, and is a dictatorship.
Foreign investors like dictatorships. They may love democracy at home, but
they loathe it abroad. We'd have been twice as rich today if we hadn't been a
democracy. That said, I'm proud of our being a democracy, which has
compelled us to pay attention to social inequality and economic injustice.
SHOBHA DE, a Bombay-based writer and columnist: You don't feel
apologetic about being Indian any more. Indians can flash their passports with a
little more pride now. As for the urban Indian woman, she is unrecognizable
from what she was 20 years ago. That is all due to her being in an economically
stronger position. She is an equal contributing partner to the family kitty. It's not
enough having a mind of your own if you don't have an income to match. So
today's contemporary urban marriage in India is a far more equal marriage.
AMAR SINGH, a member of the Upper House of Parliament from Uttar
Pradesh: India is a functioning chaos. Despite this and all the other negative
circumstances, India is going to rise. We have tremendous human resources
and the people have great perseverance. India is a true picture of unity in
diversity. One major problem is the disastrous political situation. The party
leading the coalition government, the BJP, is fascist. It refuses to ban those
groups that persecute Christians and Muslims.
PRIYA PAUL, president of Park Hotels: India is the flavor of the month,
whether you are talking about business confidence and the IT sector that is
driving it, or about the impact of fashion, art and music in Europe and the U.S.
but not so much in Asia. Not enough Asians are coming to India. It's not a
holiday destination for most of them.
RUSSI MODY, a Parsi from Bombay and ex-chairman of Air India, Indian
Airlines and Tata Iron & Steel: Fifty years ago, we Indians chose democracy
as the best means of governing ourselves. It can only succeed if the people are
educated enough to recognize this. Unfortunately, while we have achieved
progress in fields such as agriculture and information technology, we have not
been successful in governing ourselves. It is time we woke up to the fact that
there is a total lack of leadership, efficiency, education and discipline. A new
generation needs to take up the reins of government.
Increased military might boosts the
aspiration to become a great power
By ANTHONY DAVIS New Delhi
To judge by the wave of international outrage,
New Delhi's decision in May 1998 to publicly
declare India a nuclear weapons state by setting
off underground explosions in the Rajasthan
desert was a colossal strategic blunder. The
world came down hard with economic sanctions.
Foreign dignitaries found it politic to stay away.
Even some ordinary Indians questioned the sanity
of the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party
government and its untried leaders.
Two years later, sanctions are all but a memory.
Foreign leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, have returned 30
foreign ministers and numerous presidents visiting since the end of 1998. The
BJP is more firmly in power than ever. Whether having two nuclear powers (with
Pakistan) sharing the subcontinent makes South Asia a more dangerous place
is still an open question. But it is hard to deny that having a nuclear capability
is propelling India's drive to be counted a superpower. As Jasjit Singh, director
of New Delhi's Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, says: "We are now a
major world player."
Clinton's March visit may have opened a new era of engagement with the U.S.,
but New Delhi remains firmly tied to its old ally and main weapons supplier,
Russia. An avalanche of Russian weaponry from submarines and frigates to
jet fighters, battle tanks and cruise missiles continues to provide the sinews
on which India's strategic ambitions are being built. The latest additions to the
shopping list include more than 300 T-90 main battle tanks, the Russian aircraft
carrier Admiral Gorshkov and three more frigates.
But if Russian hardware cheap, hardy and familiar provides the bulk of
India's military muscle, the critically important high-tech add-ons come from
newer friends. Foremost among them is Israel, which established diplomatic
relations with India in 1992. Over the past three years it has become India's
second-largest provider of military equipment. Israel is also believed to be
helping develop India's missiles.
New Delhi now sees its strategic interests stretching from the Arabian Sea to
the South China Sea. That puts a premium on sea power. After a ten-year
hiatus, shipyards are busy again. India has already produced two new
Delhi-class guided missile destroyers, with a third to follow. Longer-term
indigenous programs include another aircraft carrier, diesel-electric and
nuclear-powered submarines and a new class of frigates.
A key mission is maritime diplomacy. In October a task force of five warships, a
tanker and possibly a submarine plan a cruise in the South China Sea. Joint
exercises are also planned with the Singaporean, Vietnamese, Japanese and
South Korean navies. And the Indians expect to make a port call in China.
"Going into the South China Sea is a bold step," says Rahul Bedi, India
correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly. "India is going out of her own sphere,
experimenting with something new."
Indeed, for all the attention given to India's perennial rivalry with Pakistan, most
in New Delhi's defense establishment view China as the nation's real security
challenge "economically, technologically, politically and militarily," notes
Jasjit Singh. "By 2010 a modernized Chinese military will be entirely different
from anything we've known before."
New Delhi has watched with growing alarm as Beijing has expanded its
influence into Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal to its east. To its west, China
continues to supply rival Pakistan with advanced missile and nuclear
technology. Recent reports suggesting that today Pakistan's nuclear arsenal
and delivery capabilities may be even more advanced than India's caused a
flurry of concern.
Nevertheless, last year's war in the Kargil region of disputed Kashmir indicated
the extent to which, for all its global ambitions, India remains bogged down by
its feud with Pakistan. It also revealed the embarrassingly wide gulf between its
aspirations to be counted a superpower and its present capabilities. "There was
a failure of intelligence, a deficient arsenal, inadequate air power, poor
command and control," notes a foreign military attache. "India gained a lot of
brownie points for 'restraint,' but in fact Kargil was a military balls-up."
Indeed, India's armed forces desperately need a complete overhaul. Its 1.2
million-man army is bloated and ill-equipped. The air force loses more planes to
crashes due to poor maintenance and training than probably any other air force
in the world. While negotiations over the acquisition of a new jet trainer have
dragged on interminably, nearly 200 aircraft have crashed since 1991. During
Kargil, the navy struggled to launch jump-jets from the decks of civilian
container vessels; its sole aircraft carrier was in dry-dock for a refit.
Major questions still surround India's nuclear doctrine or apparent lack of
one. Officially, New Delhi espouses "minimum deterrence" and "no first use."
But a policy paper leaked last year indicated a desire to achieve a full triad of
sea-, land- and air-delivered launch platforms. And that, as one foreign analyst
put it, "went far beyond what anyone had expected." But for the present, there
is strikingly little evidence of even an effective command and control structure.
"Clearly a lot hasn't been thought through," notes one analyst.
Underlying many of the problems is bureaucratic inertia and jealously guarded
vested interests. The Indian army is famous for staying aloof from politics, but
some think that civilian control is taken almost to the extreme. Uniforms are
scarce at the Ministry of Defense, which is run almost exclusively by civilians.
Rather than being integrated into planning, policy and procurement, service
personnel are kept at arm's length. "There's been talk of an integrated Ministry
of Defense for the last couple of years but nothing has happened," says one
Western military official.
Following the shock of Kargil, India is today undertaking a review of its defense
infrastructure. This month committees on defense and border management,
internal security and intelligence will submit reports to a group of ministers to
decide on necessary changes. "A big shake-up is decades overdue," notes one
analyst, "but my fear is there are too many vested interests. There's no desire
Maybe. But it would be foolish to doubt the seriousness of India's security
concerns or its aspirations to be counted among the great powers. Slowly,
tortuously and doubtless with many setbacks, change will come. Those today
who scoff at India's delusions of grandeur may find themselves in for a big
surprise 20 years from now.
The Media Factor
How journalists are contributing to the country's growing
By ROGER MITTON New Delhi & Calcutta
As the galvanization of India gathers pace, it is being accompanied and fuelled
by an epochal change in the press. Nowhere is it more evident than in the "new
media" of 24-hour satellite television and pioneering websites. When Indians
learned the shocking news that the nation's cricketers had been bribed to fix
matches, the story broke not in a newspaper or on TV, but on a startup and
upstart website called Tehelka.com.
Tehelka means "making waves" and that's what its editor-in-chief, Tarun
Tejpal, and a new generation of Indian journalists are trying to do. But it is not
proving easy. India's print media in particular remain snared in a kind of colonial
mindset. They are both endearing and infuriating. Only on the front page of an
Indian newspaper would you find an enigmatic quote from the 18th-century
French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the lead news
story beginning: "He may still be in the eye of a storm, but the man who played
Prospero and created the tempest around him says he is clean." This was a
story about Mohammed Azharuddin, a cricketing icon accused of match-fixing.
There is blimpish resistance to changing this ivory-tower style and format that
belongs in a time gone by. Says Tejpal: "Even if they want to shake things up,
editors of papers that are 50 or 60 years old can only push the envelope up to a
The general state of the media resembles the country itself: vastly improved but
still falling short of potential; infuriatingly pedantic and leadfooted, yet peppered
with displays of brilliance. The press is exceptionally free and consequently
despised by those in authority. Notes Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of the weekly
newsmagazine Outlook: "Politicians in India, especially those in the governing
BJP, are paranoid about journalists. We are probably No. 1 on their hit list. So
the independent editor or reporter is finding it increasingly difficult to function in
India." Well, everything is relative. The many Indian journalists who are lured by
high salaries to Malaysia or Singapore invariably end up complaining about how
much more restrictive things are there. And the difference is further illuminated
by Mehta himself, who recalls: "A BJP minister told me, 'I don't trust you.' I
replied, 'Thank you for the compliment, because I don't want to be trusted by
you.'" Imagine, if you can, that kind of conversation in Singapore. That is why
the Indian media, despite all their faults, are so superior to those in much of the
rest of Asia.
In the print world, there are more than 20 major English-language daily papers,
all of them aspiring to be serious and authoritative and all extremely
domestically focused. Ravindra Kumar, managing editor of the Calcutta-based
The Statesman, finds this understandable. "We are a big country, so this is to
be expected," he argues. The limited foreign news is rarely about Southeast
Asia. Vir Sanghvi, the young and dynamic editor of The Hindustan Times,
complains: "The coverage of Southeast Asia in Indian newspapers is pathetic.
We've tried very hard to introduce more news on Asia, but nobody gives a
damn. In the U.K., a Labor MP denounces Tony Blair, and it's a big story here;
there's a coup in Thailand, Indians couldn't care less."
But they do care about watching TV, which has burgeoned over the past 15
years. Says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, anchor of a current-affairs show: "Since
the mid-1980s, TV growth in India has been the fastest in the world." There are
now some 70 million television sets in the country, and 45% of them have
cable. Thakurta comments: "It's unique. For about $4, you get 40-plus
channels." Echoes broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley: "From the cities to the
villages, people are exposed to television. It is going to be a human resource, it
is going to be education, development, reform." And much of it is homegrown.
Witness Prannoy Roy's New Delhi TV, a 24-hour news channel. Says Outlook's
Mehta: "It's a great success story an independent TV station. That's the sort
of service the politicians instinctively dislike." But they are going to have to
learn to live with it, because more is on the way.
The Internet is already beginning to transform the face of modern India, bringing
the news, knowledge and empowerment of the cities to the depths of the Hindu
heartland. It is also bringing the Indian Diaspora together as never before and
this helps stoke the new national resurgence and self-confidence. Says Tejpal:
"The Web can, in real time, bring all Indians together on the same platform. At
11 p.m., we put out a story and everywhere around the world Indians can
access it within minutes. And that's what they do. We get tremendous
Well, that's the cutting-edge part, but what about those dinosaurs in the print
media? There's good news they are shaping up, in part because they have
also reaped the benefit of India's new economic vibrancy. Says Sanghvi of The
Hindustan Times: "The problem before was not that editors felt they weren't as
good as people abroad, but that they felt like mid-level civil servants. Now
journalists are paid much more than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and their
editors feel economically on a par with the MDs of companies. That's the real
change." The top-selling Times of India (circulation about 1.4 million) has
perked up its image only to be unfairly charged by rivals with dumbing down.
Says Mehta: "In terms of serious editorial content, The Times of India may have
fallen a few notches, but it's still a very successful publication."
Even so, there remains vast scope for improvement. Breakfast rooms across
India display a vista of glazed eyes ploughing wearily through the turgid,
circumlocutory language of the morning papers. Tejpal laments: "The design is
dull, the presentation is dull. We just do a bad job of making our newspapers."
He claims a new generation of bright, kick-butt editors will change this. But
even Sanghvi knows this won't be easy. He warns: "The great challenge in India
is to transform newspapers without their becoming trivial, while still making
The temptation is to forsake fossilized print for the new opportunities of the
dotcom world. Webmeister Tejpal can hardly contain himself as he gushes
about his new baby, Tehelka (motto: "News, views, all the juice"). His 40
journalists already put about 15 stories a day on the website. "I wanted to
create a product that spans all the spectrum, from highbrow to lowbrow, from
detailed analysis and debate down to an erotic review," he says. But there's a
long way to go. Mehta scoffs: "The Indian dotcom players are very untested. I
find the editorial quality truly appalling."
Whatever the professionalism of Indian journalism, there is no sense there will
ever be a compromise on the high value placed on free speech. That is why the
Indian media in all their manifestations remain alive and vibrant and full of
surprises. Says Mehta: "There is terrestrial and satellite TV. And there are the
new challenges from all these websites. Yet the Indian print media are still
doing their job and have found a new role. Readership and advertising figures
So, it seems, is the mood of journalists in India in print, TV and on the web.
There is a sense that they can affect, and indeed shape, their newly resurgent
nation. Says print man Mehta: "There is a thriving, independent press in India.
There are no institutional fetters. The government tries to woo us and corrupt us
and emasculate us. But we remain free." And journalists are using that freedom
and the new economic good times to greater advantage. Says TV man
Thakurta: "The media have played a bigger role in Indian society over the past
few years with the proliferation of new TV channels vying with each other to
break the news." Finally, webmeister Tejpal predicts: "All of us who lived
through 1980s journalism in India know that every major issue of that decade
was pushed by journalists. In the 1990s, a lot of that was lost. It is being found
again." These are exciting times for pressmen in India. Who'd be anywhere
Once Again,With Attitude
From books to beauty
queens, the buzz is on
By ARJUNA RANAWANA
Is the Moon in the seventh
house? Did Jupiter align with
Mars? The aura surrounding
things Indian haven't been this
cool since the Beatles were
sitting at the feet of the
Maharishi Yogi. There's the
fashion. Sari material and other ethnic touches are popping up again in the
European couture houses ("Indian" shocking pink is big this year). Material
mom Madonna has taken to decorating herself with mehndi, the intricate
henna-painting that women use to adorn their hands and feet on special
occasions. The Subcontinent also holds a special cachet for publishers, both
as a market and as a source of English-language writers, especially following
the international success of authors like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and
"In recent years, we've seen the world's imagination captured by things we
Indians take for granted," says Satya Saran, editor of Femina, the leading
English-language women's magazine in the country. Perhaps the most
spectacular Indian conquests has been on the international beauty scene. The
reigning Miss World and Miss Universe, Yukta Mookhey and Lara Dutta, are
both Indians. That's the second double victory in six years Aishwarya Rai
and Sushmita Sen wore the corresponding tiaras in 1994. (Hyderabad native
Diana Hayden was Miss World in 1997.) These are no accidental beauty
queens either. They are the products of a national campaign initiated by
Femina, which runs the local contests.
Ironically, this drive was sparked by a setback. The Indian entrant narrowly lost
the Miss Universe title in 1993, but the potential fired up the local glamour
industry. Femina hired a consultant to reorganize the way local contests were
run and to give the finalists basic training in walking, presenting a confident
image. "We started to pick women with international contests in mind," says
Bangalore-based style guru Prasad Bidapa. "We told the judges: Don't look for
a Miss India, look for a Miss World." Nowadays, the winners and runners-up,
whittled from a field of about 300, are put through the beauty equivalent of boot
camp, a rigorous regime designed to groom world-beaters in the glamour
stakes. This investment has certainly paid dazzling dividends so far. Says
Bidapa: "The beauty has always been there. It's just that the industry in India
has gotten more professional."
Femina's remarkably effective program has other knock-on benefits. For the first
time, an Indian is breaking into the ranks of the world's supermodels. The
trailblazer: Ujjwala Raut, a slim, 1.77-meter former pentathlon specialist from
Maharashtra. After a successful first season on the catwalks of Paris, London
and Milan, she is now much in demand in New York too. With features typical
of the Konkani people from southwest India (light brown complexion and often
green, grey or blue eyes after centuries of interaction with European traders),
Raut "could be from anywhere," says Bidapa. "The [fashion] world is looking for
beautiful girls with the right look. That they are Indian is incidental." Sure, but it
certainly helps get fashion agencies' attention if you come from a country that
seems to mass-produce beauty queens. It was only two years ago that Bidapa
started getting overseas assignments for local models, and he's been in the
business in India for two decades.
Some of the international interest is simply cyclical. India was fashionable
during the 1960s, then again in the 1980s, observes Bidapa. And it's now
cresting another wave. Apparently inspired by a holiday in the country, Donna
Karan has been embellishing her collections with bits of Indian fabric. At
Christian Dior, vivid kanjipuram silks feature extensively in John Galliano's
designs this season.
The book world is swayed by fads, too, though at much more sedate pace
compared to the clothing business. Following their love affair with South
American magic realism, many publishers developed a passion for Anglo-Indian
writing (while mainlining the Victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution formula).
This time round, however, the Indian invasion has extended into film and music.
Bollywood's most sought-after composer, A.R. Rehman, is to collaborate with
Andrew Lloyd Webber on a new musical; the Cats creator was apparently
impressed by a song that Rehman wrote for a Hindi movie.
Indian films have long had a global audience. The reach of the local movie
industry is "huge," says Bollywood analyst Komal Nahata. Primarily, that is a
function of the far-flung South Asian diaspora. The latest Bollywood flicks are
regularly screened in the major cities of Southeast Asia, Britain, the United
States and a number of African countries, often opening on the same night as
in Bombay. But now the films seem to be gaining non-traditional audiences.
Take the musical Taal. Last year the Indian production was among the top 20
grossing movies in the U.S. Hindi movies such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dil
Se have been ranked in the top 10 at the British box office over the past couple
of years. Though there is a large South Asian population in Britain, says
Nahata, the productions must be able to attract audiences outside the
immigrant community to achieve those numbers. Indeed, even Tamil-language
films like Mutu ran for months in Japan.
Much of the current buzz, however, has more to do with a more globalized
world. Hollywood and the publishing industry are constantly on the lookout for
"new" talent with different voices and perspectives. And India, with its deeply
rooted film tradition, is home to an enormous pool of skilled professionals.
Together with Bombay, studios in Madras (actually the most productive and
technically advanced center in the country), Hyderabad, Bangalore and Calcutta
roll out some 400 movies each year. That there are an estimated 200 million
people in India who work primarily in English means this creativity is more
accessible to global business. Windfall earnings generated by writers like Roy
further draw international executives' attention to the country.
Indian film talent seems to transfer abroad far more successfully than that of
China, despite the cinematic genius of its fifth-generation directors. For
example, Bombay veteran Shekhar Kapoor directed the British historical drama
Elizabeth, which was nominated for a best film Oscar last year. India's star
shone even brighter when Madras-based director Manoj Night Shyamalan
turned out a sleeper hit in The Sixth Sense. Now, after a delayed introduction,
U.S. and European audiences are beginning to rave about Santosh Sivan's
wonderfully nuanced film about a woman suicide bomber, The Terrorist (1998).
The London-based Merchant-Ivory production team has signed Terrorist's lead
actress, Ayesha Dharker, to appear in The Mystic Masseur, an adaptation of
the novel by V.S. Naipaul.
Global considerations are shaping Indian ways too. For instance, local
filmmakers typically earn about $2 million on every movie that is exported,
compared to $9 million from a blockbuster in the domestic market. "Now
producers factor in how much they can earn overseas when they make a film,"
says Nahata. Individual attitudes also change with the freedom to travel, greater
choice in the marketplace and rising incomes for professionals. Suresh
Ramachandran, a marketing manager in Bangalore, remembers when his family
would plan vacations only within India. "But now we have the ability to go to
Singapore or some other country with the kids," he says.
The most profound effects, however, have been in the perceptions of women
in society and among themselves. To many young women, particularly in the
urban middle class, the high-profile global beauty contests are keys to a more
liberal environment as well as new opportunities. "It has removed the purdah
[veil] from society," observes Bidapa. "Sushmita and Aishwarya led people to
say, Our girls can do this; they can get on stage in a swimsuit and still remain
respectable. It has given the girls more options."
That's not the case for the vast majority of Indian women, of course. Many walk
several kilometers from their homes in dusty villages each day to scrounge for
firewood and to fetch water. There are bonded laborers toiling at granite
quarries, some chained to prevent them from escaping. These are women
whose entire lives will be dominated by hard labor and pitiful wages, their
contribution to society unrecognized. Most are probably unaware that one of
their countrywomen is considered the most beautiful in the world.
Nonetheless, Femina gets tens of thousands of applications from young women
all over India each year. "We don't know how many, we don't bother to count,"
says Saran of the sacks of entries. Bidapa believes the contests produce a
"tremendous" sociological impact. "These women's self-image has changed
completely. Everybody dares to dream."
Take Sheetal Ramachandran, a management graduate and the current Miss
Bangalore. The 21-year-old, who has been accepted for an MBA course at
Michigan State University in the U.S., wants to head her own textile company
some day. But Ramachandran has decided to postpone her studies for a year.
"I am giving myself a shot at the Miss India title this year," she says. "Lots of
people say I can make it." She probably won't get another chance later, she
adds, as that would mean seriously disrupting her studies.
Even concepts of beauty are reshaped. Indian society traditionally favors more
generously proportioned women than demanded in the modeling and
beauty-queen business. Indeed, former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen admits
having had her breasts enhanced to fit that ideal when she sought a showbiz
career in the mid-1990s. But over the past couple of years, skinny actresses
like Urmila Matondkar and Preity Zinta have become very popular. "Thin is
definitely in," says movie-industry commentator Nahata. And that, he says, is
the impact of freely available international cable television and the winning
Some parents find the new images deeply troubling. Bombay school teacher
Carmen D'Souza, for one, frets that teenage girls in urban centers are almost
obsessed with becoming models and beauty queens. "Unfortunately all this
[glamour] business has focussed attention on women's bodies rather than their
minds," she says. "It is also an imported, alien standard of beauty and we fear
that children may risk anorexia trying to stay thin."
Feminists' comparisons of beauty contests with cattle markets don't make
much of an impression on most young women. But an increasing number are
making lifestyle choices based on their careers rather than home and family.
Meenakshi Mathur, 23, is one of them. A Miss India finalist in 1997, the New
Delhi native is now a professional model. "Some people are doctors, some are
engineers, and I am a model. This is just another job," she says. "I am the
commodity and I want to sell myself." And unlike women in her mother's
generation, Mathur is in no hurry to get hitched. "I want to build up my career
and establish myself first, you know, like the men do before they get married."
According to editor Saran, whose monthly magazine claims a readership of
about one million, there have been radical changes in attitudes among urban
Indians over the past few years. These have come about in spurts rather than
evolving gradually, and "it has had a lot to do with women going to work
professionally," she says. "The confidence that they have gained is very
important. The Indian woman has realized that she has the ability to change her
Films (and studio bosses) are beginning to mirror the new social mores.
Consider Kya Kehena, one of the biggest domestic hits of the year, starring the
hottest young actress in Hindi moviedom, Zinta. Unusually for a Bollywood
production, Zinta doesn't share the limelight with any hero. What's more, the
script takes a bold plunge in allowing the principal character to be made
pregnant by her boyfriend. Art-house movies have tackled such "forbidden"
themes before, but Kya Kehena is the first mainstream production to do this
and get away with it.
There's a personal bonus for young actresses, says Nahata. Where older stars
such as Madhuri Dixit were once expected to have impeccable private lives (or
at least present the appearance of one), newcomers are now finding it much
easier to be their own person. One day, this choice might even be extended to
the millions of women who labor in India's fields and factories. That would be a
crowning achievement indeed.
HISTORY of INDIA
Chronology -- Ancient India -- BC to 1000 AD
Medieval India -- 1000 AD to 1756 AD
Modern India -- 1757 AD to 1947 AD
Independent India -- 1947 AD to now