Cautious Optimism for a Land of Contradictions

'Reimagining India' panelists largely emphasize the positive

NEW YORK, November 19, 2013 — Following Asia Society India Centre’s program on McKinsey’s newly released book Reimagining India, Asia Society presented a second panel conversation here with contributing authors Christopher Graves, Global CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide; Suketu Mehta, author and Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University; Arvind Subramanian, the Dennis Weatherstone Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Development and Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development; and Yasheng Huang, Professor of International Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Adil Zainulbhai, chairman of McKinsey India, moderated the conversation.

Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower is a collection of essays by leading thinkers in business, academia, policy, and culture on what decision makers in the private, public, and social sectors need to know about modern India.

The panelists expressed cautious optimism regarding India's growth its and ability improve the living standards of 1.2 billion of its people. As Mehta noted, given India's status as "a land of contradictions" where both one idea about the country and its opposite can hold true — it is the world’s biggest democracy but it has probably the world’s largest Maoist insurgency, it has the world’s biggest middle class but also the world’s largest collection of poor people, it has world-class doctors and engineers but has levels of malnutrition higher than some areas of sub-Saharan Africa and the world’s largest collection of illiterate people — the overall takeaway from the book was simple. It's a look at what has been done, and what remains to be done, for India to realize its potential.

Following are some of the most noteworthy comments from the evening’s panelists.

“The ’Incredible India!’ brand was largely meant for tourism, but if you think about branding for foreign investment, ‘incredible’ is not what you want — in fact you want credible. Incredible is what bankers throw up over. So this is the struggle in India for branding for different audiences…if you are looking to be spending a billion dollars for a plant there, you want credible.”
— Christopher Graves, on presenting India to the world

“India is a highly heterogeneous country .... Let’s play a thought exercise and imagine an authoritarian system under those conditions — I don’t think it could last one day. Look at the Soviet Union, which broke apart on mostly ethnic and racial lines. Look at much smaller Yugoslavia. Democracy is one of the few systems in the world, sometimes badly, that is able to manage this level of heterogeneity, I would argue.”
— Yasheng Huang, on comparisons between India’s political system and China's

“Urban India is a mess, but it still continues to attract young people, and it’s not just about money and sending it back to support your family on the farm. For the young Indian in a village, the city is a place where caste matters less, where you can marry someone of your choice .... I mean, what is an untouchable on a Bombay train.”
— Suketu Mehta, on the pull that cities have on the country’s young people

“If you go to any country around the world, almost all of them will say that corruption is the top problem, so this is kind of a universal phenomenon. As I’ve said, the only difference between the U.S. and India — in the U.S. corruption takes the form of making the rules, while in India it takes the form of breaking the rules, so there is not that much difference...corruption in India has to do with scarce resources, especially land.”
— Arvind Subramanian, addressing an online question on corruption in India

To continue the conversation on India and to engage the general public, McKinsey is holding an essay contest on Reimagining India.

Video: Watch program highlights (6 min., 18 sec.)

Related Links:
Watch the complete program
Asia Society India Centre's Reimagining India event, 11/12/13
Shop AsiaStore for Reimagining India