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IN , when India celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence, the world paid homage to its most populous democracy. Other countries had grown richer in those postcolonial years. Many had escaped the political and religious convulsions that had so often shaken the region.
But almost alone in the non-Western world -- barring a short interruption in , when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency -- India had clung doggedly to its democratic convictions. A slew of books commemorated the achievement. One of the finest, Sunil Khilnani's ''Idea of India,'' described India's polity as ''the third moment in the great democratic experiment launched by the American and French Revolutions.
Like many of these books, Gurcharan Das's ''India Unbound'' is a broad summing-up of the last half century. Part memoir, part journalism, part history and part management bible, the book begins shortly before independence and continues until the new millennium.
A former C. And where authors like Khilnani cherish the revolution that began with independence in , Das does not find full cause for jubilation until , when India unleashed a series of economic reforms, the start of an ''economic revolution'' that he believes ''may well be more important than the political revolution.
Those reforms were forced upon India, adopted less than enthusiastically when the nation found itself with foreign exchange reserves worth only two weeks of imports. Over the course of what Das calls a ''golden summer,'' a newly installed government surprised everyone by easing foreign exchange restrictions, devaluing the rupee, lowering import tariffs and undoing the byzantine controls that had stifled Indian industry.
Many -- Das included -- feel the reforms should have gone further, but the results nonetheless have been dramatic: after decades of chugging along at the so-called Hindu rate of growth a dismal 3. The growth in disposable incomes, and the opening up of the country to world markets, has altered the face of Indian society, creating a new consumer middle class.
Das argues that these changes are only the beginning of a dramatic reversal of fortunes. At the heart of ''India Unbound'' is a deep ambivalence about Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of Indian independence but also of its disastrous economic policies. Das recognizes the political contributions made by Nehru, and he writes of the admiration he felt as a young man for the handsome leader whose lofty ideals inspired a nation. But, echoing an increasingly common attitude in modern India, he feels that Nehru's faith in Soviet-style central planning cheated the nation of the prosperity enjoyed by some of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Nehru's revolution, Das argues, was incomplete, delivering political liberty but failing to unshackle the nation economically. In one of the more eloquent expressions of this sentiment, he tells of a meeting at which the industrialist Rahul Bajaj is threatened with imprisonment for producing more scooters than permitted by his quota.
Such stories enliven what could easily have been a dull piece of economic history. Das had a ringside seat at the events he describes, and the result is an engaging account that moves easily from the big picture to the telling anecdote. Through Das, we are introduced not just to the standard pantheon of political figures but to a range of lesser-known characters from the corporate world.
These include old-fashioned industrialists like Bajaj and also a new brand of businessman -- entrepreneurs like Narayana Murthy, the C. Das's sympathies clearly lie with this later generation of managers.
He sees the earlier breed as dinosaurs, pampered by a protectionist government and doomed to oblivion. His enthusiasm for the new order becomes most apparent in the book's final section, where he succumbs to a certain giddiness over India's prospects in the 21st century.
Das is particularly excited about India's software industry, a sector whose great success has led many to predict -- as the head of India's largest mutual fund recently did -- that ''what oil is to the Middle East, infotech is to India. Such optimism is not entirely misplaced. India's high-tech industry has been the most visible success of the reforms, generating fabulous wealth and great opportunities. What is less clear is the extent to which this wealth is trickling down to the million Indians who still live in poverty and the 75 percent who live in the countryside, far away from the new economy.
Das is undoubtedly right that poverty has tarnished India's democracy, but he seems less concerned that unequal prosperity may have the same effect. To be fair, he does argue that democracy and capitalism need not be mutually exclusive, and cites from the work of Amartya Sen, who has repeatedly written on the importance of integrating the two.
But despite his professed preference for ''democratic capitalism,'' Das's faith in free markets can come across as overly zealous, as when he complains that too many Indians ''are still listening to the background noise of democracy when we could be listening to the music of entrepreneurship. However, one doesn't need to share Das's unbridled fervor for markets to appreciate this book.
Near the end, Das writes about his son, who has decided to leave a job in New York and return to India to start a company. That ''spirit'' signals a dramatic widening of horizons, a new self-confidence. Something tremendous is happening in India, and Das, with his keen eye and often elegant prose, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the transformation. Books Techno-Brahmins. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers.
India Unbound By Gurcharan Das. New York: Alfred A. Home Page World U.
Look Inside. India today is a vibrant free-market democracy, a nation well on its way to overcoming decades of widespread poverty. Das traces these developments and tells the stories of the major players from Nehru through today. Impassioned, erudite, and eminently readable, India Unbound is a must for anyone interested in the global economy and its future. Gurcharan Das is a columnist for the Times of India and other newspapers, and is the author of three plays and a novel. This elegant essay has something for everyone. Read An Excerpt.
Gurcharan Das is a small man with a big voice. Standing 5ft 3in tall, he is booming away to the Guardian's photographer. It means the servant of the guru's feet His book, India Unbound, is a quiet earthquake that shook faraway shores long before its shockwave reached our own. Britain has become accustomed to Indian authors whose ease with English belies their mother tongue. Das is different insofar as his work is non-fiction, an economic tract embroidered by personal narrative. India Unbound's conclusion is that in the next two decades India will become the third largest economy, after the US and China, with a middle class of million people.
Lion of India
India today is a vibrant free-market democracy and has begun to flex its muscles in the global information economy and on the world stage. Now, acclaimed columnist Gurcharan Das traces India's recent social and economic transformations in an eminently readable, impassioned narrative. Something tremendous is happening in India, and Das, with his keen eye and often elegant prose, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the transformation. India Unbound excels when Das describes his and other industrialists' maddening experiences under the so-called License Raj, when any product launch or expansion needed state approval Das is exuberant about what is happening today