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India can be creator of the future

March 23, 2005

George Kennan died last week; he was perhaps the architect of the Cold War, or at least he was the one who articulated the philosophy thereof most candidly, in a long article in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym 'X'. My interest in Kennan arises not from his Cold War credentials, but rather from another equally famous statement of his regarding America's strategic intention.

Kennan appears to have said something along the following lines: 'The US has 6% of the world's population, but it enjoys 50% of the world's resources. US foreign policy is intended to keep it that way.' There is some debate as to whether he was quoted out of context, in particular because leftist gadfly Noam Chomsky has used the quote widely to flay American greed.

I mentioned Kennan's quote a few years ago in a column, and I got a note from reader Russil Wvong telling me that Kennan had been quoted out of context by Chomsky; later, I heard from reader Greg that in fact Kennan's statement could indeed be interpreted thus. You be the judge: here is the relevant reference.

But that is not the point: the point is that George Kennan put into words the unspoken assumptions based on which the US conducts its affairs. It is a magnificently simple one-liner; a sound bite that one can internalise and according to which one can act. There is considerable value to such a clear enunciation of strategic will, and indeed, American administrations generally do act as though this were their guiding principle.

Unfortunately for India, this is a glaring lacuna: a simple vision and articulation of India's place in the world. I have long believed in a neo-liberal perspective (see my column 'A case for pragmatism') that puts nationalism at the core of its world-view: India's interests uber alles, if you will. But over the years, it has become sadly evident that a diametrically opposite view prevails among the powers-that-be: India's interests come last and least in their priority lists.

There is no doubt that a simple, well-articulated vision can work wonders. The British imperialists had one such, which was that they were on a civilising mission, bearing the 'white man's burden'. The fact that this was a hoax, and the strategic intent was pure theft, is incidental: some of the most successful ideas in the world are hoaxes.

As lucidly explicated in Luigi Barzini's 'The Europeans', British mythology boiled down to a set of, say, ten rules of conduct and behaviour that were drilled into the ruling classes at Eton, Harrow, and so forth. Thus, commanders of the imperial legions could always be depended to act according to these rules: a general knew, unerringly, that his colonels and majors would act just so, based on uniformity of beliefs and purpose.

Indians, alas, may be the original individualists: nobody likes to follow a well-trodden path, as is evident on any of what are called, euphemistically, highways. This individualism is both a curse and a blessing. The curse is obvious: Indians are fractious, and collectively deserve John Kenneth Galbraith's jibe about a 'functioning anarchy.'

The blessing is less obvious: Indians have the processes to manage anarchy, more or less. If a couple of ingredients can be added to the pot, such as discipline and, perhaps most importantly, self-confidence, there will be no stopping India.

Discipline and self-belief arise from a strongly internalised set of beliefs, the moral equivalent of the American vanity of 'manifest destiny'. If we believe, we can work wonders. And the belief has to be straightforward and easy to understand. Some of the best examples come from the world of business; and since business is in effect war by other means, the lessons learned there are useful in statecraft, too.

From the Silicon Valley: Steve Jobs' idea that Apple was always working on something 'insanely great.' Or Scott McNealy's idea that Sun Microsystems was going to put 'all the wood behind one arrowhead.' A charismatic leader who can make his troops understand a vision can move mountains.

This is not a new idea; it was first articulated in a classic paper, 'Strategic Intent' by Gary Hamel and C K Prahalad (Harvard Business Review, May/June 1989). Even though their concerns and prescriptions about Japanese competition now see a little quaint, their concept of core competence and long-term strategy are still relevant. Strategic intent is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient for long-term success.

Hamel and Prahalad consider two approaches, the first, that of strategic fit. Here the ambitions of the firm are matched to its current resources; this is what most strategic planners do. In the second, that of leveraging resources, the strategists attempt to change the rules, stretching to reach seemingly unattainable goals. A key to the second approach is articulation of the vision. India's 'intellectuals' stick to the first method, overwhelmed by the mediocrity around them, blind to the possibilities of the second approach.

Hamel and Prahalad talk about Honda's core competence in engines, and Canon's in opto-electronics; and their slogans about 'Beat Ford' and 'Defeat Xerox" which they did manage to do. It is another matter that fifteen years later, other usurpers to the throne have come up, as the once all-conquering Japanese too have begun to stumble.

India needs a similar slogan to concentrate its mind and rally the troops. Quite honestly, the only competition that matters is the US and China. Europe is on a downward demographic spiral. Russia is on its way to being a has-been, like the rest of Europe; and Brazil, despite mass, has no racial memory of empire. Only China and the US, apart form India, have the ingredients of great-power-dom, and it is they who India should benchmark itself against.

The Chinese have always believed they were better than everybody else; everyone else was a gwailo, an inferior barbarian. That is their rallying cry now, and they intend to be the world's biggest manufacturing power; then the world's biggest economic power; and finally the world's biggest military power. They want to be Masters of the Universe, in Tom Wolfe's delicious phrase from Bonfire of the Vanities.

What about the real Masters of the Universe, then, the Americans? They are still going for that compelling 19th century vision of 'manifest destiny', the one in which they (that is, white Americans) had been formally anointed by God to run the world. The exploitation of the virgin land, the energies of the immigrants, all that has conspired to make American what it is: their thirteen aircraft carrier groups are the biggest symbol of machismo the world has ever seen. Alas, Masters of the Universe too age, and get overthrown, as Paul Kennedy's Decline and Fall of the Great Powers points out.

I have been startled at the speed with which once invincible companies are overthrown: the pending disappearance of venerable AT&T, which once accounted for a stupendous 6% of the entire market capitalisation of the New York Stock Exchange, is one such. So there is no room for complacency for any Master of the Universe; others are queuing up, as in the remarkable Upanishadic story of the multitude of Indras reincarnated as ants.

What should be, and what can be, India's mantra and determinant of success? As Hamel and Prahalad emphasise, it is not meaningful to look only at the present, but also at the capabilities, and to go for a stretch. It is clear that India's core competence is intellectual property and creativity. India's has been by far the most creative civilisation of all time, whose products are the basis of everything from Western mythology to mathematics. India, creator of the past, can be creator of the future.

I submit that it should be India's goal to be the world's best at intellectual property across the board, in everything from science to arts to engineering to medicine to architecture to literature to astronomy to metaphysics; indeed it once was and so there is proof of existence. Difficult? Of course. Impossible? No. Remember how GE has managed to become number 1 or 2 in every business it enters?

And shouldn't 'Beat China' be the national slogan?

The need of the hour is for a Steve Jobs-like charismatic leader to sell the vision and strategic intent of global intellectual domination, the Empire of the Intellect, and to follow up with concrete action that allows for the flowering of a hundred, nay a hundred million, individual initiatives to make this vision a reality.

This is in a way the most disappointing of Jawaharlal Nehru's many failures. He was the only leader with the necessary charisma, but he had a confused idea of India, which, as interpreted by his hagiographers like Sunil Khilnani, was of a nation with no inherent, chthonic values, but beholden to imported ideologies. Unerringly, Nehru conveyed that strategic intent to his followers: the goal to be an also-ran, second-best. And unerringly, his admirers have made India true to that vision: an also-ran, a non-entity. It will be a huge task to unlearn this first.

Comments welcome at my blog


Rajeev Srinivasan

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Number of User Comments: 18

Sub: Rajeev wake up!

Rajeev, you\'re articles are always geared towards indian nationalist and therefore lose alot of credibility when you aim to denigrate the US. Do others like ...

Posted by John Bekham

Sub: rajiv's article on the south doing better

The analysis has been thorough. Yes the South has been relatively less affected by invasions. What is more important is the capacity of indians esp. ...

Posted by hari

Sub: India & Creativity

Great article...i agree with most of what you say, especially the part about our primary competitors being the US and China. However, as far as ...

Posted by bhaskar banerji

Sub: Jobs

I agree with Rajeev, however while Steve Jobs' Apple may be great at innovation, its heels are always being nipped at by imitators and others ...

Posted by sanman

Sub: What Ails India Now?!?!

India has the potential to gain its rightful place as the world leader but like everything that succeeds it must overcome those millstones that are ...

Posted by Ruxak


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