As Thought-provoking as Yesterday’s Newspaper
This is not the kind of book that professors of management, especially those from elite institutions like Harvard, normally write. They are good at spinning a new theory on a hot topic around which they hang several real-life examples and wrap it up in a catchy title. A few years later, they spin some other theory, based on a fresh set of selective examples, while the earlier one is quietly dropped. It is rare to find a professor romping across continents and companies, interviewing officials, businessmen, senior executives and thinkers, while their assistants vacuum up a billion pieces of disparate information from the Internet and other places, all of which are then laid out in a long sequence without any central thought. The result? A book brimming with current information about two countries that is as profound and thought-provoking as yesterday’s newspaper. If you read the book, you get to know a lot about China (there is little fresh information or perspective on India) which makes one wonder what is it that Khanna is trying to say?

A pointer to the lack of a central thought lies in the way the book is introduced on the flap of the dust jacket – full of wrong notions and weak ideas. The very first sentence reads: “For the first time since the rise of Western capitalism, entrepreneurs in China and India can ignore New York and London – and still build companies worth billions.” This is a bizarre statement. Could the Tatas have bought Corus without global capital? Even as Khanna was writing this book, dozens of Chinese companies were issuing shares in New York. Experts estimate that India received $40 billion last year from foreign private equity companies for investment in real estate. India’s rickety finances, weakened by continuing corruption and inefficiency, has been propped up by billions of dollars of foreign portfolio investment year after year, until the game was up this year, due to which the market has sunk by 50%. It is factually wrong and simply preposterous to say Indian entrepreneurs can ignore New York and London. The book also claims that “China and India are embracing the world on their own distinct terms.” Isn’t that stating the obvious? Every country has unique features, shaped by history, policy framework and entrepreneurial culture. Botswana and Brazil will obviously deal with the world in distinct terms, as did Singapore and Taiwan.

There are three parts to this book. Part I titled ‘Foundations’ has four chapters that cover statecraft, information and transparency, how China can build by diktat and financial sectors of the two countries. Part II titled ‘Enterprise’ has five chapters that cover Infosys of India and TCL of China; the difficulties of foreign companies in doing business (examples of Microsoft in China and METRO Cash & Carry in India); how the Chinese Diaspora (the famous Bamboo Network) made a big difference to China’s growth; a description of how China’s rural folks are better off; and, finally, the poor healthcare facilities in the two countries. These sections are packed with information – often of the mundane variety. Part III is titled ‘Future’ and, not surprisingly, is the smallest. After all, it is always so easy to describe, but so hard to prescribe. It has four chapters: China’s hard power – its foreign policy to win over despotic regimes from Burma to Africa, to grab natural resources; India’s so-called soft power (Bollywood and other means of winning over the world); and two chapters on historical and corporate connections. Why should the last two chapters appear in the segment on ‘future’ is unclear to me except as a means of bulking up the section. Unfortunately, unlike the other chapters, Khanna could not have packed the ‘future’ section with yesterday’s information! He had to offer ideas and pointers, which are absent. Indeed, throughout, the book only describes. It never prescribes even though businessmen apparently asked him whether they can make money in India and China. The book is precisely meant for those who ask such inane questions and for Harvard and Yale students who cannot locate either of the two countries on the map. After all, if you want to read this book you have to be prepared to encounter sentences like: “The Taj Mahal Hotel borrows its name from India’s best known architectural symbol, located in the northern city of Agra, and stands facing the Gateway of India, a spectacular structure overlooking the Arabian Sea, built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay in 1911.”

That leaves me with one final issue. What does the title mean? India and China have a population of 2.4 billion. A billion entrepreneurs out of them, that too from countries that rank a poor 120 (India) and 83 (China) among 178 countries in the World Bank’s ranking of ‘Ease of Doing Business’? – Debashis Basu

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