Sunday, October 07, 2007

New India - Yet Again

I just finished my fourth trip to India in as many months, and now have this huge challenge on my plate - that of running a full-scale business in India.

Mythologies and emotions aside, this is surely a very daunting task. As I keep mentioning to my colleagues, paraphasing an observation about China - from outside, all one sees is the huge multiplier effect, x times the population, y times the size of middle class, number of people in the age group 18 - 30 larger than the whole population of Western Europe; but once you are in, it is actually a game of endless divisions - languages, states, religions, so on and so forth.

The popular British colonial view of India was summed up by Winston Churchill, when he observed that India is no more a country than the Equator. While this reflects more Edwardian delusion than historical reality, the diversity of India is undeniable, and plain to see even for Indians.

The key in operating in India, however, is in ability to see and operate with, to quote another, kinder, colonial observer - the historian Vincent Smith - 'The Unity in Diversity'. In business strategy terms, this will mean working with not just the large numbers, but the quality and variety of the populace.

Kind of obvious, but not so, as I have discovered in my last few years in Britain. For most observers outside, India is a fuzzy, metaphysical lump, 'like, to a blind man, piono playing appears to be movement of fingers and no music'. That comment was made by Rabindranath Tagore, India's leading poet, about a hundred years back, but things have changed very little.

In fact, the understanding of India has improved little, despite this corporate rush of doing the 'India thing'. The new, English-speaking, yuppie India has emerged, almost in line with the mystical but monolithic western perception, and has become the 'global' face of India. Predictably, a beevy of businesses have gone into India armed with strategies designed for this 'New Indian', with a near-complete ignorance of the village connections, parental ties, religious constraints, deep-seated fears and mildness of ambition that is so uniquely Indian.

The trouble is that when you exclude 'Indian pecularities', you exclude Indians, millions of them. This makes business plans unviable - strategies don't work anymore.

Interestingly, this is what our business is all about - teaching English to Indians, making them more homogeneous, accessible to global businesses.

But I am already having other ideas. It appears to me that our business will be about letting Indians discover the world in their own terms, letting the diversity out. English is an wonderful instrument, not just of homogenization, but of ability and freedom, and our strategy will be to 'unlock the ability' hidden in every Indian. This is difficult, but this is what will differentiate us. So, that's my journey and it starts here.

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