Copyright 2016,

Credible India

Hope is the most important input for growth in any country. All hope asks for is focus to build a nation that is humble, compassionate and above all else, a great one

Stone me for saying this. But say, I must. The great Indian obsession with wanting to be a great power is utterly impractical, completely undesirable and totally nonsensical. What I would like India to be instead is a great nation. I refuse to be a part of “Incredible India”. What I want is to be part of “Credible India”. This, for two reasons:
  • Great powers destroy, great nations nurture. Destruction demands cruelty. Nurturing demands compassion. I believe in compassion.
  • Great powers are built by rulers. Great nations are built by citizens who have as much a chance to take a stab at greatness as their leaders. I believe in equality.

Both of my beliefs, as much as they are intensely personal, are rooted in history as well.

The obsession with being a power-based state can be traced to the works of Niccolò Machiavelli, the 15th Century Italian historian, diplomat, humanist and writer. Machiavelli’s fundamental thesis was based on his observations of the very brutal methods Cesare Borgia and his father Pope Alexander VI used to build a state. I don’t intend to get into the specifics, except that Borgia was a failure because he had accumulated power on the back of his father’s influence and under the guise of protecting the interests of the Church. After his father’s death, he was arrested by Pope Julius II and that was the end of Machiavelli’s hero.

But for whatever reasons, when Machiavelli wrote his treatise The Prince, on power and how it ought to be exercised, he chose to ignore Borgia’s failures. Instead, he focussed on Borgia’s life where he had accumulated power. The fallacy in looking only at this part is that you ignore the fact that when power is acquired through all available means, credibility is overlooked. And when credibility is given the pass, as Borgia discovered, you have to cede ground.

Unfortunately, contemporary history is filled with instances of rulers, nations and businesses that subscribe to the Machiavellian school. Without exception, over time, all failed. Be it the Roman, the French or the British empires, all of them have been liquidated. As for the American empire, it is now teetering on the brink of collapse. What is common to all of them is a veneer of arrogance.

Much the same thing can be said of corporate behaviour. Take some of the Indian companies operating in Africa. There are many that have made a mark exporting agricultural produce in collusion with local politicians. They get free water, land at subsidised prices and the labour they employ work in inhuman conditions. What is common to all of them is that they work with corrupt regimes, dictatorships, or both.

In the long run, the model is unsustainable because corrupt regimes and dictatorships collapse and take the business models they support with them.

The idea terrifies me. As I look around, there seems an almost uniform consensus on building a nation that wants to be feared and respected. India is now part of the G20. What the government wanted was a place on the G10 table, comprising what used to be the G8 with China and India now included. We thump our chests with pride each time a new weapon is added to our military arsenal. We high-five when an Indian business acquires assets in another part of the world. But how does an “Incredible India” matter if it isn’t a “Credible India” we’re building?

Of the almost 600 districts in India, 200 are infested with Naxalites. How many people, of their own free will, without being coerced, will support Naxalism? Nobody. Because Naxalism, like every insurgent movement supported by terror, is suicidal. Terrorists I’ve met with know if you kill, you will eventually get killed. To that extent, anybody who participates in terrorism is participating in suicide.

Which brings me to the next question: Why would anybody participate in suicide? Surely, it ought to be desperation. Consider, for instance, the following.

  • Twenty years ago, the average productivity of a cow or a buffalo in both India and China was in the region of 1,000-2,000 litres of milk each year. An Indian buffalo continues to deliver the same yields, while an animal bred in China delivers five times as much. Why? What is it about the Indian dairy farmer that holds him back?
  • India is a rain-dependent nation. But on average, only 38 percent of arable land is irrigated. Solutions like drip irrigation are available to redress the problem. But only a meagre 5 percent of available land has seen this solution. Why don’t Indian farmers demand drip irrigation?
  • There are roughly 450 million people in India that make up our work force. Of these, 90 percent haven’t completed school education. Why? Because, of the 630,000 villages in India, over 500,000 don’t have schools that can provide education above Class VII. Without a doubt, labour productivity is linked to education. Why does the Indian labourer not demand education?


The most important input for growth in any country is hope. Unfortunately, most Indians haven’t seen hope. And all hope asks for is focus and ingenuity to build a nation that is humble, compassionate and above all else, a great one.

Yet, across the world, a clutch of nations started on the same journey as we did, of moving from a developing nation to a developed nation. And in the last 20-30 years, countries like South Korea, Turkey, Malaysia, Israel and Singapore have begun to nudge ahead of us. They’ve pursued a set of priorities, succeeded in pulling a larger mass of people out of poverty, emphasised technological innovation and made equally good progress in social spheres like education and healthcare (see graphic 'Path to Prosperity').

So, what did they do differently from us? After research and conversations with people from across the world, I have come to believe that there are five common themes that these nations have used to infuse their people with hope and put themselves on the path to greatness.


Theme #1: Where the ruled and rulers are on par
Back in 2002, while I was working on peace issues in the Middle East with the Turkish government, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the AK Party had just come into power. In those days, Turkey was a nation with power concentrated in the hands of the military elite and a charmed circle of industrialists from Istanbul. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, to find large numbers of discontented and unemployed people there.

On assuming power, Erdogan moved into a two-storey house in downtown Ankara and ruled that all ministers and members of Parliament ought to live in their own homes. In a speech delivered at the Turkish Parliament he argued, “If you want to be representatives of people, you must live and work with your people.” He then proceeded to take away other privileges they enjoyed.

He followed it up by calling in people from the construction business and asking them to reduce invoices he reckoned were inflated or face being blacklisted for all government projects. He also made it clear that any compromise on quality, durability or deadlines in building roads, dams or other projects with public money would attract severe penalties.

He then moved to provide special grants to the poorest and incentives to small businesses in an attempt to provide a fillip to the rural economy. He issued orders that his government focus on education in the most backward provinces of Turkey. Five years was all it took to effect a transformation. The party came back to power in 2007 and again last year. It was the kind of change that took Southeast Asian countries almost two decades.

There are doubts whether Turkey will be able to sustain this momentum. But a beginning has been made with strong foundations. It is to be seen whether they can take it further because 10 years is too short a time to judge a country.

Then there is Singapore. It is a benevolent dictatorship led by the Lee Kuan Yew family. But, despite being a dictatorship, it has a system in place that allows people to impose checks and balances on the ruler. Elections in Singapore are a farce and a candidate can be jailed if anybody representing Lee Kuan Yew is defeated. It can be argued, therefore, that Singapore suffers from a democratic deficit.

But let’s ignore this deficit for a moment. In Singapore, if any parliamentary or party official gives telephonic instructions to a bureaucrat, and the bureaucrat complains; or if any minister or parliamentarian does anything to harass a citizen and the citizen complains; the minister or the parliamentarian can be jailed. If a bureaucrat does not respond to an inquiry in three weeks, he can be punished. What it means is there are checks and balances that constrain the ruler’s power at an operational level.

Examples of the impact accountability holds exist in India as well. The contrasts are most obvious if you place Sikkim on the one hand and Jammu & Kashmir on the other. Both lie in the lap of the Himalayas. Sikkim has the Chinese to contend with and J&K the Pakistanis. Sikkim has Christians and Buddhists and J&K has Muslims, all national minorities, as the majority population and both have had controversial histories of accession to India. Both remain poor.

But Jammu & Kashmir has been plagued by insurgency and violence while Sikkim is one of the most peaceful states in the country. This, in spite of the fact that Kashmir gets more Central funding than Sikkim! Probe deeper and you realise this is a function of the relationship between the rulers and the common people.

Sikkim’s economy is balanced towards development. The society there has worked out an informal contract and the emphasis is on a balanced relationship between the leadership and the people. In J&K, inequality has existed since the 1950s, with one family calling the shots.

Wherever power disparities exist, economic and social disparity follow and lead to violence. But where balance exists, human development and non-violence come into play—the outcome of which is always hope.


Theme #2: Where everybody feels they belong
Where disproportionate importance is given to leaders, societies don’t progress. Scandinavian countries serve as great examples.

There was this one instance when a woman in her early 60s arrived at Zurich airport after a long international flight. A friend of mine, Jean Daniel Ruch, met her there and the two of them got onto a train headed for Bern, the Swiss capital. Because the train was crowded, the older woman occupied a seat near the door while my friend stood next to her.

When the ticket controller came in, he pointed out politely to the lady that her seat was reserved for the physically challenged and that she ought to vacate it. The lady complied. Passengers witnessing the episode didn’t offer her their seats either and she travelled standing all the way to Bern.

She was Micheline Calmy-Rey, foreign minister and former President of Switzerland. She is to Switzerland what Sonia Gandhi is to India. My friend serves as a senior ambassador with the Swiss foreign ministry and was the only officer assigned to receive Calmy-Rey at the airport. When this incident was recounted to me, I thought it stunning and included the anecdote in my book, Eka Dishecha Shodh.

Last year, Calmy-Rey was re-elected as President. I met her at the launch of a report prepared by the think tank I head in partnership with the Swiss and Swedish governments, where I presented her an English translation of the book. She flipped through it and quietly told me: “The ticket controller did not ask me to get up politely. He was rude and ordered me to vacate right away.” Earlier this year, at the height of her political career, Calmy-Rey retired from politics.

Then there was this time I met former Swiss President Joseph Deiss at Geneva railway station. We went around looking for a café to chat. But every place was packed and nobody cared it was Deiss looking for a table. When we finally found a place, the waiter took our orders and treated us as he would other customers. Last year, Deiss was appointed president of the United Nations General Assembly.

I often contrast this with my experiences in India. Years ago, I accompanied a group of Indian parliamentarians to the Maldives. They all had economy class air tickets. At Thiruvananthapuram airport, however, officials downgraded fare-paying business class passengers to upgrade the parliamentarians. Only one MP protested.

I’ve often wondered what explains incidents like these! Citizenship equivalence, I guess! That is perhaps why India, in spite of having more natural resources than Sweden or Switzerland hasn’t yet gotten to the path of becoming a great nation.

By no means am I suggesting the task here is an easy one. Theoretically, in a country of 1.2 billion people, if only a 100 million are allowed to use their potential to the fullest, unrest is inevitable. In India, agricultural producers comprise 60 percent of the labour population. But their contribution to the GDP is 20 percent. That is both unfortunate and undesirable. One of the reasons why this discrepancy exists is because farmers experience trade barriers, like the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), which puts serious restrictions on whom they can sell to. And solutions that exist in the form of co-operatives often operate as monopolies in the hands of political families who do everything they can to prevent the competing co-operatives.

Exceptions exist—like the Milk and Milk Product Order, which was diluted 10 years ago. Until then, dairy farmers were prevented from operating in the open market. While there is still some way to go, this move has had an impact, the outcome of which is growth of packaged milk and milk products.

If growth is the mandate, the agricultural economy has to be liberalised and producers set free. Because when farmers and rural industries have access to a steady income, they will invest in improving productivity. That, in turn, will push everybody into building a country where the ruling class and citizens are equals.

To start the process, though, one question needs to be answered. Do you expend energies into getting into the Top 10 in terms of GDP? Or do you focus on getting the Human Development Index (HDI), where India has consistently ranked below 120, to higher levels? What a low HDI means is that for all the GDP growth and the consequent prosperity, development is superficial at best.

Theme #3: Where innovation is woven into the social fabric

Why aren’t Indians innovating enough? Is it because the Indian idea of innovation is cost cutting or process innovation—also known by another fancy term, frugal engineering—as opposed to original research?

I had the opportunity to interact with Stef Wertheimer, chairman of the ISCAR group, near Haifa in Israel. ISCAR specialises in industrial cutting tools and blades. Wertheimer contributes to about 10 percent of Israel’s GDP through his various business ventures and is to Israel what Ratan Tata is to India.

I asked him what the secret of his success is. He offered to show me around the fourth floor of the building he operates in, where at least 1,700-1,800 of the best research engineers in the country focus on original research. The secret, he said, is ruthless focus. Each year, he retains only the best among them and retrenches those he reckons are at the bottom of the pyramid. But because the retrenched people are so good, they are much sought after by others or launch startups, and innovation spreads.

Why don’t episodes like this occur in India? At the risk of sounding repetitive, Indians who matter and can catalyse change are too focussed on their balance sheets as opposed to innovation.


In 2003-2004, I visited the Centre for Innovation in Global Governance (CIGI), a think tank operating out of a brewery in Waterloo, a small town in Canada. The Prime Minister of Canada at the time, Paul Martin, had mandated that they conceptualise what he called the L-20, where L was an acronym for “Leaders”. Unfortunately, Martin lost the elections and the idea was shelved. It was set into motion again after the financial crisis of 2008, when President George Bush revisited the theme. The only difference was that it is now called the G-20.

But, to get back to the point, the man behind CIGI was neither a diplomat nor a researcher. He was Jim Balsillie, founder of Research in Motion, better known as the makers of Blackberry—another matter altogether that Blackberry ran into trouble with its shareholders and Balsillie had to give up his responsibilities at RIM. But, with the benefit of hindsight, his contribution to international governance has been outstanding. Thanks to his efforts, G-20 is now operational. Balsillie is also the main supporter of Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics, based in Waterloo. As for CIGI, it works on policy prescriptions for reforming institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, Financial Stability Forum, and the international monetary system.

In India, I can only think of the Tatas who founded the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). I guess that is why when Balsillie visited India, he was surprised that despite having precedents of the kind set by the Tatas, Indian businesses aren’t thinking about how to promote original research in physics, maths, governance and international relations.

His surprise isn’t misplaced. In the next two to three decades, the fourth industrial revolution will be underway. The first industrial revolution took place in late 18th Century, the second in the late 19th Century, and computerisation is the third. The fourth includes genomics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR). These apart, expect breakthroughs in space technology, renewable energy and water technologies. All of these will transform the world.

India has to decide whether it wants to be a great power by servicing multinationals and providing software engineers who work at the low end of the cost curve, or be a lead player in the new revolution.

Theme #4: Where education is central
Educational institutions are important because the talent needed to prime people for the fourth revolution can come only out of educational institutions.

When the first and second industrial revolutions took place, India was a colony and couldn’t participate. During the third revolution, India made headway and managed to garner revenues and exposure. GNR, along with space, energy and water technologies, is a low-capital-intensive revolution. To set up laboratories, capital requirements are low. What is needed is human capital. To do that, India needs to innovate.

A single school that can accommodate 700 children using brick and mortar will take an awfully long time and cost on average Rs 2 crore. Add to these numbers the fact that there exists a deficit of one million teachers. What can be done is obvious.

The government allows anybody to set up a community radio station that covers a radius of 25 kilometres. If this technology were deployed into education, a few crore of rupees and the 700,000 villages with no access to schools suddenly become accessible. India has a satellite in orbit as well, which is meant to be used exclusively for education. Any institution can use it to impart remote education to children in Naxalite-affected areas in central and northern India; or to the schools located in difficult-to-access regions such as the North East.

Theme #5: Where relationships matter above all else
I believe relationships ought to be preserved immaculately—be they immediate ones, in the neighbourhood or those of strategic significance—else, the outcomes can be disastrous. It has been demonstrated that minus good relationships with neighbours, it is possible to be a great power, but impossible to evolve into a great nation. Turn once again to the Turkish and Scandinavian models.

In Turkey, soon after Erdogan took over, even as he managed the country, he devoted attention to relationships with countries in the South and East. He figured it could be a trading opportunity for the Turks. So he extended an arm of friendship to Syria and created a free trade zone. Not just that, he focussed on removing internal trade barriers and increasing mobility. He was also Israel’s most trusted partner.


During the course of my stint in Middle Eastern diplomacy, the Syrian foreign minister once rolled out a peace plan with Israel. The only condition he placed on the table was that it ought to be facilitated by Turkey. That said, I must also point out that in the last couple of years, Turkey’s relationships with both Israel and Syria have taken a backseat.

As for Scandinavia, the model is of interest because I often wonder how to contain terrorism. Why is it that terrorists don’t think of attacking countries like Norway or Sweden? Whenever violence erupts, they are incidents triggered by maniacal individuals—not secessionist outfits. This is because the Scandinavian model represents that of a great nation. Their objective was not to build a security infrastructure because there is only so long and so often it can counter attacks; but to build nations nobody thinks of attacking.

Countering terror is a physical act as opposed to deconstructing terror which is an intellectual exercise. It demands you create new kinds of social contracts in the country. But if you insist on living only by power and its physical manifestation—force—then you only think of countering terrorism. Therefore, it ought to be deconstructed. Problem is, India hasn’t thought along those lines yet and it cannot happen overnight.

The way forward
First, ask the most basic of all questions. Ought a nation to measure its success in terms of GDP growth or in terms of the human development quotient?

I believe nations that measure success in terms of GDP are prone to violent disruptions. That, to my mind, explains our susceptibility to terrorists. Norway, on the other hand, has a stated policy that policing will be kept to the minimum. That explains why Scandinavian countries are of no interest to terrorists. When you elicit no response, what is the incentive in attempting?

In making this transition, disruption is inevitable. But you could choose between managed positive disruption, or enforced violent disruption.
To understand this, turn to Turkey once again. What happened there was that a group of politicians got together and built new terms of reference for what a nation ought to be like. To do that, they hired a market research agency to ask people what they want. Everything people said boiled down to two words—justice and development. Armed with this insight, the Justice and Development Party was formed—the acronym for which in Turkish is AKP—and is now in power.

Effectively, they used modern tools from mainstream business to understand grassroots problems and arrive at a political conclusion. They presented their findings and agenda to the people and got elected into office.

In Singapore, though, change was imposed. In the process, it compromised on civil liberties. However, they’ve achieved 70-80 percent of what they set out to do.

Change in Malaysia was similar to what happened in Turkey. In 1968, following racial riots, leaders cutting across communities came together and agreed they wouldn’t allow violence to happen again. So they made a constitutional amendment that mandated any elected cabinet to have representatives of the three major races in the country. They realised political engineering can be used to resolve other problems as well, including economic ones.

I don’t see any signs of that happening in India. My beliefs compel me to argue that what India suffers from is a crisis of vision, ethics and courage. Put these values together and what you have is statesmanship. That is why even 60 years after his death, Mahatma Gandhi is still remembered. He had an ethical code, and courage. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, is someone I think of in that mould. He once told me something interesting—that one of the driving forces in his life was a nursery rhyme.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
and all the king’s horses,
and all the king’s men,
couldn’t put Humpty together again.

He said he read it a few times every single day after he became prime minister. Because, he said, it underscores an important political statement. If your national resources, whether human, natural, or entrepreneurial, fail and go out, all the kings, their men and horses can’t put them together again. “So I had to create a vested interest in the nation of Singapore, not by using power but by using ideas.”

He couldn’t have put it any better. Great nations are built on the back of ideas—not force.

About the author


Sundeep Waslekar is the president of Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in India that advises governments and institutions around the world on managing future challenges.

 He was instrumental in creating the concept of The Cost of Conflict in the Middle East, based on a complex set of parameters, which has since then become the main tool for negotiations in the region. He also crafted the concept of Blue Peace, which looks at how water can be used as an instrument of peace. Switzerland has adopted this concept as part of its state policy, and the Swedish and British governments will soon follow suit.

Image: Vikas Khot

He has worked with or on 50 countries and has presented these new policy concepts at committees of the Indian Parliament, the European Parliament, the Houses of Commons and Lords in the UK, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the World Economic Forum, among others.

Waslekar, who graduated from the Oxford University with a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1983, has been involved in parallel diplomatic exercises to find common ground in times of crisis. Since the mid-1990s, he has facilitated dialogues between the Indian and Pakistani governments and Kashmiri leaders as well as between leaders of Western and Islamic countries after 9/11.

Waslekar has also authored several books, essays and research reports. His most recent book, the Marathi bestseller Eka Dishecha Shodh on new directions for India’s future, is into its eighth edition, in about one-and-a-half years, and has also been translated into Urdu and Hindi. He was conferred D.Litt (Honoris Causa) of Symbiosis International University by the President of India in December 2011.