Sunday, 26 August 2012
Book Review: Chetan Bhagat’s “What Young India Wants”
Chetan Bhagat must be either the most loved and admired or the most hated writer in the Indian sub-continent. Blessed with an amazing ability to connect with India’s youth and excellent marketing and brand-building skills, Bhagat has, to the horror of his detractors, managed to churn out one best-seller after another. An ex-banker who worked in Hong Kong before moving back to India, Bhagat has now come up with his first work of non-fiction, which may be called his ‘take on how to fix India’.
Bhagat’s What Young India Wants is a rambling narrative, totally different from say “The Plan: Twelve months to renew Britain” by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, two young Conservative politicians, which had a step-by-step plan for lifting Britain up from Labour bogs to a Conservative heaven. However, despite the off-the-cuff sounding discourse, I found quite a few good things in What Young India Wants.
For one, Bhagat doesn’t praise everything about India. Rather, he spends more time picking out India’s faults than highlighting its positives. Why is materialistic USA more law abiding than culture-laden India? Bhagat wonders. Why is India unable to punish anyone for say, insider trading? Why is there so much corruption and nepotism in India? Bhagat doesn’t have much admiration for Indian billionaires who he feels owe their success more to their connections than any innovation. Why doesn’t India have real entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg? Despite his own banking background, Bhagat doesn’t make the slightest attempt to butter up to Indian corporates and takes Kingfisher to task for its profligacy.
Bhagat is very much pro-foreign investment in India. Bhagat argues, rightly in my opinion, for foreign direct investment in the retail sector. However he doesn’t hesitate to call for Union Carbide’s head. Bhagat wants export restrictions on agricultural produce to be lifted. Indian farmers ought to have the right to sell their produce wherever it fetches the highest price. BCCI has to be made transparent and Indian cricket needs to be cleaned up.
Bhagat has a few brave ideas, which are not particularly well-fleshed out. In order to bridge the urban-rural divide, he wants to set up student exchanges, whereby students from cities will spend time in villages and vice-versa. How will this be implemented? Well, like many great thinkers, Bhagat doesn’t sweat out the details. Thus when Bhagat wonders ‘why can’t we successfully ban RDX and all such dangerous compounds?’ he doesn’t spell out how the authorities could go about such a task.
Bhagat doesn’t favour any political party. While dicing the 2G scam, Bhagat has a few severe words for the Congress Party, but he also wants that the opposition ‘should not slam the entire Congress party on every occasion and should move from the slander-fest to a solution.’ Bhagat doesn’t think the problem is entirely with politicians. 'The issue is with the Indian electorate, us.’ At one place, Bhagat refers to the slow-suicide path chosen by the BJP, leaving Indians with no credible alternative. Bhagat wants all expensive real estate occupied by government offices to be sold and the offices relocated to less expensive localities. Bhagat is an Anna Hazare fan and wants a strong Lok Pal. Some of Bhagat’s words are pure rhetoric, such as the chapter addressed to Muslims where he urges ‘the Muslims of India to keep the heat on politicians.’
Bhagat wants India to cut down its defence expenditure and plough the savings into infrastructure and development. He goes to the extent of saying, ‘I want to ask my fellow Indians, how badly do we want Kashmir? At the cost of making colleges for the young generation in the country?…… We want to talk to Pakistan but more to put them in their place and shove our point of view down their throat. Frankly such defiance may win claps from an audience in a cinema hall, but is no attitude for peace. We may think Pakistan is always wrong and we deserve Kashmir, but when we are in a negotiation, we have to give the other party some room.’ All those who till now thought that Bhagat is a populist who plays to the galleys, please start eating your hats.
Just as Bhagat wants India to negotiate with Pakistan in good faith, he also wants India to take the stand that India will never engage with any military government in power in Pakistan.
Bhagat has a number of good ideas for revamping India’s education system and in general, I found myself in agreement. In particular, Bhagat wants all Indian school children to have access to the English language. He wants the government to change the current policy which requires all educational institutions to be run on a no-profit basis.
Bhagat does get a few things totally wrong in my opinion. For example, Bhagat wants India to outsource some of its border security to the United States of America. Now, I am as much a fan of the USA as Bhagat is, but I do think Bhagat’s getting a bit carried away here. Maybe he has something on the lines of the US-Japan security alliance in mind, but even then, I don’t think this is a good idea. There are no free lunches in the business of foreign affairs and defence and if the US were to take responsibility for all or some of India’s borders, it will extract its pound of flesh for such help.
When I reviewed Revolution 2020, I had commented that though Bhagat’s language is not spectacular, the English is good enough to convey the story. Well, the same is the case for this book as well, though I do feel the editing could have been a lot sharper.
As mentioned earlier, this book doesn’t come across as an populist attempt to pander to what India’s youth might want. Bhagat speaks from his heart and he genuinely wants India to change for the better. Somewhere in the middle of this 181-page book, Bhagat gets a bit personal. He talks of a suicide attempt when he was in high school. Please do read this extremely interesting book to find out if Bhagat’s suicide attempt was successful.