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India's Tryst with Entrepreneurship

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: December 27, 2014, 11:18 PM IST
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Ever since India along with Brazil, China and Russia was declared by Goldman Sachs as the emerging giants of the world economy there has been a steady increase in publication of books on various aspects of 'emerging' India. Hindol Sengupta's book Recasting India fits in within this trend.

Before moving on to more substantial discussion, let me point out that the book is lucidly written and it took me only a couple of days to finish it. Sengupta, being a journalist, has the eye for stories, and the fingers to pen them down. He knows how to keep the readers engaged, can effortlessly move from a personal anecdote to analysis of financial data to discussion on national trends on a particular topic. The chapters are coherently structured with catchy titles and section heads. The book is both informative and readable.

Sengupta's book has a hero and a villain. The hero is easy to see - the entrepreneurs of India who are supposedly transforming the economy into a global powerhouse. The entrepreneurs that Sengupta focuses on are not the big tycoons but the small ones, who are located outside the world of metropolitan India and therefore are often ignored. Also by 'entrepreneur' Sengupta understands not just those who are making profit but also social entrepreneurs who are making a difference socially. They are his heroes and he has sung their song. A close reading of the book also reveals a villain - the Leftist intellectuals of India. He does not mention anyone in particular but every now and then there is a comment against the Leftist intellectual's way of looking at things.

Sengupta's book helps to focus on what is indeed a less known area about contemporary India and in this sense is quite valuable. The Indian economy is characterised by a very small formal sector and a large informal sector. Yet the media attention is more often than not on celebrity chiefs of the big business houses- the TATAs, the Birlas or the Ambanis. What is less known is the world of the small entrepreneurs who make up ninety per cent of the Indian economy. In each chapter he has focused on some extraordinary stories of grit and determination and how small business persons have grown against all odds and how social entrepreneurs have also made extraordinary differences to the lives of the poor even though they have come from very humble backgrounds. It is the work of millions of such small entrepreneurs which is according to Sengupta "recasting India" from the socialist past to a capitalist future although Sengupta does admit that the journey is unlikely to be a smooth one. He also believes this spirit of entrepreneurship will be able to address the problems within the polity and the economy. Whether or not one fully agrees with the conclusions that Sengupta draws there is no doubt that the book offers lot of insights into the world of the small entrepreneurs. Moreover the stories he has told are mostly based on his own fieldwork and therefore he is able to not only bring out the socio-economic reality but also the nature of the personalities involved.

So far so good. Where Sengupta disappoints is in his critique of the Left. For example, his last chapter is titled, "Was the Mahatma a Socialist?" There he says, "While writing this book, I tried to learn whether Gandhi was really as anti-business as many of our Marxist historians would have us believe." Unfortunately the statement is not accompanied by any reference to any particular Marxist historian, nor is there any detailed rebuttal of any Marxist scholar's work anywhere in the book. It would have been interesting to read that. Again it perhaps would have been somewhat more interesting to read the analysis of the entrepreneurs if he had maintained a certain amount of distance instead of hero-worshipping them. As a result he missed out on the chance of understanding why most small and medium entrepreneurs remain small and medium and do not graduate into big businessman. There are some glorious exceptions but if one focuses on the exceptions we get a distorted picture. This is the problem with the case study method that Sengupta employs in the book.

In short, the book could have been more rigorously right wing. Nonetheless, it is valuable for the light it throws on India's bustling world of small entrepreneurs. That the book is lucidly written is an additional strength.

Hindol Sengupta, Recasting India, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014.
First Published: December 27, 2014, 11:18 PM IST