Nehru’s vision of pervasive State control was a crushing blow to innovation, especially because it devalued R&D. But new market conditions are helpful
There is a paradox that gives one pause to ponder: in the years since Independence, not a single world-class scientific or technical idea has come out of India. During the grasping, racist and destructive rule of the imperialists, we had great scientists and mathematicians: C.V. Raman, Srinivasa Ramanujan, S.N. Bose, J.C. Bose, and I am sure a galaxy of others. Why, then, have our universities been so sterile?
I suggest that a lot of the blame should be laid at the feet of Jawaharlal Nehru. He was the undisputed master of the fate of this nation for 17 years, and he failed us in almost every possible way—the list is essentially endless. In hindsight, it is clear that he was the wrong person in the wrong job. Having had no experience in running anything, he should have been placed in the ceremonial job of President, where he could do relatively little harm, instead of being the executive Prime Minister.
The story is the same in innovation, too. It is a truism that you need research to be able to do innovation. Indian universities were set up in a form that Nehru preferred for almost every institution: a hierarchical entity where a Great Man or a group of Great People, omniscient and wise, would dispense oracular wisdom and all the flunkeys would just execute their commands.
Well, Nehru’s image of himself was that he was the Emperor Ashoka returned (not reincarnated, as that would be superstition), and he created universities in that imperial image too. We have seen recently how well this works, with the antics of Amartya Sen at Nalanda University. It is what I would term a Soviet model of top-down command economics, guaranteed to fail every time.
The governance structure of the entire scientific establishment that Nehru put in place was wrong. He created a complete division between the national laboratories and the universities. In his view, all the useful stuff would be conducted at the national labs or centres, and in all fairness one or two of them have done well at applied research: ISRO and BARC, perhaps. But the neglected universities, including the IISc and IITs, have contributed virtually nothing to pure research. This is partly because of the Nehruvian tendency—seen also in the Sahitya Akademi—to stuff top posts with sycophants and cronies.
These Great Men (yes, almost all of them were men) destroyed every spark of creativity amongst the people working for them by insisting on nepotism, corruption, and genuflection as the only criteria for career progression. Therefore it is no wonder that almost every Indian who wanted to do good research work left for other countries where many of them did produce first-class results.
So there is a systemic bias against research, and therefore against innovation, built into the Indian academic and research ecosystem. I listened to a speech by a good researcher, Gangan Prathap, formerly at the National Aeronautics Labs and later VC of a university in Kerala, point out how pathetic Indian research in India is, as measured either by volume (quantity) or citations (quality).
There are several possible solutions. The first is to drastically re-engineer the way the Indian State spends its research funds. It could insist that the central research labs must include, by edict, academic partners; and in reverse, that professors will not get promoted or get increments unless they bring in substantial funds for research (either from public or private funds). Besides, there should be quality control by specifying the A-list of journals which researchers must publish in to get any credit.
Another improvement would be to emphasize the role of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). It is true that there is no direct correlation or causation between innovation and gathering, say, patents. However, IPR becomes a quantifiable norm for accountability. At the moment, the vast majority of patents generated in India are owned by the MNCs’ research labs here—which suggests that Indians can indeed do IPR creation if only they are given better leadership than the Nehruvian dinosaurs do.
Having blamed the public sector (which deserves it), let us also take a look at the private sector. Reports suggest that India’s corporations do not spend their fair share on research; so their moaning about the poor research in public labs is hypocritical. They too have coasted.
For instance, the big rich IT firms, because they have been services-oriented, are in effect factories, and have no need for anything other than operational excellence.
Those industries which have been forced to compete and develop new products because of globalization are indeed innovating—for instance, pharma and automobiles. So the larger picture would be to reduce State control and monopolies, even in services—note how the airline sector and mobile telephony have improved, and become generally more responsive to customers.
The one area in which Indian firms are very good is in jugaad, especially in figuring out how to use the corrupt system to their benefit. The License Raj, wherein the State controls almost everything, was a boon to business houses that cornered lucrative oligopolies. Some years ago, The Economist did a detailed study of Indian business, and pointed out that there was a brief flowering of smaller innovative firms when companies such as Bharti Airtel emerged, but it was quickly replaced by the rule of the old oligarchs after the UPA came back to power in 2004.
The Nehruvian legacy remains built-in in the Congress. Clichés, such as “commanding heights of the economy” being handled by the State, and “the new temples of India” being its hydroelectric dams, were embarrassing even as Nehru uttered them, but the adoring media of the time didn’t question him. After the repudiation of socialism in all but name by even the Chinese, these stale ideas now ought to be truly dead and buried, but India’s antediluvian leftists still trot them out, to general alarm.
Innovation is thus highly dependent on government policy and the overall environment. The current NDA2 dispensation is attempting, through various programs such as #DigitalIndia, #MakeinIndia, and #StartupIndia, to kickstart innovation and create new companies. After all, experience has shown that the majority of jobs created worldwide are via small companies, not giants.
In addition, the environment is changing. The slowing of China’s economy, among other things, suggests that the days of massive manufacturing plants may be coming to an end, as scale may not any longer be the big differentiator. On the contrary, India’s competitive advantage, which is in “frugal engineering”, may come to the fore.
Design is not dependent on R&D to a great extent, and Indian engineers have spent decades wringing the best out of limited resources, in the face of Western sanctions (as in the sad case of the cryogenic engine, which is 20 years late partly because the lead engineers were snagged in a wholly manufactured “spy case”). A crop of nimble, agile companies focused on engineering-heavy products may be the answer.
Besides, the rise of the Indian Ocean Rim as a major consumer market makes India ideally positioned for the B2B (Baghdad-to-Beijing) region, whose needs are largely the same as those of Indians.
As I write this, a big conference is about to begin: the Third India-Africa Summit, of October 29th. About 1,000 delegates from all 54 African nations will attend. Given that Africa is the continent that will grow the most economically and in population, the Indian entrepreneur may find that his products will resonate with this large, if diverse and complex continent.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; and instead of Non-Aligned Movement palaver, trade and commerce (assuming we follow up) may well be what they are looking for.
Rajeev Srinivasan has worked for innovative companies such as Bell Labs, Siemens and Sun Microsystems in strategy and product management. He has taught innovation at several IIMs, and is a member of the Think Tank working on India’s national IP policy. He has been a conservative columnist for almost 20 years, and has degrees from IIT Madras and Stanford Business School.
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