India: The Startup Founded in 1947

India is among the world's greatest experiments

India is the world’s largest democracy and recently became the 6th largest economy, surpassing France. We have doubled our GDP over the last 10 years and will shortly tip over the United Kingdom, as it grapples with the Brexit misadventure. With over 40,000 startups, the Indian startup ecosystem is arguably one of the strongest in the world.

According to a Boston Consulting Group report, India is ranked 3rd globally in terms of AI implementation. Today, no major company or country can overlook the Indian market, the Indian talent and the innate charm of incredible India. I could go on stating rankings and performance metrics but all this can be googled.

I am more interested in exploring the startup journey of India, one of the oldest civilizations of the world that unshackled itself from the colonial hangover on August 15, 1947.

India has been called an unnatural nation, a paradox, a puzzle and a political gamble. A statistical analysis of the relationship between democracy and development in 135 countries found that the odds against democracy in India were inordinately high.

We were predicted to be a dictatorship during the entire period of study (1950–1990). The fact that we were by and large a democracy during that period and continue to be so against all odds, is nothing short of a miracle. In fact, the historian Ram Guha goes to extent of saying that the real success story of modern India lies not in the domain of economics but in that of politics.

Let us explore the so called political gamble a bit more. At the time of independence, life expectancy was 32 years, literacy rate was 12% (7% for women), contribution to global GDP was 2% (down from 23% before British arrived) and we suffered over 1 million partition deaths. Even at that time, India had the vision and clarity of purpose to emerge as a pluralist, secular and democratic republic.

I am in no way trying to gloss over the growing up pains that manifested in innumerable mistakes we made — adopting an economically insular outlook, investing a mere pittance in primary education, ignoring efficient healthcare delivery mechanisms, building a clunky bureaucracy etc. — but our chutzpah to commit to the core values of nation building is admirable.

Chutzpah has Yiddish origins and is derived from the Hebrew word ḥutspâ (חֻצְפָּה) that means audacity of hope. This audacity of hope gave India the solid foundation that every startup needs to scale, learn, unlearn and exponentially enhance impact.

Diversity of conviction, gender, origin and opinion is vital for every start-up. India embraced diversity way before magazines and tech journals started talking about it. Our freedom fighters were arguably one of the most impactful political and social entrepreneurs. The founding team that led India to freedom and shaped its first few decades didn’t come from one party or one school of thought. It wasn’t an old boys club. They rarely agreed upon things, if at all.

This problem-solving approach premised on putting forward arguments and building consensus shaped our national culture post-independence. Our founding fathers and mothers agreed to disagree — respectfully, committed to the rule of law, treated the constitution as their holy document and trusted the wisdom of people in deciding what is best for the country.

An unintended consequence of doing things the right way and focusing on the founding design principles was on Indian soft power. Harvard academic Joseph Nye defines soft power as the ability of a nation to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce to make a point. India’s thriving civil society, the inimitable ‘Argumentative Indian’ and our sheer tenacity to nurture every form of ambiguity and diversity makes the Indian story even more remarkable.

‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ is said to be one of the finest works ever by French artist Paul Gaugin who transitioned from being a “Sunday painter” to becoming a professional artist after his career as a stockbroker failed in the early 1880s. Through this article I have attempted to answer what we are and where we come from.

Where we are going is largely up to us — the millennials. 65% of our country is less than 35 years of age. Even by 2050, we will have a significant demographic advantage, especially over China, US, Western Europe and Japan. We have inherited a stable democracy, a free society but we will be complacent to take them for granted. We will be myopic if we rest on our past laurels or succumb to the jingoist tunes of hyper-nationalism.

The startups that really work are the ones that “Hit Refresh” often, treat every day as day 1 and create a culture of radical openness and collaboration. India is very much a startup — a startup that is both “super-poor” and a “super-power”. Many things are going right for us but we also have huge challenges
to overcome. Let us reconcile this super poor-super power conundrum by adopting an entrepreneurial outlook not only in business but in all walks of life. This is day 1 and as Robert Frost would say — we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

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