India’s current Finance Minister visited the Harvard Business School last week and delivered a boring recitation of India’s economic woes and a list of problems the country needs to fix in order to grow even further. There was much criticism of systems – especially the education system – and few ideas of how to actually make anything better apart from getting the Communists to stop hindering economic growth. Same old stuff. Perhaps the only redeeming feature of his speech was the deep, well-thrown voice in which it was delivered, which despite leaning towards the monotonous still possessed a rich timbre that held an audience’s attention.
He did redeem himself somewhat in the Q&A. When asked how to reconcile India’s energy problems with environmental control, he responded in the punchy way that is typical of what some people call “the New India”, aggressive, assertive, no longer willing to do as told for a few dollars of “aid”. Paraphrased in non-energy lingo, it roughly translates to: “Don’t expect us to be good when you’re going to be bad.” As the mostly Indian audience erupted in applause, what was lost is the question of whether this approach is the right policy or not.
Then came the almost obligatory question of how India is going to compete with China. Chidambaram replied in the same way that I’ve seen other Indian leaders reply: we’re not competing with China; India and China are two entirely different beasts. But then he added something new: “However, if there’s one thing I want us to learn from China, it’s the single-minded purpose and ruthless efficiency with which they get things done. If they promise to have a road built in 90 days, it’s ready in 75. We are nowhere close to this because of our politics and corruption. So we cannot compete with them on growth. However, there is the other side to democracy. I am more than willing to sacrifice a couple of percentage points of growth for the freedom to write and say and think just what I like.”
This, sadly, was the high point in a mostly disappointing hour and a half.