In Other Words

Slumdog Billionaires

Two autobiographies show how India's new Rockefellers made it big.

On the face of it, G.R. Gopinath might not seem a natural candidate to become a best-selling Indian author. He isn't a glamorous political heiress from across the border, like current hit writer Fatima Bhutto, or a well-known authority on urban Indian aspirations, like Pavan K. Varma. And not even his staunchest admirer would mistake the founder of India's first low-budget airline, known to many of his compatriots simply as Captain Gopi, for a prose stylist.

Nonetheless, Gopinath's rambling, shambolic autobiography Simply Fly has winged its way to virtually every best-seller list in the country since its publication in January, selling 30,000 copies in hardback in a land where a tenth of that number is regarded as respectable. The critics have been breathless: According to the Indian Express, "From Captain Gopi's story, the young and dreamy-eyed could discover a thing or two about persevering in the face of repeated failure." The magazine Businessworld summed up the book as "inspiring and encouraging."

In the United States, such accolades might come across as generic, the sort of anodyne praise that could fit almost any business biography published over the last century. In India, they border on the revolutionary. Simply Fly's success is not merely a comment on India's booming publishing industry, or an economy that grew 7.4 percent in a year of near-global recession. It also marks a remarkable turn in the Indian conception of the tycoon, long a deeply mistrusted figure in this formerly socialist country. Inspired by the opportunities now available in a liberalized economy and dazzled by their newfound global economic power, Indians -- for the first time ever -- are viewing businessmen as heroes instead of villains.

This development is evident in other ways as well: In Bollywood movies like Guru, which tells the story of a young boy working his way up to become a textile magnate, or Jab We Met, in which a depressed industrialist discovers commercial success along with true love, it's no longer uncommon to find the energetic entrepreneur portrayed with the sympathy once reserved for the angry young man of the masses.

The new attitude challenges centuries of religious and cultural practice. In the Hindu caste pecking order, Brahmin priests and Kshatriya rulers have always ranked above the Vaishya caste of merchants and traders. Thanks in part to the legacy of colonial rule -- in the 18th century, after all, India was conquered by a corporation, the British East India Company -- the first generation of post-independence leaders in the 20th century turned strongly against private enterprise, which they associated with the ills of imperialism.

The country's first prime minister after independence in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a Fabian socialist educated at Harrow and Cambridge. Throughout his life he displayed a patrician disdain for business. "Profit," he once remarked, is a word "I consider dirty." Enamored of the Soviet Union, Nehru placed the state at what he called the "commanding heights" of the economy. Nehru didn't abolish the private sector, but he shackled it severely. In 1955, his Congress Party declared that "planning should take place with a view to the establishment of a socialistic pattern of society, where the principal means of production are under social ownership or control."

Over the next 30-odd years -- and especially under Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who ruled for all but three years between 1966 and 1984 -- the Indian economy languished, expanding in per capita terms by an anemic 1 to 2 percent annually that economists disparagingly called the "Hindu rate of growth." It was only in 1991, faced with a budget crisis and increasingly aware of having been overtaken by the fast-growing economies of East Asia, that India began to open up, loosening state control over business and easing restrictions on trade. Entrepreneurs such as Gopinath belong to the first generation to straddle both sides of the country's economic history: They came of age in a socialist India, but made their fortunes in a capitalist one.

As a boy, Gopinath rode a bullock cart to his village school in the southern state of Karnataka. In his adult years, he tried working as, among other things, a commissioned officer in the Indian Army, a silk farmer, a motorcycle dealer, a stockbroker, and a (failed) politician before hitting upon the idea of founding a cheap airline on the model of Ryanair in Europe or AirAsia in Malaysia. His creation, Air Deccan, began operations between Bangalore and Hubli in 2003. Its stated goal was to give every Indian the opportunity to fly -- at a time when air travel was still the preserve of the wealthy. That, and media-savvy gimmicks such as the 1 rupee fare (about 2 cents), soon made Air Deccan a household name.

Nonetheless, four years later, with Deccan still in the red, Gopinath was forced to sell out to the flamboyant liquor and airline baron Vijay Mallya. Since then Gopinath has gone on to found Deccan 360, India's first air-freight company. Although only a year old, Deccan 360 has already sold an undisclosed stake to Reliance Industries, India's largest private company.

Gopinath's isn't the only such story. Indeed, the first blurb on his book jacket comes from another modern-day hero of the Indian middle class, Nandan Nilekani, the self-made billionaire and former CEO of the iconic Bangalore outsourcing company Infosys Technologies, who describes Gopinath's book as "a discovery of the difficulties and the exhilaration that innovative entrepreneurs face in India."

Nilekani knows a thing or two about both. Like Gopinath, he's a first-generation entrepreneur, an educated man who made it through smarts and hard work rather than family connections. (Gopinath's father was a village schoolteacher; Nilekani's managed a small mill.) It's no coincidence that both authors live in Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley and perhaps the city that best symbolizes the country's new eagerness to knit itself into the global economy. Their achievements reflect India's craving for modernity -- the celebration of software and airlines in a land once synonymous with illiteracy and the stark poverty of its villages.

Two years ago, Nilekani published his own bestseller, Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century, which has sold more than 55,000 copies in hardback. In the United States, Nilekani is most famous as the man whose talk of a level playing field for Indian business inspired the title of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat. But in India, Nilekani is best known as one of seven young geeks, many educated at the brutally meritocratic Indian Institutes of Technology, who co-founded Infosys in 1981. The firm, the flagship of India's famous software industry, now employs more than 110,000 people in 22 countries and had revenues last year of $4.8 billion. Nilekani, estimated by Forbes to have a net worth of $1.4 billion, quit Infosys last year to take a government job as the top official in charge of equipping each of India's 1.1 billion citizens with an electronic ID card to reduce fraud and improve the delivery of government services.

Imagining India barely touches upon its famous author's life, instead dwelling on his ideas. The book ranges over everything from literacy rates to electricity generation to the role of English in an aspirational society. Nilekani -- "an intellectual trapped in an entrepreneur's body," as the Economist once put it -- also goes on to cover faltering universities, environmental degradation, broken hospitals, and job creation. Intellectually, both authors share with other businessmen -- and with much of the educated middle class -- the growing sense that India's long embrace of socialism hurt the country much more than it helped. In Imagining India, Nilekani writes of his father's passionate belief in the Nehruvian dream and the evils of big business: "Many Indians believed in these ideas then; few of us believe them now." It's a modest description of an ongoing social and cultural transformation that has taken India to where it is today, from the back of the bullock cart to the front of the plane. 

Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty images

In Other Words

Venus Envy

America's ignorant, narcissistic anti-Europeanism is an embarrassment.

It fell to Barack Obama, as is often the case, to identify the problem. But, as is often the case, he had no solution. Speaking in Strasbourg, France, deep in the subsidized heartlands of the European Union in April last year, Obama deplored a growing mutual antipathy, bordering on open hostility, between Europe and America. Europeans were too often guilty of an "insidious" anti-Americanism while Americans had at times "shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive" of Europe's achievements.

To European ears, President Obama's analysis -- a characteristic piece of consensus-building -- appeared wholly reasonable, even unexceptional. On Thursday, Jose  Barroso, president of the European Commission, indicated his agreement, telling the British newspaper The Times, "The transatlantic relationship is not living up to its potential."

But in the United States, Obama's critique of American attitudes, his studied humility, and his implicit apology for the overbearing behavior of George W. Bush's administration was instantly condemned by some commentators as an extraordinary, unprecedented betrayal, all the worse because it was committed on foreign soil.

Beside himself with indignation, columnist and pundit Charles Krauthammer led the charge on Fox News:

"Obama says, 'In America there is a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world.' Well, maybe that's because when there was a civil war on Europe's doorstep in the Balkans, and genocide, it didn't lift a finger until America led. Maybe it's because when there was an invasion of Kuwait it didn't lift a finger until America led. Maybe it's because with America spending over half a trillion a year, keeping open the sea lanes in defending the world, Europe is spending pennies on defense. It's hard to appreciate an entity's leading role in the world when it's been sucking on your tit for 60 years."

Many Americans shared his fury. But in his eagerness to condemn Obama's European "apology tour" (as former Bush advisor Karl Rove later dubbed it), the spluttering Krauthammer inadvertently revealed that he suffered from the very problem Obama was trying to address. After all, it is one thing to disagree with a president and his policy. It is quite another to be so bitterly and scathingly contemptuous of an entire continent and its people, especially one that, for better or worse, is a historical ally and a close political, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic relation.

Uncertain whether to laugh or cry, Europeans ask: Is this sort of thing to be taken seriously? What is going on? For let's be honest: Krauthammer is a bit of a clown. And he has a very European surname.

Seen from Europe, of which Britain is (arguably) a part, the roots of American anti-Europeanism appear many and varied. At one end of the spectrum, there is the widely shared view that Europe does not pull its weight in a world that Washington would like to order according to its lights. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the unpalatable fact of widespread American ignorance, exacerbated by indifference, of all things European.

Examples of the latter abound. While covering the siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, a European reporter was asked in all sincerity: "Is Sweden a country or a city?" In Richmond, Virginia, a cab driver congratulated a visiting Briton on not having to bother about voting or elections "because you've got the Queen." And then there was the waitress in Arkansas who asked an unsuspecting Englishman: "What language do you speak in your country?"

But historically, anti-Europeanism is hardly a new phenomenon. America's first president warned against "permanent alliances" after successfully conspiring in an alliance with the French against the British in the Revolutionary War. President James Monroe issued his famous doctrine expressly to keep the European powers out of a New World to which a then much weaker Washington presumptuously laid claim. (Monroe neglected to mention that it would for the most part be the British Royal Navy tasked with enforcing his doctrine.)

Fear, envy, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, cultural inferiority-superiority complexes, trade, political and military rivalries, and America's quest for identity all fed anti-European feeling as the new country sought to differentiate itself from the old countries whence most of its people came. Many of these phenomena remain relevant today.

"Expressing one's anti-European sentiment can be a way of building up and displaying one's American identity and patriotism," said Patrick Chamorel in a European University Institute study published in Italy in 2004. "Anti-Europeanism has always been part of American exceptionalism, which defined itself in contrast to European history, politics, and society."

It would be easy for Europeans to shrug off America's Europhobic generalizations and mischaracterizations if they were exclusive to would-be-intellectual neoconservatives, Bible Belt evangelists, and provincial Midwest xenophobes. But ever since the European Union dropped the ball in the Balkans in the mid-1990s, a potent mix of influential American thinkers, policymakers, and commentators have given anti-Europeanism a new respectability that cannot be dismissed out of hand. On the major issues that preoccupy Americans -- defense, security, terrorism, intervention, free trade, sovereignty, and nationalism -- the argument that Europe has lost its way has gained in influence. And as a debt-laden European Union stares at the fiscal abyss, one can almost feel the schadenfreude emanating from across the pond.

The American debate over Europe has waxed and waned over the past decade, always unresolved, always infused with passion and fury. In The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent (2007), historian Walter Laqueur summarized the case against. Europe is "in the process of disappearing" as a force in the world, he argued, because political integration via the European Union has stalled, welfare-state policies are unsustainable, fertility rates are below replacement levels, and assimilation of increasingly hostile and angry Muslim immigrant populations has failed. Europe could not and would not defend itself, according to Laqueur. Bruce Thornton's Gibbonesque Decline and Fall: Europe's Slow Motion Suicide also offered a compilation of factors supposedly explaining the certain demise of Europe's failed utopian experiment: sluggish, state-regulated economic growth, high unemployment, high social entitlements, a mortifying museum culture, and the abandonment of the Christian tradition, which encouraged the growth of "pseudo-religions" -- among them environmentalism, multiculturalism, and hedonism.

There has been a corresponding, if quiet, backlash in the United States against native, anti-European sentiment. Strong support came from T.R. Reid, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent, in his 2004 book, The United States of Europe. Reid lauded in particular the advent of the common currency -- the euro -- and the creation of a European Constitution, evidence in his view of a growing European ascendancy. Others, such as Jeremy Rifkin and Steven Hill, were similarly enthusiastic in writing about the advent of "Generation E" -- younger Europeans who disregard national boundaries to embrace an empowering common culture.

American writer Robert Kagan famously synthesized the conflicting views in his influential 2002 "Mars and Venus" essay in Policy Review. "It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world," he said. One inhabited a fantasyland of laws, the other a land governed by the law of the jungle.

But Kagan's summary was ultimately too blithe to sustain serious scrutiny. Can Kagan account for how exactly the two irreconcilable "sides" he sketches managed to swap roles over the past hundred years? Just as the European great powers of the 19th century used brute force to impose their imperial will and vision while the priggishly constitutional United States kept its hands clean and looked on (and grew stronger and richer under Britain's de facto protection), so now does the United States wield the hammer while the Europeans look askance, all the time benefiting from Washington's security umbrella.

Moreover, Kagan failed to foresee the inherent weaknesses of each side's arguments. The European collectivist "soft power" model is under serious challenge after the near implosion of the European Union's vaunted Constitution and amid bitter argument over Greece's bankruptcy bailout and the euro's possible collapse. The American "hard power" model has been undermined by the U.S. military's inability to "win" two major wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the global financial crisis, a capitalist heart attack from which the patient has yet to recover.

Ultimately, though, foreign-policy preferences aren't the greatest instigator of the persistent transatlantic culture clash. Of all the differences Americans perceive in Europe, it's the old continent's moral decadence that seems to enrage them the most. It's that ethical lament that's the most intractable rift because it's not a policy debate at issue, but the status of one's own way of life. Citing conservatives such as Richard Perle who noisily lamented Europe's loss of "moral compass" and France's loss of "moral fiber," Timothy Garton Ash succinctly summarized in the New York Review of Books the widespread American stereotype of Europeans as godless wimps during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. "They [the Europeans] are weak, petulant, hypocritical, disunited, duplicitous, sometimes anti-Semitic and often anti-American appeasers," Garton Ash wrote of America's implicit disdain for its allies. Social trends seem to constantly reinforce that opinion. Rising secularism and spreading, ultraliberal social attitudes in Europe contrast ever more sharply with a perceived new American Puritanism.

As Obama said, it's a shame we can't just get along. Given the way the globalized world is placing increasing stress on international cooperation, given the way absolute U.S. power is retreating as the unipolar moment fades, and given the way China and other rising 21st-century powers are challenging the current balance of power and the values and beliefs that underpin it, Europe and America will inevitably need each other more and more. It's a stormy marriage, but a marriage all the same. And the alternatives are all worse.

But, hey, that's just a liberal Euroweenie speaking, right? I would think of it as a pragmatic, realpolitik viewpoint, but it could be mistaken for appeasement, which would never do in the United States. In the words of an email I once received from a reader in New York, "Don't forget who saved your ass twice, buddy. If it wasn't for the good ole US of A you'd all be speaking German!"

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