Sanjeev Gupta
Sanjeev Gupta

India: Not for the faint-hearted

The irrepressible Winston Churchill once quipped: “India is no more a country than the equator is.” To try and define it, to try and understand it and to try and explain it as one homogeneous entity is impossible. This country’s unique diversity, rich heritage and cross-cultural mosaic have been well chronicled but the many layers of India’s civil society differentiate the country as one of the most unique and complex in the world.

The less heralded and less recognised aspect of India is its fast-evolving socio-economic structure and the accompanying lifestyle. To an outsider the giant financial and economic machinery of India, which has now become a buzz-word for success globally, appears innocuous and routine. But what lurks underneath is a fabric which runs across a myriad of religious, cultural, educational and paradigm diversities. Holding all that complexity are ancient taboos, political manoeuvring, closely-guarded secrets, blatant nepotism and a stranglehold through man-made barriers to real competition and more efficient service delivery.

India’s civil society has fairly sharp divides split as it is into distinct socio-economic groups ranging from the educated professionals to the urbane youth to the very wealthy. The middle class is the growing segment which props up the wealthy underpinned by the impoverished masses that have no ready means to uplift their economic situation as yet.

The first group is the bright minds of India. They have received the best education and are armed with extremely high doses of unfettered ambition. This new generation of bright young minds has been spawned by aggressive and aspirational parents who have pushed their children towards prosperity and security. They are energetic, vibrant and pragmatic and they provide a significant amount of intellectual capital. They are bringing to the public eye increasing sophistication.

They are the leaders and consumers and they are certainly the noisier group of society. They have started thronging the fast mushrooming glitzy bars littered across the towns and cities. They wine and dine in the fancy restaurants, have developed an insatiable taste for new cuisine and are as much at home with sushi as they are with rice and dhal. They need attention, they don’t take no for an answer and they are dynamic in their approach, speech and enjoyment.

Expensively clothed in the latest designer garments, they thrive on the sheer exuberance of life and soaking up the elixir of living to the hilt. Yet refreshingly they do have their feet firmly on the ground when it comes to issues of commerce and creating wealth. Not only is the new order evident in their behaviourism but it is also evident in their speech. They speak a peculiar variety of Hinglish — which is smartly accented English with a generous sprinkling of Hindi or any other local vernacular as the case may be.

Notably, this group still prays and pays obeisance to their elders and family as they always have and as their parents have. They are tuned to the needs of the extended family and very proud to take part in such family gatherings. You see the future of India through their eyes and they make you believe that the country’s tryst with destiny has now rightfully and definitively arrived.

Propping them up in the giant corporate ladder from below are the less educated but no less dynamic set of people who provide India with its competitive pricing power. This is the second group of India’s civil society. They are the nameless aspiring masses who work twelve hours a day, seven days a week and twelve months a year because the ground below is a deep abyss. They persevere because they have no other choice and they smile because their very survival depends on the whims of their bosses and benefactors. No work is beyond them, no effort too big as they continue their pursuit for security and peace and in the process they keep the nation galvanised and greased.

Then finally you have the “others” — those nameless and faceless armies of people that throng the streets of Indian metropolises. They are the ones who drive the more affluent citizens’ cars, clean their homes and wash their dirty linen. Illiterate, rustic, impoverished and innocent, the others are slaves of the giant machinery called India. They have no rights, no stability and often no hopes. But they have a dream and their sense of reality is borne out of a deep sense of religion, generous doses of insecurity and huge amounts of responsibility. If they do harbour deep fault, lines of frustration and resentment in their deeply burrowed foreheads, they keep it to themselves and carry on relentlessly, betrayed only by their tired eyes which look up questioningly at times.

To the visitor or the uninitiated, India is a land of promise, vigour and entrepreneurial zeal. That is indeed very true and evidence of that abounds across the vast terrain in all forms and manner. Recent reforms and a fast developing middle class have made India a formidable place.

India has allowed its people to dream finally, to prosper and to come up the food chain in large numbers; albeit fairly recently and somewhat in a limited capacity. But it’s also true that the gap between the haves and have-nots keep widening — the ostentatious glitter of the new rich sits in sharp contrast to the ever-burgeoning numbers of masses with emaciated faces and withered dreams.

It is not uncommon to see gleaming limos swinging past the homeless on the pavements. It is a perfectly usual sight to see retail outlets selling the world’s best brands as their mannequins in those well-lit shops overlook naked beggar boys standing outside — a silent testimony to the stark contrasts and a reminder of the wide chasm of inequality in dire form.

But, in India, a giant fabric envelops it all, takes in all its diversity and gives it the stability and the direction that keeps the country alive and breathing coherently. This is a giant hand that reaches out and clasps the new-found prosperity, the burgeoning middle class, class wars that simmer and provides it with the rule of law and a sense of direction. These are your power merchants, your movers and shakers and your local Mafioso.

Power vests firmly with those “larger than life” families. They own the wheels of commerce that run the machinations of politics and ultimately determine the future of a billion people. Believe it or not, those with their ancient and time-tested connections and old bonds are still the ones with power and reach. In business, they are omnipresent, in politics they are omnipotent and in society they are ominously influential. Their domination of virtually every aspect of Indian life is complete and their presence is all-embracing. These families with their vast reach and zeal introduce new ideas and new methods to their ways of doing things but are yet to fully accept business principles that are globally understood and accepted.

The Indian corporates that are conceived and managed by these indigenous promoters adopts an approach where the conventional corporate trappings are replaced by an entrepreneur’s deft touch and intuition. Decisions are made, not discussed; governance in its formal sense is projected but not followed and full and complete transparency is talked about but not attempted. Strategy is about opportunities and not necessarily vision. Loyalty is earned and not bought.

These people are amazing — consummate in their approach and slick in their action. They are a sincere and highly disciplined lot. They are religious too as is the rest of India and can be found in the many famed holy places across the country, followed eagerly with much fanfare by an adoring media. They bring a peculiar brand of management and philosophy to everything they do. They view their people as their own property. They look after them well as one would look after one’s highly prized race horse and adopt a highly patronising approach toward dealing with most people’s issues. They demand loyalty and obeisance and they practice command and control.

Herein continues the evolution of India. An evolution where the old are still alive and well and the new are pushing forward but have many miles to go.

The end result? An anachronism at certain times and anarchy at others. An effort to accept change very often sacrificed at the altar of fear and insecurity. A naïve approach to issues backed by years of being frugal which protects them from excesses. A person must now find a way to be successful in India in this cauldron of confusion and transformation.

  • Dave Harris

    I have a tremendous respect for how India has yanked itself up by own bootstraps after hundreds of years of colonialism. I also have great admiration and gratitude for the deep spiritual teachings from great Indian thinkers for thousands of years and their numerous contributions to science, technology, arts…I’ve even visited your beautiful country and now I fully understand why all those ancient explorers were constantly seeking sea routes to the east!

    The Achilles heel of India’s greatness however, is its entrenched CASTE SYSTEM – a glass ceiling of its own creation reinforced by the British class system that prevailed for almost three centuries. Strange that you never mentioned “caste” even once!!! This reminds me of how white SAns pretended like apartheid never existed while they tried desperately to be fully accepted by the rest of the world. Similar to SA, India will have to fall further behind before it recognizes that urgent action needs to be taken to eradicate this cancer from its society. I have yet to see ANY society, in the history of our world, that systematically oppresses part of its own population, EVER prospering for any length of time without resorting to brute force e.g. colonialism, dictatorships…. Maybe some world history scholar can prove me wrong.


  • Dave Harris


    I suppose when you describe India as a “complex” place – this is really a euphemism for f*****-up, isn’t it? I’ve heard of numerous tales from South African Indians, most of whose forefathers emigrated to escape this opression, visiting India and recounting their surreal close up encounters with the caste system – a rude awakening indeed!

    Even Gandhi’s valiant efforts in opposing this deplorable system had limited success. The westernization and AA laws for “backward castes”, yes, this is the actual term used in India, have helped to a degree, to uplift the “others” oppressed for centuries in the name of religion. However, a LOT more need to be done to overcome the centuries of inhumanity. Hopefully pressure can be brought against the Government of India to take more urgent steps to halting this shameful practice through the UN and other international bodies, by collectively approaching the issue of caste as human rights abuse, just as apartheid was.

    In spite of the positive, upbeat tone of your article, all India’s successes comes to NAUGHT if it continues to drag its feet toward eliminating the caste system. Just like apartheid collapsed under its own brutality, the Indian caste system is doomed to suffer a slow death and will ultimately drag down the society with it.

  • qk

    I agree with Dave. For all its diversity and complexity which you wax lyrical about, India is still tainted by the ugliness of the caste system. Like Apartheid, it’s entrenched in the pscyhe of the people. I was utterly appalled to hear first hand experiences of people being unable to marry who they love, simple because they’re of a family considered to have “low status”. This kind of thinking is popular among some South African Indians too. So much for a progressive society.

  • Brian baba

    Nonsense comments, rooted in brainwashed “PC” western mode. You are constrained by your European type thinking, imposing cultural colonialism on India. What qualifies you to define “progressive”?

    Educate and inform yourself:

    Indentured labourers did not go to SA and various countries to escape caste system.

    “Backward castes” is not the term used. The term is “scheduled castes”.

    Gandhi was a Brahmin and he did not actually advocate “equality” of dalit and african and brahmin. Search and find the information, it is even on the ANC website, they know what he said about africans.

  • Delany

    Hierarchies are inherent in any population. The fanatical approach to democracy in the west is a joke. All we have succeeded in is to push our own caste system into political and commercial entities. But there’s always some person behind those. Shareholders, mafia, mens clubs. They’re all the same, and worse now – they’re anonymous. Being unseen, they can be irresponsible and hide behind the closed corporation. Do you even know what PTY LTD means?
    We live in a hidden society, racked with guilt and shame. How about we sort ourselves out first and stop this stupid tradition of arrogantly blundering into every other Asian societies’ affairs.

    There’s a reason Indians are so pious. Fail to understand karma and you’ll float on endlessly in speculation and accusation.

  • Khoza

    I know India very well, cause I lived and studied there in the eightees. I was amazed, on my recent visit to India, how much industrial progress the country has made. However, the same social problems I left behind, with no intention of ever to return still bedevil the sub-continent.

    The Harijans (lower caste) still tough it out, working for the rich and famous. They build skyscappers they are no allowed to enter, once the building is finished. They get used and abused for no returns. The trucks that criss-cross the various Indian states use them for cheap labour – sometimes they are killed for no reason and thrown into the river, for the crocodiles to feed on them.

    Indian society is generally heartless when it comes to the poor. They are too materialistic. Whilst on one hand they claim to be very religious, they remain some of the most racist people I have ever met. In more backward states such as Madya Pradesh, as you walk the streets as a black man, you are constantly stared at, giggled at and called monkey and monkey-like sounds are made at you. At times you get hit with some stone, without provocation.

    Someone once commented that India is “a very big toilet”. The country is very dirty. Hygiene is virtually unknown. The moment you land and walk into the airport, you are greeted with a stench that you will soon have to live with and get use to during your stay.

  • Dick Corner

    I spent nearly a decade in India years ago and thus found this article most interesting.
    However, I wish to draw attention to abuse of the word “unique” in the first paragraph. Something is either unique or not unique. The word cannot be qualified.

  • Harold

    Brian Baba above responds appropriately to Dave Harris’s remarks. Caste is rooted in 3000+ years of history. Concepts of class are similarly hard-wired. India has done much to try to undo the deleterious effects of caste, but Governments can’t change human nature.
    India is a fantastic place to travel in – I’ve spent about 8 months there. I’d like to live in India for a year or two if I had a marketable skill. Alas India does not need more accountants! One thing I did not hear in India was people blaming the former colonial power for all their ills. It seems to me India has developed the positives of things the British established (railways, a functioning if flawed democracy, bureaucracy which genuinely attempts to deliver service). And when these things fail to function they don’t go setting stuff on fire. And Indian people show entrepreneurship and energy in every country they have migrated to.