Back from India – Land of Paradoxes

I am passing through the Amsterdam airport and wanted to share some perspectives about India from my exposure over the past week, a couple of days touring around the city and the Franchise India Conference where I spoke.

First of all, the Indian people I met and observed were incredibly kind and warm. The ideas of graciousness and customer service are so central to the culture in India that Mahatma Gandhi himself, a member of the trade class, once commented that, “Our businesses are not here to receive something from customers. They exist to serve customers.”

That spirit pervaded every single experience and encounter I had there, in spite of mind-bending traffic, extreme pollution (air and trash), the “haves” constantly crossing paths with the “have nots”, and a watershed moment for that nation as it reacted to the heartbreaking–but not spirit breaking–events in Mumbai.

India is truly a land of Paradoxes. I lamented to one of my hosts at one point that I really couldn’t easily define the place or the experience. It was too complex and multifacated. Her response was, “I’ve lived here all my life and I still can’t define it either.”

Here are some examples of the paradoxes that abound:

  • In New Delhi, by many accounts, they speak English more properly than Hindi. Yet they’re extremely proud of their independence from Britian.
  • The new millionaires of India are popping up in numbers, yet they still act as if they’re everyday people, driving their old beat-up cars and being very modest in their personal spending.
  • They are predicting a “terrible slump” in their economy, “down to 7.2% increase in GDP forecasted for the year ahead.” Would any American call that a slump?!
  • Their businesses are growing extremely rapidly yet they’re run as tightly controlled, old school family businesses.
  • They are the world’s largest democracy with their $1.2 billion citizens, but pay rates are still shockingly low for some there. A full-time housekeeper there earns around $1,200 a year. To add to the paradox, that housekeeper is typically extremely closely knit with the family she works for and is thrilled to have the work.
  • Outside the brand new skyscrapers of the IT district (yes, there’s a whole Silicon Valley of IT companies and call centers next to Delhi), along the sidewalks, you’ll pass cars jammed in to parking spots and every now and then, a cow laying in a parking spot, the subject of much reverence by Indians. Quite shocking to the unsuspecting Westerner.
  • Infrastructure is sagging under the surge in population shifting from outlying areas to the city. The roadways are crumbling, packed, complete anarchy, yet, I didn’t experience a single traffic jam or see a single accident while I was there.
  • The country is a democracy, yes, but is surrounded by belligerent nations on all sides and therefore the military has a huge presence everywhere you turn. Across from my hotel, in the neighborhood where the embassies are clustered, there were armed/manned, sandbag’ed outposts every 100 meters along the roadway.
  • The business people of India look to the West for inspiration and lessons on success in business, yet, they are the descendents of one of history’s most successful economies in existence prior to colonialism – long before the idea of America ever developed.
  • Bollywood makes more films than Hollywood each year, yet, just a few years ago they had no CNN broadcast within the country.

I could go on and on…

One thing’s for sure, in my opinion: India is just beginning its emergence as an economic power. And the lessons we learn first, they learn second but in a fraction of the time. India, as much as it will grow, does not pose a threat at all in my view to the US, but instead a perfect economic partner. They’re sophisticated, there’s a lot of respect for the U.S. (especially now that we have a new President), and they’re hungry as hell. Unlike China, there’s no need to “look the other way” on human rights issues, totalitarian Communist rulers, or shady ethical issues.

The next five years are going to be stunning in India, and the relationship between India and the U.S. I expect to expand in wonderful ways for both countries.

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