Indian Exceptionalism: Searching for the Big Idea in the World’s Biggest Democracy

"Bold ideas are almost passe'." -- Neal Gabler, senior fellow, Annenberg Norman Lear Center, University of Southern California

A 2009 TERI-Europe report had some glum news about the state of sustainable investment in India, saying the nation "has limited domestic sustainable investment market or infrastructure in the listed equity space," noting that India’s first and only retail socially responsible mutual fund, launched in 2007 by the state-owned Dutch bank ABM AMRO, raised a meager USD 12 million and was governed by a "relatively basic" ESG methodology. The report also noted that the S&P ESG India Index, launched in January 2008 with support from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), "represents an important step forward but at this early stage has not yet had a discernable impact on the market."

But by avoiding the worst effects of the 2008 financial crisis, thanks to strong banking regulations, India is well poised to make inroads in sustainable finance. "India, raring to be an economic powerhouse, with a stable political environment, was quick to find its footing during the global recession," said Rajiv Kumar, the secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which represents India's chambers of commerce. At the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York last week, India prime minister Manmohan Singh showed his readiness, championing the cause of "balanced, inclusive and sustainable development."


Singh may have felt emboldened by the increased drive to finance sustainable development back home. For example, the 2011 India Development Marketplace, a grant program of the World Bank Group, received a record-breaking 264 proposals looking to finance sustainable business models in three Indian states: Bihar, the nation's third most populous state, which has been in recent years the focus of increased private investment thanks to better governance; Rajasthan, which has become a hotspot for the IT sector, hosting several global tech firms, such as as Genpact, Infosys and Winpro; and Orissa, a natural resource-heavy state that has 20 percent of the nation’s coal and 25 percent of its iron ore.

"We are pleased with the overwhelming response to this year’s edition of 2011 India Development Marketplace," said Anil Sinha, the general manager of IFC's South Asia Advisory Services. "The platform successfully captures the attention of social entrepreneurs with inclusive and sustainable business solutions addressing crucial development needs in the three focus states."

"This competition marks the beginning of a multi-year World Bank collaboration with Indian social entrepreneurs and the national and state-level government to connect social entrepreneurs with a growing pool of external investors, external funders and providers of capacity building," said World Bank Institute vice president Sanjay Pradhan.


But while Prime Minister Singh noted such pressing issues as food security, water conservation, land usage and commodity price stability in his UN speech, these problems remain as intractable as ever. But, "if we spot and utilise the inter-connections among these problems," wrote UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in a May 2009 editorial published in The Economic Times of India, "solutions to each problem can be solutions to all." Sure, these big problems need big solutions driven by big ideas, but what are those big ideas?

In a New York Times opinion piece last month entitled "The Elusive Big Idea," Neal Gabler reviewed the "14 Biggest Ideas of the Year" feature in the July/August issue of The Atlantic and found them a tad lacking in the "big idea" department. He said that many of them ("Wall Street: Same as it Ever Was," "Nothing Stays Secret" and "The Rise of the Middle Class -- Not Just Ours") are really more observations than big ideas.

"Ideas just aren't what they used to be," opines Gabler, who is a senior fellow at the Annenberg Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California and the author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. "Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world."

"If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it's not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did," writes Gabler. "In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world -- a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passe'." Could even the idea of a "big idea" have become so axiomatic that it has become unnoticeable or even unreachable?


"Till a few years ago, the world had taken for granted the benefits of globalisation and global interdependence," said Singh in his UN speech. "But now we are being called upon to cope with the negative dimensions." India's leader called for "a stronger and more effective United Nations" to deal with the "deficit in global governance." But perhaps he could also find the big ideas in his own homeland.

With a population approaching 1.2 billion people -- four times that of the United States -- India is the biggest democracy the world has ever seen. And there are few, if any, incubators for good ideas better than democracies. Surely, if it can nurture and grow its nascent SRI market and keep sustainable finance flowing for its hungry social entrepreneurs, India has the manpower -- and brainpower -- to create and execute sustainable solutions.

Much ink has been spilled about the concept of American exceptionalism. But as Bengali author Nirad C. Chaudhuri notes in his book The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, "In a country like India, so vast, so populous, the individuals who form the exceptions may well run into the millions." Perhaps some ink will soon be spilled about Indian exceptionalism -- henna ink, of course.


Chaudhuri, Nirad C. The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. (New York: NYRB Classics, 2001, p. xx.)

image: Mehndi, a ceremonial art of temporary skin decoration using henna ink (credit: Sean Holder Photography, Flickr Creative Commons)