Slumdog Billionaires: Two Autobiographies Show How India's New Rockefellers Made It Big

By Dhume, Sadanand | Foreign Policy, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Slumdog Billionaires: Two Autobiographies Show How India's New Rockefellers Made It Big


Dhume, Sadanand, Foreign Policy


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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 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. …

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