India's Century: The Age of Entrepreneurship in the Worlds Biggest Democracy
by Kamal Nath
McGraw-Hill; 230pp; $27.95
In these waning weeks of 2007, the future direction of global trade policy has reached a critical juncture. The so-called Doha Development Round of World Trade Organization talks has stalled over agricultural subsidies and industrial tariffs. While some trade representatives still express confidence that a new agreement can be reached, others warn that the divisions between rich and emerging nations are so wide that the negotiations, which began in 2001, are doomed to failure.
The consequences of a total breakdown could be profound, warns Kamal Nath, India's Commerce & Industry Minister, who is one of the lead negotiators. "The worst victim would be the WTO and its underlying premise of free and fair trade, as it would lose its credibility," he writes in his newly published book, India's Century, the first from a government insider since the country began its economic reforms in 1991.
For those who don't yet know much about India's economic boom and are curious to learn how and why it happened, Nath's book is well worth reading. But those already familiar with India won't find much that's new here. The one exception: Nath's insights into trade policy and the consequences of a failure to reach a new multilateral pact.
In fact, the book is an invitation to Western leaders to see India in a new light and consider it a partner in shaping 21st century economics and geopolitics. Nath wants the Western powers to bend in WTO negotiations and lower trade barriers, an accommodation he sees as vital to India's economic future. It's as if he's saying: "See, here's the strong, stable, reliable, democratic counterweight to China you'll get if you give us a break on trade."
Nath leaves no doubt about who he blames for the trade stalemate: the West. He writes disparagingly of "the enormous subsidies that the governments of the United States, the European Union, and the other developed countries are pumping into the accounts of their handful of farmers." Meanwhile, India's subsidies average just $12 per year per farmer.
While he hangs tough in negotiations, Nath also has a diplomatic side. He recounts how during George W. Bush's 2006 visit to India, the President confronted him, saying he was "creating problems" for the U.S. trade representative in WTO deliberations. Another leader might have taken umbrage, but Nath insisted that he and Robert Portman, who was then the U.S. trade representative, were "very good friends." Nath uses the incident to make a point: In spite of tensions between the U.S. and India, he believes they share a "vision for the future of the world."
Nath paints a rosy picture of India's place in that future. He predicts that in the 2020s, the country's agricultural and industrial sectors will surge just as its tech industry has. With trade liberalization and major government investments in agriculture, he asserts, Indian farms could become vastly more productive and competitive in world markets. An increase in farm incomes and improved agricultural technology would free tens of millions of villagers to pursue jobs in manufacturing and services. India's huge population of poor young villagers, now a liability on the nation's economic balance sheet, could be converted into a valuable asset: the aging West's workforce of the future. "This would be one of the most remarkable social engineering feats in human history," writes Nath.
Indeed it would—but it's a long shot. It's not surprising that Nath would portray India's future so optimistically. As Commerce Minister, he's the chief salesman of what he calls "Brand India." But while Nath makes sharp points regarding trade issues, much of the book reads like a marketing brochure. His chapter on the obstacles India faces seems perfunctory, and he makes only oblique references to one of the country's seemingly intractable problems: official corruption.
Nath is an engaging writer. His flaw is that he's too much the diplomat when it comes to addressing India's internal affairs. India could use some tough, straight talk about what needs to be done to resolve a host of deep-seated social and economic problems. Those points would be even more powerful coming from an insider.