Awakening the Sleeping Beauty: Transformative Economic and Political Leadership Practices Observed in India

14 Oct 2022

by Vishaak Gangasandra 

India, a country that at one stage in history contributed to one quarter of the world’s GDP, has been dormant for decades. I was fortunate this past winter to spend a month travelling through India. I found that the skills, perspectives and analytical insights that I have developed over the past year and a half through the Liveris Academy enabled me to critically observe the upcoming potential of this global giant.
As the world’s largest democracy, and in recent years hailed as the world’s fastest-growing economy, India possesses a unique system of governance. When visiting India, I travelled with a current Member of Parliament and along my travels, got to closely interact and work with Members of the Legislative Assembly, ministers of industry, Supreme Court lawyers, community leaders, heads of universities and directors of hospitals. From these diverse interactions with the highest levels of management across various pillars of Indian society, I have collated insights into cross-cultural leadership and the differences between practices and attitudes between India and western society:
Insights from the Political Landscape:
From one month of observation, the one thing – above all – resounded in relation to India’s political landscape: it is a culturally polarised battlefield with multiple internal and external stakeholders who are reluctant to compromise. As someone who has lived a large part of my life in the serenity and geographic isolation of Australia, I was astonished to see the great divides between cultures from different states and localities within India. Exacerbated by the growing geopolitical pressures from neighbouring countries, all of which appear to stagnate growth across all areas.
Interestingly, the communities which flourished (and the difference is marked), were those whose leaders effectively sought to mobilise their communities through stimulating job growth and collaborated with their neighbouring communities. The state of Karnataka is one such example where, from discussions with the heads of state, it is evident that their non-combative approach to industrial growth is a key in crowning them as India’s fastest economically developing state. 

Another interesting observation to make is the nature of political discourse in the nation - particularly through media outlets. Watch any political debate on the news and you will soon find out that the loudness of your voice is more important than the contents of your speech. This makes it quite difficult to disagree with conventional opinions and seems to have created a nation-wide echo-chamber where vocal figures largely do not reflect the views of the majority - much more compared to western counterparts.  
Insights from the Educational Landscape:
Within the first three days of landing in Bangalore, I was asked to speak on live television to an audience of thousands of engineering students. I spoke on the pathways towards entrepreneurship, innovation and industrialisation, sharing my unique knowledge gained from Australia’s highly agile innovation ecosystem.
Similar to Australia, there is a strong push from India’s government to “Make In India”, aiming to promote the development of local manufacturing, design and entrepreneurship. As global tensions increase, particularly in South-East Asia and Ukraine, India wishes to become more self-sufficient, empowering students to innovate. Interestingly, there is even a grant offered to entrepreneurs wishing to found ‘yoga startups’, with the current Prime-Minister Narendra Modi being a great supporter of this cornerstone of Indian culture. 
However, from speaking with students after my talk, I felt that this culture of innovation is in early stages. There is a very rigorous academic culture in India’s education system, with a strong push for grades and little to no extracurricular development. This is slightly at odds with Australia’s culture which promotes engagement with start-ups and corporate internships as almost complementary to a university degree. However, with the rise of corporate hubs in India’s main cities, I foresee a strong focus on leadership and innovation in Indian higher education, with 30% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies currently being of Indian origin. 

Furthering from this, the nature of education built over the past 75 years in India is one that centres around the export of talent. On average, an Indian high-school student between grade 9 and grade 12 will study 10-15 hours every day (inclusive of school). The education system raises them to achieve the best possible score on their grade 12 exams and idolises careers in engineering and technology: 80% of 16-year-olds in India want to become an engineer compared to 20% in the UK. After graduating, students will either join a university overseas or join a technological university in India and proceed to work for an international technology company: one in three Silicon Valley engineers are Indian. Nothing in this pipeline incentivises students to work locally and solve nation-wide challenges, rather students’ talent is exported to international companies. There is currently a strong push to change this and within the coming decades, I believe that there is great opportunity for local companies to emerge by mobilising the wealth of local talent. 
Insights from the Economic and Infrastructure Landscapes:
Visiting multiple cities while in India, I was able to sharply notice the single largest disadvantage of social development: systematic gentrification. As a tourist across the nation, you’ll be surprised at the scale of central business districts, offerings of luxury shopping hubs and the availability of comforts from the western world. But travel with locals and you will soon see the disparity between ‘new’ India and the nation it was just ten years ago. Street fronts now cleanly displaying Starbucks and Dominoes are backed by nearly-empty streets that, when I visited 5 years prior, was a bustling marketplace of handicrafts and locally grown produce.
The development of the nation’s economy is mismatched by the development of its population, both economically and culturally. To be a nation of great economic scale, it has signed several partnerships with US-based organisations and franchises. However, little has been done to ensure citizens are ready to engage with these organisations. From this, it can be seen that a social license to operate is essential to ensure sustainable, long-term growth.
Key Takeaways:
I was born in India, but have grown up around the world, living in Scotland, Canada and Australia through my childhood. Able to speak the native language from the state in India where I was born, and keeping regular contact with family and friends, I feel a strong connection to the country. 

Having such an experience this past Winter has been eye-opening for me. It provided me with a great opportunity to analyse leadership in a different context, utilising the tools I have learnt through the Andrew N. Liveris Academy for Innovation and Leadership. I am fortunate to have witnessed the barriers and potential enablers to sustainable growth and leadership and I am looking forward to bringing my new perspectives to upcoming Academy sessions.