Diversity as Competitive Edge

In my years of selling India, I have had two absolute low points. One was in the 1990s when I was setting up shop for Wipro in the Silicon Valley. The media was agog with the Babri Masjid demolition news. Second was when the Gujarat carnage took place, and people were killed in the name of religion. Both incidents set us back in unimaginable ways. People like me, whose job is to sell India before they sell a product or a service, saw years of work at establishing India as the face of tomorrow being undone. Ever since, I have thought about this question: can pluralism and diversity be national differentiators that make business sense?

In the next many decades, other things remaining constant, companies from countries that are pluralistic and have respect for diversity will be chosen over their competitors. We need to understand that we will live in a world where access to capital, technology and talent will become a non-issue. They will cease to be sources of differentiation for any country. If the developed countries have it today, the developing ones will have it tomorrow. If India has it today, chances are China is already on its way. So what can be a lasting differentiator for India?

Neither our politicians nor business folks have understood India’s core value, which, if nursed and protected, will be a differentiator that few other competing countries can emulate. A pluralistic political system breeds a certain eco-system of talent, accountability and freedom of speech that global business places great value on. Without these, the quality of human talent can’t be pervasive. India has stumbled through six decades of democratic institutions. Despite their imperfections, we remain one of the few bastions of freedom in the world.

We are a country with many languages, religions and customs. Diversity is key to any innovative process, which is the only guarantee of economic leadership in this century. The reason the US is where it is today is that she cherishes diversity. To her, diversity is non-negotiable. Yet it was not blessed with diversity. Diversity was a historic event, and through a certain constancy of purpose, the US continues to build on and even import diversity. Whereas India has nurtured and experienced diversity for thousands of years. It is another story that we do not use it as a currency to create value.

The decades ahead will be marked by progress fuelled by innovation, not only in technology but also in other fields. Innovation is seldom the product of an iconoclastic environment. I like to imagine that innovation is akin to what happens in a rain forest. A rain forest is an example of diversity of flora and fauna. It carefully manages an unseen but pervasive process that maintains diversity.

Preserving pluralism and diversity is not something business folks can directly impact. It is partly socio-cultural, but the strategic intent must be displayed through a political process. Our leaders must appreciate that pluralism and diversity are ‘essential to have’ concepts, rather than ‘nice to have’ ones. If we live by these and pay the price so that they thrive in India, getting the world to invest in India and single her out to buy products and services will not be an issue. Natural competitors of India can at best present a veneer of pluralism and diversity. Any depth requires years of nurturing and evolution. These are both a process and an output.

The decades ahead will see a surge of cross-border business. India is being discovered as an economic powerhouse. The underlying facets of that can be replicated by nations that are based on monolithic systems and philosophies. The West knows the risks of doing business solely on the strength of affordable pricing. The western nations with purchasing power will have to seek out economic allies that have demonstrable democratic values. These will be values that stem from endorsement of pluralistic institutions and social diversity.

We have a currency in the heirloom of our history, whose economic power has not yet been recognised. It is time to unlock it.

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