India, Led by Young Indians

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About the Commentator
  • Prashant Agrawal
    Prashant is a principal in The Boston Consulting Group’s Mumbai office.

    His columns on public policy issues in India and internationally have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, among other publications.

India, Led by Young Indians

January 12, 2012 by Prashant Agrawal
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  • January 12, 2012

    At the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in Mumbai, amid talks of global economic malaise and policy paralysis in India, there was a bit of good news. Young Indians are playing key roles in government—but in the U.S., not in India.

    Anil Kakani, a senior advisor at the U.S. treasury, and Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer of the U.S., spoke at the WEF. Outside of elected politics, it is tough to find similarly well-positioned young people in the Indian government.

    The problem is not lack of interest. Far from it. Many of India’s “best and brightest”—including those who have started successful nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or private companies, managed businesses or social enterprises, or taught at the best universities—want to be a part of the government. The problem is finding a way in.

    In India, there is really only one path for participating in government, aside from being elected: joining the Indian Administrative Services, or IAS. Nearly all of the technocrats who advise Indian politicians are IAS officers. Entrance to the IAS, a legacy of the British system, is limited to a select few who pass through a grueling examination process. It is not designed to allow short stints in government.

    This rigid system stands in stark contrast to the U.S. government, which goes out of its way to involve people from the private sector, academia, and NGOs. The president’s cabinet and top advisors, for example, typically include a mix of industry experts, think-tank veterans, and academic stars. Those individuals, in turn, often tap their own networks to fill positions in their respective parts of the government.

    The U.S. makes a concerted effort to involve young Americans, in particular. The most high-profile example is the White House Fellows program, which was started in 1964. India has no equivalent.

    One could argue that the U.S. government is inclusive to a fault. The revolving door may bring in talent, but it also gives rise to instability, conflicts of interest, and cronyism. But at least outsiders who want to make a meaningful contribution to public policy have an opportunity to do so. In India, the door is very nearly shut. 

    Still, there are a few examples of outsiders making a difference. Among the prime minister’s and finance minister’s key advisors are two leading academicians, Raghuram Rajan and Kaushik Basu, whose years of service and external research have helped inform key decisions and influence policy.

    Perhaps nothing exemplifies the contribution outsiders can make—as well as the eagerness of young Indians to play a role in government—better than the unique identification program. This initiative, an ambitious effort to provide an identification number for each Indian resident, is one of the few projects unaffected by political paralysis. It was established in 2009 and has continued gaining traction ever since.

    One of India’s most successful executives, Nandan Nilekani, was given a free hand to implement the program. The cachet of working with him, together with the promise of achieving something truly significant, attracted young Indians from across the country to work for the program—and for very little compensation. Some even work on a pro bono basis.

    Now imagine similar programs in education, health, or water. Take a thoughtful leader—a person of action—for each of these sectors and give him or her an initiative to drive and own. Teach for India is making strides in promoting the teaching vocation among the young. Countless doctors and engineers are solving the complex problem of affordable health care and clean water for all. Let them join the government for a while and drive change.

    There is no shortage of talented young Indians who want to work for the government. India needs to make the most of this abundant supply—for example, by establishing a program that allows people to work for the government for a period of, say, three years. Make it a competitive process, like the White House Fellows program. Then give these people real responsibilities and power, and see the difference it makes.

    The only thing stopping young Indians from working for the government is the lack of opportunity. Open this door, and a flood of talented people will enter. Some of India’s business leaders have recognized this imperative. It’s time the government did, as well.

    A version of this article was first published on

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