The Purple Ocean of India

Is India the promised land?

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October 25, 2022

It was fifteen years ago since I visited India. I recalled the country back then as a really poor, slow-moving society; especially when I mirrored it to the lightning-speed transformation which I witnessed in China. Only the new tech hubs of Bangalore gave me a glimpse of hope back then for India to ever catch up with China.

Pascal Moderating on Tour with a customer

When I arrived in Mumbai this October with a business tour that nexxworks had organized for a customer, I had a strong déjà-vu feeling. But I couldn’t put my finger on its origin. India still seemed decades behind China, but at the same time it felt as if it had already caught up. I was confused.

After three days, it started making sense. In terms of societal transformation, it felt like Shanghai in the 1990s, where inequality between rich and poor seemed to widen by the hour. In terms of policy driven reforms, it vividly reminded me of China’s infrastructure transformation at the turn of this century. As far as Mumbai’s business environment, I felt that same energy, aspiration and willpower the entrepreneurs in Shenzhen had 10 years ago, where companies like DJI, Tencent and BYD were getting ready to take on the world. But when I got informed about India’s digital transformation with 5G, payment platforms, universal IDs, FinTech and mobile adoption I did not see India behind China at all. As a matter of fact, just like China, India is already years ahead of Europe when it comes to embracing a sustainable digital future for all its citizens.

India’s century

Mc Kinsey explained us that this is not India’s decade, but India’s century. India will become the talent factory of the world as it will hold 20% of the globe’s working population by 2047. While China contributed to over 30% of the world’s economic growth this past decade, India stands tall as the next beacon for the world’s growth and stability with a projected GDP growth of over 6% until 2030. Seems like a sound investment alternative to China due to the tense geopolitical climate between China and United States. The ‘China Plus One’ strategy is a trend in which companies around the world look to diversify their manufacturing base and supply chains outside China.

Can India become the next China? The answer for me is an easy one. India will become the next India, not the next China.

One major difference is India’s vast diversity. This is in contrast to the other Asian powers China, Japan and South-Korea which are much more mono-culture societies. This character aligns well with the Western view that diversity is conduit to innovation. India is extremely fragmented. India has 28 states, 21 distinct modern languages, 9 major religions, from the world’s most educated and smart people to the least fortunate outcasts in modern society, from the very young and poor North to the much older and richer South. India is a colorful patchwork of societies which gives it a unique opportunity to cater to the diversity of the world.

But the biggest opportunity is India’s trust in the future. Citizens, business people, entrepreneurs, governments are very well aligned on achieving a better sustainable, digital future. This is different from China. In China, societal change is planned top-down, guided by visionary leaders, while it is mostly realized by many pragmatic entrepreneurs and workers. In India it is almost the opposite. Businesspeople plan to make a real difference for society, while the Modi government has been very pragmatic to tap into the mostly unproductive vast resources: the poor, the uncontracted, the uninsured, the inefficient workers and farmers, the outcasts, the mostly unemployed women and way too many and fragmented small or midsized businesses. India’s new found oil is its overlooked huge source of talent.

The country of dreams

While I often call China the country of hope, India feels more the country of dreams.

Hope is a feeling of expectation and desire to want something to happen. Chinese have worked as an ox to improve their livelihoods. Hope is the expectation of success. It requires effort, self-confidence, courage and optimism. India on the other hand seems to nurture visionaries in search for purpose, armed with a confidence and wish to achieve something bigger than themselves. Dreams are a cherished ambition, ideal or aspiration created by imagination.

China’s change has more to do with the mind and gut, less about the heart and soul than India. I noticed that Indians have the same level of positive energy as the Chinese, but they have more trust in the invisible energy. This is depicted as the third eye, the inner eye, that provides perception beyond ordinary sight. You could call it destiny, luck or fate. In my experience it is somehow comparable with how Chinese Taoist see the world as non-deterministic, in constant flow or change. The biggest revelation for me during this trip was to find a similar acceptance to change as in China.

They are as adaptable and agile as the Chinese, but less as a matter of survival or materialistic behavior and more out of acceptance of a new destiny.

The amazing similarity between Chinese and Indian businesses was how they both seek to collaborate with people they trust to form the most solid of business ecosystems. In both countries, this goes back to the family and relationship culture that these ancient societies have cultivated for thousands of years. In China, it is entrenched in a Confucian society that has defined the governance of the whole society based on rules and values within families. Indians seems to have more trust in the power in numbers. Indian success differs from the West where one person moves a thousand steps. India is more about making one step possible for a thousand people. Collaboration in India is a powerful mindset to make others better off and more successful before it reflects on your own success.

Contrary to Chinese, Indians extend this collaboration way of thinking globally. The outreach and openness to the West is probably the single biggest advantage to India’s masterplan to become a superpower. Not only is their advantage to speak English well a definite plus, but the West’s perception of India as alike in terms of values, governance and purpose is a un unfair advantage towards China. Two decades long, the Western world believed that China would evolve towards our liberal democratic model once its standard of living would rise. We are now making the same assumption with India. I however trust that one day we will realize that India has become even more Indian, not more Western. It has a dream to reinstate and reveal the beautiful colors of five thousand years of heritage and traditions. A dream to become the influential India it once was.

The purple ocean of India

During my recent visit, I asked dozens of Indians what they thought the biggest problem of India was. At first, I guessed the answer would be India’s caste system, religion or poverty. But most people answered: democracy. I was told that the democratic model had paralyzed the country’s development for long. After every election, a new government undid what the previous local or central government did. It was two steps forward, one step back each time. Infrastructure plans were halted or remained unfinished, electoral winners had to return the favor to their backers fueling corruption, taxes were high to protect local businesses and companies were kept small enough to control, labor productivity remained low as the whole country was politically fragmented. Only when the conservative, nationalist Hindu-party BJP came to consolidate most of the power 8 years ago under Modi, India stopped facing the endless headwinds to allow for a social upward mobility movement for Indians. The world has not yet realized what India’s societal change could potentially mean for how the new world will look like. India, just like China, has more inhabitants than the whole Western world together, all willing to make a dent in the universe.

This century will surely become the century of Asia, maybe even the century of India.

As I visited India, I was wondering how similar China and India were. The similarities are obvious from the scale of everything, societal transformation and future looking aspiration point of view. But the differences are also apparent with India being a democracy, deeply religious and a much more connected to Western businesses. For me, the biggest difference in business between China and the West is how Western leaders seek to be unique, looking for blue oceans to make the world a better place. Silicon Valley became the example for how to innovate and lead the way for the world. In the process, India became the hard worker developing the software and platforms the Valley needs.

As for China, founders typically were looking for red oceans, or existing markets, to not be unique but preferably bigger, better or faster. That model works very well in the extreme competitive China, but also in today’s unpredictable and uncertain world. But how about India? Is India leaning more towards a North Atlantic model of blue ocean unicity or the Asian/Chinese model of scale, speed and relationship networks? India may have found a new model that combines the best of both worlds: a Purple Ocean. A strong belief that big dreams can become true in a blue ocean mindset of seeking for a more sustainable business and world. This combined with the benefits of scale, trust in the future and collaboration mindset to build the business ecosystems necessary to make the whole pie of the market bigger for all.

In a world where black and white has become the color of politics and media, it was a feast for my eyes to visit India once again and be overwhelmed with the color blue, red, green and purple.

Pascal Coppens
Pascal Coppens
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October 25, 2022