Author Interview

Akhilesh Tilotia

the author of Through the Looking Glass

Akhilesh Tilotia, an MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad, is a private sector professional who ventured into the hallowed portals of government.

A keen observer of the economic, political and social landscape, he works with the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF). He led Strategy and New Initiatives for Axis Bank, and worked with the Kotak group, The Boston Consulting Group, and was a co-founder of PARK Financial Advisors. A prolific columnist and commentator in the business media, Akhilesh brings a unique perspective to his commentary, viewing the world variously through the lens of a Government officer, a thematic analyst, an investment banker, a consultant, and a personal financial advisor.

These multiple world-views have allowed him to emerge as a dot-joiner who can piece together widely disparate issues into a coherent picture. His best selling book, The Making of India – GameChanging Transitions, made a case for converting the gaps in public services and economic fulfillment into opportunities for the private sector. This book views the India story from the perspectives of the various arms of Government which he observed closely in his three-year stint in New Delhi with a Union Minister.

He is passionate about astronomy, mythology, and chasing curiosities. His recent book ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is published by Leadstart publishing.


TBE: Can you tell us a little about your new book, ‘Through the Looking Glass? What prompted you to write this? How did you get the idea of this book?

Through the Looking Glass by Akhilesh Tilotia

Akhilesh Tilotia: ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is a culmination of my learnings of a three-year stint in New Delhi as an Officer on Special Duty with a Union Minister. I had, by training and profession, been a private sector person – starting my own company, working in some of the world’s best consultancies and India’s bulge-bracket investment firm. The opportunity to go work in the power corridors of Delhi was unique.

For me, it was a steep learning curve as I transitioned from Mumbai to New Delhi.

As the government expands the idea of “lateral entry” in administration, I believe that many people, who are fascinated and excited about the idea of contributing the development of the country, will come forward. This book can give these aspirants and practitioners an idea of what to expect as they engage with bureaucracy and politicians.

This is my second book. My first book, The Making of India (2015) dealt with the key macroeconomic and investment changes taking place in India. Through the Looking Glass expands that to my learning on how these changes come about from within the Government. Since I had the background of having written a book already which delved into these ideas, this second book was a natural corollary.


TBE: What is the key theme and/or message in the book?

Akhilesh Tilotia: The big theme is that we as citizens need to engage ourselves deeply with the process of change in our country. For this, you need to understand and appreciate the power and the constraints of the system. Only then can you as a citizen will make your intervention effective and sustainable.


TBE: What was your writing process for this book?

Akhilesh Tilotia: I used to regularly pen my thoughts and observations down in the stint in Delhi. Over time, my writings became larger and more coherent. A pattern began to emerge as I started to understand Delhi better. The book hence went through multiple iterations as I tried to find the best way to talk about my learnings. There are many anecdotes – which form the basis of my observations and then I draw inferences and learnings from them.


TBE: During your journey from the idea of this book to the publication, what was the most difficult thing you faced? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Akhilesh Tilotia: The process of publication was difficult despite this not being my first book! Leadstart took a bet on this book when many publishers did not. I was lucky to be connected to Leadstart by an old author and MBA friend of mine who is also an author with them. One reason why it was difficult is that this genre of books rarely exists – many books on government and public administration are written by retired bureaucrats and not by young outsiders.

I have a penchant for writing difficult words in long sentences sometimes! Thankfully, the editorial team at Leadstart have made my writing more accessible.


TBE: How was your publishing experience with Leadstart?

Akhilesh Tilotia: The publishing experience has been good. The team concluded on the idea of publication quickly and handled the contracts very efficiently. The editorial team went through many iterations as their inputs and my rework would require. The sales team now has been actively focused on this book and they have been ever-willing to learn and adapt to a new, practically digital-only world during this pandemic.


TBE: What do you think are the most needed economic reforms in India right now?

Akhilesh Tilotia: I make a strong case in the book of India moving to an “intimation; not permission” economy. A significant part of our economic and social framework is based on the idea of “not allowed unless permitted”. India should, slowly but surely, start moving to the idea of entrepreneurs and citizens intimating the regulators and government of their proposed plans which will be “allowed, unless explicitly denied”. Read the book for more on this!


TBE: Are there likely policies that you would consider particularly ill advised?

Akhilesh Tilotia: Policies are a result of an equilibrium between various stakeholders. If a policy starts to hurt a set of stakeholders (because, say technology has changed or the economic reality has changed), then, in a democracy, people raise their voices and start to get the policies changed.

One must appreciate that policies do not exist in a vacuum. If a policy is hurting, it is our duty and right as citizens to make our voices heard and work towards a better equilibrium in policies.


TBE: What are the different factors that lead one country to have strong political institutions relative to another country?

Akhilesh Tilotia: It is easy for some (better-off) sections of the society to wall themselves off from others and get into a cocoon. Alternatively, the elite sometimes secede from public life – they can manage via their private resources and believe that they do not need to engage in social and political debates and discussions. This does not serve the society in the long run. This brings me to another concept that I discuss extensively in the book: the idea of the “engagement of the elite”.


TBE: What do you think are the biggest ethical issues related to economics that people don’t frequently talk about?

Akhilesh Tilotia: There are many interesting ethical issues that crop up in economics. Two specific issues that I think need more attention (and to be fair, they are indeed getting some attention) are: (1) inequality within countries and societies (and how to reduce the glaring extremes) and (2) the inter-generational issues like large debt-to-GDP burden and climate change. How we solve for these two issues will be the subject matter of many of the debates over the next few decades.


TBE: What, in your view, is the best way to tackle current economic crisis?

Akhilesh Tilotia: This is a pandemic-driven economic slowdown which has had an impact on employment and output. If the bounce back in economic activities is sharp (as was expected to be the case just before the second wave came in), then many of these issues will hopefully be temporary and the employment and output will come back to previous levels and then move higher. If however the second wave continues to be severe (and if there are more waves), then some re-calibration may need to be considered.


TBE: What do you hope your readers take away from this book?

Akhilesh Tilotia: One key takeaway is that ordinary citizens like you and me have a very important role in shaping the destiny of our country. We should actively and constructively participate in debates and discussions to direct the changes in a manner that we want them to be.


TBE: Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?

Akhilesh Tilotia: I am looking at the topic of climate change and Green Finance in detail. Hopefully we will be able to create some interesting frameworks and financing for one of the two big issues we spoke of above.

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