Book Review: The Billionaire Raj

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded AgeThe Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age by James Crabtree
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this book based on rave reviews and strong recommendations in certain websites. I wasn’t aware who James Crabtree was until I bought the book and checked out his super-strong credentials. This topic on Billionaire’s ruling India could have been picked by none other than the author himself. Written during an expat stint in India, while living in the most posh neighborhood in the rich city of Mumbai, he certainly was a “star”journalist and it was obvious from the interviews he managed to get from otherwise reluctant super-rich billionaires of India who don’t see any reason to be chatty with journalists of all people.

This book has grammatical mistakes in certain places. Not good coming from a powerhouse journalist and publishing house. James Crabtree starts with a dramatic Bollywood entry – a story of a crashed Aston Martin, and of course enough hints to show who was behind the wheels and the subsequent cover up by Asia’s richest man and business family. Everything else about the book is a drag on the reader. The author showcases the wealthy, describing their physical features (especially being fascinated by the puny little form of the billionaires of India as if that somehow mattered!?) and of course talking at length about their lifestyle. The little information he shares about what these billionaires did to create controversy, be it the exorbitant bank loans or favors from politicians, is just restricted to already available standard newspaper information. There is nothing investigative about an author who comes from an investigative journalistic creed. Maybe he was also bitten by the Indian bug of passive, judgmental, biased, superstar-image-conscious religion of journalism in India!?

The book is however entertaining to read as James Crabtree is still a good writer. If he wasn’t a “foreigner”in Indian shores, his understanding of the highly complicated economic-socio-political landscape of India would have been just stuff that could be huffed and puffed away. It is certainly impressive to see how the author has learnt so much about the dynamics of power play in India although I wouldn’t neglect the immense help he got for it from people he has acknowledged towards the end credits. But, what was he chasing beyond saying that Billionaires could ruin the fabric of the country? His long prose on the dangers to liberal democracy, cronyism and rising social divide are as old as the young nation- India. With nothing much to offer than just saying that banks were blind to giving loans after the economic reforms of 1991, no names of bank officers or politicians or bureaucratic babus revealed, it is at best a run of the mill emotional saga just like a boring Bollywood super hit movie.

In order to possibly compensate for this lost soul in the book, the author turns his attention with the usual libertarian flair of being on both sides of the fence while attacking the target on the right side of their personal wrong, and launches a two chapter attack on the ruling BJP party (since 2014), almost attacks the Congress party (left of center party) and more particularly on the Indian PM, Narendra Modi. It is easy for even a high school dropout to call out the vagaries of the politician, pracharack and prime minister that Mr. Narendra Modi effortlessly keeps switching between on the Indian landscape. Depending on how much you love or hate him, you can pick your choices from the vast buffet of choices he offers. The author is obviously baffled by this thin character and thick skin of India’s politicians. He chooses to see more of it in the PM and worries at end towards the fact that not much has been happening for the good of the country. Good for him, but the author also knows that India is a land where a day for Lord Brahma is the equivalent of a thousand years. What you can achieve as a nation in five years comes with timelines that don’t have an end date.

The author loses the plot the moment he becomes political in his commentary. What is this Billionaire Raj beyond a few businesses exploiting the situation? This is in no way as draconian and massively stupid as the socialist license raj of the past (and present) that was actually a political axe that landed blunt blows on the head of every Indian for more than sixty years. James Crabtree was inspired to call his book after the license raj (which he is also critical of) but the Billionaire raj is in no way a transition of the political movement in India that governs its people. It is a bad side effect and the author is quick to reveal that it almost ended and got killed once Narendra Modi came to power.

Overall, this book could have been a better potboiler. What about all the billionaire politicians in the spectrum of political parties in India and their “business-regulation” influence? This is by far more dangerous and exposing this link beyond a few references does a disservice to this genuine threat that the country faces. Even here, the author chooses safe names to reveal like mining baron Janardhan Reddy and others. Maybe the expat within him wanted an amicable exit from the country he seemed to love much without ruffling too many feathers.

Two stars for the impressive effort of James Crabtree to tackle a subject that others care not to talk much about. He does come out as honest in his opinions. But, that in itself doesn’t make this a bold effort to expose anything in India as some people have claimed the book does. Summarizing news reports of others and having inconclusive interviews with India’s billionaire businessmen doesn’t cut it. The country needs more journalists who are not verbal spatting goons of the billionaire raj. Maybe this book was meant for them to come out of their safe houses? Only time will tell.

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Book Review: The Idol Thief

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wonderful book by the first time author and most importantly a passionate volunteer who has worked very hard to protect the rich, cultural heritage of India. This is compelling given that within the country, there are enough people highly enthusiastic enough to destroy India’s past without batting an eyelid. Of such characters in real life is what this book is all about.
It is sad to see that thieves come in all shapes and sizes across all facets of society. The fact that justice is yet to be served in full, the looters may still go unpunished and many lost relics may never be found again is very unfortunate. The sophisticated thieves sitting merrily as buyers of art in museums across the world show the depth to which greed can manifest itself, all for the sake of satisfying pride and increasing ticket sales in curated exhibition shows.
The story could have been spun more tighter by bringing the stories of the various investigative forces, including the author, in a more cohesive form. The Editor more than the Author is to be blamed for it. I do hope more and more of such daredevil and enthusiastic lovers of India and even more, protector of cultural and historical relics are born in this world. These people are more valuable to humanity than the endless battalion of spineless journalists and greedy politicians that the world seems to be producing more of today.

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Book Review: On Education

On EducationOn Education by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bertrand Russell enchants the reader on the topic of education too. While this book touches on topics very briefly and much focus is on early education, it still leaves a good impression. He even studies the effects of education from a Chinese and Greek attitude standpoint by focusing on two contrasts – laziness and being energetic. He goes on to make a point that passionate beliefs produce either progress or disaster, while not giving stability.
The author is appreciative of the Montessori model while being heavily critical of the aristocratic system of education in England that came to being under Dr. Arnold. A powerful observation he makes here is that all European countries are less subject to herd domination than in America.
Also impressive is his take on the four characteristics of an ideal character that he emphasizes as one that children need to be equipped with as part of a well rounded education – vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence. I love his explanation of the concept of abstract sympathy, a form of sensitiveness where you feel for someone even when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, even if not sensibly present. This he declares comes from a higher form of intelligence and is no wonder rare in today’s world.
Another gem of his is the statement that poverty, since the Industrial revolution has been only due to collective stupidity. To continue on with some more references that make this book a reading pleasure are:
Fear has been thought the only way to make women ‘virtuous’, and they have been deliberately taught to be cowards, both physically and mentally – Sounds like today’s modern religious dictum?
Shyness is a distressing form of timidity – well, it does have a correlation for sure.
Subjects like literature and everything that can be put into a handbook is worthless – well, A.I is fast catching up for a reason.

The book doesn’t holistically cover the sphere of education. It does give a good sense of what can be built into the early years of a child knowing that today’s education system in most parts of the world are still stuck in the past or a broken present. The future still looks bleak in the realm of child education and the reformers at best are mostly misled politicians, activists and deluded beings. Hope there is a Russell who comes up soon with the power to wield change for the greater good of children.

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Book Review: Everybody Loves A Good Drought

Everybody Loves a Good DroughtEverybody Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading and reviewing a 20 year old book on the state of Indian affairs in the poorest of rural areas is tough. On one side, it is fascinating to see that nothing much has changed in the state of the rural poor especially in the poorest districts where the government machinery cannot reach or doesn’t desire to reach. Thousands of readers and fans of the author have pushed this book to super stardom and I am one of those enthusiasts who bought this book to meet my curiosity over why the author and the book have reached a cult-like status.

I never knew the author prior to reading the book and imagined him to be a very humble, kurta clad, cloth-bag bearing typical journalist from simple origins and level-headed beliefs. For the most part, Sainath comes up as that. Except that this work of his was a fairly well-funded (by Times Of India) and well-supported (by none other than Sitaram Yechury and N.Ram to name a few) piece of classic. It is also a soft push for supporting the Communist agenda and activist mindset of Leftist groups that while the journalist doesn’t imply in this book, has well showcased in the more than twenty subsequent years of his “rural reporting”. He of course, is one of the cleverest of that bunch (the likes of N. Ram and other good journalists) and also calls out in the book that he and journalists of his kind may be called so. This distorts the excellent storytelling in the book, especially if you smelled the Communist curry being cooked in the kitchen in a quiet corner of an otherwise excellent feast of great lavish food to consume for the reader.

Sainath was forced to name and shame Manu Smriti at least once in a completely unwanted story line, pick a brahmin and call him one when exploitation of the really underprivileged happened while choosing to not call a brahmin by his caste when he or she did the regular good work in other chapters of the book and of course, going all guns blazing against the government at every single chance while keeping it simple when it came to certain members of the Congress party and the militant ultra-left extremists who somehow have a helpless story to tell for every rupee they charge through extortion.

Now, setting that aside, the book is a collection of rural India based articles that were published in the Times Of India back in the 90s. The reference to drought actually comes very late in the second half of the book, while it can be a metaphor for exploitation that happens in the name of development in the country. The rural India that Sainath chooses are of course the worst of the worse in terms of human development and I felt it was way too easy for someone to script a storyline there especially with the writing chops of Sainath and the geographical landscapes of remote land near good water or minerals. His reference to the “urban India” that doesn’t care about the poor rural belt in more than one occasion annoys someone who has seen both sides of the coin. The author should have been able to understand the simple fact that a good portion of his book covers exploitation of water by the mafia in several stories with a poor dalit or tribal affected by it, which by the way, is one of the biggest problems affecting any person of caste, creed, skin or other diseases even in the most urban of urban India. Yes, it is true that people with money get more access to resources. Yes, it is exactly what is happening in the rural areas of India too and his stories capture them while getting intertwined in how to sieve and squeeze the caste angle from it. It is however a blatant truth that caste as a political, economic and social system still exists in India and is certainly a stark reason for how limited resources are further exploited and barely shared among sections of the rural and ‘urban’ societies. The author’s fascination for the rural stories masks the blinders he has put for urban India and Indians overall. Kudos to the author for depicting the beautiful life of India’s “tribal” societies and cultures. I was proud to know that we had such wonderful diversity of people with phenomenal connection to nature and art. The fact that they are the most suffering lot does cause pain and a sense of rage at the inability of the system getting fixed.

The book offers very few pointers on what can ail India. This of course would have been fine if he was just a reporter and was just writing an article in a newspaper to show the plight of exploitation and suffering. But, that was done and dusted in the Times of India newspaper. If it was a book, it should have at least touched on the subject of what to fix with some seriousness, even if it followed a Communist or Socialist agenda. Typical of an activist (which I didn’t imagine him to be before reading the book, then suspected of so while reading the book, and then eventually realized so after checking his ‘future’ state), he breaks the pots but doesn’t tell how to fix them or best, make them. He does have a giant passion for serving the under served and does mention the typical solutions of land reforms like in “we need land reforms”. Yes, well, isn’t knowing and doing the “how” one of the biggest plagues of this nation? Yes, the trader network exploits the farmer. So, what next? Shoot them all? what is their story? The trader-politician nexus touches all political parties in India. It is however, too harsh to expect the author to showcase solutions for all maladies. He knew it wasn’t easy. But, he knew it was easy to talk and that he did with the pen.
I am however a fan of this author for the writing style which is riddled with sarcasms and pretty honest observations of what he is seeing on the ground. Journalists like him keep the exploiters of capitalism at bay. But, I hope he doesn’t mix his political leanings with them. As, if he does so, which in fact he is doing today, he can no longer humbly pretend to be just a “rural reporter”. He is just another exploiter, not of the materialistic kind, but of the mind – the fickle, emotional and angry mind of Indians.

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Book Review: The God Delusion

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is certainly a strong influencer of rational thoughts in the human mind. It singularly targets religion and shows the hollowness of several beliefs that are no match to the encompassing reality of the theory of evolution. So much to the point that the author mostly talks about the topic of evolution, a specialty of his as a scientist.

Can this book challenge religion in its entirety and dismiss the notion of God? I think not much! It just misses it by a mile. This book is a great and honest attack on militant Christianity and Islamic beliefs through the busting of the holy books and the inherent superstitions. The author disappointingly sets aside other world religions like Hinduism and Buddhism by calling it as all the same in about three lines of text dedicated in the entire book. This makes sense when the modern version of militant Hinduism or Buddhism is taken into account. So, all is not lost in this attempt at sending God to where ‘he’ belongs- nowhere!

But, does God need to be imagined in a human form, with emotions, with human flaws and masculine domination? The author avoids this confusion early on in the book by defining religion and God in the narrow dimension and broad acceptance of human stupidity. Hence, to that extent this book should be a must read and an eye opener to every pseudo-intellectual who calls out the greatness of God but only if he is white, with a cape, a special hat or if he sells a specific special book that is the only acceptable truth in life.

What if God is that scientific mirror outside the human flesh that gives man the power over every other creature that has also been competing on the same evolutionary plane trying to outwit humanity in vain? Science gives acceptance to our human senses to perceive reality. But, what if our senses are also on an evolutionary journey and need to perceive more to accept more?

For all people blinded by the weakness of today’s religion and a weaker God perception, the God Delusion is a must read. But…but….but, will these deluded beings be ready to read this book with an open mind?

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Book Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well written biography about Steve Jobs that gets a little too judgmental at times, especially when talking about Steve Job’s not so glamorous personal moments in life. The biographer got exclusive access to Jobs and his network of friends and family to write a mostly balanced account of the latter’s story. This book is more bold in terms of stating vulnerable moments of emotional weakness in Steve Jobs life. This is something I’ve seen less in biographical accounts of generally very famous people who have had a cult like following. Usually the uncomfortable details seem to be missed.

The biographer seems to have been caught in his own personal judgment on charitable acts and the pursuit of money, thereby throwing questionable prose on Steve Jobs’s character. The biographer also seemed to portray a soft corner for the co-founder of Apple, the infamous Steve Wozniak while narrating the stories that involved him too. That seemed shallow and biased in my opinion. The book does read like a thriller at times and rarely do you get to put it down between chapters.

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Book Review: Breaking India -Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines

Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit FaultlinesBreaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines by Rajiv Malhotra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very interesting book that does a good job of identifying all the agents and agencies silently and openly involved in bringing down the fabric of a centralized democracy that is India hinging on a majority religion shaped by other religions and cultures over thousands of years. Going back to the colonial past and throwing light on the work of Christian missionaries in dividing the populace and creating an identity crisis based on race theories, the authors show how the script hasn’t changed much to present day India where under the guise of secularism and human rights, the onslaught still continues. It is amazing to see the organized way in which NGOs, Churches and other institutions sitting within India, funded by global entities primarily in the US and Europe, have created chaos to rule the country without direct power in their hands. The fact that the India media and international media houses at large don’t run any “stories” on such practices, combined with the powerful hand-twisting of finicky and easy-to-buy Indian politicians, has made India very vulnerable to a serious humanitarian struggle waiting to happen. The authors stop short of calling it as a civil war in the making, although a very similar methodology employed by Churches and Western agencies had caused the bloody Rwandan civil war between the Hutus and the Tsutsis.

The authors focus more on the histories of the Dravidian ideology and the Dalit nexus in this book. It is fascinating to look at how a fictitious and laughable premise around the concept of ‘dravidian identity’ (even if assumed to be true for those passionate about it!) has been used to create a separate identity that ventured to tear down the country at one point and the political perpetrators of this movement repeatedly joined hands with disruptive Church agents and Islamic fundamentalists for money and power. Tamil Nadu has been pinpointed as the epicenter of this no-barriers grave situation which on looking at the political situation (outside of the book) is easy to relate to and guess the severe impact it has created in this otherwise progressive state. The other situation is the way in which fundamentalist right-wing Christian organizations with massive money-power have taken over the “dalit” cause and have used it effectively to create chaos and a multitude of problems in India. The situation seems grave as there are no solutions offered in the book to tackle them and even more, it requires more than political will and strong leaders to fight this problem over the next several decades. Can India produce such leaders is a very weak proposition at present!

What I liked further about the book is the final analysis of the situation at hand to bring down India – the three very highly powerful global forces that have all chosen India as their target – Islamic fundamentalism sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Iran and other middle-east countries, China and its rising capitalistic aspirations and the Western interventions through the Church and other means. It looks like there is no respite for India from this onslaught that has been going on aggressively over the past several decades since its independence. It certainly made me have a new found respect for the hard work of the politicians and bureaucrat administrators who have still managed to keep India and the religion of Hinduism alive give all the odds against it. Time will tell who will win this one-sided battle at the global stage – the aggressors or the lone underdog!

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Book Review: Orientalism

OrientalismOrientalism by Edward W. Said
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edward Said Orientalism
A well written book on the subject of Orientalism that the author cuts and slices through in an almost academic fashion. This book is oriented more towards analyzing the work and Europe-centric biases of past Orientalists who helped shape the opinion on nearly everything about the Near East (Middle East and North Africa) and Asia (South Asia in particular). However, the authors primary focus has been on the initial construct of Orientalism being a French and British attempt at analyzing the Near East and its dominant religion – Islam.
The book is not an entertaining read but offers great perspectives to people interested in the history of Orientalism, especially from an analysis of political intent, mindset and European-approach standpoint. However, the book meanders sharply towards just the Middle Eastern affairs towards the end, offering less solutions but putting more questions into the mind of unbiased readers willing to learn from mistakes of the past.
Missing any good commentary on India, the prized British colony, and considering it outside the Orientalism being scrutinized by the author seemed like a big miss. After all, Orientalism and the study of India within its remit was certainly the shift the Europe took after it considered the Near East as a mere passage to its riches by land and sea.
These snippets (in italics) are something I consider as powerful and summarize the intent and message of the book.

“textual attitude towards the Orient” – a common human failure is to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human…

The fact that many Orientalists didn’t even reach the Orient to live there and see life as it unfolded among the natives is underlines by the above statement. European power and institutions never considered it as a shortcoming. In fact, the book highlights how Napolean built an entire military plan to take over Egypt through the recommendations in a book written by a traveler who chronicled how to win over the natives.

Orientalism is a kind of Western projection on to and will to govern over the Orient

Good Old Karl Marx, the darling of many Communist institutions and insurgents in India, had something not so flattering to say about the country-

England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerative – the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia

Praising England while attacking her for being the “unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution…”, Marx certainly seemed to have two minds about what he was prophesizing in Communism when it came to people and regions that he didn’t relate to!?

Every European in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric

These words of Joseph Conrad was in mockery of European conquests.

The book also lightly touches upon the “Christian-centric” approach to the rest of the World which was also instrumental in the simultaneous demonizing of Islam and its followers.

But, the final summary of the book can be encapsulated in these words that the author mentions – “Orientalism failed to identify with human experience. It failed to also see it as human experience”.

Needless to say, the author has been praised for his work but also attacked for a “biased” view on the Orient while attacking European hard work that went into creating the idea of Orientalism.

While I generally align with the ideas in this book, I feel that Orientalism was a bold attempt at understanding foreign lands and peoples through the biased lens of self-made perspectives that are after all what makes us humans. The only unacceptable fact is that this was sold as the “truth” to the rest of the World and it still continues to subconsciously build opinions and biases that are uprooting this World as we speak. Our minds need to come a long way from the rigid insular uni-dimensional perspectives of Newton to the relativistic multi-dimensional world that Einstein imagined.

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Book Review: The Tao of Physics

The Tao of PhysicsThe Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wisdom in books never age no matter when they were written. This book, written way back in the seventies, does enchant the reader with its treatment of subjects in modern physics as related to the quantum world and relativity. The highlight of the book obviously is the association of this abstract form of new-age physics with what the author found as fascinating – Eastern philosophies and mysticism. Presenting his motivation for writing this book almost as a vision he got about Shiva’s cosmic dance while sitting on a beach in California, the author goes deep into Tao, Zen, Confucianism and Hinduism just enough to bring the so-called “parallels” with modern physics.

This book was fantastic in the effort it spent to show what was missing in the Western concepts of philosophy, science, thought and of course society. Everything seemed just about fine until the edition that I had also included future commentaries from the author fifteen years after the book got published and it became a huge universal hit. This was by far the reason why I am forced to give only three stars for the book. In a possibly unknown attempt at showing that his thinking has evolved, he has basically killed the very essence, meaning and purpose of the original intent of this book. Every book is just an expression of a thought or opinion and it is brave of an author to keep learning and refining his. But, the below thoughts of his go beyond that to almost trash the very idea of a heavily debatable and incomprehensible conceptual connect – Eastern mysticism and Modern Physics – that he so painstakingly put together and gained immense fame from.

In selling another book of his whose credentials I am not so certain about, this is what he said – “…Moreover, I no longer believe that we can adopt Eastern spiritual traditions in the West without changing them in many important ways to adapt to our culture. My belief has been enforced by my encounters with many Eastern spiritual teachers who have been unable to understand some crucial aspects of the new paradigm that is now emerging in the West”.

The above sentences suddenly made me realize the narrow-mindedness of the author in ways that shocked me, especially after reading a book that he wrote which talks about walking away from these very biased and closed world models that was the representation of classical physics vis-a-vis modern versions of quantum-relativistic concepts. While co-authoring a new book with a Christian monk who strongly represents Catholic values (which is not a problem and is not what shocks me), he has suddenly looked at his own work and trashed it mercilessly as nothing but absolute Orientalism nonsense attached to Modern Science to somehow sound serious.

What do these thoughts he shared even mean:
“…We can adopt Eastern spiritual traditions…” – where did he cover this in the Tao of Physics?
“…changing them in many important ways to adapt to our culture…” – change them? to “adapt” to “our” culture?? what happened to the universal whole?
“…My belief has been enforced by my encounters with many Eastern spiritual teachers who have been unable to understand some crucial aspects of the new paradigm…” – so you spoke to some teachers and who were they? your “belief” has been “enforced”? What was your belief? Someone was unable to understand “crucial aspects”? of a new paradigm? emerging in the West? which is nothing but social equality and looking at the ecosystem as a whole!? wow!

This very moral high handedness, Orientalist fascination and falsification is what makes him and unfortunately very many great writers and speakers nothing but closet idiots posing as revolutionary change makers in this World. Fritjof Capra writes about risking his career and his future writing this book. Well, it looks like he had taken care of it ever since. The mind of a physicist still deserves stars and there go the three stars.

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Book Review: Competing for the Future

Competing for the Future
This book is all about “core competence”, a term coined by the authors (Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad) several years before and had become an industry buzz word. I liked the book as it tried to elevate strategy to a different status, a more positive one, in the eyes of companies.

It was however surprising that nothing much has changed the shape and face of what strategy is in companies since the time this book was written. Strategy is still considered a burden in several organizations and consulting firms have taken control and ownership of that function. Strategy in effect has turned out to be a wasteful exercise involving several resources working over time to create nothing for the future.

Hamel and Prahalad come up with a strong viewpoint on how strategy is about what the future could look like from an industry transformation standpoint. This does not take into consideration what you as a company are doing today and how successful or unsuccessful you are today. This foresight is based on core competence and what it can do for a company. 
They then recommend that the company needs to evaluate what it should do today to get to that new World in the future. I think that is the single biggest change in mindset that I believe not may companies are willing to adopt even today. Strategy has definitely been about what we can do in the next 3-5 years, given what we have today as a company. A point that the authors raise in their book and try to change.

This is a good read and has obviously been a top seller since a long time. The point that it hasn’t changed the industry landscape and strategy’s position in general may however make you wonder whether academic dictum really means anything in a corporate world where bureaucracy rules and “change” is always hard to adapt to.