Mihir S. Sharma


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Restart Summary

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Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy (2015), a nonfiction book by journalist Mihir S. Sharma, examines the current state of the Indian economy as well as the economics of the larger area, identifies the problems he sees, and offers unexpected solutions.

Sharma describes how in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, India was regarded as one of the BRIC countries that Wall Street expected to dominate the global economy in the next decade (along with China, Brazil, and Russia), but then failed to meet expectations, leading to the fundamental question of the book: What is India doing that prevents it from realizing its vast economic potential? Sharma notes that India initially seemed to be doing very well: Millions were lifted from poverty and great strides were made in almost every aspect of the economy. Then everything went wrong; India was simply not making enough products to sell in order to fuel the economy, so everything the government tried to get things moving failed.

Sharma explores the reasons why India struggles to manufacture goods, asking three questions: Why do so many Indians need jobs? Why are there no jobs despite the fact that India’s companies are in need of skilled workers? Moreover, why aren’t Indians pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, so to speak? Sharma examines what he argues is the negative impact of Mohandas Gandhi, whose focus on villages as opposed to urban centers still guides poor policy in the modern age. Sharma also blames ancient laws and regulations that have impeded efforts to globalize its workforce, citing the infamous requirement that every factory and shop maintain a lime register as one example of many useless, outdated rules.

Sharma analyzes the Great Reform Movement of 1991, which brought sweeping change to India – until it ran out of steam and simply collapsed. He examines the government of Indira Gandhi, which steered the country towards the left of the political spectrum in a sudden and exciting swerve that lacked the planning and central focus required to make the changes meaningful or long-term, resulting in a historical moment that was superficial. Sharma concludes that everyone in India knows they need to revamp their industrial base and workforce; many have tried, and yet all such attempts have failed.

Sharma analyzes the administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who took power in 2004 and oversaw seven years of “plenty” as India’s economy boomed, averaging 8.1 percent growth. In 2011, however, that growth slowed suddenly. Sharma notes that while this economic boom was happening, Singh had an opportunity to make reforms and invest in India, but chose to assume the good times would go on indefinitely; when the crash came, it was too late to make those decisions.

Sharma observes that in modern-day India, innovation and entrepreneurship are actually punished, resulting in an economy of what he describes as “rent-seekers,” companies and individuals content to exploit the existing value they have access to instead of creating new value and taking a portion as income, as a normal entrepreneur does. Sharma blames this on India as a whole—culturally and legally it is designed to protect the existing, inefficient business and fend off new ideas and risky projects.

Finally, Sharma holds that in the present day, Indians finally seem fed up with the economy they’ve been saddled with and the lack of growth and opportunity. This means there is a rare chance, in Sharma’s mind, for India to finally make the hard choices required to fix the mess they are in. He defines five mistakes that continue to afflict India: Poor private-public partnerships, rules and laws rendered useless by multiple exceptions, the belief that India’s need for energy (most gas is imported) should be easy and painless to solve, the tendency of Indians to distrust market prices, and finally, the environmental disaster that is ongoing in the country.

After discussing various solutions to these problems, Sharma closes with a surprising suggestion he describes as a potential “silver bullet”: Integrating women into the workforce. Sharma observes that in most developed countries, when families become wealthier, women become more involved in the economy, going to school and entering the workforce. In India, however, the opposite is true: The wealthier a family becomes, the less likely it is that women will enter the workforce. As a result, increasing wealth actually slows down the economy. Reversing the one, Sharma argues, will in time reverse the other and thus push other social and economic change.

Sharma notes that India is both unique and a very young country; there is still plenty of potential for change and plenty of energy to be applied to the problems there. It is by no means a lost cause.